REPEATING THE TRICK
The first film had broken records, so big things were expected of Chris Columbus’ second Potter film. The pressure was on, as Empire discovered when we visited the set in 2002
CHRIS COLUMBUS COULD teach anyone a thing or two about dealing with pressure. As director of Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, the sequel to last year’s special effects-filled spectacular Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, the American filmmaker is wellacquainted with the kind of crushing expectations that can often end with a crowd of graveside mourners saying things like, “But he was so young.” Don’t scoff. Columbus has the weight of the Warner Bros. world on his shoulders. Namely, he’s set with the task of taking potentially the biggest franchise of all time forward artistically, without screwing those billion-dollar returns. Now, that’s pressure. Except, right here, right now, just outside Watford at Leavesden Studios, the home for over 90 per cent of the Chamber Of Secrets shoot and where Empire is currently watching the finishing touches being put to the $100 million mega blockbuster, Columbus is relaxed and breezy, the only clue to possible stress a bottle of water which he fiddles with throughout. We don’t think it contains anything stronger.
“We’re on day 150 right now. We’ve almost completed principal photography,” he smiles, wistfully. “I have no holiday. I finish shooting on Friday and on Tuesday we start doing pick-up shots, and I have to have the film completed in about ten weeks. There could be a holiday someday.”
“Someday” is coming soon, for Columbus will hand over the reins for the third instalment to Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (A Little Princess and — bizarrely — sex comedy Y Tu Mamá También), for shooting to begin next year for a 2004 release. “It’s really very simple,” explains Columbus, who’s been based here since 2000. “I haven’t seen my own children for two years for dinner, and I just didn’t want to miss them growing up. It was really an easy call.”
Yet you sense that despite this, Columbus’ enthusiasm has barely diminished. Everywhere Empire goes today, there’s a palpable feeling from cast and crew alike that this instalment of J.K. Rowling’s boy-wizard saga — this time a 12-year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) becomes the chief suspect in a series of shocking attacks on fellow pupils, all of which are inextricably linked to the mysterious titular chamber — can surpass the original: from the Great Hall of Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry, to the momentous and stunning Chamber Of Secrets itself, a murky, oppressive sewer set dominated by a massive stone statue of the head of Hogwarts’ most infamous founder, Salazar Slytherin, the sense of confidence is rife. “I’m very proud of the first film, but I think the second will be funnier,” says producer David Heyman, a well-spoken Englishman who, like the first gold prospectors, first took the Potter books to Warners and has nurtured the films ever since. “I think it’s more of an adventure. More action, more comedy.”
Not that Potter’s report card is full of, “Must do betters.” After all, Philosopher’s Stone is the second-most successful film of all time, second only to James Cameron’s Titanic. Factor in merchandise sold, and we’re looking at Bill Gates-type numbers. So in the history of sure things, Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets is up there with Tim Henman losing in the Wimbledon semis, or the US selling arms to one of its enemies. It simply can’t fail... But even so, Harry might just experience some growing pains this time around.
Flash back to last October, as the ‘movie event of the year’ hype
kicked up a notch (although to be accurate, Pottermania began with the fourth book, Goblet Of Fire). Suddenly, the little bespectacled bugger was everywhere, on magazines like The Face that previously would have baulked at plopping a little kid on its cover, on TV shows, toy shelves, bedspreads — everywhere. And the hype clearly worked: Philosopher’s Stone opened to a then-record $93 million in the US (beaten since by only Spider-man which, ironically, Columbus was attached to before signing for Potter), before posting equally impressive final grosses and a milestone-setting bow on video and DVD. And now, bucking the usual trend with sequels, the whole three-ring circus is back in town just a year later (filming on Chamber Of Secrets began three days after Philosopher’s Stone was released. You can see what Columbus means about holidays). It’s not a surprise; in order to use the youthful cast — Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint et al — for as long as is Muggle-y possible, the plan is to release a Potter film every 12 to 18 months until the seven-movie saga is complete. Which could be around 2009. It would actually be amazing if audiences didn’t suffer Potter burnout at some point.
And in a way, it’s almost like Warners has seen that backlash coming. Realising that if you don’t like Harry Potter now, chances are you never will, the Chamber Of Secrets marketing has been deliberately aimed at fans, including the teaser poster depicting CG character Dobby, a house-elf who tries to help Harry in his fight: surely a case of preaching to the converted?
“Listen, I just think about making the best film possible,” counters Columbus. “You want the audience to enjoy the film, but I honestly think that if you know nothing about Harry Potter and you walk into the second film, you can have a more enjoyable experience.”
Perhaps — but this tactic isn’t going to win back those who thought the first movie was overlong and too bound by the book to be truly magical; and which was blown away in the kudos stakes and —crucially — awards categories by The Fellowship Of The Ring, which debuted a month later. The franchises will do battle again this Christmas: The Two Towers versus Chamber Of Secrets.
“I loved Lord Of The Rings,” says Heyman, a little testily. “I thought it was a fantastic film, but we can’t compare the two.”
For all the signs are that, if you didn’t think Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s, if you’re a damn fool American) was the bees patellas, then Chamber Of Secrets will be a vast improvement. And if you thought part one was magnifico, then you’ll be in Hogwarts heaven.
“It’s the most cinematic [book] because it’s got a lot of action and a lot of humour, and it’s just a more fun experience this time,” says Columbus. “The camera moves a lot more. It’s changed my style as a filmmaker.”
Already, the teaser trailer has hinted that, despite that insane production schedule, the much-criticised effects are going to improve. If you winced at the original’s overly pixelated, CG stunt double-dominated Quidditch, then rejoice, for ILM is in town.
“I always thought Quidditch could be taken a step further, faster, a little more violent than it was, that the characters could’ve blended in with the backgrounds a little more. We ran out of time,” admits Columbus, who shot this movie’s Quidditch sequences at the beginning. “We’re getting some amazing, amazing footage. Visual effects are only as good as the time you give them, and as a result of having more time we have better visual effects.” Another trump card is the elimination of the hour of set-up, which at times reduced the first film to walking pace — plus, in keeping with the natural progression of the books, Secrets will be darker. It’s this black fault line through the series which could separate the diehards from the daytrippers.
“We’re not holding back,” confirms Columbus. “Jo Rowling doesn’t pull any punches in the books, and I feel it’d be unfair to do that.”
Ah, the books. With Goblet Of Fire set to hit cinemas in 2005 or 2006, there’s no immediate panic — but the plain truth of the matter is that there’s still no sign of the fifth book in the series, the provisionally titled Harry Potter And The Order Of Phoenix. Initially scheduled for publication this summer, it’s now looking like sometime next year. At the earliest. Previously, Rowling has churned the books out at a pace of one a year, but if this present course is maintained, the seventh film may well precede the book — forcing screenwriter Steven Kloves to abandon his current adaptation duties. Of course, if Phoenix
— rumoured to feature the death of a major character — is a work of genius, then all will be forgiven. And Heyman, for one, thinks Rowling has earned a break.
“This woman delivered four books in four years, and they were fantastic books. Now she’s taking time to write the book that she wants to write. Why does everybody try to judge it [like] she’s having writer’s block?” And when it comes, its length — rumoured to be around 300 pages — will be greatly scrutinised. The first film, based on a 220-page book, clocked
“I ALWAYS THOUGHT QUIDDITCH COULD BE TAKEN A STEP FURTHER, FASTER, A LITTLE MORE VIOLENT THAN IT WAS.” CHRIS COLUMBUS
in at well over two hours — almost unprecedented for a kiddies’ movie. Currently Chamber Of Secrets’ running time is said to be, again, around the 150-minute mark, another legacy of the filmmakers’ dogged dedication to Rowling’s source text.
“I always think the adults are a little more sniffy about that sort of thing,” counters Columbus. “The kids don’t really care. Most of the kids I talked to said the movie was too short.”
Still, it’s fair to say that, in doing so, Columbus and co have made a rod for their own backs: at this rate, the 600-plus-page Goblet Of Fire could clock in at around seven hours — more than enough to severely test the new and improved bladder control of fiveto 12-year-old kids everywhere.
But that’s for another day. Now, Chamber Of Secrets is looking pretty good. Even if the law of diminishing returns kicks in (sequels usually make around 60 to 70 per cent of the original’s gross), that means a probable take of around $700-800 million worldwide. More than enough money to keep Warner Bros. in the wizard business for some time to come.
“‘Harry Potter 3’ will be released in two years’ time,” confirms Heyman. “I cannot think about ‘Harry Potter 4’. Let’s see how ‘Harry Potter 2’ goes. I think it’s going to be a really exciting time in the Harry Potter franchise. I think we’re going into some really interesting areas.”
Indeed. And the appointment of Cuarón for the next movie is an encouraging sign that Warners is aware that the Potter films aren’t like Big Macs — each experience will need to be different from the last. The message is clear: evolve, or risk ‘Harry Potter And The Audience Of Apathy’. The battle for Potter’s future has begun.
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Far left: Harry with David Bradley’s Argus Filch. Left: Ron, Harry and Hedwig take a hair- and featherraising trip in the flying car. Below: Hermione concocts form-shifting Polyjuice Potion.
Above: Dobby the house-elf (voiced by Toby Jones) works his magic. Left: Draco and Harry engage in a testy game of Quidditch.
Top: Professor Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh) takes Harry and Ron’s point. Middle: Harry Potter in the Chamber Of Secrets. Bottom: Mcgonagall, Dumbledore and Snape are joined by Sprout (Miriam Margolyes, second left).