More than two decades ago, “Harry Potter” mania was at an all-time high. The fervor that surrounded J.K. Rowling’s fantasy novel about a bespectacled boy who finds out he’s a famous wizard translated to stratospheric expectations for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first movie adaptation of the beloved series.
The film, which opened on Nov. 16, 2001, became an instant box office sensation, paving way for one of the most successful franchises in movie history and turning then-unknown stars Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint into household names. (And, not for nothing, taught die-hard fans how to correctly pronounce the name Hermione.)
On the occasion of the film’s 20th anniversary, director Chris Columbus spoke to Variety about bringing the fantastical wizarding world to life.
Given the popularity of the books, did you feel pressure making the first “Harry Potter” movie?
I had every expectation that I would probably be fired within the first two weeks. I was very, I don’t want to say anxious, but aware of the fact that if I screw this up, I probably will never work again. And I would have millions of fans at my door just infuriated. I knew I was taking on something fairly gigantic, and I’ve never been involved in a project that had so much scrutiny. Aside from Warner Brothers hiring me, I still had to meet with Jo Rowling. She had the final say. I flew to Scotland to meet with her and we talked for about two and a half, maybe three hours, to explain my vision for the film. She didn’t say much. Then when I finished, she said, “I see the film exactly the same way.” I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got it.’ That was a moment of pure elation, followed quickly by sheer panic. I knew I had to deliver a film that would not only please fans, but also myself because I was a fan. That kind of got me through filming. I said to myself, ‘I’ve got to make this film for myself.’ I didn’t think about the billions of eyes that would be on this film when it was released.
Do you remember your pitch to J.K. Rowling?
We talked about the look of the film, production design, creature design. We had none of that because it wasn’t on film at that point. I explained where I saw the visual style of the film. As a result, she felt like we were in sync. She had been through meetings with other directors, and there was always talk about combining the first two books [into one movie], adding cheerleaders to the Quidditch game, and all things she wasn’t into. Also, I was determined to keep the film with an entirely British cast. That was probably one of the most important things for her.
What was it like working with Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint as young actors?
In the first film, there was not a lot of professional experience between the three leads. That’s why that film was filled with so many cuts. I could only really shoot, for the first three months, a close up of one of the actors before they would lose concentration. The first couple of weeks, all the kids were so excited to be part of the “Harry Potter” film, they were basically just smiling into the cameras. I couldn’t get them to stop smiling, and it really became an exercise and acting class for me as a director. By the time we got to the second film, we were able to do tracking shots and the kids could shoot a master and have a conversation within those shots. They became very professional by the time they got to “Chamber of Secrets,” and then by the time we did “Prisoner of Azkaban,” you could basically shoot the entire film in 15 single takes if you wanted.
What was the hardest scene to film?
They were all tricky. Quidditch comes to mind because it was a lot of green screen work. That was a situation where the kids couldn’t see anything, they had nothing tangible to work with. I basically became the fourth actor in the movie because a lot of these situations, there’s nothing there for them. In the chess match, they really were able to relate because we built everything. There are a few CG moments in the film, but even the explosions were real. The kids were like, “We’re on a real set with tangible, life-sized chess pieces.” The bigger challenges were when they had to interact with things that weren’t there. For me, it was kind of a workout. It was very physical in terms of me pretending to be whatever character, whether it was Voldemort on the back of [Professor] Quirrell’s head or the Basilisk in the second film. I was off-camera pretending to be those characters, which is quite insane if you think about it, but the only way I could actually get some of those performances out of the kids when they didn’t have anything to react to.
Do you have a favorite quote from the movie?
Oh, God. I haven’t seen it in a while.
When is the last time you watched it?
I don’t think since I went to the screening the very first day it opened. I was in London at the time, we were already shooting “Chamber of Secrets.” That’s when I saw the film completed. And I haven’t seen it since. That being said, I see pieces of it all the time, particularly from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day when it’s on every single cable channel 24 -7. If I’m flipping through the channels, I’ll stop and watch a scene. It is very melancholy because I’m very proud of this first film. Being able to smile and realize people are watching this 20 years down the road, it’s a nice feeling.
What about a favorite scene?
My favorite moment in the film was something we shot at end at the train station. If you look at the film, you can see we were trying to be faithful to the book where Hermione had protruding teeth. She was made fun of in the books for having large front teeth. It was a big part of books, and I was concerned that we should be faithful. We had these fake teeth made for Emma, and she’s wearing them in that final scene. They were so difficult for her to speak with that we’ve decided never to use them again, but you can see them if you look carefully. Anyway, there’s a moment with Dan as he looks back to Hogwarts, and someone mentions something about going home. And he said his line: “I’m not going home, not really.” I remember looking over at [producer] David Heyman, we’re standing next to each other, and I yelled, “cut.” David and I both had tears in our eyes. We were like, “That was beautiful.” He was fantastic.
“You’re a wizard, Harry” has become one of the most memorable lines. Was there conversation about Hagrid’s delivery?
Not really, because the lion’s share of my work was dealing with all the kids. I had the fortune of working with probably the greatest British cast in a long time: Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris and Maggie Smith. They understood their characters immediately because everyone had read the books. When you’re working with British actors, there’s the sense of high professionalism. You get a lot of American stars who are complaining that their trailer isn’t as big as someone else’s. So Robbie Coltrane delivering the line “You’re a wizard, Harry,” he got it on the first take. I probably did two other takes for safety, but he knew that character inside out. Even Alan Rickman had some insight because he had dinner with Jo Rawling and Jo explained to him where the character was going. He knew exactly how to play Snape in his very first scene because he knew where Snape was going to end up in books.
Was there anything J.K. Rowling wanted you to know about what would come later in the series?
No. She wasn’t a specific. I would beg Alan, “Please tell me where you’re going.” And he goes, “Trust me.” I had to trust him because he knew where the character was going more than the director did. But I didn’t notice anything off-putting or weird or strange about Alan’s performance. He seemed to be the perfect Snape. With [screenwriter] Steve [Kloves] and I, Jo gave us the basic, general idea of where the books were going. We didn’t really have that much information.
How do you make villains like Voldemort and Snape seem scary in a kid’s movie?
We push it. You don’t want to underplay it. In any of the family films I’ve made, whether it’s “Home Alone” or “Mrs. Doubtfire,” we always were making those films for adults. I know it sounds strange, but I wanted to make the “Potter” films for the parents as well as the kids. The tendency is to push the scares and the darkness a little more than you normally would because you can cut back. That’s why test screenings are so valuable. We only had three books up until that point, but [Rowling] explained to us how dark the series was going to get. We knew the first movie was not that particularly dark, but when you get to “Chamber of Secrets,” the color palette is a little different. It’s not as warm. We set the tone of where we were going with this series. I always err on the side of “make it as scary as possible” and then cut back on it in the editing room.
It’s pretty long for a kid’s movie. Did you get any pushback from the studio about the runtime?
Not at all. Since “Home Alone,” I’ve always had a superstition about doing test screenings in Chicago, so the studio flew us from London to Chicago to screen the film. At that point, it was nearly three hours long. We did the focus group, and all the parents said the film is too long, and all the kids said it’s too short. “Where’s this scene?” I knew it was working when I saw kids at that screening sprinting to go to the bathroom and sprinting back because they didn’t want to miss anything.
Do you keep in touch with any cast members?
Dan Radcliffe, probably the most. Tom Felton and I texted a lot.
J.K. Rowling has been outspoken about her views on transgender identity. What would you say to her long-time fans who found her comments to be at odds with the “Harry Potter” franchise’s overarching themes of empathy, love and diversity?
I really don’t have any comment on that. I don’t want to get involved. Sorry.
There’s already a prequel series with “Fantastic Beasts.” Do you think there will be more “Harry Potter” movies?
I would love to direct “The Cursed Child.” It’s a great play and the kids are actually the right age to play those roles. It’s a small fantasy of mine.