The fourth Harry Potter movie – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – is less than a month away and, as with all things Hogwarts related, speculation is rife as to how this latest chapter will move the story forwards and how faithful it will be to the best-selling book.
I was lucky enough to catch one of the very first press screenings of the completed movie and while reviews are strictly under wraps until the day of release I will say this much: it’s great. Really great. Leaner, darker and funnier than the previous entries, it’s easily the best Harry Potter film yet. Certainly one of my favorite movies of the year.
With that in mind, I sat down with various members of the press to quiz the cast (coming soon!) and director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco) and producer David Heyman, the man who has guided the Potter franchise through the studio maze and brought it to the screen with its integrity intact.
Both men are the very image of self-deprecating Englishmen, with a shared dry sense of humor, and both clearly care deeply about Harry Potter, his fans and his cinematic future. Read on, and you’ll see why the film is so damn good.
How is this Harry Potter movie different from the others?
Mike Newell: For me, I think because of the age of the people, the age is crucial, what’s been happening is that the scale of the challenge to the leading character has been limited. He’s had a basilisk to deal with, he’s had this problem and that problem, but he’s never actually been challenged in his self. He’s never had to put up or shut up, he’s always had the group to rely on. Now in this one, he’s older, he’s more conscious and he knows more of what’s happening to him.
SPOILER…So when Voldemort says in the graveyard, come out here – do you want to get it in the back or in the front? You’re going to get it, whichever way. And what Harry says is, alright, I’ll show you. And he comes out, and he’s ready for a fight. And he knows it’s a fight to the death, and he has the moral courage to do it…END SPOILER
And of course there are lots and lots of wonderful new things – the jokes, the growing up, the girls and the "Oh God, how do we dance?" and all of those things, but the big difference is that the challenge is a moral one – and he may not survive it.
David Heyman: When we went and spoke to Jo (Rowling) for the first time, it was a very important thing for her. I think it’s a theme that will continue, to stand up and be counted even if you might not win.
MN: David took me up there, two years ago now, and she talked about just that. These moral challenges. And she was brilliant about it, and I took a great deal away from that.
DH: In other changes, it is a thriller. The world has expanded, we’ve got two new schools coming in, we have the first contact with the opposite sex and the good, the bad and the uncomfortable sides of that, that begin at 13 or 14 and never go away. But at the heart, as Mike says, Harry is now 14, he’s much more of an individual than he’s ever been before. He’s becoming who he is, who Dumbledore is grooming him to be.
MN: It’s terribly interesting that both you and I are taking Emma (Watson) as a sort of honorary boy, but Emma now gets to be a young woman which is something that I personally am very proud of. She allowed herself to be very vulnerable. She could quite easily have said "Well, I’m Hermione and I’m going to be this and that" but she was very allowing of a vulnerability, and not knowing, and not being kind of cool. I was very pleased by that. Just as in number 3, there’s this hugely satisfying moment where she hits Malfoy, so there is in this one, there’s this wonderful moment where she’s unsure and insecure.
DH: I think the kids, frankly, are growing as actors and Mike is benefitting from them having two films with Chris (Columbus) and one film with Alfonso (Cuaron), but at the same time one of the many reasons we brought Mike in is that he’s one of the great directors of actors, and the kids are challenged. He didn’t let them rest one minute on what felt comfortable. He pushed and pushed and pushed, and I think the performances show it.
You’ve got some of the greatest actors in England as the co-stars, and they’re just background now to Harry’s story…
MN: It’s a problem. It is a problem. I think that the way that we attacked it was that even though each of them now – Maggie’s established, Alan’s established, Mike Gambon, Hagrid – all these people are established so there’s no more exploration for the audience to do of those characters. Indeed they mustn’t change, in a way. So what you have to do is find a kind of lapidary way of using these tiny little bits that will show you parts of these characters that we’ve never seen before. You’ve never seen Hagrid in love before – and a very wonderful thing it is too…
She did this thing at rehearsal, nobody could believe it – this is Frances De La Tour. They found themselves opposite each other – of course both of them are great natural comedians – so it was wonderful seeing these two people being awkward and blushing and retiring with each other. Then suddenly she leaned forward and does what she does in the scene, in the movie. She picks something out of his beard, and we all thought "Oh, isn’t that wonderful!" and then – God help us – she ate it. Those little things, a tiny moment like that will keep those characters alive. But yes, it’s difficult.
DH: Also look at how Dumbledore in particular has changed. This is the first time that we’re aware that things are getting beyond his control, and he’s not particularly comfortable with it.
MN: Yes, that’s very interesting actually. Michael (Gambon) was very game. I think that he had not wanted to be the same figure that Richard Harris had been, a figure of enormous Olympian authority who’s never caught on the hop. He wanted something to do, simply because he isn’t Richard Harris, and what he found in this one is that Dumbledore is fallible, not omnipotent, and indeed is behind the game. A great deal of what he does is about being inadequate rather than super-adequate, which is obviously much more interesting to play.
Mike, how much awareness did you have of the movies and the books before being approached?
MN: I’d seen both the films, I’d read the first book before I was approached so…I was hoping to be approached, and was therefore educated, pretty reasonably, when I was approached. Then of course I began to watch the films obsessively, and I can still in my sleep do close textual analysis of numbers one, two and three.
DH: Alfonso was very generous actually.
MN: Yes he was. As I’m sure Chris would have been.
DH: As Mike has been in turn with David Yates (director of the fifth movie). Alfonso engaged Mike in discussion about the process and the digital effects, allowed him to see the film (Prisoner of Azkaban) early. Just as Mike did with David Yates. David has seen a rough cut of this film. It’s been great.
By the way, Mike was maybe the very first person I approached for the first Harry Potter, so I wanted him from the very beginning.
MN: What a fool!
Do you think that this isn’t a kids movie any more?
MN: It isn’t for me. It’s an adventure story. It’s a huge entertainment…Warner Bros absolutely hate me saying this, so I’m going to say it…for me it had all the variety that a Bollywood movie has. Ooh, no! He said it! But at any rate, it’s a huge broad-based entertainment. But above everything else, David is habitually very modest about this stuff, but he was very good when he first approached me. What he said was "You must read the book and if you find a way of doing the book then you must tell us what that is. You mustn’t come because it’s a franchise, you mustn’t come because it’s the biggest children’s film there’s ever been, you mustn’t come for this, that and the other – you’ve got to be able to see how to make a 750 page book into a single movie."
We then had one of the meetings made in heaven, where we talked about the thing as being a thriller – because that’s what I found in it. I thought it was an absolutely God-given thriller, and then I convinced him.
DH: For me the books are not children’s books. I think that’s a misconception. I think they are books that appeal to maybe children of all ages, but I think they appeal to people of all ages. There is something for everyone in them. Each of the books is more mature than the one that preceded it because they’re dealing with a different age, a different year in Harry’s life. In this one Harry’s 14 so there’s different issues, greater complexity, I think that really shows in the film. The film is true to that spirit.
When you bring in a director like Mike Newell, when you bring in a director like Alfonso Cuaron, they’re directors. They’re not cookie cutters. You don’t bring in a director like Mike Newell and say you have to make a movie just like Chris Columbus. Why would you do that? It would be foolish. I look at this film, I see Jo Rowling but I see Mike Newell written all over it and that’s really exciting to me. I saw that with Alfonso, and with Chris too. I’m sure that David Yates will imbue the fifth with the same. It’s really exciting for me. This is a big, generous, smart, funny thriller.
Are you happy with the PG-13 rating?
DH: Very much so. And I’m happy with the 12A rating in the UK. It shows that we’ve been faithful to the material. The books do not talk down to an audience, the audience reaches for the books and I think the films do the same. We do not patronise our audience. Mike’s made a film that’s very much in the spirit – it’s not literally faithful – but it is truly faithful to the spirit of what Jo has written.
MN: One of the challenges was that everything goes back to the book, always. And that’s where the audience begins as well, so as the audience that began with the first book progresses through two and three, they get to four and they see that it’s a different kind of an animal. It’s a much tougher beast than the others. If you don’t get a PG-13, that audience that is now 14, 15, 16 or 64 – whatever – will want to know, are you not infantilising the material?
Of course what David says is that these are not children’s books. These are adult stories with a very strong moral aim and view. With PG-13 they can believe. Without, I’m not sure they can.
Mike, in this stage in your career how does this rank personally – not just the film but the whole Potter project?
MN: OK, so…I always hate what I make. I think that it simply shows a depth of…a lack of…I truly mean this, I know that it sounds like jokes, but it isn’t. I can’t stand myself sometimes. He’s seen me in rushes where I simply can’t bear the ordinariness of what I do…
DH: Even when it’s extraordinary…
MN: But I really do. I always hate the end result, but this time – and it may be a very bad sign, I don’t know – this time I don’t hate it. I think it’s what I tried to do – what we all tried to do – which is to make this wonderful, terrifying thriller ride. And so it pleases me very much, and that’s a better way of answering your question than I know how.
David, can you tell us what "Britishisms" Mike brought to the film?
DH: Absolutely. Mike went to a school – as did I – which was very much like Hogwarts but without the magic.
MN: Our two schools were very close, very similar.
DH: So he brings an innate understanding of the school life. He is very comfortable getting on the floor and wrestling with the kids – as he did with the Weasley twins – to bring verisimilitude to that moment. The school is more anarchic than I feel it’s been in any of the other films. It’s a little madder and looser. Yes, you have the authority of the teachers but you have the kids rebelling, as kids do. Kids standing up for themselves, kids standing up to teachers. I think that’s very true to the school I went to, and to schools in general, but I think it’s particularly true of British schools.
MN: It’s true.
DH: I also think that, in a way, the nature of the performances – it’s an intangible thing that I don’t really know how to describe – the performances in this are more British than they’ve even been. I feel that there’s a complexity and at times – you talked about Bollywood – a theatrical, a largeness in a really positive way to the performances. By the way, I think Dan (Radcliffe) is incredibly subtle and nuanced, and I think all the performances are, but there’s a boldness about them that I think is very British, and I’m very happy for that.
Can you tell us a little about how the actors are coping with growing up on set and on screen in front of the whole world?
MN: I don’t know.
DH: How did you find them when they arrived?
MN: My worst fear was that they would have realised that these were stories in which they, absolutely, were the stars. Now most children’s stories, that’s not true of. Most children’s stories they’re add-ons, a third of the story, while the weight is still carried by the adults. In that way, Mary Poppins is not quite a children’s story, it’s an adult’s story. But that’s not the case here, this is a story in which the children are stars. That can do terrible things to children and, miraculously, mostly because of the way they’re handled by the production – and also because they’ve got very good parents, a good kid has good parents – they haven’t. They know exactly what they’re worth, but they’ve not become impossible. They’re still loose, they’re still curious and they’re still prepared to have a go at anything.
Before we began shooting we had two weeks of acting classes and the reason I did that was because I was very anxious that the established characters would not dominate the newcomers, many of whom hadn’t acted before – the Chinese girl hadn’t acted before, the two Indian girls hadn’t acted before – and I didn’t want them feeling they were secondary citizens, so we had these two weeks where we played, we did physical exercises, we did improvisational exercises, and by the end of that everybody was loose in one another’s company and there was no rank structure, Dan never outshone anybody, and they were very happy to do that which is a very wonderful thing. And it shows because now you have an ensemble rather than a top-down pyramid structure.
DH: I think in this film, more than the previous three, partly because of the number of the cast and the number of extras – the number of extras in this film was more than any of the previous films – more than any of the other films there was a feeling of community among the kids. They were playing and joking, there was a lot more hanging out, and Dan, Rupert and Emma were all a part of that. It was a much more extended community, much more like school life than I think it’s ever been.
MN: That’s a good point actually, I hadn’t thought of that. It was much more like the kind of loose relationships you would build up in school. Much bigger.
DH: I have to say, we are blessed. The three kids who could so easily, as Mike says, be brats are not. They want to learn, they want to get better at what they do, they are enthusiastic still and they have a lot of fun doing. Partly the rehearsal that Mike had them do, but also their very nature, they are non-judgmental, open people who are good to people from the top down. I think Mike will attest to this. Though the buck always stops with him ultimately, it’s a very democratic environment. It’s one in which everybody has a voice…sometimes too much of one (laughter).
MN: I agree, I agree. Trouble is you can’t start to play that game unless you play that game all the way through!
DH: It’s very democratic. It’s a place in which everybody is welcome, a very open door, a very safe place for kids to be.
MN: Can I very quickly tell them about the fight? There had to be a fight at one point between the two Weasley twins and they did horrible adolescent stage fighting. It was awful. I tried again, and I pushed them, and they still couldn’t get past it. And I said "OK, which one of you wants to fight me?" They were like rabbits in the headlights. Had I said what they thought I’d said. One of them puts his hand up and we fell upon one another and rolled over and over and over on the floor of the Great Hall until I actually cracked a rib. And it was very early on in the shooting schedule, all the kids were there, and they all saw the director make a complete prat of himself, and also get himself injured – ha ha ha. And things were a lot easier after that. It doesn’t do any harm to puncture dignity.
How frequently did you consult with J.K. Rowling about deviations and subplots cut from the book?
MN: Jo Rowling appears to me to be quite extraordinarily hands off. Everybody says "Oh, we’re surprised to hear that, we thought she was very controlling" but I speak as I find. She wasn’t with me, and I don’t think it’s in her nature. She isn’t like that. However, David’s relationship with her – which is very close – meant that the whole time, the script as it evolved – you know, I had a set of script pages five days ago, we finished shooting six months ago! – what happened was the script did evolve in a very radical and dramatic fashion. It’s a huge tribute to both David and to Steve Kloves that both of them – and everyone around them – could be loose enough to see that we might be going to a place that wasn’t exactly where the first draft of the script had started out.
Of course, the danger in that is that you lose Jo Rowling and at that point you lose the audience, because they come – in the end – for her. She was very very sweet, she was very available. She’s not the best returner of a phone call that I’ve come across but she gave me very clear things when I needed them, like what did the Abra Cadavra curse actually do when it hit you? She also had this very strong view of how the story fitted into this seven book arc. Beyond that she didn’t control at all, but it was to David’s credit that she was brought into the process just as much as he knew she wanted to be and not an inch more. How does that work?
DH: Jo is the most generous of collaborators. She sees each and every draft of the screenplay. We want to do that. One, because I made a promise right at the beginning that we would be true but two, because we would be fools to do otherwise. We don’t want to do anything that would disrupt the books, at that time six hadn’t been published, or book seven. We didn’t want to do anything that would adversely affect that, or that would make people look at them askance.
Also, she has incredible knowledge. What’s in the books is just the surface of what she knows. She has notebook upon notebook with more material that doesn’t find its way into the books, but I think one of the reasons for the success of the books is that the universe is so clearly thought through. She knows the six uses of dragon’s blood. You can have a question, she knows the answer. There was one, for example, very significant change that we made and we called Jo to ask her about it because it was major.
SPOILER…It had to do with Barty Crouch Jr being present in that very first scene in the film, with Voldemort and Peter Pettigrew. The scene takes place, but Barty Crouch Jr isn’t in it. The reason why we wanted that was because we needed Barty Crouch Jr to be a more recognisable and formidable presence when you got to the end, when Moody turns back into him. Without that, the only time you’d have seen him would be in the flashback when he didn’t look exactly like he did at the end. I called Jo and asked her that and she said "Yeah, that could’ve happened. That’s absolutely fine."…END SPOILER
What she loved about the third film was that it was true to the spirit. It made changes but it made them in the spirit of the work. That’s what she has felt so far in the inclusive process of the script.
MN: She has the attitude that the book is the book and the film is the film, and you won’t make a good film unless you have a certain amount of freedom.
How did Dan Radcliffe cope with the increased physical demands of this movie?
MN: He’s a brave boy, he really is a brave boy. He’s a rotten swimmer – or he was when this began – and he had great trepidation and came to me about the swimming. There was no way around it, he had to swim and spend huge amounts of time underwater in the tank. Apart from anything else, he was by no means sure that he had the physical resources to do that. You couldn’t say he was frightened of it, but he was only a step away. Nonetheless he knuckled down and he did what he had to do. There was a shot, that I was there for, where I could see he was absolutely terrified but he had to do it – sliding down the roof. I think it may be in the trailers. There’s a shot anyway when, during the dragon chase where he’s knocked off his broom and slides down a very steep roof, which he did for real. He slid thirty feet down a forty foot gantry, with a safety wire on of course, but nobody had to say "Sorry Dan, but you’ve got to do it" – we would ultimately, of course, have said that! – because he will read himself the riot act, he will tell himself what he’s got to do. He’s not going to turn into a stuntman but he’s a very responsible boy, he knows what he must do, and he does it.
DH: On the first film, when we began the process, Dan was not a physical boy. He wants to be more physical and we encouraged that. We put him together with our stunt team and he is now a jock, of sorts. At lunch break, for instance, several times a week he’ll go down to the gym and work out. It’s not something we’re actually asking him to do, he just loves to do it. He’s very brave, as Mike says. In the underwater scene, he logged 41 hours in his logbook.
What can you tell us about the importance of Steve Kloves’ role in the Harry Potter process?
DH: One of the great joys of this entire series has been working with Steve Kloves and, frankly, he’s becoming a very good friend over the five years. I think he’s one of the best writers writing, he’s a brilliant adapter in the sense that he’s able to retain the voice of the author he’s adapting. He did it with Michael Chabon with Wonder Boys, and I think he’s done it with the four Potter films he’s written. He is a fantastic writer who has a keen sense of character, and really understands the voice of the actors he is writing for. He’s able to write with great emotion and also great humor.
He’s not doing the fifth because he is writing another project for me, which is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which I hope he will direct. However, he read the sixth book and couldn’t stay away so he’s going to come back and write the sixth.
MN: Oh, great! That is good!
DH: Yeah, I know. It’s great. Michael Goldenberg is writing the fifth. He’s another writer I talked to about the first film and he’s doing a fantastic job. You can never make a good film out of a bad script, but you can certainly make a bad film out of a good one. The key is to have a good script, and I believe that on each of the four films Steve Kloves has given us a really good script. He’s also a man, and Mike can speak about this a little bit, who writes without ego. It’s great when you sit in a script meeting with him, because you can talk it through and he’s thought through everything. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t defend what he has, but he does it in a way which explains why he has done what he’s done, but it’s always open to changes. He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of the world and clearly he and Jo are on the same wavelength.
MN: It was the happiest collaboration I’ve ever had – certainly as an adapter. He never gets in your way. I am one of those who will want stuff to be written, and re-written, and re-re-written all the way through the film – which is why we joked about getting pages six months after shooting – he would never complain about that, he would always see why and he would dig down into his personal mine of stuff and come up with wonderful things. I can’t tell you how happy I was with him.