The fifth film saw the Potter series take on another new director and a more adult tone. Empire visited the set and identified seven reasons to be very excited indeed
Seven reasons we were excited about Order Of The Phoenix after visiting the set back in 2006.
FOR A FILM series that routinely kills it at the box office, Harry Potter is refreshingly keen to not only evolve, but also take risks. Darker with each instalment, it’s a franchise that’s not exactly growing up with its audience (because it’s audience is basically everyone), but certainly with its characters.
Reconvened at Leavesden Studios where many of the sets have remained intact since the first movie, the vast machine that is the Harry Potter industry has been busily churning out another surefire hit. “I think there is an edge here,” says David Heyman, producer of the entire series. “This time Harry is learning to become a leader of men.”
There are many reasons, then, to be excited for number five — The Order Of The Phoenix — but, for sake of argument, let’s settle on seven.
THEY’VE GOT A SUBTEXT
If you’ve not read the books (which surely won’t apply to many people, but just in case), here’s what you need to know: The Order Of The Phoenix is the ‘political one’. After Voldemort’s dramatic resuscitation at the close of The Goblet Of Fire, the Ministry Of Magic is now burying its head in the ground and denying everything. This magical wing of the government is ‘spin-doctoring’ the facts to quell panic. Hence the book, at least, has been deciphered as Rowling’s commentary on New Labour’s habit of ‘adapting’ the facts to suit policy.
“I wouldn’t say it is specifically about Blair,” says Heyman. “He may have a unique spin on certain things, but he is like many other politicians — given to using the press to get their point across. This is not a film with a specific agenda. It is about opposing views. It is about passion, about family and also about what you see not necessarily being the truth. The themes are humane and political.”
There is also Rowling’s ongoing mission to marry the titanic battle between good and evil with the titanic struggle of simply growing up.
“I know all the directors have said it, but this one is a bit more emotional,” says director David Yates. “This period, between 14 and 17, is probably the most dramatic time in your life because you’re discovering the opposite sex and how complicated you are.”
The news is, yes, Harry gets his first proper kiss. “It was much less sexy than I imagined it would be,” says Radcliffe. “Hopefully it will look tender and natural, more, ‘Oh,’ than, ‘Oooh.’ More, ‘Thank you very much.’”
“I had my hanky out,” laughs Heyman. “I remember him when he was ten years old...”
THOSE KIDS ARE GROWING UP FAST
Today, it’s Rupert Grint’s 18th birthday. At lunch a table in the Potter refectory has been piled high with brightly coloured parcels. Ten minutes later the rabble pile in, various factions of Hogwarts jostling for supremacy in the dinner queue as the special boy shuffles in and grins. A frenzy of unwrapping unveils an indoor shooting range, a gift from the unit publicist. Emma Watson, meanwhile, has bought him two Mango T-shirts: “I had to go for large,” she sighs. “He’s got so broad.” Radcliffe, of course, has forgotten.
With age has come a stretching of wings, the young leads feeling a need to prove themselves outside of Hogwarts. Grint made a decent stab at “an adult film” in Driving Lessons, although he couldn’t escape the clutches of mother Weasley (Julie Walters was his co-star). But inevitably, it’s Radcliffe who has garnered most attention. He spoofed Harry’s square persona in Extras as a contemptuous child star fiddling with a fresh condom. And at the time of writing he was readying himself to prance about with his ‘Nimbus 2000’ on display on stage in Peter Shaffer’s Equus.
“The earlier you start to break the mould, the better. It makes it easier for people to see me as someone different from Harry,” he says. “Equus seemed like a foolish thing not to do.”
For now, though, it’s the day job, where for a cool $14 million a film he’ll battle it out with the forces of evil to the bitter end. Radcliffe and Grint have signed on for the duration; it was Watson who was playing a little hard to get.
As she appeared to be wavering on committing to the final two films, the tabloids started running stories she was set to quit acting entirely. Another rumour put it down to salary negotiations — she had been getting only $4 million a movie. Warner Bros. has dismissed such talk as no more than Voldemort’s trickery, putting the delay down to sorting out her school schedule. She has now signed, and film six, The Half-blood Prince, will commence this September. Although, back on set a year earlier she talks of aiming for university, “to study English or philosophy”. But now she’s getting older, she does at least understand the magnitude of the films she’s making, and the status of who she’s working with.
“When I was younger I was completely oblivious to it,” she confesses. “I remember to this day Dan saying, ‘You know Gary Oldman is going to be playing Sirius?’ And I went, ‘Who’s Gary Oldman?’ I’ve had the piss taken out of me so much since.”
THERE’S A NEW MASTER OF THE DARK ARTS
She goes by the name of Dolores Umbridge. She’s a plant from the Ministry, and with Dumbledore discredited over his Voldemort claims, transforms the school into a totalitarian state of Orwellian proportions, striking up edicts to stifle the freedom of the pupils. Chiefly, one Harry Potter, trapped in detentions more like torture sessions. Little wonder he and his friends form a secret rebellion — Dumbledore’s Army — to bring down their latest foe, dressed head to toe in pink. “It is like the French underground,” says Heyman. “She is this force preventing the kids living the life they want to live.” Never has pink been so threatening. As Umbridge’s power grows, so her costumes become ever more sickeningly pink. Her office, unctuously twee, is decorated with enchanted plates painted with fluffy cats that stir and twitch with her moods. She is played with spectacular vim by Imelda Staunton, who might just have been the model for Rowling’s character. “Oh, she’s fantastic. She brings such wit,” says Yates. “Umbridge is one of those teachers we all know. On the surface they have the smile, but beneath it they are deadly.”
THERE’S ALSO A NEW DIRECTOR
By luck or judgement, each post-chris Columbus Potter movie is benefiting from a fresh director. Enter David Yates, whose ‘casting’ was a surprise to many. Goblet director Mike Newell turned down the opportunity to return, while Mira Nair’s name pinged about the rumour sites like a pinball (“She was on the list,” is all producer David Barron will say) before Yates emerged as the winner. While he has political drama State Of Play (shortly to be remade as a Brad Pitt movie by Kevin Macdonald) to his name, eyebrows were raised. What gives?
“It was simple. I love his work,” affirms Heyman. “Sex Traffic, State Of
Play and The Way We Live Now, they are the best of British TV. One of the things I love is that we really took a shift with the third film, grounding it more. I think David is really bringing that to it — an edge.”
To be fair, Yates was as shocked as anyone.
“I was just walking in Cornwall,” says Yates of the morning his mobile rang with the news. “It was my agency: ‘Do you want to do Harry Potter?’ And I said, ‘I’m sorry, are you kidding?”’ Until this point, on a windy path in his cagoule, he hadn’t read a word of Rowling’s fiction. But he caught on fast.
“What’s great about the Potter world is that it allows you to explore real dilemmas in a magical way. In this film, Harry is getting this sense Voldemort is invading his head. It absolutely taps into that teenage state of anger and frustration with the world.”
The softly spoken 44-year-old Brit has been a hit with the kids. “Mike Newell was very British, very loud and great fun,” says Watson. “Everything about this film feels more intense. I’ve really liked David’s attitude. He uses the word ‘truth’ a lot.”
“This film has been the best for me so far,” says Radcliffe. “I mean that in no way as disparaging to the other directors, but David has caught me at a fantastic moment when I am really willing to be pushed.”
“He’s a lot different from Mike,” says Grint. “Mike was not afraid of swearing at you if he didn’t like something.”
THE STUDIO HAS BEEN NICE TO THEM
What’s this, a $250 million movie left to its own devices? Is Warner Bros., far away in sunny Burbank, happy to just pick up the tab and sample the rushes as they come in?
“Well, it’s not quite that simple,” says Heyman. “But it is a good relationship.” To date Warners has paid out $510 million
“I WENT UP TO EDINBURGH. J.K. ROWLING MADE ME LUNCH. IT WAS LOVELY. SHE’S BEEN REALLY, REALLY HELPFUL WITH THE SCRIPT.” DAVID YATES
(not including marketing costs) and reaped $3,499,677,256 (not including ancillaries like DVD and DIY wands). In Heyman’s steady hands, Rowling’s universe rings the tills like Tesco’s on Christmas Eve. You’re not going to interfere with a cash cow that big.
“Hollywood trusts David [Heyman] implicitly,” says Yates. “That’s a big factor. The studio isn’t invisible, they’re present and in their own way equally as supportive. One has all these impressions of what big studios are like from Down And Dirty Pictures and those lovely, slightly sleazy Hollywood books. But the truth is, there are some really committed, intelligent, sensitive people out there doing a very tough job.”
Being a smart man, Yates is well aware he is on to a very good thing with Harry Potter: “I know this isn’t always going to be the case.”
6 ROWLING’S NEVER LET THEM DOWN
Forget billion-dollar media conglomerate Warner Bros.
— it is still Rowling, far away in her yellow-brick Edinburgh mansion, who remains grand dame of all things Potter. She gets to vet those souls brazen enough to try to turn her magic into the movie kind. “Yes, I went up to Edinburgh,” says Yates. “She made me lunch. It was lovely. She’s been really, really helpful with the script.”
The Order Of The Phoenix has presented the toughest challenge yet. A hefty 870 pages, it is the longest novel in the series. Yet, from Yates’ point of view, this proved an easier proposition than the mass of material might suggest.
“Interestingly enough it distils quite easily,” he says. “As ever these books are quite episodic, so we’ve tried to take that out and concentrate on a three-act emotional arc for Harry.” Devotees may prickle, but subplots had to be jettisoned. Ron’s turn as a Quidditch hero is out; Dobby the house-elf still out; Neville’s parents in the magical mental hospital, cut. All severed with Rowling’s approval.
“Jo keeps the films and books very separate,” says Heyman. “I’m the one calling her up, making sure we don’t do anything that will mess with her fiction. She really wants the films to be as good as they could be. We needed to visualise Sirius Black’s family tree, so we told Jo. And she said, ‘I understand.’ Fifteen minutes later a fax came though with the entire Black family tree which had the family crest, their motto, with eight generations of Blacks with all their names. Her world is embedded in her.”
Indeed, while they’ve been dallying with wall mounts, she’s been busy concluding the saga with Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, due on 21 July. Around its arrival hangs the very question of Harry’s survival... Will Rowling actually kill off her intrepid superstar? She hasn’t exactly been queasy about knocking off pivotal characters — look out for the first major sacrifice for Harry’s cause in this film. It is worth considering that reading the final book (out a mere eight days after the new movie) may cast a strange shadow over your viewing experience of number five.
“I’ve no idea what happens,” says Radcliffe. “A lot of people assume I do. I love playing games with people. One day, when J.K. Rowling came to visit the set, I made out she had told me the ending. All these extras believed me. The only person who knows something about what will happen to their character in book seven is Alan Rickman.”
7 THERE IS SOME MAGIC IN THE AIR
There’s been a new addition to the roll-call — Luna ‘Loony’ Lovegood. Described by Rowling as “the antihermione”, she’s a pure eccentric, with some useful insight beneath her dreamy state-of-mind. The problem was, they couldn’t find their Luna.
“We had interviewed thousands,” says Heyman. “We had actually narrowed it down to three kids, but they just didn’t feel right. Then I said, ‘Let’s just give it one more shot.’ So we did an open casting in London for around 2,000 people.” Fifteen thousand turned up. From 55-year-old men to eight-year-old girls, every one of them dressed up as ‘Luna’. “It was completely mad,” says Heyman. “Casting director Fiona Weir looked at every single one. And there was just this one, an Irish girl named Evanna Lynch.” This kid was a Potter maniac. She knew it all. She’d even sparked up a correspondence with Rowling. “When Jo found out she called me,” continues Heyman, “she couldn’t believe it. Jo said, ‘She is Luna.’ It was a dream for her and a dream for us. It was meant to be.”
“Everyone says Luna’s so odd, so weird,” says Lynch. “She’s different to everyone else, but only because she’s so honest, so open-minded and so comfortable being herself. I’ve never met anyone like her, so I thought that was such a positive thing. I’d like to be more like that...”
For today’s scene, David Yates surveys his table. It’s quite a gathering: Gary Oldman, Julie Walters, Mark Williams, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Gambon, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and a pair of Weasley twins await his instruction. Yates has so enjoyed his experience at the helm of Phoenix that he’s accepted the studio’s request for him to do Half-blood Prince, too. Which implies Yates has done something pretty special with Phoenix.
“Look,” Yates says pointing. “I have a room full of some of the finest actors in the world. And we’re having such a nice time together.”
It must be magic. With an edge.
THE HARRY POTTER 8-FILM COLLECTION IS AVAILABLE NOW ON 4K, BLU-RAY AND DVD
Far left: Things turn even gnarlier for Harry David Yates’ darker take. Below: Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge (front) is the new Master Of The Dark Arts.
Clockwise from main: Sirius Black and Harry find themselves under attack; Nymphadora Tonks (Natalia Tena) with ‘Mad-eye’ Moody (Brendan Gleeson); Dumbledore, founder of secret society The Order Of The Phoenix; Voldemort is up to more tricks; Phoenix member Snape.