RITES OF PASSAGE
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban was a huge step change — darker, more grown-up, and with a new director, Alfonso Cuarón. Empire visited the set to discover exactly how they were moving the series into more mature territory
Film three saw us check in on a new director, and see how the films were coping as the books started to get darker.
ALFONSO CUARÓN IS waving, not drowning. His long arms are going left, they are going right, they are going up, then down, he hops, grins, then bursts into exuberant laughter, clapping his hands: “Ha ha, yes, yes!” It seems his cinematographer has successfully interpreted the latest discodance of a camera move and is ready to roll. A ragged-looking Gary Oldman lies down on a bed of pebbles on the vestiges of a frozen lake, and Daniel Radcliffe, dressed, unusually, in jeans and sweatshirt, aims a wand furiously in the apparent direction of an invisible Dementor.
It’s not that Cuarón’s English is a bit wobbly, in fact, it is excellent; he just communicates by an excited semaphore, directing Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban like a gleeful puppetmaster.
“He’s got this boundless, boyish energy,” delights Robbie Coltrane, who, like many of the cast, returns for his third go (as harrumphing giant Hagrid). “I would like five per cent of it a month just to get my house in order.”
The choice of the young director to replace Chris Columbus in pulling the Harry Potter strings might have come as a surprise to those at large, but it was met with complete approval from the old hands. “I thought, ‘This guy will be great at Potter,”’ continues the Scottish star, barely able to contain his enthusiasm. “He’s not anti-cgi, but he wants to do the minimum possible. He’s very keen to get it out of the studio even though you have complete control with special effects and everything when you are studio-bound. You do go a bit stir-crazy.”
Harry himself agrees. “He has this intensity suited to the third film,” confirms Radcliffe, taking a rare breather from another intensive stretch Pottering. “But in some ways he is more laid-back than Chris.” When Columbus announced he was to relinquish control of this mammoth franchise, the feeding frenzy began again, as it had at its conception. Another rush of weighty names were mooted around the Burbank watercoolers in anticipation of who might pick up those loose threads for the third film in an ongoing series that could net seven outings. When Warner Bros. announced it was to be Cuarón, last seen pulling off the risqué but warmhearted slip of sexual awakening Y Tu Mamá También, the sharp intake of Hollywood breath could be heard as far afield as Privet Drive.
Then again, it was time for a change. Columbus had done his bit launching the series to huge success, but at the close of Chamber Of Secrets, there was the whiff of formula floating in Hogwarts’ hallowed air. The obviously knackered Columbus must have felt it, and stepped aside to serve as producer only. The big suits at Warner Bros. must have sensed it too, and were also savvy enough to notice the significant leap that J.K. Rowling had taken; between books two and three things get darker, more intense, with not only the ghost of Harry’s past haunting his steps, but also the fusillade that puberty mounts on his glands. The more you look at Cuarón, the better the choice becomes — this isn’t simply a new Harry Potter film; it is a voyage into murky, uncharted, thrilling new territory.
“I will only serve the material from my standpoint,” begins Cuarón, whose loose-limbed, easy-grin style is no less apparent in conversation. “Chris Columbus directed the previous two movies and we are two different directors and minds, and
“THESE STORIES ARE EVOLVING: HARRY IS A TEEN AND THE MATERIAL IS GETTING DARKER, AND THE KIDS ARE HAVING A LARGER VIEW ON THINGS.” ALFONSO CUARÓN
that shows in our approach to the material. Also these stories are evolving: Harry is a teen and the material is getting darker, and the kids are having a larger view on things.”
Cuarón is big on the film and book’s evolution. He has spent a lot of time with the three young stars — Emma Watson and Rupert Grint return alongside Radcliffe, all of whom are now immersed in their own teen foibles — discussing their characters’ head space, their motivation, how, as their director so poetically puts it, “the fear is now not outside but inside”. When he first met up with them before production, he asked them to write an essay on their characters, just to place them in context. Watson delivered reams, Radcliffe a single side of spider-shaped scrawl, Grint forgot; ever get the feeling these three have become inseparable from their Potter universe counterparts? It’s why Cuarón has been keen to liberate his stars into jeans and sweat-tops after being encased in Hogwarts’ woolly uniform for two adventures. He sees Azkaban as a “rites-ofpassage story”, as was Y Tu Mamá También, just with less nooky and more owls.
“This material is darker,” he reiterates. “It is psychologically a different moment. We explore so much more of Harry’s past, that he has to reconcile with being Harry Potter for the first time.” Thus for those uninitiated folk who have avoided reading the books, there is plenty in this new adventure to take on board. As Bob Dylan put it: the times they are a-changing. Firstly, a character called Sirius Black (played by the lanklooking Oldman) has broken out of the eponymous wizard clink and is hotfooting it to Harry’s door, trailed by a gang of shrouded spectres known as Dementors. Does he have murder or rescue in mind? Then there’s David Thewlis as Lupin, the new Professor Of Dark Arts and a man with a secret (hint: the name’s a clue). Meanwhile, Ron’s rat has a rather large secret up wherever it is rats keep their secrets. Things are looking up.
“Yes, there is a lot more dark stuff,” says Coltrane with no little relish “The last third is darker than most of the dark bits in one and two, It involves mad, black dogs that are eight-feet long and were wolves, and you can’t get werewolves to act — they are too busy howling at the moon to learn their lines... It will look different but there will be continuity.”
In visual terms, just to see Cuarón at work, wheeling about like a possessed windmill, attests to how much more dynamic his camerawork will be. Coltrane laughs at his refusal to do close-ups, his camera constantly roving, teasing out the story’s host of secrets. Big faces will be at a premium, big shots will be order of the day. For instance, the new Quidditch sequence has been mounted in lashing rain as Harry tries to evade a pack of floating Dementors.
Yet, Cuarón wants to make clear he is totally at one with the material. “The visual effects are serving the story,” he says. “We are trying to stay away from that emphasis. This is something so hugely universal. It is universally universal! People connect with it. The mythology is fundamental but the emotions are universal.”
THAT CUARÓN CAME up with such an epiphany is no small matter because, to begin with, to be quite frank, he hadn’t got a clue. It’s not that he hadn’t heard of Harry Potter — even in Mexico the wee wizardling was as pervasive as Coca-cola. He just wasn’t a Potter person.
“I was pretty much in another universe at that point,” he admits. “I was
“THE MYTHOLOGY OF POTTER IS FUNDAMENTAL, BUT THE EMOTIONS ARE UNIVERSAL.” ALFONSO CUARÓN
not familiar with the books or films.” The story of his eventual immersion began with close pal Guillermo del Toro, director of Blade II, who had flirted with the project. De Toro was too caught up with the Gothic comic book fumes of Hellboy and suggested Cuarón — he could see the fit straight off. After all, this 43-year-old director had worked minor miracles with
A Little Princess, and had gone on to direct Ethan Hawke and Robert De Niro in a contemporary flip on Dickens’
Great Expectation; both literary tales of youthful discovery beneath the clouds of adulthood.
“Guillermo said, ‘You should go for it,’” Cuarón recalls of his friend’s advice. “’And if it is you, don’t try to do ‘your movie’ out of it. Just go and serve Harry Potter.’”
Cuarón, naturally, had his concerns. This was a massive franchise, layered with special effects — not something he was at home with — and, of course, there was the ego-aspect: could
Azkaban ever be his own film? But the material grabbed him immediately; how grounded and layered this story was. “It was a very beautiful universe to land in,” the director sighs. “And it has been one of the most enjoyable creative experiences I have ever had. That gave me all the creative freedom, just serving the material.”
At the same time, it has been a huge learning curve. He was enthralled by the possibilities of special effects, dallying with ILM as they laid magic over his storyboards. That said, post-production would prove a grind — when he speaks to
Empire a few months after our time on set, some of that natural fizz has evaporated, to be replaced with a weary determination to get it all finished. “The tough thing is how long it takes,” he grimaces. “I heard that Ang Lee mentioned, ‘This kind of [special effects] movie is not so much about filmmaking as about endurance.’ He was right.”
He can at least rest easy in the knowledge that this will be his only venture among the potions and paraphernalia of this particular magic kingdom. Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire has been handed onto Mike Newell, the new ethos at Warners being a new face with a new book. It’s something with which Cuarón is quite at ease. “It’s the great thing about the franchise — it grows, it naturally evolves,” he says. “I am sure Mike Newell’s production of the fourth book will be quite different and hopefully better. Hopefully, he will keep it evolving and keep the whole thing alive.”
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Far left: Hermione hones her skills. Below: Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). Bottom right: A very wet Hogwarts. Below left: Michael Gambon takes over from the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore.
Clockwise from main: Harry and Hermione in their new Gap clobber; And with hippogriff Buckbeak; Harry’s thrown off the knight bus!; Eccentric Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson); David Thewlis is Lupin; Sirius in the clink.