THE BOY WHO LIVED
It was already a publishing phenomenon, but turning it into a successful film (never mind franchise) was no easy task. Empire was there to find out how they were planning to pull it off
Empire was on set of all eight Potter movies. This feature is from our first visit, all the way back in 2001.
WELCOME TO HOGWARTS School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry. The doors to the Great Hall are already open. Through the windows, the Scottish Highlands are clearly visible. But primarily, it’s the heat that hits you, coming from 12 flame torches spaced along the ancient stone walls, fire rippling below Gryffindor house banners. Four columns of weathered, oak tables stretch the entire 145-foot length, laid with gold plates and goblets, ready for a feast. Four hundred pupils will dine here to celebrate the end of term.
Once they’ve eaten their fill, it’s up the moving staircases to the common room, which is draped with medieval tapestries. A chess set stands on a solid, oak table in front of the roaring fireplace and the room is littered with beaten-up books. In one corner is a notice board on which are pinned the school rules — “No flying”, “No potions to be drunk” — and a ‘Guide To Dealing With Vampires’. A curved staircase to one side takes you to the circular dormitories, which each contain five four-poster beds. Bedside cabinets are crammed with cages for owls and rats, crystal balls and the preferred reading of the lower school: the comic The Adventures Of Martin Miggs, The Mad Muggle.
It’s an image of childhood wonderment that is sadly fake. The tables in the dining room are not weathered by time, but the props department. The Scottish landscape is an impressive piece of scenic painting. A fireman loitering just out of sight in the common room has an extinguisher at his feet, in case the wood-constructed ‘stone’ walls catch fire, and the notices on the board were not written by Hogwarts students, but by Eleanor Columbus and her classmates.
She played a key part in bringing Empire here today — Leavesden Studios, within roaring distance of Hertfordshire’s M25. But her part comes later. The story really starts with a book nobody wanted to publish.
BELIEVE IT OR not, there was a time when the aisles of buses, tubes and trains weren’t blocked with people reading the tales of boy wizard Harry Potter. And when a copy landed on producer David Heyman’s desk, he wasn’t particularly drawn to it. Englishman Heyman, whose production credits include the ill-fated
Ravenous and Blind Justice, had recently returned to Britain, hoping to develop smaller, independent movies under the auspices of his company, Heyday. One of his assistants, Nisha Parti, picked it up from his shelves and the next day told him: “You have to make this book.”
“It didn’t patronise or talk down to its audience,” says Heyman. “Harry is a great character — his parents are dead, he lives with his wicked aunt and uncle, he’s not a particularly good academic. There are these things in his character that you can relate to, that aren’t extraordinary, and yet he’s capable of extraordinary things. That makes it magic.”
Heyman took the book to Warner Bros. and together they optioned the book for a bargain $700,000, but this wasn’t big news. Warners’ President Of Production, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, said at the time, “These books have a terrific following in Great Britain.”
Great Britain, not America, and as far as Hollywood is concerned, it’s only real news when it’s news Stateside. Heyman sent out edition after edition to prospective screenwriters — “First editions,” he admits ruefully, “and I never kept one for myself” — but no-one was biting. Finally, he sent a copy to a writer he’d always admired, Steve Kloves. Kloves, whose
literary films The Fabulous Baker Boys and Wonder Boys were critical, if not commercial, successes, was hooked immediately. The next step was to get Rowling’s approval. “I was excited to meet her,” levels Kloves, “but I didn’t want her to think I was going to be in the business of destroying her baby.” Luckily, he got into her good books from the start by admitting his favourite character was not Harry, but his female, smart-arse friend, Hermione. Rowling was delighted he’d picked the character she’s since admitted is closest to her, and Kloves was accepted into the Potter club of three.
By now, Harry Potter And The
Sorcerer’s Stone (the title was changed in America for vocab-shy Yanks) had hit the top of the bestseller lists in the US, and everybody wanted a piece. A who’s who of directors were vying to sign on; Brad Silberling (City Of Angels, Casper) was first to express interest and he happened to mention the project to his friend, Steven Spielberg. Spielberg immediately threw his hat into the ring and had talks with Rowling, Kloves and Heyman. Ultimately, he decided to make A.I.
Artificial Intelligence his next film, and the race was back on.
Silberling was again in the picture, alongside Rob Reiner, Alan Parker, Ivan Reitman, Terry Gilliam, Wolfgang Petersen and rank outsider Chris
“HARRY IS A GREAT CHARACTER. THERE ARE THINGS YOU CAN RELATE TO, YET HE’S CAPABLE OF EXTRAORDINARY THINGS.” DAVID HEYMAN
Columbus. And this is where Eleanor Columbus comes in. Now 12, she was ten when she insisted her dad read the first book. “I said, ‘Okay, I’ll read it,” admits Columbus, “and I just fell in love with it. I immediately called my agent, and said, ‘I think this is a call back to me in a way. I know people have written over the years that I’ve got soft and sentimental, but I’ve got to get back to where I was with movies when I was writing. When I was doing Gremlins and Young Sherlock Holmes.’ My agent said, ‘Spielberg’s got it.’ And I thought, ‘That’s it. It’s over.’”
But it wasn’t over. Columbus moved on. He toyed with a similar fantasy script of his own then decided that the next film he would direct would be Spider-man. But then word came that Spielberg had passed. Columbus had to ‘audition’ for the first time in years, but he immediately convinced Heyman that he was their director. What’s more, within an hour of meeting Rowling, she was also won over. Columbus promised to remain faithful in every respect. “She realised I was not going to cast Haley Joel Osment and it was going to be a British cast across the board.”
With their principal team complete, Columbus, Heyman and Kloves got together and, along with Rowling, holed up in a room for five months, honing the script and nailing other details. Despite the strong American presence, there was never any question that the film would be made anywhere but the UK. The team booked the Leavesden lot for the next two years to shoot the first film (“Not cheap, but nothing on this production is cheap,” says Columbus, a nod to the film’s $120 million budget), and its sequel, Chamber Of Secrets. This meant that full sets could be built. “It’s easy to make magic with CGI these days,” says production designer Stuart Craig, “so we tried to make the sets as old-fashioned as possible. Architecture which adds gravitas serves as a better backdrop for the magic that takes place.”
AS HARRY’S WORLD was taking shape, the cast were slowly coming together. The adults were quick to sign: Richard Harris as Dumbledore, Maggie Smith as Mcgonagall, Alan Rickman as Snape. But while the adult roles were being snapped up, the three key children were proving harder to lock.
Sixteen thousand boys were seen for the part of Harry Potter, but Columbus only wanted one and he wasn’t up for the part. Daniel Radcliffe had appeared in the BBC’S David Copperfield, but the youngster’s parents, literary agent Alan Radcliffe and casting agent Marcia Gresham, had ruled out the idea completely, wanting to protect him from the madness that would inevitably accompany the role. With Radcliffe out of the picture, casting director Susie Figgis held multiple open casting calls but to no avail. Unable to find what her director was looking for — Columbus couldn’t move on from the image of Radcliffe doing Dickens — Figgis departed the project. With no casting director, no Harry and no options left, Columbus had reached the lowest point in the film’s cycle.
As if looking for respite from their manifold headaches, Heyman and Kloves decided to go to the theatre to see Stones In His Pockets. In a story contrivance that would make even Rowling blush, Heyman spotted Radcliffe, accompanied by his parents, lapping up the play. As it turned out, Radcliffe’s parents were willing to re-think their stance and the next day, Radcliffe met Heyman and Columbus with a view to an audition. The first auditions went well, but before proceeding the team needed to know that Radcliffe would gel with the other two lead characters: his best friends, Ron and Hermione.
“I READ IT AND JUST FELL IN LOVE WITH IT. I IMMEDIATELY CALLED MY AGENT AND SHE SAID, ‘SPIELBERG’S GOT IT.’ I THOUGHT, ‘THAT’S IT. IT’S OVER.’” CHRIS COLUMBUS
Rupert Grint had already been shortlisted by Figgis. The cheeky 13-year-old had sent in his details, with a ‘Ron rap’ video of his own creation. Emma Watson, 11, had decided to go to auditions after some of the casting team visited her school. As soon as they got the three together, something sparked. “I remember sitting in the car,” says Watson, “after one audition with my dad, saying, ‘You know that black-haired guy, he’s going to get it.”’ The black-haired guy was Radcliffe, and Heyman and Columbus were finally convinced that he was their boy.
ROWLING, ONCE THE script was complete, was pretty hands-off, visiting the set only three times. Far from being the all-controlling writer that many had feared, the team found her a useful resource. She supplied Columbus with outlines of the content of future books to help actors with their motivation, and Craig would receive notes and sketches to help define the look. “You couldn’t imagine a better collaborator,” says Columbus. She also helped write a new scene for the film, something that hadn’t appeared in any of the books but would help provide more background for Harry’s character.
As the film is to be released under different titles in the UK and the States, alternate versions of scenes referring to the Stone had to be shot. To Columbus that was the easy part; harder were the complex special effects sequences required to realise some of the book’s most famous set-pieces. The aerial sport of Quidditch took four months to shoot, and several more in the workshops of Sony to perfect. Different FX houses were brought on board according to their specialities. Rhythm & Hues created Norbert The Dragon, while Smoke & Mirrors concentrated on creating Harry’s invisibility cloak. ILM, who will be more involved with Chamber Of Secrets, were also on board, as were UK houses like The Mill and The Motion Picture Company. “Between David Heyman, Stuart and myself, we’re very anal about these sorts of effects shots,” explains Columbus. “They have to be absolutely the best they can be, so we send them back a lot.”
Currently juggling his time between a bluescreen stage at Leavesden and a mixing studio in Shepperton, Columbus has undertaken his Potter adventure under unparalleled public and press scrutiny. And he refutes claims Warners were anything less than supportive, even when the cut looked like coming in long. “There was never a four-hour cut. I read that somewhere. To Warner Bros.’ credit, we realised we didn’t want fans of the books to be disappointed. There was certainly a two-hour cut of the film, but it was just important to the integrity of the film to be the length it is.” Final running time will be nearer two-anda-half hours.
Columbus has a good reason for wanting people to see this film: it might just stop them bad-mouthing him.
“If my name wasn’t on the film I don’t think people would think, based on my previous work, that I directed it. It’s not just for kids. It’s a great story and 40 per cent of the readership are adults, so you have to consider those people as well.”
As for Eleanor Columbus, she ended up with a non-speaking part as one of the Hogwarts first years. Will she still be around — and more importantly, will her father — come the sequels? Columbus thinks so. “I can’t imagine a better, more satisfying career or job at this point in my life. In America, everyone would be concerned with how big their trailer is. The British actors are mentally the healthiest actors I’ve ever worked with in my life. I’m certainly not tired of it yet — you get re-inspired and re-energised every time you go to work.” A potent potion, indeed.
THE HARRY POTTER 8-FILM COLLECTION IS AVAILABLE NOW ON 4K, BLU-RAY AND DVD
Far left: Maggie Smith’s Professor Mcgonagall designates a nervous Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) as Gryffindor. Left: Richard Harris dons the beard of Dumbledore. Below left: The young recruits learn to fly broomsticks.
Clockwise from left: Emma Watson debuts as Hermione Granger; Harry and Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) get a fright; Ian Hart as half-blood wizard Quirrell; The late Alan Rickman as the imperious yet anguished Snape; Robbie Coltrane’s half-giant, half-human Hagrid; Rupert Grint as headstrong Ron Weasley.