In July 2001 I was invited to the set of the first Harry Potter movie to interview the director, cast members and production designer. This commission was for Next Media (HK) — the only media company from Asia to be invited I believe. The junket style interviews were conducted in the Great Hall set, but we saw several other sets during the tour. This was in the pre-smartphone era, but I managed some pictures with the Casio Wristcam I had recently been given!
EMBARGOED UNTIL OCTOBER 7th, 2001.
Unless you’ve been living in a cupboard under the stairs for the last six months, you will be familiar in one way or another with the world of Harry Potter. There were two great fears amongst devotees when it was announced that their heroes would be making it to the big screen. One was that the story would be transferred to the USA, populated by American actors delivering an overly-sweetened storyline, the other was that complexities and details of the books would be lost through combining elements of several books into one story.
It is now clear that these fears can be laid to rest, for the forthcoming film – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the adaptation of the first book, has remained faithful in almost every detail to the original.
At a press conference held on set, producer David Heyman was emphatic in his promise to author JK Rowling, that he neither wanted to, or would change anything from the original. Indeed, director Chris Columbus, has been in contact with Rowling many times to verify aspects of plot, or details relating to props and character.
Getting the cast right was central to this authenticity. Thankfully, none of the roles has been re-written as a vehicle for any particular Hollywood star, and the child actors are, in the main, unknowns. The adult cast are all British actors, many of whom will be familiar to movie-going audiences, in particular Richard Harris, who plays the ancient, but savvy headmaster Dumbledore, and Alan Rickman, who plays the ‘bad guy’ teacher, Snape.
For those not familiar with the story, it follows the fortunes of a ten-year-old boy who becomes an apprentice wizard after having been orphaned when very young and then forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs by an evil aunt and uncle. Enrollment in a new school, Hogwart’s, introduces Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermione to a fantastic new world of weird creatures, spells and witchcraft. This is in contrast to the mundane ‘Muggles’ (or non-magic) world which the rest of us inhabit.
Harry is played by relative unknown Daniel Radcliffe, and Potter fans, some of whom were initially critical of Columbus as the choice of director, now accept that he has done an excellent job regarding the casting. Meeting Daniel is like coming face to face with Harry himself. He is quiet and polite but also enigmatic and with a fantastic and infectious spark of enthusiasm. It is true that he cried when he found out that he had been picked for the role. Whether this was out of joy of fear or apprehension is not clear, but Radcliffe was quick to embrace the film making process, having a lot of fun on the set and making lots of new friends. He has even become something of a film buff, spending much of his time away from the set watching old movies, his current favourite of which is the 1957 Sidney Lumet classic, ‘Twelve Angry Men.’ Daniel is also a fan of Roald Dahl’s work; an author to whom JK Rowling has often been compared, partly because of its inclusion of darker imagery, not normally evident in childrens’ stories. Radcliffe says that he identifies with the slightly unconventional nature of Harry’s character, and that perhaps it is OK not to be the best-behaved boy in the world. It is, he says, Harry’s “fantastic, unique perspective on the world,” that leads him into all sorts of trouble and adventures, but that his mischievousness is not necessarily all bad. “I think this film sends out a good message to kids,” says Radcliffe, ”that it is OK to question things and to think for yourself.”
Another cast member who surely identifies with this philosophy is co-star Rupert Grint, who plays Harry’s pal Ron Weasley. He got the part after sending in his details and an audition tape to a kids show on British television, which had put out an appeal. Feeling an affinity for the character, who like him, ‘comes from a big family, has red hair and also has to wear hand-me-downs,’ Grint says that it was a dream come true to be picked for this, his favourite character in his favourite story. During filming, he had to keep reminding himself that it wasn’t real, something that many children will also feel about the film. Rupert assures us, too, that his co-star Emma Watson, who plays school friend Hermione Granger is as clever and bossy in real life as her character in the book.
Given the stars of this film are so young, there is the inevitable question about how they are going to be able to handle the pressure brought on by their newly-found fame. Whilst the kids seemed wholly unaffected by the filming process, one wonders whether they fully understand the level of exposure to which they will be subjected. Having directed Macaulay Caulkin in both Home Alone and Home Alone 2, Columbus is more than aware of the possible effects of child-stardom. “This was something we were worried about initially, but these kids have such fantastic and supportive parents, we were totally reassured that they would not be affected by the film’s publicity.” All the child actors parents have been on set during filming, and the schedule has even had to accommodate school work.
Given that Columbus’ previous films also include Mrs. Doubtfire, there was a worry, too that the plot and settings would be reinterpreted with an overly cute and cartoonish feel. Columbus denies this emphatically: “We deliberately haven’t pulled back from the darkness in the book, and have tried to remain faithful to the book in every way possible. To be honest, given the content of the book, it [ making the movie] was really a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned” Having been turned on to the Books by his own kids, it is likely, too, that Columbus is under additional pressure at home to leave everything in the book just as it is. Perhaps the most important thing, therefore, was to get the film looking right. Most of the action takes place, of course, in a place no one has ever seen, from the strange and wonderful shops of Diagon Alley to the dark and menacing Forbidden Forest.
Much of this fantastic world has been created by top production designer Stuart Craig, at the gigantic Leavesden Studios outside London. The 8 acres of studio space here, previously host to productions such as Star Wars Episode 1, Goldeneye and Sleepy Hollow, have been given over to the production of Harry Potter. This has allowed the crew to maintain a secrecy about the film, and to protect its many child actors from an overly-attentive media. It was here that members of the world’s press were given the first glimpse of a world that exists in many millions of children’s (and adults) imaginations. What we saw was breathtaking, with every detail beautifully recreated. In the Great Hall, where the members of Hogwart’s School congregate for meals, the walls, sculptures and decorations appear to have come from the inside of a Medieval castle. That is, until you look a little closer and realize it has all been built, weathered and distressed specially, all within the last year. It was no surprise to learn that Craig needed a team of 300 craftsmen and sculptors working on the project, and that its construction required more plaster than the set for Gladiator. We also saw the pupils’ Common Room and their Dormitory, which were equally faithful – the Common Room’s walls covered with a specially made tapestry, and all the furniture either appearing to be antique, or real antique, such as the table, which originally belonged to the Chapter at Durham Cathedral. Craig is very proud of the team’s creation, pointing out that – “It is easy to make magic in films these days, given the possibilities afforded by special effects; we wanted to try and make it more real, more solid, so that the audience would really believe the characters were there, and that this place exists.”
Other locations in the film are set in the ‘Muggles’ world that the rest of us inhabit. The contrast here is that they tend to be dull, lifeless and (according to Craig) tasteless. One exception may be the impressive Victorian setting of London’s King’s Cross Station, where the three pupils start their adventure, on platform 9 and three quarters. Unsurprisingly, this has already become a popular tourist destination for fans of the books visiting London.
It seems that the biggest challenge for both Director and Production Designer, not to mention actors, were the scenes featuring the sport ‘Quiddich.’ This takes place on broomsticks at high speed and is viewed by spectators from giant towers. Naturally, this called for some special effects ‘magic,’ but the results are breathtakingly real. Given the nature of the sport, it is unlikely that a ‘Quiddich League’ is to become one of the many spin-offs of the film, but the sport seems real enough to Daniel Radcliffe who dreams of playing it at night.
This is the first of a possible seven movies to match the seven novels that J.K. Rowling has planned. The first four of these have been written and the first film sequel is already in the pipeline. Indeed, no sooner had filming stopped on the first film than the production team switched their attention to the second. With a short break, the cast were back in the land of magic at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It is not certain whether Daniel, Rupert and Emma will continue to play Harry, Ron and Hermione in every film: there are too many variables to make strong predictions, but all three seem to identify strongly with their characters and would like to be involved in every film. Asked what they would like to see happen to their characters in the seventh (final and as yet unpublished) book, Daniel says that he would either like to see his character die in the ultimate act of heroism for a wizard – i.e. ridding the world of his nemesis, Voldemorte, or be to become captain of the English Quiddich team. Rupert, however has far more straightforward goals for his character – ‘anything so long as he doesn’t fall in love with Hermione,’ he says.
© Ben Hughes 2001