Harry Potter| Casting the Spell

The cast and filmmakers share a decade’s worth of memories from the set.

“Rubbish.” That was producer David Heyman’s first reaction to the long-winded title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone that landed on his desk in 1997. Heyman was quickly bewitched by the story and brought the project to Warner Bros., where — under the Americanized title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) — it became the first chapter of the most lucrative movie series ever. It all started with a fateful meal…

PART I – The Beginning

DAVID HEYMAN: I first met Jo [Rowling] the day after a big publishing party. It was clear she had “enjoyed” herself a little too much and was feeling worse for wear. She was pushing the food around on her plate and not keen on eating it. I remember a woman who was quite self-possessed, very friendly, and much younger than I had expected. She was as excited as I was about turning Harry Potter into a film.
With kid-friendly blockbusters such as Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire on his résumé, Chris Columbus was on the producers’ short list to direct the movie. But he wasn’t the only A-list filmmaker enchanted by the series.

CHRIS COLUMBUS: By the time I finally picked up the books, Steven Spielberg was attached to direct the movie. When he decided not to, I called my agent and said I would love to do it. She said, “Yeah, you and 45 other directors.”

HEYMAN: Jo and I admired Terry Gilliam, but he would have made the studio a little less comfortable. They wanted someone that had no doubt or risk. Chris is just a fantastic director of family entertainment.

By July 1999, the first three Harry Potter books had earned millions of fans worldwide. The daunting task of adapting the first book to film went to Rowling-approved scribe Steve Kloves, who would go on to pen seven of the eight movies.

STEVE KLOVES: I was writing the story not knowing the end. [Jo] would set me straight on some decisions or give me hints so I could stay on the right course.

The filmmakers then faced the job of casting the kids who would bring Harry and his cohorts to life. Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint, both 11, and Emma Watson, 10, became the envy of every young actor when they landed the roles of Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

JEFF ROBINOV, Warner Bros. President: Chris Columbus gets a lot of credit — he cast those kids.

COLUMBUS: We had thousands and thousands of videotapes of kids from all over the country. I got this DVD of Daniel Radcliffe in [the 1999 BBC movie] David Copperfield. There was something about him that cemented in my mind: This is the kid that should be Harry Potter.

DANIEL RADCLIFFE: When they first approached us, my parents were told that whoever got the part would be signing on for six films — that were going to be filmed in Los Angeles. [Production later moved to the U.K.] My parents felt that that would be far too big a disruption to my life. [Months later] my father and I went to see this play . And I became keenly aware that I was being stared at by some guy sitting a couple rows away. It was…odd. Then he came up during the intermission and introduced himself. It was David Heyman. They had not yet cast Harry. And from there, we began to talk.

COLUMBUS: There were certain people who didn’t think Dan was perfect for the part. We had committees — a total of 30 people, between us and the studio — who were looking at these screen tests. When Jo saw Dan, she said, “That’s how I always imagined Harry would look like.”

RUPERT GRINT: When I read the books, I always said, “If they made the movie, I could be Ron.”

COLUMBUS When Rupert walked into the room, we all thought, “Well, there’s Ron.” He just had that Weasley quality. And Emma was just this precocious, bright 10-year-old. She was Hermione. Did we have the vision and foresight to know they would develop into these incredible actors and stars? No. That’s just pure dumb luck.

TOM FELTON, Draco Malfoy: The very first audition, they just lined us all up and asked us which bits of the book we were looking forward to in the film. I hadn’t read the book, so I said the same as the guy next to me — which Chris Columbus saw through in a heartbeat. I think my ability to lie was half the reason I was offered Draco.

MATTHEW LEWIS, Neville Longbottom: At my audition, I was given a ticket stub that said I was number 743 in the queue. We waited four and a half hours. My mom was like, “Can we go now? I will buy you a McDonald’s if you wanna go.” I was such a huge fan of the books, I said I wouldn’t leave.

HEYMAN: Richard Harris had told us no when we initially asked him to play Dumbledore. But when his granddaughter said she would never speak to him again if he didn’t take the part, the choice was a very easy one for him to make.

ROBBIE COLTRANE, Hagrid: It was in the papers before I ever knew anything about it. My son and his pals said, “[J.K. Rowling says] you’re playing Hagrid.”

Filming on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone began in October 2000 at England’s Leavesden Studios, a converted WWII aircraft factory that would house such sets as Hogwarts, the Weasley Burrow, and Hagrid’s hut for the next decade.

IAN HART, Professor Quirrell: Usually [on a film set] when you open a door, behind it is some steel and maybe some pipes. But they built the Potter sets so that if you opened the door to one room, it went to the next room. On days when I didn’t have anything to shoot, I’d just wander around and discover new rooms.

JULIE WALTERS, Mrs. Weasley: The knitting machine that knitted itself — that was actually a machine that knitted itself. Lots of things that people thought were some kind of camera trick actually worked.

EMMA WATSON: One of the hardest things about working in Leavesden was that people always needed to know where you were. Especially when I was younger, that used to drive me nuts. So I used to hide from the assistant directors, who were given the task of knowing my whereabouts every single moment of the day. There was an orchard, a line of apple trees, on one part of the grounds. I would go down and walk around there. Those poor ADs! They must have had nervous breakdowns whenever I would disappear.

Among his many challenges — capturing Rowling’s whimsy, appeasing fans, organizing a cast of hundreds — the greatest for Columbus may have been coaching his young, inexperienced stars.

COLUMBUS: In terms of getting what the performances needed from them, it was the Chris Columbus School of Acting, which I haven’t opened up since.

RADCLIFFE: I don’t think what I was doing in the first two films could really be called acting.

GRINT: The first few films, I don’t think I took it that seriously, to be honest. I just read my lines and had fun, really.

HART: Kids that young can only be worked for, like, 40 minutes [at a time]. So you shoot all their footage, and then they turn the camera around to you and you only get one take. It’s almost like you’re doing theater.

ALAN RICKMAN: I’d arrive on the set in full costume and makeup as Snape. There’s something about that costume, and putting in the black lenses and putting on the wig. I was very aware that they were confronted by the Snapeness of me — and so it took a while for them to know that there was somebody else underneath it all.

Released on Nov. 16, 2001, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone broke box office records, grossing more than $974 million worldwide. The series’ second chapter, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, began production three days later. Despite the nearly back-to-back schedule, Columbus and others noticed their young actors’ growth — both physical and professional.

RICKMAN: I’d shoot for eight weeks, and then eight months would go by, and [I’d come back and] they’d all be a foot taller. And who knows what had gone on in their lives in that period! [Laughs]

WALTERS: One day Chris Columbus said he had just been in the cutting room, and he’d seen Rupert go into the invisibility cloak talking [high-pitched] like this and come out talking [gruffly] like this!

GRINT: I recently saw my screen test again when they put the footage on one of the DVDs. I can’t believe how much I’ve changed.

COLUMBUS: You’ll notice the first couple movies were full of cuts. We don’t stay on the [child] actors for a long time. We couldn’t!

KENNETH BRANAGH, Gilderoy Lockhart: In the middle of [Chamber of Secrets], I went off to play Shakespeare’s Richard III in the theater. So for three or four months beforehand, I was learning the lines during my [downtime]. Dan would come up and say, “Can I test you on them?” That was kind of a sight: small, enthusiastic Dan Radcliffe testing hunchback, bouffant Kenneth Branagh doing Richard III while we waited for the next part of the Quidditch match to be ready.

JASON ISAACS, Lucius Malfoy: By the time I arrived on the second film, the kids were more than a match for me. I remember on my first day improvising a line around Daniel: “Let us hope Mr. Potter will always be around to save the day.” And he stepped forward and stared me down and said, “Don’t worry, I will be.” It just sent a chill right down me.

PART II – Potter Finds Its Voice

By 2002, the world was under Harry’s spell. Chamber of Secrets banked $878 million worldwide, while Rowling’s first four books took up residency at the top of best-seller charts. But Columbus surprised fans by leaving the director’s chair, and Alfonso Cuarón came in to helm Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Under the Mexican filmmaker’s guidance, the series became darker, more complex, and stronger (even if the cast kept its sense of humor).

COLUMBUS: After [shooting] two films of 160 days each back-to-back, it became difficult to even brush my teeth in the morning.

HEYMAN: Alfonso helped show us how to tell the story from Harry’s point of view, how to put aside the things that had nothing to do with Harry in order to find a cinematic structure. He reoriented the films in a way that allowed us to continue them for many years to come.

WATSON: On the first two movies, I was very much a child and had my hand held all the way through it. But Alfonso didn’t baby us so much. He expected a lot more. For the first time, I felt, “Oh! I’m an actress. I have a job!”

RADCLIFFE: When I worked with Gary Oldman in the third film, I started to see what was possible with acting, and how important it is to be fearless and bold. Because that’s what I saw in Gary.

DAVID THEWLIS, Remus Lupin: In the Shrieking Shack scene, where it’s a wand standoff with Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, Timothy Spall, and me, it was hard for us not to laugh, just because we’re basically threatening each other with a knitting needle. Obviously you’re aware it’s going to look awesome when they put in the lightning bolts coming out of it, but you still feel a little silly.

The third film also marked the first appearance of Michael Gambon as Dumbledore. Richard Harris, who originated the role, died of lymphatic cancer in 2002 at age 72.

KLOVES: During the last week Richard Harris was alive, he was being taken out of a hotel to the hospital. And he shouted to the people eating at the restaurant: “It was the food!” [Laughs] That’s how sharp he was at the end.

HEYMAN: The passing of Richard Harris was a key moment early in the series. Alfonso looked far and wide to find someone to replace someone as irreplaceable as Richard Harris, and he cast Michael Gambon. What I love about what Michael did, very early on, was give a performance that paid tribute to Richard by adding a slight Irish lilt to his accent, but at the same time made Dumbledore all his own.

One Potter film proved enough for Cuarón. (“I don’t want anything to do with filmmaking for a long time,” the exhausted director told EW in 2004.) His replacement for 2005’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? British filmmaker Mike Newell.

MIKE NEWELL: Warner Bros. asked what the movie was going to be like, and I said, “A conspiracy thriller like Three Days of the Condor.” It wasn’t a cute little kiddie story anymore. Danger had been sort of jokey up to that point, but now it was lethal.

LEWIS: Even on take 14 or 15, Mike would say, “Put your back into it, you’re not doing it,” and it was a kick up the ass. I love that.

HEYMAN: Mike was our first British director. One of the things I love about the fourth film is that it really feels like you’re at a British school, which is what Hogwarts was.

DAVID YATES, Director of the final four films: I went to visit the set to get a sense of what I would be dealing with [on Order of the Phoenix]. Mike Newell had one crew shooting in one corner of Leavesden and the second shooting in the other — I remember getting sweaty palms watching all of it.

Throughout filming, J.K. Rowling spilled few secrets about the saga’s eventual end. The steady release of new books meant that the cast often learned their characters’ fates at the same time as the rest of the world.

NEWELL: I asked Rowling about the ending. She was not prepared to tell — even to her daughter, who was about 7 or 8 at that stage. Her daughter came into the room [during one meeting] and said, “It’s going to be so-and-so, isn’t it, Mummy?” And Rowling said, “I’ve told you that I can’t tell you those things, and I don’t want you to ask anymore.”

RICKMAN: I had a conversation with Jo Rowling where she told me one small clue about Snape — which I swore I would never, ever share with anybody. She obviously knew where [the story] was going.

Meanwhile, Pottermania was reaching a fever pitch — and changing the lives of the films’ stars forever.

NEWELL: By that time, [Dan, Rupert, and Emma] were living a strange, distorted life. They weren’t ordinary kids. They had a kind of patina of adultness about them. They had to learn their lines, be on time, be entirely without tantrums. They had to be good, solid, reliable, normal children and at the same time be world stars.

The franchise had become a showcase for many of Britain’s finest actors.

COLTRANE Nobody thought, “Oh, it’s just a kids’ film.” Everyone treated it as seriously as Ibsen.

ISAACS: If you look at a call sheet of who is coming to work that day, there’s Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Imelda Staunton… You know you better bring your top game. Everybody, in a fairly British way, was trying to out-act each other. There was a very healthy sense of scenery chewing going on.

HELEN McCRORY, Narcissa Malfoy: As soon as there’s a moment of silence, we all start overacting and trying to make up for all our subplots that’ve been cut out. [Laughs]

HELENA BONHAM CARTER, Bellatrix Lestrange: You know, there’s a hell of a lot of British Equity actors who have a complex because they didn’t make it into Potter. They never got the call.

FELTON: As a kid, you don’t know who these people are you’re working with. Alan Rickman was actually one of the few that I was nervous around because I was a massive fan of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It took me about five years to muster up a conversation with him.

The final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, shattered publishing records in 2007 when it sold 8.3 million copies on its first day in stores. That year also marked the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, with Newell relinquishing his directing wand to David Yates, a largely unknown British director who stayed with the series until its end.

ISAACS: I don’t know what David Yates is eating for breakfast, but I want some. Every single shot, he comes up literally skipping, I’m not exaggerating. Then he bounces like Tigger as he talks to you.

BONHAM CARTER: I call him Skippy.

When Half-Blood Prince conjured up $934 million globally, Potter overtook James Bond as the most lucrative franchise in film history. The movie also had some of the series’ most memorable moments, including Harry and Ginny Weasley’s first kiss…

BONNIE WRIGHT, Ginny Weasley: It was a little weird. It’s hard to kiss someone you’ve known for that long, and also on top of that in front of all the cast and crew. But, you know, that’s a scene that a lot of people were looking forward to, and we’re both actors. I think it went well!

…the death of Dumbledore…
EVANNA LYNCH, Luna Lovegood: It was a night scene, and they can be quite exciting to shoot because you’re up really late. Everyone was just not sad. David Yates was getting quite agitated. He had to remind us, “Dumbledore’s dying!” I think they had to put CGI tears in. I remember seeing that scene [in the theater] and thinking, “I didn’t actually cry!”

…and the burning of Hagrid’s hut by the evil Bellatrix Lestrange.
BONHAM CARTER The potency that I felt! Usually you feel like a d—head when you’re waving a wand around. I found it very funny that before walking off set, you were always asked by the prop man to relinquish your wand, as if it did work. Like, has anyone told him it’s actually just a stick?

PART III – Harry’s Final Adventures

When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 opens on July 15, it will represent the end of a decade long cinematic adventure that is unparalleled — in scale or success — in Hollywood history.

WARWICK DAVIS, Professor Flitwick & Griphook: When we started the first film with the kids, I could basically look them in the eyes. Now they tower above me.

McCRORY: My favorite moment was when we were just about to do one of the great big [finale] scenes. Tom Felton was sort of psyching himself up for his big moment. I said to him, “Are you all right?” He said, “Oh, yeah. I’ve waited for this moment my whole life.” And I looked at him and realized he wasn’t f**ing about. He’s been playing this part since he was a little boy, and now he’s a young man. Of course he’s been waiting for it his entire life!

The film’s cast and crew all bade farewell to Hogwarts in their own way.

WATSON: In the middle of shooting Deathly Hallows, I went out to dinner with Bonnie Wright, and we started talking about how we really needed to do something to mark the end of this important part of our lives…. And then I had the thought of cutting my hair. That felt like an appropriate way of saying goodbye to Hermione.

LEWIS: On my last day of shooting, everyone had gone off the set except David [Yates], Tom, Emma, and me. David just went, “You know you lot are gonna need each other in a few years’ time.” And I said, “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

THEWLIS: If anything goes wrong with my career, I can always take a job on a [Harry Potter] float in Orlando. That’s my contingency plan.

McCRORY: As far as people being sad it’s over, I don’t know. We’re British. Any violent show of emotion is looked down upon. [Laughs] Nothing a good pint and a slap on the back doesn’t communicate!

RADCLIFFE: Every opportunity I will get to the day I die will be traceable to the fact I was cast as Harry Potter in 2000. These movies have given me enough memories to last 10,000 years.

This article has been edited for girlsspeakgeek.com. The complete story appeared in Entertainment Weekly Jul.2011.

July 1, 2011 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links