You don’t get to Hogwarts on a train. You get there on a white minibus that picks you up at your old, possibly haunted London hotel. You load up with some familiar web journalists and a bunch of, let’s say, niche reporters – you know, the people who write exclusively for Harry Potter fansites. And as you drive through the streets of London towards Leavesden Studios, you marvel that even in England there are cheesy, gaudy green shamrocks and Leprechaun hats outside pubs on a chilly March day just before St. Patrick’s.

If you’ve been reading this site for any time you know that I am, unabashedly, bonkers for the Harry Potter series. I got into it late, right around the time Prisoner of Azkaban was hitting bookshelves, but I’ve been rabid about it since. JK Rowling has created the most complete and real and lived in fictional universe since JRR Tolkien turned his idyllic vision of the English countryside into The Shire. She also crafted stories and characters with resonance and meaning, became a better and more mature writer every step of the way, and managed to end the series on an incredible high note. In modern fandom we have become sort of used to longform narratives that shit the bed right at the end, but the story of Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, satisfied and moved audiences right up to the last page – a truly remarkable feat.

The movies haven’t been half bad either. Over the course of six films the Harry Potter franchise has really evolved, with the films continuing to grow in quality. Most impressive of all is the fact that the series has only recast in the face of death; the Harry and Ron and Hermione of 2001 will be the same people closing out the series next year in 2011. That sense of continuity isn’t just reflected in the cast, it’s reflected at Leavesden, which has been home to the franchise for ten years now.

Coming to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows almost a year into shooting it doesn’t feel like everything’s coming to an end. Everyone knows it is, and they acknowledge it, and they’ve become keenly aware that actors will begin wrapping not just for the day or the film but for the series, yet they’re too busy making this huge, sprawling movie to really give the whole issue much thought. The scope of Deathly Hallows, which is being split into two parts, is huge, and the cast – especially the secondary and tertiary cast – is being asked to do much more than they ever have. Especially Matthew Lewis, whose character Neville Longbottom finally gets a chance to…

Wait, I can’t talk about that. Warner Bros has asked that this piece only discuss what’s happening in the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which hits theaters this November. That’s a tricky proposition, since the scene we saw being shot was solidly in Part II, and nobody on set – even director David Yates – seemed to know just where the split would fall. They were just filming it as one big, huge, long movie.

But now I know where the split falls, and so I can tell you about some of the stuff that I saw while visiting Leavesden. This was a big deal for me, as I never thought that CHUD would get the call to visit Hogwarts, but thanks to my friends in WB publicity, who knew of my fandom, I got the chance at last. Visiting the set of a sequel isn’t always that exciting; while there are familiar sets they’re usually rebuilt, replicated from old plans and changed up to fit the needs of a new film. But since the Potter franchise has been at Leavesden since the beginning, many of the sets stayed up between films. The Great Hall, where the students of Hogwarts get sorted into houses and where all the meals are eaten, has been the same since the first film. To be fair, when the set isn’t dressed it’s just a great big empty flagstoned room (although in real life it seems to be half the size it is on screen), but even in this state you can see some wonderful things. There are hidden panels in the wall that serve as emergency fire exits, and a real kitchen that cooks real food for the hordes of extras. And at the end of the room, next to a fireplace, stands the huge device that counts House Points. That’s a relic of the earlier movies, with House Points having gone unnoted for years.

Dumbledore may have changed over the years, but his office remains the same since Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Dumbledore is out (or more technically dead), so all  the paintings are asleep. Walking up a wrought iron spiral staircase you can examine the headmaster’s huge telescope, and slipping behind his desk you will discover that he sits on a very large cushion. All of the books on Dumbledore’s shelves are real… real repurposed phone books, that is. But even when a grimoire is revealed to be just a list of residents of Hertfordshire, there’s something undeniably magical in the room. These sets feel real and lived in, something that can only come from a decade of use. While touring Leavesden we heard again and again that there were plans afoot to keep these sets and turn the whole thing into a Harry Potter attraction. It makes sense.

The Ministry of Magic doesn’t stay standing between films, and it’s been recreated for Deathly Hallows. Things get bad in the wizarding world, and the Ministry has come under some terrible new ownership. The once aspirational golden statue of a wizard holding his wand to the sky has been replaced by a wizard crushing Muggles beneath his feet, a sculpture done in the style of propaganda art from Stalinist Russia.

Behind the scenes there’s just as much continuity. The creature shop is set up like a museum of Harry Potter films past. You walk in past a full size centaur; off on a shelf is Harry’s monstrous Big Book of Monsters. In the back are hundreds of beasts and beings created over the course of the seven films; bodies are stacked like cordwood, including the dupes of Ron and Hermione that were used in the underwater scenes of Goblet of Fire. Laying on a table in front of them are a couple of corpses from the new film, corpses whose identities will remain secret for now. One is normal size and one is smaller, so that it can be held by Hagrid and make Robbie Coltrane look much bigger. Elsewhere there’s a lifesize Horntail dragon, with a flamethrower built in its mouth. A huge Weasely twin head, which opens up and ejects a rabbit, is propped up against a table. An animatronic Hedwig is briefly operated by the FX artists.

Elsewhere we see creatures in transformation. Deathly Hallows features a huge number of goblins – so many, in fact, that the FX crew had to fly in folks from all over Europe to work on the appliances. Other folks were specially trained just to help put on the prosthetics. It’s a massive operation, and the smells of latex and paint and acetone make you instantly light headed.

When we’re not touring the sets we’re holed up in a special tent. The unit publicists have been working on Potter films forever, so they know how to handle visitors. In one corner is a table with coffee and water and biscuits, and lining the tent are production stills and concept art. A cabinet is off to one side, holding props from the new film. A copy of Rita Skeeter’s book The Life and Lies of Dumbledore sits next to a copy of The Marauder’s Map. A Wanted poster with Harry Potter’s face is in there as well. The production stills and concept art are for both films, but seems to lean heavily on part one. There are photos of the lovely dresses worn in the wedding that opens the film – a wedding ruined by a Death Eater attack. In another wedding photo Luna Lovegood dances. There are plenty of shots of Ron, Harry and Hermione out in the woods. One seems to show Ron and Hermione about to kiss; another shows Hermione waving her wand while her hand is coated in blood.

The look is dark. By now you’ve seen the trailers, so you know that The Deathly Hallows isn’t suddenly returning to the light hearted feel of the first three films. We see images of dead characters, and the living characters often look pained and tormented. In one picture they seem to be tortured… by a werewolf, no less. 

This tent is where we do interviews with the talent. While Daniel Radcliffe wasn’t working that day, he graciously came in and did a lengthy interview. I was a touch disappointed – I kind of wanted to see that scar in real life – but he was willing to sit there for over a half hour, so who can complain. David Yates swung by, as did the producers, who have been there since the start. And even Warwick Davis, on a tiny Segway, showed up. And of course Matthew Lewis, who I won’t be able to write about until 2011. Which is when I’ll be able to tell you about the small piece of The Battle of Hogwarts I saw in action.

These interviews will be coming your way soon. And Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I will be coming to theaters on November 19th.