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Casting Spells / With the wave of a wand, the characters in Harry Potter grow up - and so does the third movie

Daniel Radcliffe, or Harry Potter to you, isn't talking about casting spells or Lord Voldemort. Instead, the 14-year-old is lusting after Cameron Diaz.

"I could fly to Los Angeles and introduce myself," Radcliffe says on the set of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." "I heard that she just broke up with her boyfriend."

Harry and the students attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry were mere tots the last time we saw them. But now all have suddenly grown into teenagers, with all of the agitation that entails.

And as the ages of the characters have multiplied, so, too, have the adolescent preoccupations of the actors who play them.

Rather than just idle banter, the offscreen "Harry Potter" conversations are really about what's going on in "The Prisoner of Azkaban," which, if you strip away its Quidditch games and Patronus charms, is what it's like to become a teen.

Although Harry and classmates Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) still must fight the forces of darkness, they also face an array of struggles common to any junior-high student, including the search for self-confidence, acceptance and identity.

Young wizards may be able to make broomsticks fly, but how do you make something of yourself?

The answers to that question help explain why Warner Bros. has handed off its billion-dollar family franchise to director Alfonso Cuaron, whose last film was the 2001 low-budget, sexually charged coming-of-age story "Y Tu Mama Tambien." Since "Y Tu Mama" related the passage from adolescence into adulthood, the studio and producer David Heyman reasoned that Cuaron was equally prepared to chronicle the transition from childhood into adolescence.

As Cuaron guides Radcliffe and Watson, 13, through a scene near the film's conclusion, it's impossible to ignore just how quickly the actors are growing up. In fact, they are maturing faster than the characters they depict, and their next film, 2005's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," might be their last.

Selecting Cuaron to take over "Harry Potter" seems entirely reasonable and provocatively daring, especially for a studio that has played conservatively with the young wizard at every step. The stakes are arguably even higher with the third film, since it will be released amid the highly competitive summer (it opens June 4) rather than the shelter of November, when the first two movies debuted.

Out of caution, Warner nixed "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling's personal petition to hire "Brazil's" Terry Gilliam to direct the first movie, 2001's "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." The studio instead picked "Home Alone's" Chris Columbus, who also directed the first sequel, 2002's "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."

Both films were runaway global blockbusters, grossing more than $1.8 billion worldwide, yet critics said they lacked the creative audacity and spark that empower movies like Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" series and that make Rowling's books so memorable for kids and adults alike. The movies were hits, but they weren't hip: They needed some PG-13, "Pirates of the Caribbean" pizzazz.

Warner wasn't trying to replace Columbus, but the director - who first fantasized about making all seven movies (the number of books Rowling plans for the Potter series) - was ready for a change. He had lived in London for more than three years preparing, filming and editing his "Harry Potter" films, long enough that his American children were starting to speak with British accents.

The studio contemplated several options to fill his spot in the director's chair: actor-director Kenneth Branagh, who played the self-important professor Gilderoy Lockhart in "The Chamber of Secrets"; Callie Khouri, who had just co-written and directed Warner's "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood"; comedy director Ivan Reitman, and a 42-year-old from Mexico City whose last movie was so explicit that half the "Harry Potter" cast was too young to attend.

Warner knew Cuaron's work quite well. Even though it admits to bungling the release, the studio had distributed Cuaron's 1995 film, "A Little Princess," an adaptation of Frances Burnett's novel about a young girl who ends up in an unusual boarding school.

"That movie confirmed to me that he could live in the world of fantasy and children and not be treacly and also be a little bit dark," says Alan Horn, president of Warner Bros. "And in 'Y Tu Mama,' he got such performances out of those two young boys. Now our protagonists in 'Harry Potter' are 13, entering puberty, and he understands that. The question was: Could he handle something of this size? It can be daunting." Warner decided to take a chance and offered Cuaron the gig.

He didn't immediately say yes. Thanks to "Y Tu Mama," which was an art house hit nominated for an original screenplay Oscar, Cuaron was by his own admission Hollywood's "flavor of the month" and was swimming in potential deals, including a shot to make a James Bond movie.

"I have to confess, I was a bit ignorant about the Harry Potter thing," Cuaron says. "So I read [screenwriter] Steve Kloves' script.

"And it was great. And then I immediately read the book. And I was, frankly, amazed by the book and the script." Cuaron also saw there were significant advantages to directing a film in a series already under way.

First, you inherit recognized characters and settings, as well as actors familiar both with the roles and to the audience.

At the same time, Cuaron knew he was not at liberty to reimagine the film from the ground up. While he wasn't exactly constrained to paint by the numbers, much of his filmmaking canvas already had been sketched in.

Even if he wanted to, for example, Cuaron couldn't hire a new composer - he was obligated to use John Williams, who provided the score for the first two "Harry Potter" films. Similarly, Cuaron couldn't redesign Hogwarts, overhaul Diagon Alley or recast any lead roles (outside of replacing Richard Harris, who played Hogwarts' head of school, Albus Dumbledore, in the first two films but died in October 2002).

And finally, Columbus would be looking over Cuaron's shoulder, as he remained in London as one of the film's executive producers.
Rowling's Harry Potter books have legions of admirers, and those aficionados can argue long into the night about which is the best novel and why. The young actors who play Harry, Ron and Hermione are united in their appraisal of their favorite - and it's "The Prisoner of Azkaban." Their decision is certainly influenced by which book the threesome is filming and by the fact that at this point in production (spring 2003) Rowling's fifth book, the epic "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," had yet to be published.

Yet their "Prisoner of Azkaban" consensus is understandable and defensible. No less than Steven Spielberg has said the third book is the most cinematic of Rowling's volumes.

If the first book introduced us to Harry's peculiar life story and magical gifts, the second book was more of a "Hardy Boys" adventure.

The third book, on the other hand, is distinguished by its psychological complexity. Harry's misunderstood godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), and the avuncular Professor Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) become crucial characters in Harry's development, while sinister villains called Dementors arrive. The book's complex third act involves time travel and Harry's moving discovery of an inner strength he didn't know he possessed.

"I think the audience will see it as a relative of the first two but as a very distinct piece of work," producer Heyman says. The film could very well be rated PG-13, unlike its PG-rated predecessors.
The production was without any major mishaps, if you don't count the raging Scottish brushfire sparked by a stray piece of burning coal from the Hogwarts Express train.

"It has been insane, but it has been good," Cuaron says. "These kinds of films are not so much about filmmaking. They are about endurance. They just go on forever. And you have to keep up the pace all the time. If you fall behind in editing, it affects all the other departments. It's like a marathon.

Sometimes you're in a zone. But sometimes, all of your tendons ache." The next installment, "Goblet of Fire," will be directed by "Mona Lisa Smile" filmmaker Mike Newell.

"The whole goal of taking a franchise in a new direction is what keeps them alive," Cuaron says. "Jo Rowling said to me, 'Don't be literal. Just be faithful to the spirit.' You might have hits and misses. But it's always going to be fresh."

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