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When fans tune in to Hogwarts Tournament of Houses, a four-part game show event debuting Nov. 28 on TBS and the Cartoon Network, they’ll be in for more than just a celebration of one of pop culture’s most enduring franchises.
Warner Bros. head of unscripted programming Mike Darnell gets credit for the competition’s conception, part of the 20th anniversary celebration of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’s theatrical release. But big decisions — from the bracket-style quiz’s format and set design to its movie-clip selection and special appearances from franchise alumnus Tom Felton and celebrity superfan Pete Davidson — were shaped by producing duo Robin Ashbrook and Yasmin Shackleton “in celebration of the whole Wizarding World,” as Ashbrook puts it.
Making Hogwarts’ houses the basis for teams was the “most logical thing to do,” Shackleton says. And when it came to crafting the questions, the duo turned to The Blair Partnership (author J.K. Rowling’s literary agency) to help shape both the content and the difficulty before testing them on fans. “We didn’t want it to be so difficult that it disenfranchised people,” Shackleton tells THR. “We wanted everybody to watch, whether you’re new to Harry Potter or a die-hard fan.” For the stage, the duo avoided any “sacrilege” attempt at re-creating a place from the Wizarding World, opting instead for a set fortuitously similar to a library in Porto, Portugal — one that inspired Rowling’s vision for Hogwarts — and filling it with original items from the movies.
Yet the game show’s most attention-grabbing element may be its host — Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren. The executive producers’ “first, second and third choice,” Mirren was instantly on the shortlist because, although she’s not among the dozens of famous British performers to appear in the Potter films, the EPs say it felt like she should have been.
“Many of the cast are my dear friends, and they all did such an extraordinary job; I think part of the success of the films was due to the terrific casting,” Mirren tells THR. “Of course, my only critique is that they could have asked me to be in the films — kidding! — but I am honored now to be a part of the Harry Potter universe in this way.”
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Ashbrook and Shackleton also tease how the audience may swing the games’ outcomes, Easter eggs fans can find on the set, and their own surprise at nabbing Davidson.
Why did you decide to work within this bracket format, and why did you go with the houses as the teams?
Yasmin Shackleton: Obviously, the houses are at the heart of all the stories, so that was a logical thing to do for us. Also, for viewers and fans of Harry Potter, it allows you to really get behind a team and get invested in the show. But it’s four episodes total, with the first two episodes head-to-head. Episode one features Gryffindor versus Hufflepuff, and episode two is Slytherin versus Ravenclaw. The winners of those first two episodes go straight through to episode four, which is the finale. Episode three is our wild card round, where the two losing teams get a second chance to make it into the finale. We thought that was the most simple and easy way to do it across four episodes.
The audience also gets to play along, so we have 100 Hufflepuff audience members when Hufflepuff is playing, and then we have 100 Ravenclaws when Ravenclaw is playing. They get to answer questions and add to the house score. So the pressure isn’t just on the contestants at the front. It has much more of a community feel, which is what we wanted, and is much more inclusive. It makes it really riveting, actually, because a few of the games end up being how the audience scored that determines who won and who lost.
How did you choose what contestants ended up on the four teams?
Shackleton: We did a lot of casting for this. I mean, we got more applications than we’ve ever gotten for any other show. And Robin and I — having done many competition shows and with the amazing amount of people applying — quickly realized that the fans of Harry Potter are super passionate and know their stuff. So we did a very thorough testing process. We gave people quizzes to make sure that they knew what they were talking about. We asked them questions about their individual houses. It was honestly a pleasure to cast because, again, there were so many people. You see people of all ages. I think our youngest contestant on the show is 15 and our oldest is 76. We have a wide range of ages and people from all backgrounds, from all across America. The stories have such a wide reach and touch people universally, no matter what age you are. So we wanted to mirror the fans on-screen.
With there being so many passionate fans, how did you approach building questions that would be challenging enough for them?
Shackleton: We did a lot of run-throughs. We got some people who couldn’t make the show for various reasons to come in and we tested different levels of questions on them to gauge a middle ground. We didn’t want it to be so difficult that it disenfranchised people that are new. We want everybody to watch and enjoy this whether you’re new to the Wizarding World and Harry Potter or whether you are a die-hard fan. And we worked very closely with The Blair Partnership, who are J.K. Rowling’s literary agents — the keeper of Harry Potter — to find that middle ground. Then in terms of the subtleties that we worked on, there’s a lot of questions that are multiple choice that trip people up. There’s a lot of questions that are on a timer to add pressure, so you don’t have a minute to think about it.
The Harry Potter universe is quite big — spanning movies, toys, video games, stores, theme parks, a Broadway play. What’s the breakdown on how many of these questions are based on the movies or books versus other arms of the franchise?
Shackleton: The whole premise of the show is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Sorcerer’s Stone film, so I would say probably 70 percent of the questions are film-related. There are book questions, and there are a lot of them, honestly. We weren’t originally going to do that until we started seeing who was applying, the breadth of the fandom and people’s different entry points into the world. I got into it through the movies 20 years ago, but you know, it was such a turning point in children’s literature. It revitalized children’s literature when the book came out, becoming this literary phenomenon that got kids reading again. So there are a lot of questions about those two because people have watched the movie 20 times or they read the book 20 times. There’s a smattering — not many but there is a smattering — of Fantastic Beasts questions in there because it is part of the Wizarding World. There’s a couple of Cursed Child questions in there. I’ve never seen the Cursed Child, but then we started seeing all these questions. We had to encompass as many touchpoints as possible because people who love Harry Potter would be aware and know all of those facets of it.
Dame Helen Mirren is hosting. How were you able to make that happen?
Ashbrook: So we reached out to Helen Mirren, who miraculously took our phone call. And when we talked about the show, she talked about being a fan. We laughed and joked about the fact that she was never in the movies. Actually, you’ll see at the very top of the show, she says, “Oh, well, finally I’ve arrived.” Like someone’s welcomed her into the Wizarding World. She’s a fan, first and foremost of the movies. We talked a lot on set about how she’s a huge fan of the casting of the movies, as being a magical part of why it’s become so deeply ingrained in world pop culture.
So really, the Helen Mirren piece of it wasn’t that difficult. We just told her our vision for the gameplay. What we discovered was there was one reservation that Helen Mirren had, which she said to me on the call. It was, “I’ve never hosted a formatted game quiz show before, and I’m nervous about it.” Well, you kind of assume that Helen Mirren has done everything — from going to the moon to being the queen. So that’s a testament to her inquisitiveness, and how she challenged herself. She wanted to give it a go. When she was on the stage, she’s the most natural host. She is as interested in the human beings, their stories and their lives. It’s so genuine, her connection to people.
Shackleton: And warm.
Ashbrook: She’ll probably win an Emmy for this as a host just to complete her collection. We do these shows with brilliantly talented game show hosts that, who after some time, perhaps are not as interested in the backstory of the 8,000th person that they’ve met. But with Helen Mirren, we would go into overtime of shooting because she wanted to know about people’s cats, dogs, families, husbands and wives.
The quiz show is set to feature several original franchise stars as well as some celebrity Harry Potter fans. How did you go about getting them confirmed?
Shackleton: In terms of our special guests — what we call alumni, so people that were obviously in the movies that we had as part of the show — we wanted alumni on the show in some capacity, and they were actually involved and asked questions. We spoke to people who know much more than us about who the fans love and who the fans really would like to see on the show. We went out to the bigger and beloved names, like the Tom Feltons and Shirley Hendersons and Matthew Lewises. We were very lucky that we could get those names involved.
Then kind of digging into that world more, it’s kind of remarkable and a testament to how the franchise is adored. We have Pete Davidson on — and he has multiple Harry Potter tattoos. And, I don’t know, when you think of Pete Davidson, the first thing out of 100 things that pops into my head would not be, “I wonder if one of those tattoos is a Harry Potter tattoo.” There were celebrities who just have such passion or wanted to be part of the show. We could have booked 100 of them. But we were very specific about who we should go out to, and it was obviously people who had a real connection. And it was just lovely to see. It goes from Pete Davidson to Jay Leno. You probably can’t get two more different people.
Ashbrook: As well as Dame Helen Mirren, incredible special guests from the movies and celebrity superfans, there are movie clips — classic clips — throughout every single episode as well. So, obviously at the heart of the gameplay are clips from eight of the greatest movies of the modern era.
You had to build an entire set for this show. How did you approach the designs, and did you drop in any Easter eggs for fans watching at home?
Ashbrook: The set design is probably the most incredible set design of a show we’ve ever worked on. We didn’t want to re-create a room or a place that directly comes from the movies because that felt kind of sacrilege and not something we should try and do. So we had to create a kind of tone and a feel of a place that seemed like it belonged. It’s beautiful and it’s lovely, but then the next level of set dressing that we did for that, the whole place is filled with genuine items from the movies. Sometimes, Helen will reference it. Like, that is Dumbledore’s actual hat, and it has the label of Michael Gambon and the date in it. You’ll see shots in there that come up — Tom Riddle’s diary, the Golden Snitch. And behind Helen is a broom that was actually one of Daniel Radcliffe’s brooms that he flew on in the Harry Potter movies. Everything that you see is loaded with Easter eggs. Helen also includes lines in reference from the movies, but it’s one of those things that if you get it, you get it and if you don’t, you don’t.
Shackleton: There are other things, too. We got the green tile from the Ministry of Magic. There were not many tiles left, but we were graciously given one, and we replicated the size and the color match, and that can be seen on the steps of the stage. The idea behind the stage was random. I walked into Robin’s office one day and he was like, “Oh, I saw this picture. What do you think?” We always had the idea of a library feel. And I was like, “I saw something last night!” We both had been on the same Instagram page and had seen this library in Porto [Portugal], which we didn’t realize at the time, but did when we started researching that it was actually a library that apparently J.K. Rowling had spent time in and had gotten inspiration for Hogwarts from this library. Which is kind of crazy and totally fortuitous. But that was the starting point for our stage. Then all the videos, all the stills that we show, all the film clips, we created this really great portrait wall. We managed to get some of the original portraits from the movies and throw them in there when they weren’t being used as gameplay elements. We spent a lot of time thinking about those details.
Have there been conversations about a potential continuation beyond these four episodes?
Ashbrook: No, I think everyone will wait and see how well this is received. I would love it. I’ve already looked at release dates of all the movies, like why don’t we just celebrate the next movie’s release, then the next movie’s release? (Laughs.) But really, we are just here to create the magic when we’re told to, so I think it’s a wait-and-see.
Shackleton: We were saying that with the Harry Potter movies, there was one more or less every year for eight years. So we could be doing this for hopefully a long time, or maybe people higher up than us who make the decision will decide that this is just a beautiful one-off event. But let’s see. Fingers crossed.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Nov. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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