It’s been 20 years since “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” opened in theaters to record-breaking box office, setting the foundation for one of the most successful film franchises of all time. But the road to getting the inaugural adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s beloved book series off the ground was fraught with challenges, as director and producer Chris Columbus told TheWrap in a recent interview looking back on the making of the film.
At the time that Warner Bros. was developing an adaptation of “Harry Potter,” a number of directors were vying for the job. After reading the books, Columbus called his agent and said he’d love to direct the film. “Yeah, you and 30 other people want to direct this film,” his agent responded. Immediately, the “Home Alone” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” filmmaker knew he had his work cut out for him, so he took a unique approach – he asked to be the final person interviewed for the job.
In the meantime, Columbus – who first rose to prominence as the screenwriter of films like “Gremlins” and “The Goonies” – set about re-writing Steve Kloves’ existing “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” screenplay as a “director’s version,” one that clearly outlined the vision he saw for the film in his head. “I brought it to Warner Brothers,” Columbus said. “We met in a conference room, I put it on the desk and I said, ‘Look, no one writes anything for free in Hollywood. So I’ve written this, you guys can keep it. I just want you to know this is the vision for the film.’” In his estimation, this show of vision “helped a great deal,” as did Columbus’ track record of working with kids on screen. “The believed I would put a great cast together,” he said.
But before Columbus could land the gig, Warner Bros. had one last test: He had to meet J.K. Rowling in Edinburgh, Scotland. “She said to me in the very first part of our meeting, ‘So what’s your vision of the film?’ I speak for two and a half hours about my vision for the film, and she says, ‘That’s exactly the way I see the film.’ And that was it. That was the burst of confidence I needed. I knew with her support and her believing in what I wanted to do, that I could make the film that I wanted to make.”
Still, once Columbus got the job, he acknowledged there was “20 seconds of ‘This is amazing’ and a lifetime of ‘Oh s—, now I’ve got to do this.” He didn’t want to “mess it up,” but he and his team were armed with key knowledge of where the book series was going that he hoped would set the franchise up for success. While developing “Sorcerer’s Stone,” only three “Potter” books had been published, but Rowling told Columbus and the filmmaking team that the books were going to get progressively darker. So Columbus told his team that they had to design a world (and more specifically, sets) that could withstand the series getting darker and darker with each film.
Rowling shared another key piece of info early on, but not with Columbus. The author told Alan Rickman where the character of Snape was going through the rest of the series, but Rickman withheld that information from Columbus. “So I’d be on the set, Alan would be doing the scene and there would be one or two moments that seemed a little odd to me,” Columbus remembered. “Some sort of idiosyncratic behavior and I didn’t understand why he was doing it. I would go up to him after the take and I’d say, ‘Alan, what was that?’ He goes, ‘You’ll know after you read book seven.’ I thought, ‘Why don’t you tell me? I’m the director for Christ’s sake!’” he said with a laugh.
This insight into Snape’s character is what convinced Rickman to sign on in the first place, Columbus said, as the “Die Hard” actor was eschewing villain roles but had a private dinner with Rowling when he was considering signing on. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the “Potter” franchise is the wealth of esteemed British actors who took on roles, and that all started with “Sorcerer’s Stone.” Columbus said he and producer David Heyman had what they called the “Potter Dinner Tour” where they wined and dined performers like Richard Harris and Maggie Smith to convince them to join the film.
After making “Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Chamber of Secrets” back to back, Columbus stepped back into a producer role on the third film, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” He played a key role in recasting Dumbledore after the 2002 death of Richard Harris, revealing that he and director Alfonso Cuarón met with Peter O’Toole about taking over as the Hogwarts headmaster. “He was close, except Richard was his best friend and he felt it was intrusive from an acting point of view so he decided not to do it,” Columbus recalled. Ultimately, Michael Gambon took over the role for the remaining films.
The stress of making “Sorcerer’s Stone” was relieved when the film grossed a then-record-breaking $90.3 million on its opening weekend, but Columbus said one of the biggest benefits of the film being a hit was it allowed him to have “mental freedom” on “Chamber of Secrets,” which started filming the Monday after “Sorcerer’s Stone” was released. “I had a tremendous amount of mental freedom on ‘Chamber of Secrets.’ No second guessing,” he said. “Just had the greatest time of my life because I did exactly what I wanted on the first Potter, but I was questioning it.”
Read our full interview with Columbus, which also covers the three-hour original cut, how they approached recasting Dumbledore after Richard Harris’ 2002 death and John Williams’ iconic score.
I want to go back to just before you landed the job and I’m curious if you could tell me what you were doing at that point and what you remember about the process of landing the gig, because I know a bunch of directors were vying for it. Steven Spielberg was in the mix. What was that experience like for you?
When I finally got around to reading the books and calling my agent and saying, “I see this as a film. I see it in my head. I’d love to direct it,” she said, “Yeah, you and 30 other people want to direct this film.” So I thought I’ve got my work cut out for me. What can I do? I said to her, “You know what, get me the last meeting.” In other words, let them interview everybody else and then I want the last meeting. And she said, “OK, why?” I said, “Just let me do that.”
So I got the script and essentially, Steve Kloves had written a brilliant script, but I decided I was going to rewrite it as a director’s version, kind of a director’s manual on the look of the film, how I was going to shoot it. All of that. And I spent about nine nights doing that until about five in the morning, and then I had my directorial version of the script. I brought it to Warner Brothers. We met in a conference room, I put it on the desk and I said, “Look, no one writes anything for free in Hollywood. So I’ve written this, you guys can keep it. I just want you to know this is the vision for the film.” And I think that helped a great deal. I think it also helped that I had a bit of a reputation of as being able to cast kids. So I knew that that was part of it that they believed that I would put a great cast together.
When you got the job, were you like, “This is amazing.” or were you like, “Oh s—, now I have to do this.”
There was 20 seconds of “This is amazing” and then a lifetime of, “Oh s—. Now I’ve got to do this.” It was only really through meeting Jo Rowling in Edinburgh [that I got the confidence to do it]. Because I got the job but then Warners said, “You’ve got one more thing.” I said, “What now? You guys have tortured me.” “You got to go to Edinburgh and meet Jo Rowling,” and I said, “OK.” I go, she said to me in the very first part of our meeting, “So what’s your vision of the film?” I speak for two and a half hours about my vision for the film, and she says, “That’s exactly the way I see the film.” And that was it. That was the burst of confidence I needed. I knew with her support and her believing in what I wanted to do, that I could make the film that I wanted to make. It’s a very important thing for a director, when you have someone whose work they’re essentially giving you, trusting you with their work.
You mentioned your vision for the film. I’m curious, you got to collaborate with cinematographer John Seale on the film. What was that relationship like and your discussions about how to actually visualize this, knowing that kids the world over were waiting to see their dreams come to life and you didn’t want to mess it up.
No, I didn’t want to mess it up. Because we knew Jo had told us that the books were going to get progressively darker, I said to John and my production designer and the crew members, “We have to design a world in which we can start with this storybook version of Hogwarts.” It’s beautiful. It’s warm, it’s lit by candles. It’s the place you want to be, and then it starts to get darker. It gets darker in “Chamber of Secrets.” It gets darker in “Azkaban.” And I said, “The sets have to be able to withstand that.” They have to feel as if this is a world that could be plunging into darkness. So those types of things. Knowing that the feeling of the movie had to be timeless.
That really was a mantra. We’re talking about it 20 years later, which I feel so good about it because it was my goal. It was my goal on “Home Alone” as well. I said to the crew, “Let’s make a movie that in 20 years, 30 years from now when people are watching it on TV feels as if it could have been made yesterday.” Now there are some restrictions, obviously visual effects are better today so there are certain things that aren’t going to feel timeless, but at the same time, people respond to the fact that this movie has been around for 20 years and it hopefully will be around for another 30, 40, 50 whatever.
It’s funny. I mean, especially your first two films are kind of like feel-good films for fans of the franchise. It’s like, “Oh, we’re going to watch all the Harry Potter movies.” You start there and you’re bright and happy and then it gets progressively darker and it starts to get a little gloomy towards the end. Not that they’re not great films, but it ceases to be that feel-good story that you set up so well in the first film.
Yeah. I mean I’m just incredibly impressed what the other directors brought to it. Particularly “Deathly Hallows,” to me is a very emotional experience watching that film to see where we started. I mean the destruction of Hogwarts was kind of devastating to me in a weird way. I thought it was masterfully done.
It sounds trite, but Hogwarts is a character in the franchise and it feels like a death when it goes.
There’s no question. I got choked up so many times watching that film that I’ve never seen it again. I saw it at the premiere and I thought, “I can’t go through this again.”
You said Jo told you that it was going to get progressively darker. At the time that you were making “Sorcerer’s Stone,” I believe the fourth book had come out, but none of the others. Were there any other key insights she gave you as you were building this world of what would happen that the public didn’t know yet?
She said there was going to be a death in the fourth book — that was probably our second meeting. And then a few weeks later, somebody came into the office with three giant boxes. Each box had a manuscript that was [huge]. It was the 450-page version, typewritten. So David Heyman, the producer, Steve Kloves, and myself got the book, sat down and read it. That’s what we did that day and realized who was going to die. Thankfully not Harry, Hermione, or Ron. Poor Robert Pattinson.
And then we didn’t know, but Alan Rickman knew where Snape was going. So once he decided to do the movie, or maybe he hadn’t decided. I don’t really remember, but he had dinner with Jo Rowling, who told him where Snape’s character was going. So I’d be on the set, Alan would be doing the scene and there would be one or two moments that seemed a little odd to me. Some sort of idiosyncratic behavior and I didn’t understand why he was doing it. I would go up to him after the take and I’d say, “Alan, what was that?” He goes, “You’ll know after you read book seven.” I thought, “Why don’t you tell me? I’m the director for Christ’s sake!” (Laughs)
As you said you had great experience casting kids in your previous films and I know the search for the kids in this film was tough, but I’m curious about the casting of the adult actors. And again, Harry Potter was this beloved children’s book series, but how difficult or easy was it to get people like Richard Harris and Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith in a big fantasy kind of children’s film?
Well, I don’t like to call it a children’s film. People call them family films, but they are family films, in the fact that I never make these movies for kids. I make them for the parents and the kids as well. This is a movie that I wanted parents to be able to watch with their kids. So in doing that, you cast the adult actors with the best possible adult actors you can find. So it doesn’t become, as they say in England, pantomime, and you want to feel real. We didn’t have difficulty with any characters. It’s just David Heyman and I went on what we call the Potter Dinner Tour. We took Richard Harris out to dinner to convince him. Finally, it was his granddaughter who convinced him. We went to visit Maggie Smith. She was doing [the London stage show] “Woman in the Van.” We had champagne with her in her dressing room, convinced her there.
Alan Rickman we took out to dinner, he probably wasn’t convinced until that fateful dinner with Jo Rowling, where he found out, “Oh, there’s more to this character.” Because he didn’t want to play a villain. He did “Die Hard,” I think he did “Robin Hood.” I think he was kind of tired. He didn’t want to be typecast as the villain, but I’m so glad he did it because he was our only choice. We basically got all of our first choices in terms of the British royalty of actors, which was remarkable.
It’s incredible. And that’s again, another foundational piece that you created there that lived on in the future films. You start to see, obviously you got Kenneth Brannagh for “Chamber of Secrets,” but it just kept going and then it started to become, who’s going to be left out before they finish the film series? Which esteemed British actors are not going to be able to get into this franchise?
Right. It’s interesting to debate who didn’t get it. I mean, it was obviously a crushing blow when Richard Harris passed away. I remember an interesting thing because [“Prisoner of Azkaban” director] Alfonso [Cuarón] and I met with Peter O’Toole about playing Dumbledore, and he was close except Richard was his best friend and he felt it was intrusive from an acting point of view so he decided not to do it.
Something I’m also interested about is you have to kind of show the face of Voldemort in this first film. You know that eventually he’s going to materialize again. What were the conversations that went into the design of that face and that appearance, knowing that eventually an actor was probably going to be cast?
Well, the great thing is in the book he’s very well described. I mean, there’s certain elements in the first book, like Quidditch, where we needed Jo Rowling to give us a playbook of exactly how it was played, because I didn’t want anyone to come in and not understand the sport. With Voldemort, he was written very specifically. So the design came very quickly. It’s snakelike. He’s missing his nose for lack of a better way to describe that. And what’s really eerie to me and remarkable is that’s not Ralph Fiennes in the first movie. It’s a different actor, but if you look at subsequent films some people have said to me that it is Ralph Fiennes. I had a couple of people who were convinced it was Ralph Fiennes and I’m telling them, “No, it’s not.” So that was a design that actually worked in our favor by casting someone else.
Obviously you had worked with John Williams previously in your career, and his Harry Potter theme is incredible. Do you remember the first time you heard his piece of music for this film?
Yeah. I went to see him outside of Boston. I flew from London to Boston and he played some stuff for me and he played that theme on the piano. And I was like a film geek again. Well, I’m always like a film geek. Don’t get me wrong, but at that point I was like, “F—. This guy.” This is the guy who wrote the “Jaws” theme. This is the “Raiders” guy. This is the “Star Wars” guy. And now we’ve got this. And I felt that way when he did the “Home Alone” theme as well, but he’s just responsible for so many iconic themes. No one else can do that. So yeah, and the rest of the scores are pretty brilliant as well. It’s puzzling to me. I’ve never asked the question probably because I’m embarrassed, but I was like, “When I left, why did John William stop?” “Azkaban” was his last [“Harry Potter”] score. I don’t know the answer. I just find it a little odd.
I thought I had heard they were going to try and get him back to the final film, but it never happened. [Editor’s note: Williams was unable to score “Goblet of Fire” due to schedule conflicts, but admitted to missing the franchise in 2007.]
He was probably like, “Why didn’t you hire me for the other five?”
Exactly. I know this was a Herculean undertaking for you. I know there was a lot of stress involved. What do you remember about opening weekend? When those box office returns started coming in and the reviews were coming and you’re getting audience reception?
It was a great sense of validation in the sense that we didn’t know. You never know. We knew that the film worked because we did a couple of previews. Particularly a Chicago preview where our first cut was a three-hour cut. Parents afterwards said it was too long, the kids said it was too short. I thought, well, the kids presumably have a shorter attention span so this is a good thing. So opening weekend, I remember I was in London with my kids and we’re watching the film in a theater and my cellphone rang and I went into the lobby because I knew it was Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who was the head of Warner Brothers at the time. He told me the numbers and said it was going to be the biggest opening of all time at that point.
The weirdest thing is I felt nothing. I felt, “Oh, yeah.” Some weird part of me switched off, “Oh, this is what we were hoping for.” But I didn’t celebrate. I was like, “That’s great.” But what it did was, because I was already starting to shoot “Chamber of Secrets” on that Monday, I had a tremendous amount of mental freedom on “Chamber of Secrets.” No second guessing. Just had the greatest time of my life because I did exactly what I wanted on the first Potter, but I was questioning it.
There’s a difference because you always question yourself as a director, but when you have that kind of freedom. I thought, “Oh this is great.” I envy the other directors who came along because I probably lost five years of my life directing that first film, but they didn’t have to deal with that craziness. You know, I was amazed.
You did all the foundational work.
I’m not saying I do at all hard work, but I did all the mental anguish.
I think I speak for everyone when I say I would like to see that three-hour cut and I hope that it gets released at some point.
I would too. We have to put Peeves back in the movie who was cut from the movie!