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Chris Columbus was so determined to direct Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that he pulled out all the stops to land the coveted project. He was just one of many helmers hoping to bring literature’s best-selling wizard to the screen, so he conjured up a plan to put himself at the top of the list. Columbus asked to be the last director to meet with the studio, spent 10 days penning a 130-page director’s version of screenwriter Steve Kloves’ script, and gave an impassioned 45-min speech to studio executives about his conception of the film.
Though the studio was duly impressed, Columbus had one more hurdle: convincing author J.K. Rowling that he was right for the job. He flew to Scotland to meet with the author to discuss how the book could be adapted, and things went well. Rowling told him that they shared the same vision, jumpstarting his whirlwind journey of directing what would become a pop culture phenomenon and box office juggernaut.
Released in theaters two decades ago, on Nov. 14, 2001, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was the first of an eventual eight-film franchise based on Rowling’s seven-book saga about a young wizard attending the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The film — which just last year surpassed $1 billion at the global box office after a 4K rerelease in China and other markets — would not only launch the careers of then-newcomers Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson as Harry, Ron and Hermione but spawn franchise spinoffs Fantastic Beasts and a Broadway play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, based on an original story by Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne.
To mark the film’s 20th anniversary, Warner Bros. will debut two new Potter-inspired TV projects: a four-part competition series, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Tournament of House, hosted by Helen Mirren; and a retrospective special to follow.
Columbus, 63, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter and took a trip down Hogwarts memory lane, reflecting on his approach to adapting Rowling’s source material, working with Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, why he eventually left the franchise, and why he’d return to direct a Cursed Child adaptation.
Columbus Was Eager to Helm Film
“This was just my one shot getting the Harry Potter job.”
Once his daughter persuaded him to read Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Columbus tells THR, he “couldn’t put them down.” “I called my agent and I said, ‘Look, I need to get a meeting with Warner Bros. I’d love to direct Harry Potter.'” After being told there were 25 others also eager to direct, Columbus knew he had to make an impression, so he asked his agent to secure him the final meeting. He wanted to be the “last director in the room” in order to make a “lasting impression” and be the “freshest person in their memory.”
During a two-week waiting period, Columbus wrote a director’s version of Steve Kloves’ script to explain his vision for the tone of the film.
“It was about a 130-page document-slash-screenplay,” Columbus tells THR. “I stayed up all night for like 10 days doing it, and then I walked into the Warner Bros. conference room.”
There, he found a half-dozen executives, including then-studio boss Alan Horn.
“I remember sitting at the far end of a coffee table, and the chair felt like it was six inches shorter than everyone else’s chair,” says the director. “I felt like a sixth-grader in a room full of principals, vice principals and teachers. I was terrified.”
After what he describes as an “impassioned 45-minute talk” where he explained his vision, Columbus recalls giving them his annotated script.
“They were kind of shocked because no one in Hollywood writes anything for free,” says Columbus. “This was just my one shot [at] getting the Harry Potter job. But I left it with them. Basically, went home and waited about six or seven weeks — and I didn’t hear anything. Then finally, I heard from the studio that I would be getting the job — with one caveat”: a meeting with J.K. Rowling and producer David Heyman in Scotland.
“I sat down with [Rowling] and she basically said, ‘How do you see the movie?’ And again, I just didn’t shut up for about two and a half hours,” says Columbus. “She didn’t say a word. I just did not stop blabbering. Then she said, ‘Well, I see it exactly the same way.’ That was the moment I knew I had the job.”
His pride in landing the coveted project was quickly replaced by fear: “I worked so hard to get the job. Once I got it, I had maybe five seconds of elation and then I was filled with complete terror and anxiety. Because I knew I had the weight of the world. I had every kid in the entire world waiting for this movie, and if I fuck it up, I’m probably going to have to go live under an assumed identity somewhere.”
J.K. Rowling Gave Columbus an Unpublished Manuscript of Goblet of Fire
“We got physical, tangible copies of the manuscript, which was huge.”
After reading the first three books — which is as far as the series had gotten at the time — Columbus was quick to notice the story’s dark progression, something that caught Rowling’s interest: “She said, after the meeting, ‘The thing that I responded to was the fact that you picked up on the fact that these are getting darker.’ ” Columbus says Rowling teased that there would be a character death in the fourth novel, Goblet of Fire, which had yet to be published. (Spoiler alert: Cedric Diggory, who was portrayed by Robert Pattinson in the film, is killed by Voldemort.) “We got physical, tangible copies of the manuscript, which was huge,” Columbus says of himself, Heyman and Kloves. “We had a chance to read Goblet of Fire months before it came out. So, it put into effect, basically, a plan for us to be prepared in terms of filming each subsequent movie.”
Columbus Suggested Goblet of Fire Be Broken Up Into Two Films
Rowling’s Goblet of Fire clocked in at 734 pages — at that time, the longest Potter book to have been released — which Columbus advised Heyman should be adapted into two separate films. However, Columbus says, Warner Bros. didn’t agree: “At the time, the studio wasn’t interested in doing it. It didn’t seem like that was a possibility. Well, obviously they ended up doing it for [films] seven and eight. But I was naive. I thought, ‘Oh, I have energy to do all seven of these movies.’ But that wasn’t the case.”
On Walking Away From the Franchise After Chamber of Secrets
“I could barely speak.”
Directing what was bound to become a hit had its perks, but the main drawback, Columbus admits, was the rigorous shooting schedule: “Sorcerer’s Stone took 160 days of shooting, which is ridiculously long. And then, immediately after we stopped shooting, we started shooting Chamber of Secrets, which was another 160 days. That’s roughly 320 days — not counting second unit — back-to-back shooting.”
After finishing Chamber of Secrets, Columbus says he “could barely speak” and felt “emotionally and physically exhausted.”
Adds Columbus: “I wasn’t seeing my kids, who were young at the time, growing up. I was missing dinners with them. I thought, ‘I can’t do another six, seven, eight years of this. My kids will grow up and I’ll never get to know them.”
Columbus went on to act as a producer for the 2004 film Prisoner of Azkaban — Alfonso Cuarón stepped in as director, with the reins given to Mike Newell and David Yates for later films — which offered a better work-life balance. “As a producer, I don’t have to be there all the time. I can be on the set a few hours a day. I can sit in on certain visual effects meetings, but it means I can get home in time for dinner, to see my kids in the morning to go to school. And by the time Azkaban ended, my family was ready to come back to the States. They missed their friends, and so it felt like the logical time to say goodbye.”
Casting Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter Took Convincing
‘I thought, ‘That’s Harry Potter!'”
“I was up late one night in London watching BBC, and there was a miniseries of David Copperfield. There was a young Dan Radcliffe in it, for about two or three scenes. But I thought, ‘That’s Harry Potter,'” Columbus recalls.
Intrigued by the then 11-year-old’s “complex and interesting” onscreen presence, Columbus requested a meeting with Radcliffe immediately, only to be told by the casting director, “‘You’re never going to get him. His parents are in the industry. They have no desire for him to do this. Just forget about him.'”
Taking matters into their own hands, Columbus recalls, Heyman traveled to the theater in the West End and approached Radcliffe’s parents during intermission. “In David’s usual charming way, he was able to convince them to come in for a meeting. That was sort of the end of it,” Columbus says of their Hail Mary moment.
Tom Felton Was Almost Cast as Harry
“He’s the perfect Harry Potter.”
Columbus admits that casting Radcliffe in the lead role wasn’t a sure thing. In addition to convincing his parents to let him audition, Columbus says the studio had their eye on Tom Felton for the lead role.
“Tom was a great actor as well, so we thought, let’s just dye Tom’s hair, give him a scar, give him the glasses and let’s see,” recalls Columbus. “He did a great Harry Potter reading. The problem is you can really kind of tell when an 11- or 12-year-old kid’s hair is dyed. He was so good at Malfoy. I just couldn’t pass that up. I knew Tom had to play Malfoy.”
The final bow on Radcliffe scoring the gig was the moment Rowling saw Radcliffe. Columbus recalls the author saying, “He’s the perfect Harry Potter.” “Having a collaborator who supported my vision gave me a lot of confidence and was able to help me limit my anxiety and tension about making this film. So, when the studio heard that she loved him, and I loved him and David loved him, they said yes. Two days later, we made the announcement in London. The rest is history.”
Directing Young Actors Required Columbus to Take on Different Roles
“I think I dropped about 15 pounds on that first movie just from the activity alone.”
Depicting a story of Hogwarts’ first-year students resulted in a set filled with young actors all excited to star in their first big film. However, Columbus says, “They were kids, so they didn’t know how to behave on a set. They weren’t that accustomed to film acting. The first week was just getting them to stop looking into the camera and smiling. It was this love fest of, ‘Can you believe we were in together?'”
Columbus says the production filmed with three to four cameras because it was hard to predict “how each kid was going to react to a certain line.”
“That’s why the first film has a lot of cuts in it. The kids hadn’t done enough work to be able to do an entire scene in one tracking shot. It was basically 320 days of acting class,” Columbus adds.
The director quips that he was the “fourth person” in the infamous Radcliffe, Grint and Watson trio given he was “always acting off-camera for them.” Explains Columbus, “We had to send Rupert to school, I had to become Ron or Hermione for a dance, or I was Voldemort off-camera. The kids had nothing tangible to react to in terms of trolls, Quidditch, any of that sort of thing. I had to be basically performing with them. So that was why it was so exhausting. I wasn’t just sitting in a director’s chair yelling ‘Cut’ and ‘Action’ and telling my assistant to go over and give them a note. I was physically involved. I think I dropped about 15 pounds on that first movie just from the activity alone.”
Despite the three young actors being newcomers, Columbus admits he was surprised by each of their “honest” performances. The film’s final scene, shot on the second day of filming, shows Harry, Ron and Hermione leaving Hogwarts. While filming, Radcliffe muttered the line, “I’m not going home. Not really,” a moment Columbus says had everyone emotional.
“When he did that and the camera slowly pushes in on him, I got tears in my eyes. I turned to David Heyman, who’s at the monitor, and he had tears in his eyes. We just said, ‘Wow.’ We knew we were onto something with Dan and that’s day two of shooting. Those are the kinds of surprises you got from kids who had not been on a film set before.”
Years later, many of the cast have gone on to successful acting careers, which Columbus says makes him feel like a “proud father,” adding, “I’ve been incredibly impressed at how good they all still are.”
Columbus Recalls Final Conversation With Late Richard Harris and Working With Late Alan Rickman
“He said, ‘If you ever replace me, I’ll fucking kill you.’ “
In the franchise’s first two films, Richard Harris portrayed Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore. However, Harris would pass away in 2002 at the age of 72 of Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer. Reflecting on the late Harris, Columbus describes the actor as “the single funniest actor [and] person I’ve ever met” and someone who loved to play pranks during filming.
After Harris initially expressed reluctance to take on the Dumbledore role, Columbus says that he and Heyman met the actor for a meal. “I think I ordered a glass of wine. He said, ‘Oh, I stopped drinking. Just get me a Beck’s, a beer … beer’s not alcohol.’ He proceeded to down about six beers and was filling us with stories.” Harris then informed them that his granddaughter was “begging” him to take the role. “We knew we had Richard at that point, and that was quite an amazing feeling.”
After Harris’ passing, Michael Gambon took over the Dumbledore role. However, Columbus admits it was “difficult” to no longer watch Harris. “He got sick and passed away pretty quickly,” Columbus says. When the director visited Harris in the hospital, the actor “looked thin” but was in good spirits as he wrote his autobiography.
“He was so proud. He said, ‘When this gets out, people are going to see all of the stories. I’m naming names.’ I thought, ‘This is going to be a great biography.’ Obviously, it’s never seen the light of day after he passed away,” Columbus says.
Meanwhile, when reflecting on working with the late Alan Rickman, who portrayed the franchise’s mysterious Professor Severus Snape and passed away at the age of 69 in 2016 from pancreatic cancer, Columbus admits he was unaware that Rowling had told the actor everything about Snape’s journey in secrecy.
“That was never shared with any of us,” Columbus says of what was in store for Snape come the series’ end. “His performance was great and subtle, and at times weird. I would question to myself, ‘Why is he doing this?’ Then the answer came after I read the last book. It also was more painfully obvious after I saw all eight films. I went back and rewatched some of his performances and it was, ‘Oh, that’s what he’s doing. He’s setting this up.'”
The Complexities of Bring Quidditch to Life
“It was obsessive.”
In Rowling’s Potter universe, the author created a sport called Quidditch, the most popular game among wizards and witches, equivalent to that of a football or soccer fandom among Muggles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Columbus shares that it was the most difficult book component to adapt for the big screen.
“We actually had to write down the rules of Quidditch because, as well explained as it is in the book, I, as a sports fanatic myself, want to know the rules,” Columbus says. “I want to know how the snitch is set up, the size of the rings, how big the snitch was. It was obsessive.”
Columbus says it “took the most time” to break the fictional game down and explain it so the audience could understand it “as a real sporting event.” “I didn’t want someone walking into the middle of an NFL game who’d never seen an NFL game before and say, ‘Well, what’s going on?’ We immediately had to set up the rules for that.”
Other complex moments from the first book to bring to life included the chess scene and the Great Hall, which Columbus calls both “the most extraordinary sets I’d ever seen in my life.”
Columbus on Why He Has Never Watched the Film Since
“It’s going to turn me into a maniac.”
“I have not seen the film in its entirety since it was released,” Columbus admits. Aware that Sorcerer’s Stone is “always on TV, particularly during the holiday season,” he shares that rewatching the film will only result in self-criticism. “Once I get about five or six minutes into it, I say, ‘Well, why did I do this? Why did I put the camera there? I don’t need this madness in my life right now. It’s going to turn me into a maniac.’ I just got to stop watching it and think about my next film.”
Columbus has watched the remaining films, citing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and 2 as his favorites.
Columbus Sorts Himself Into a House
“I would always prefer to be in …”
Attending Hogwarts also means being sorted into one of the four Houses: Gryffindor, founded by Godric Gryffindor; Hufflepuff, founded by Helga Hufflepuff; Ravenclaw, founded by Rowena Ravenclaw; and Slytherin, founded by Salazar Slytherin. Though fans are able to determine their houses by taking an online sorting quiz, Columbus says he has yet to do so. However, he leans toward two specific Houses.
“I’ve actually never taken [the sorting test]. I would always prefer to be in Gryffindor, but I will go wherever the Sorting Hat takes me. Once I knew about Snape, Slytherin isn’t such a bad house.”
As for his favorite character in the Potter universe? Columbus is loyal to one: “Because I was telling the story from Harry’s point of view — I had to identify with Harry Potter.”
Columbus Ready to Direct Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
“It’s cinematic bliss.”
Columbus admits that though he’s never seen the Fantastic Beasts films — the first two spinoff films starred Eddie Redmayne— after watching the Cursed Child Broadway production on the West End, he’s ready to direct a film adaptation should an opportunity arise.
“A version of Cursed Child with Dan, Rupert and Emma at the right age, it’s cinematic bliss. If you’re a film nerd or cinephile, it’s kind of like what J.J. [Abrams] did with Star Wars. Star Wars really started to be great again when J.J. made the film and we had all the original cast back. There’s no question if you’re a Star Wars fan, you were moved just seeing them on screen, seeing Harrison Ford as Han Solo again — and Chewy. It was very moving. I think that would be the same situation for Harry Potter fans. To able to actually see these adult actors now back in these roles? Oh, yeah. It would be amazingly fun to make that film — or two films.”
A version of this story appears in the Nov. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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