THE MAGIC CIRCLE
The franchise’s four directors regroup in 2018 to tell the story of how they made movie history
Eight films. Four directors. The men who guided Harry Potter through a decade of movies reconvene to tell the complete story for the first time
Back in 1997, producer David Heyman read a children’s book about a boy wizard that had been recommended to him by his assistant. He quickly bought the film rights, and not a moment too soon — it became a publishing phenomenon, and his search for a director began.
Chris Columbus: It was my daughter Eleanor who introduced me to Harry Potter. She was adamant I read the books, but I ignored her. They just weren’t what I was looking for at the time. In fact, I was looking for almost anything else, from a comedy to a character-driven drama. Just something a little more grounded in reality, something that wouldn’t involve so many visual effects. I just wasn’t interested.
But then, eventually, I did read them. And, of course, that’s when I realised it wouldn’t be about visual effects, first and foremost it would be about these phenomenal characters. That’s when I called my agent and said, “I see these films. Visually I have a way of getting into these books. I’d love to take a meeting with Warner Bros. to talk about them.” And she said: “Get in line.” There were 22 or 23 directors coming in ahead of me. So I got to work.
I made sure I would have the last meeting of all the directors, and I took Steve Kloves’ brilliant script and did a rewrite — basically adding stage directions and camera movements, and explaining how I would shoot the film. And when I walked into the meeting I said, “I want you to know I’ve rewritten this free of charge. And it’s yours to do with whatever you want.” (That was a shock to them. In Hollywood, no-one does anything for free.) But we had that meeting, and then another meeting, and six weeks later they said, “Okay. You’ve got the job. Probably. But, you do have one final meeting — in Scotland, with J.K. Rowling.”
It was that meeting that was the most nerve-racking of the entire process. This was a time before you had a lot of access to internet news articles, so I had no idea what she looked like. I was picturing Miss Marple. But we met in Edinburgh with David Heyman, the producer, and she was just charming, funny, and we hit it off immediately. I talked her through my vision for the movie, and at the end she said, “Yeah, I see it exactly the same way.” And so we were off and running.
Of course, at this point I felt a tremendous amount of relief, but it also felt a lot like the ending of the Robert Redford film The Candidate — Jesus Christ! Now what? I’ve got to deliver.
At the beginning it was basically the four of us — Jo Rowling, David Heyman, Steve Kloves and myself. We spent countless hours talking about the film. I wanted Hogwarts to have a timeless feel and — it’s an odd thing to say about a fantasy film — to ground it in the real world so every kid who saw the movie could feel that, actually, maybe they could attend Hogwarts. We knew the books were going to get darker, so we made the first film this glorious, Technicolor storybook fantasy.
We put together an incredibly talented crew, and had several artists working on every element of the movie, whether it was the Snitch, or the Sorting Hat, or the troll that comes into the bathroom. There were so many versions of each of those things, and every day it was exciting to look at these drawings and make changes. It was a fun part of making the movie. And the other really great part was the casting; meeting all these actors I had been enthralled by my entire life. We went backstage when Maggie Smith was doing The Lady In The Van and had champagne with her as we talked about Mcgonagall. We went out to dinner with Richard Harris, who told us he’d stopped drinking, then proceeded to drink six pints. I said, “I thought you’d stopped.” He said, “No, no — just the hard stuff. I stopped drinking whisky.”
And then there was Alan Rickman. He was a little reluctant because he didn’t want to be typecast as a villain, so we were talking about other people. Ironically, Gary Oldman was one, as was Tim Roth. But David put Alan in touch with J.K. Rowling, who told him his character arc — he knew, before we started shooting the first frame, what would happen to Snape at the end of the seventh book. No-one else knew, and that’s what convinced him.
“CHRIS COLUMBUS HAD DONE AN AMAZING JOB CREATING THE [HARRY POTTER ] WORLD, WHICH I DON’T THINK HE’S GIVEN ENOUGH CREDIT FOR.” ALFONSO CUARÓN
And of course, there’s the kids, who are phenomenal. The first film was basically taking them through acting class — teaching them how to perform on camera. By the second they were much more comfortable, so it freed me up as a filmmaker to be much more adventurous — to do tracking shots or use handheld cameras and Steadicams. It was very liberating.
However, by the time I finished the second film, I was truly exhausted. About two weeks into the first film, when they’d seen the dailies, Warners said, “We’d like you to do as many of the films as you want to do.” But I couldn’t do any more. The first film was 160 shooting days, then we had a tiny break before jumping straight into Chamber Of Secrets, which was another 160 shooting days. They’re 12- to 14-hour days — I basically lived in London all of that time, saw my kids on weekends and rarely saw daylight. We were pretty far into Chamber Of Secrets when I decided. I told David first, then I told Steve Kloves. He’d almost finished the Azkaban script and said, “Just read it before you say no.” But I didn’t — I didn’t want him to think it would have anything to do with the script. I was just physically and emotionally spent.
But the Potter films are two of my favourite films I’ve ever been involved with — three, actually, if I count my work as producer on the third one. The great thing about the first film is it created the world. And nothing is more fun for me, as a director, than being able to say, 18 years down the line, that I was part of creating this whole universe. That’s a feeling of pride I’ll never lose.
With the cinematic Wizarding World established, and the books starting to get darker, David Heyman made what was seen at the time as a surprise decision when he hired Alfonso Cuarón, the Mexican director of A Little Princess, to take charge of the third film. But it proved to be an inspired choice.
Alfonso Cuarón: I have to admit this — when I first got the call about directing Prisoner Of Azkaban from my agent, I was ignorant of what Harry Potter was about. I’d been making Y Tu Mamá También and then started writing Children Of Men,
so while I knew it was a huge thing — I wasn’t completely
oblivious — I wasn’t really familiar with it, so I just dismissed it. Yeah, whatever, that’s not my thing. Then I mentioned it to Guillermo del Toro.
We were on the phone talking about this and that and
I said, “By the way, there’s the possibility of Harry Potter,”
and he got so upset that I’d dismissed it. He called me “flaco”
— “skinny”. “You fucking skinny arrogant bastard,” although in stronger words. He said, “You’re going to go down to the shop now to get the books. Read them immediately. Then call me back.”
Now, if Guillermo tells you that, you have to do it.
And when I’d read them I called him back and he said, “You see?” And I did. I called David Heyman, who I’d known for a few years, to say I was interested and was sent the screenplay. And when I saw what an amazing job Steve Kloves had done, I started adjusting my ship and thinking about the possibilities.
Of course, I was doing number three in an already beloved franchise. Chris Columbus had done an amazing job creating the world, which I don’t think he’s given enough credit for. He created the foundations of what Harry Potter was later on. And I mean the most important things — the design and the cast. It’s beautifully cast. And I was lucky to be able to participate in the process of building up the characters for the rest of the series, adding David Thewlis, Timothy Spall, Emma Thompson and, of course, Gary Oldman. Gary gave such amazing soul to Sirius Black. It could have been nobody else but him — you need that amazing intensity and danger, but then, in time, this huge heart.
So while I couldn’t betray the expectations of the fanhood, I wanted to make it my own because I think it would have been disrespectful to take the job and then just do it by the numbers. I couldn’t do that — that’s not the director I am. And one thing I wanted to do was ground it even more in the real world. What I saw was the correlation between this fantasy world and what was going on around me, and my understanding of character and human behaviour. J.K. Rowling created this fantastic universe, but she’s talking about reality, and issues of racism and tyranny. And I tried to honour the tone of that. At the time it was the beginning of the second war in Iraq, so it was very prescient then, but perhaps even more so now.
Sadly, early on in the process, Richard Harris passed away. He was David Heyman’s godfather and David would get very upset when agents would call to suggest their actors — for a long time we didn’t even start talking about recasting Dumbledore. And rightly so. When the time was right, we began thinking about actors and I immediately wanted Michael Gambon. He’s an actor
I’d always admired because he has this amazing gravitas, but also this mischievousness. Even in real life he’s a very mischievous person. I’m very grateful of the job he did, because he did the impossible — being his own Dumbledore, but at the same time being respectful to Richard Harris.
It was a seamless transition.
Shooting a Potter film is a real challenge, but it was also a lot of fun. We had to do those very complicated scenes with the Time Turner where you have to shoot the same scene twice, just from different perspectives, and make sure you’re being consistent with both of them. And we went to Scotland to shoot and, well, it’s Scotland — it rains a lot, so we started to fall behind. Everyone would be very anxious to see these dark clouds coming. Everyone except the cinematographer Mike Seresin and me — they just created such a beautiful light. And then the rain would come and we’d put our ponchos on and just enjoy being in nature.
I went into Prisoner Of Azkaban with no expectations. My only hope was to not get fired. But throughout the whole process I felt very comfortable in the universe. One of the most memorable moments was when I found myself on set staging a scene with Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, and also with Alan Rickman, David Thewlis, Gary Oldman and Timothy Spall. I just thought, “Well, look at this.” What a moment — creating this crazy scene where these great actors are talking about a rat who’s turned into a man, and doing it with such passion and conviction. I was so in awe.
I was offered the next one, but I just felt I would have outstayed my welcome — that I would have repeated myself, and that what I’d be able to learn on Harry Potter, I’d already learned. I did Azkaban with so much love, and I’m so grateful for everything the film did. I remember it with such joy.
Mike Newell: The Harry Potter production sniffed around me for the first film, but I was busy with Pushing
Tin at the time. They had a wonderful man to make the first two. Until Chris Columbus came along there wasn’t a wand, nobody knew how to cast a spell, or what Hogwarts looked like. Those first two movies were enormously important. To my delight, they came back and said, “Would you be interested to read the fourth book?”, because they’d already got Alfonso [for the third]. I liked it very much indeed, and off we went.
I arrived at the studio in Watford [in 2003] when Alfonso was still shooting the Knight Bus and whatnot. We were all in the same building at the same time, it was one great big stew pot. He was immensely generous, introducing me to the way the production worked. He said, “Watch out, it’s very big.” And it was! He was still shooting, but he’d got a chunk of the movie in a rough cut, and asked me whether I would like to see it. What he’d done was everything I planned to do. He’d made it look darker and more emotionally complicated. I felt deeply resentful that I’d had my thunder stolen! My first response was, “Oh God, what is my path? He’s taken my path!”
In my first conversation with Alan Horn, then head of Warner Bros., he’d said, “We want to make two films out of this. It’s a huge book.” I didn’t feel very good about that because I could see this multi-stranded story that could be spun into a single plot — a character who’s being hunted without knowing it. A paranoid thriller like Three Days Of
The Condor and North By Northwest.
That meant certain things dropped away — Hermione agitating for elf rights and stuff like that — which is great, but didn’t fit into this as a thriller. So when Alan Horn finally asked me, “One or two?” I said, “One.” And there we were — Steve Kloves took it with both hands, and we started to work through his script.
This was the first of the films to have the notion of death come anywhere near the stories. You see Robert Pattinson [playing Cedric Diggory] at the beginning of the film, with his heavenly good looks, and you just know he’s going to get it
— I saw him as a kind of doomed fighter pilot. That graveyard sequence introduces the notion of death and an
“WHEN POTTER ENDED, I FELT EMPTY. IT’S LIKE A BEREAVEMENT OF SORTS. SUDDENLY YOU’RE AT HOME IN THE GARDEN WITH A GLASS OF WINE THINKING, ‘OH MY GOD, WHAT DO I DO NOW?’” DAVID YATES
absolutely savage villain who shows no human feeling. Although Ralph Fiennes was a hoot.
I don’t remember whether we even thought about anybody else for Voldemort, he was just obvious. You don’t find Ralph Fiennes — he’s a bit like Mont Blanc, he’s just there. We’d worked together before on a film that we didn’t actually make, so we knew one another a bit. He said, “Let me see some stuff” — I think he wanted to see whether this was a ‘proper’ movie, a big, grand, heroic story, or a kids’ film. Ralph sat at the back to watch rushes — I don’t remember which sequence, but it was something heavyweight. At the end he very quickly said, “Yes, okay.” And we were on.
We had a lot of toing and froing about his nose. Shall we leave his nose on, or take it off? I was being very highfalutin — and a pain in the arse, I’m sure — because I said, “Well, it’s his face and he has to express through his face.” And David Heyman said, “Yeah, but he’s Voldemort and it says he hasn’t got a nose!” I was pro-nose, and almost everybody else I subsequently discovered, including Ralph himself, was anti-nose. So I was happy to lose it.
We also had to cast ‘Mad-eye’ Moody. I’d always had Brendan Gleeson in mind because we’d worked on Into The West — he’s a wonderful heavyweight actor and tremendous comic. Mad-eye is just a great, great name. There was a lot of toing and froing about how we were going to do it, and we actually made a mechanical eye with all sorts of electronics inside that could swivel and spin, which he strapped on his head. All Irish actors are just great, and Brendan is one of the very, very, very best. I had to go to Dublin and talk him into it, but he was already there really because his kid told him it was a great part.
The film had an extended post-production period and a tremendous amount of complicated VFX — so I simply wasn’t able to start the next one. I’m sure that David Heyman, a very savvy tactician, saw that — and saw that he wanted somebody to run the whole series to the end. He didn’t want to take the juice out of number four in order to get five going. So he tasked somebody else. I took David Yates out to lunch and said, “This is what Alfonso did for me. Here’s how the show runs.” I took him through the whole production and warned him where the boggy bits were.
When we were finally close to locking the cut, we showed it to a test audience who didn’t know what they were seeing. I was sitting in the audience surrounded by people, and there was a little kid in front of me, probably ten or 12. The invigilator said, “Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, for coming along. The film we’re showing you is Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire.” And this kid turned around to his dad and pumped his fist and said, “YES! YES!” That was by far the most satisfying moment — much more than the premieres. Although they were a treat, especially the one in Sofia. Stanislav Ianevski, the Bulgarian guy who played Krum, appeared on the screen, and the whole thing ground to a halt because people were applauding and screaming.
What was sad, though, was that Jo Rowling couldn’t be there for our first night in London. Her husband was sick and she had to stay up in Edinburgh. I’m vain and I wanted her to like it, which of course she did, and sent messages and all of that kind of stuff. But I wanted her there. Alfonso was at the London premiere and he was very generous. He came up and said, “Christ, it’s so big.” And it is, it’s a big film. I was terribly pleased to hear that from him, because he had been so sweet to me when I very first joined. And my kids liked it, so that was nice, too.
The fifth film saw David Yates hired to direct. Previously someone who’d worked predominantly in TV, he was another surprising choice by Heyman, but one that worked — he would ultimately direct the rest of the series.
David Yates: I think Warner Bros. was looking for a director who could make it feel a little bit more grown-up. In the novel of Order Of The Phoenix, Harry is going through his angsty teenage years — he’s becoming rebellious and getting angry with everybody and everything — so it actually felt to me like a very natural progression from the work I’d been doing on television. I could come into this fabulously fun world and start to root it, especially some of the teenage relationships and what Harry was
dealing with, in a way that hadn’t quite been done before. What’s marvellous about the books is that they’re really entertaining, but they’re full of life lessons. How to deal with a bully. How to deal with losing someone you love. How to deal with loneliness and isolation. They’re road maps for life, fundamentally.
What happens quite often on these Hollywood movies, which is easy on one level, is they hire a director whose work they love, then they bring them in and try to control them or get scared of anything that feels a bit different. To David Heyman’s credit and the studio’s credit, they were just gungho from the get-go about letting me do what I wanted to do. I think that’s a testament to the fact that the movies were at that point very successful.
One thing I hadn’t really dealt with before was visual effects, but you just dive in and learn along the way. The very first visual-effects sequence I directed was a sequence with Grawp, the giant. We scheduled it in the first two weeks, which was a big mistake. I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to get your head around that stuff, so to begin with we only managed two or three shots a day. It was so time-consuming. By the time I got to the final Potter, Deathly Hallows — Part 2, rather than rigorously storyboarding everything, there was a fluidity and I had a shorthand with Tim Burke, the visual effects supervisor. There was one sequence where Dan, Rupert and Emma are running through the forest trying to avoid giants and spiders and goodness knows what else. We just riffed with it, to the point that I had the confidence to know that I could swing the camera round and then put a giant in there later, then spin it the other way and have a spider jump in. By the end of it I felt very confident about what we could achieve in post on the fly. When I watch Order Of The Phoenix now, it feels very carefully worked and a bit earnest, whereas Deathly Hallows — Part 2 has more fluidity and flow, because by that point I was able to understand that I could basically do anything I wanted.
One of my favourite things from the entire experience was showing Deathly Hallows — Part 1 to the studio. It was basically a delicate road movie with not a lot of magic. It was quite intense and it was kids hanging out and having tea in a tent for half of it. I loved taking the kids out of school and putting them in the real world. Also, exploring the notion of death and dying. Jo was never, ever afraid of that in the books. Death happens again and again. In Order Of The Phoenix,
Harry loses Sirius. At the end of Half-blood Prince, Dumbledore dies. Dobby’s dead at the end of Deathly Hallows — Part I. Then a number of characters die at the end of Deathly Hallows — Part 2. This notion of going through this ritual of death and dealing with it and then refocusing on the present, to realise that things must go on, is one of the things that anchors them in our real-world experience. That wasn’t something I knew was a theme when I started, but the books kept coming out and people kept copping it!
I got to introduce some wonderful characters. I love Slughorn, Jim Broadbent. And, of course, Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge. She was fabulously fun. Umbridge is quite a savage portrayal of authority and there’s something so funny and absurd about her. At the same time as she’s funny and absurd she can be a total monster. There’s a message in that, which is never underestimate the people in authority, no matter how absurd they may seem. My favourite character moment, though, is a tiny one but it meant a lot because I’d worked with Dan, Rupert and Emma for five or six years by the time it happened. It’s the moment when Ron and Hermione kiss at the end of Deathly Hallows — Part 2. The audience was longing for these two characters to finally connect with each other. Rupert and Emma were like brother and sister and best friends by that point, and it was such a nerve-racking moment for both of them. That sort of crystallises so much of the appeal of those movies and Jo’s stories. They’re written on huge canvases and with big fireworks and lots of spectacle, but fundamentally they’re about the small human moments and the detail. They’re the things that I think people came back to see again and again.
There was a real sense of community and family doing those films. Whether it’s the cast or everyone behind the camera, there were no prima donnas. The whole making of those films was very grounded. It felt like we were making independent films, not some giant franchise. It was only when you came out of the studio gates and turned up at a red carpet in Trafalgar Square, which was full of screaming fans, you thought, “Oh my God, this is what we’re doing. We’re doing something that people around the world want to see.”
When Potter ended, I felt empty. It’s a bereavement of sorts. Suddenly you’re at home in the garden with a glass of wine thinking, “Oh my God, what do I do now? I need to find a film that can give me as much as these movies do.” There was nothing I’d done before that came close to the level of challenge and scale and the demands. You’re tested at such an intense rate, day to day, that you become an adrenaline junkie. You’re so immersed in it. I loved directing all four films. I was totally in after the first one. After Order Of The Phoenix, I was so bitten by the bug because, and I know this is a cliché, it’s like a big train set. It’s kind of yours. Every day you come to work and you’ve got all these lovely people you’re working with. And the stories were getting more elaborate. Once I’d done two, I really, really wanted to finish the series, see the journey through to the end. I became addicted to it, to an unhealthy degree in some ways. By the end of directing four of them, I was so knackered that I needed a year to find myself again, but it was too difficult to walk away. That’s the truth.
Far right: Director Alfonso Cuarón on a snowy Prisoner Of Azkaban set with Grint, Radcliffe and Watson. Middle: Cuarón talks to Radcliffe by the Knight Bus.Right: Cuarón and Radcliffe listen to Gary Oldman, who plays Sirius Black, between takes.
Above left: Director Mike Newell attends to Radcliffe during the filming of Goblet Of Fire. Left: Newell with the Triwizard Tournament Cup, which features in Goblet Of Fire. Right: Director David Yates shares a laugh with Grint and Radcliffe on the set of Deathly Hallows Ñ Part 1.
Above right: Deathly Hallows — Part 1: Yates on location in London with Grint, Watson and Radcliffe. Above: Yates, Watson and Grint in amongst Hogwart’s destruction in Deathly Hallows — Part 2.