JK Rowling’s Harry Potter is celebrating his 15th anniversary this year, and as our own little offering towards that celebration we’re offering the first in a series of never-before-posted interviews with personnel involved with the film versions. Things kick off with director Alfonso Cuaron, who helmed one of the most beloved entries in the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. These interviews are being presented as originally written to preserve the time frame in which they were first presented.
Much as was the case with the novels they’re based on, the Harry Potter films have been growing increasingly darker with each subsequent entry, following the natural evolution of J.K. Rowling’s three young wizard heroes: Harry, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley.
The first two films — Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets — were directed by Chris Columbus, previously best known for the first two Home Alone movies as well as Mrs. Doubtfire and Stepmom. As presented, they were, for the most part, family-friendly fare. But move along to adventure number three, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and you’re entering edgier territory with the lead characters well into adolescence and attempting to cope with their hormones, their growing abilities as wizards, and life and death situations. Add to this, the criminal wizard Sirius Black, accused of killing numerous people, including Harry’s parents, has broken free from Azkaban prison, and a turn of events that leaves the characters not knowing who they can truly trust.
Leading the journey into this new frontier for Harry and company is Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, whose credits include the sexually charged teen drama Y tu mama tambien (2001). As evident from his previous work with young actors, one is led to believe that Cuaron will ensure that this particular adventure is pretty far removed from what’s come before in terms of emotions and characterizations.
“This is not something that I am trying to do with their emotions, because I think it is implicit in the material,” says Cuaron. “These kids are a little older and in that moment of life where that little older means a lot older, while they’re still carrying a lot of vulnerabilities of earlier years. The age of 13 is archetypical in every civilization on this planet. It is the rite of passage; the moment of awareness and awakening or it is the moment of disappearance, if you think of Jesus when he was 13. We know his life from 0 to 13, and then he disappears until he is 33. Thirteen is the age of bar mitzvahs, first communions and so on. Because of that, it is not that the film is darker, it’s just more internal.
“A film I did called A Little Princess was a great experience in terms of working with a great group of girls,” he adds. “One thing I learned was the amazing emotional understanding that kids have when they are into acting or into make believe. It’s not like they’re just making pretty faces or faking it; they go into real places and they’re willing. They have the understanding that it can be a game, in that you can make believe your character is in a lot of pain, but that you have the control of the make believe. With Harry Potter, I was so lucky that these three kids have done a couple of movies already, so they’ve got the whole technical experience. Now they want to take themselves seriously as actors, so pretty much they put themselves in your hands. They’re very eager and willing and courageous. They deliver really interesting performances. It’s a natural evolution in terms of what these characters are becoming.”
In a recent interview, Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry, expressed his opinion that the character in Prisoner of Azkaban actually bears some similarity to the more angry Harry of the fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix, which adds to this film’s darker tone.
“I think it’s a natural progression,” opines Cuaron. “I think the young teens will find that it’s cool, because they’ll relate to it. It’s not dark for the sake of going dark. I don’t even know if anger is the right word, but I will say there is a constant anger at that age. I think kids are going to relate to that. I am surprised that Dan said that about number five and I don’t agree with him, though there is some thematic connection. It has to do with male energy. In this one Harry comes to terms with his male energy, his father and what his father is. He knows that even though the man is dead, his fatherly energy is inside him. He knows how to work it out. The fifth book is about disappointment about the father figure. In that sense, I think the third and the fifth are very connected.”
The rapport between the director and his cast of Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint started early in their collaborative relationship when they sat down to not only talk about their characters, but the whole notion of being 13; the transition between being a child and being a teenager.
“I asked them to write a first-person bio of the character they were playing,” details Cuaron, “but immersing them in their own experiences and their own emotions. They delivered these amazing essays, really beautiful, very honest, very bare and very courageous. That became an amazing tool and an amazing key to work with them. I also think it allowed them to have a better emotional understanding of the characters. Sometimes it was a shortcut to be able to say, ‘This is more the Hermione side of your mind.’ Emma would get it immediately without having to go into big conversations or examples, because it’s honestly coming from something that she wrote, that she experienced.”
Lest anyone forget, the Harry Potter films are mega-budget productions with hundreds of visual effects shots that, on the surface, would seem to be overwhelming to a filmmaker whose credits consist largely of low budget dramas and Mexican TV shows. For his part, Cuaron admits that he nearly turned the film down, largely because he didn’t see how he would be able to create his own vision in the middle of a franchise’s trajectory.
“I thought it would be really hard to make my own film and that was a reason for a little hesitation in taking this job,” he says. “I talked to my friend Guillermo del Toro and he was championing me to do this. He said, ‘If you do it, serve the material. Don’t try to do an Alfonso Cuaron movie, just serve the material and by serving the material you may be doing your best movie ever.’ Starting from that point, it then became very interesting, because then it was actually a pleasure trying to go into the transition [from Columbus]. It then became a sweet challenge, not a difficult one. As long as it was serving the material that meant, above else, first serving the book and then the position of this film in the franchise of Harry Potter. You didn’t want people to feel like they were going into this movie and were suddenly in an alien world. You want them to feel as though they’re in the same universe. It has to be recognizable enough, but at the same time I wanted to have fun. I was blessed to have great source material and to be surrounded by a universe that was very eloquently created [for film] by Chris Columbus and [production designer] Stuart Craig.”
The transition wasn’t always easy to make. Granted that in the beginning things were fairly smooth in that the “machinery,” as Cuaron likes to refer to it, was very much in place and for the most part running smoothly. “In the beginning,” he laughs, “it’s a pleasure because you don’t have to put together a film, it’s already moving and I was part of the machinery. But the thing about this machinery is that once it starts running, it doesn’t stop and you have to catch up to it. After a smooth beginning you find you have to speed up, speed up, then you’re running and soon you realize that your scarf got attached to the machinery and if you don’t run at the same pace, you’re going to get strangled. So after a while it becomes kind of tough because you’re shooting long hours as you’re editing and doing visual effects all at the same time. That was the toughest thing.”
One would have thought that the toughest thing for Cuaron to handle would be the visual effects in the sense that it was a world he hadn’t had much experience in prior to this film. “My approach to the visual effects is that I wanted to do a character-driven piece with cool visual effects, rather than a visual effects movie with some characters running around,” he offers good-naturedly. “I think the first thing we should do was subordinate the visual effects totally to the story and to the universe, and part of the rule was to make it look as real as possible and as organic as everything else. Originally I was suspicious about CG, so I went to use more old fashioned things like split screens and puppets. The Dementors [the wraith-like guards at Azkaban] were designed first, so we made puppets of them and we used a puppeteer named Basil Twist, who is based in San Francisco. He does puppets underwater, so he has these beautiful fabrics for underwater. He came to supervise some tests for how the Dementors should work or move, but we knew we had to go CG. The wise men at ILM took our Dementor underwater test for motion reference, and those tests showed the fabrics floating and moving very eerily, and that was incorporated into the movement of the Dementors.
“In the beginning,” he continues, “I was a little frustrated because with all the creatures —including the hippogriff, which is half horse and half bird — I wanted to start working on the design, but they kept working on bones and stuff. What they were trying to do was understand the logistics of a creature that is impossible, because the way that a bird works is absolutely not compatible with the way that a horse works. So it was a whole anatomic thing and for a while we were immersed in that and then we started to create the design. It was amazing how the designers then started to have such an organic motion. My whole concern about the visual effects was that they look good, and fundamental to that is the lighting. It’s amazing to have a cinematographer like Michael Seresin involved in the visual effects aspect of finishing the film. So when we’re doing the creatures like a hippogriff, a werewolf or the Dementors, the light of the effects are dictated by the light on the set. We have Michael working with the light and every single shot has to have an eloquence of light. I think that’s one of the keys to things looking good, just paying attention to the light.”
One seeming disadvantage to a film based on so wildly a successful a book series as Rowling’s is that, in a sense, any attempt at crafting twists and turns in the narrative would seem to be frustrated by advance knowledge on the part of millions of fans.
“I think that emotionally it’s so charged, that even if you know the truth, you enjoy the moments in which the big information is revealed,” Cuaron muses. “And also because you’re going along with the characters. Even if you know the twist — everyone knows the Titanic is going to sink — you still want to see how we carry on until that moment. So that creates a whole new dynamic and relationship to the material.”
Any adaptation of a Harry Potter book requires a certain amount of consistency from film to film, the real question is how Cuaron will make his work on the series stand apart from Columbus and Goblet of Fire director Michael Newell.
“I’m not trying to do anything unique,” he admits. “The funny thing is, I’m trying to serve the story, but at the same time I’m a different mind than Michael or Chris. I operate in different ways and I respond to different things and I have different flows and different urges than the two of them. I made some decisions in this film which were not just to stand out, but because I felt they were the right things in my understanding of how to serve the story. I think you have to see the film to decide what I contributed to it. But this whole thing has been an interesting lesson for your ego where you just surrender yourself to the material. And you find out that by restraining yourself, you’re doing some of your best work.”
For a look back at Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire with producer David Heyman and director Mike Newell, click HERE.