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


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


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.”


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.

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