‘Harry Potter’: There Will Be ‘Half-Blood’

With this week’s decision to push the sixth Harry Potter film into summer ’09, it’ll be almost a year until fans see a Hogwarts rocked by teen angst and the death of a main character. Here’s what we learned on the set

By Jeff Jensen

NEWS FLASH: On August 14, the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was moved to summer 2009. But here’s the early word. For more on the postponement, see Hollywood Insider.

The tears have dried. The goose bumps have faded. The books, a complete set now, are lined on the shelf, gathering dust. In our imagination, Harry Potter lives happily ever after, his work as a global pop icon and publishing profit center now finished.

Almost.

At Leavesden Film Studios outside London, under a leaky roof dripping rain from an April downpour, Daniel Radcliffe stands on a crumbling stairwell that descends into a derelict corner of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, thumbing out a text message on his cell phone. At the call to ”Action!” the young star slips the phone into his trousers and spirals down the stairs to find costar Emma Watson sitting on a step, stifling tears. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, adapted from J.K. Rowling‘s penultimate Potter novel, Harry’s pal Hermione Granger (Watson) is realizing that her heart belongs to Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). The problem: Ron has just hooked up with Lavender Brown (newcomer Jessie Cave). In this scene, Harry tries to console his friend, but the job becomes infinitely harder when Ron and Lavender come bumbling into this dark corner of Hogwarts looking for a place to snog. Hermione shoos them away with a magical gust of wind, then weeps harder. Even after ”Cut!” Watson continues to tear up, and Radcliffe offers comfort with a lingering side hug and whispered praise. ”Bloody f—ing brilliant, Emma. Just top-notch.”

Don’t let this snippet of young love fool you, though: Half-Blood Prince continues to push Harry deeper into adult territory. Against the backdrop of terrorist attacks by Voldemort’s Death Eaters, Harry madly preps for his fated doomsday face-off against the Dark Lord, and studies Voldemort’s sordid past via private Pensieve lessons with an increasingly enigmatic Dumbledore (Michael Gambon). He seeks a series of enchanted objects called Horcruxes that contain fragments of Voldy’s soul, and flushes out a secret held by new Potions teacher Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). As for the identity of the titular royal…oh, go read the book already, will you? ”Until now, there’s been all sorts of talk about finding and fighting Voldemort,” Radcliffe says. ”In this film, Harry starts taking steps towards actually doing that.”

Of course, we know we won’t get to witness Harry’s high-noon wand-off with the snaky-snouted villain (Ralph Fiennes) until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows plays out over the course of two more films. And because we all know this, Prince raises an unprecedented question about the biggest film franchise in history: Will moviegoers still be wild about Harry? ”I’m not going to lie to you,” says Oscar-nominated screenwriter Steve Kloves, returning to his role as official franchise scribe after taking the fifth film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, off. ”I do have some concern that because the books are over, the anticipation for the movies won’t be the same.” Yes, the films have surged in popularity since Alfonso Cuarón‘s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban set them on an edgier course. And yes, there are those who follow the saga only through the movies — which is why we’ll refrain from discussing Prince‘s monumental 90-hanky death. Yet even within the top ranks of a moviemaking operation as bloody well run as Harry Potter, there is, well, mild freaking out. Kloves allows himself an improbable thought, then laughs. ”It would be a complete car crash if no one showed up.”

Published in 2005 to then-record-breaking sales and upstaging a summer movie season that included the final Star Wars prequel, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a 652-page tome that, as usual, tells its story in the rhythms of an academic school year. But it boasts one welcome departure from the other books — a story line that traces the evolution of He Who Must Not Be Named from a damaged lad named Tom Riddle into a diabolical hooray-for-genocide! despot. That narrative is dramatized through several meaty flashbacks, with Harry and Dumbledore magically diving into pools of liquid memory and eavesdropping from shadowy corners like ghostly voyeurs. ”It illustrates just how much the past informs the present and how much an act of evil can reverberate through the years and affect so many lives,” Kloves says.

Which is all very fancy-pants literary, but as raw material for a movie, it presented a challenge. Screenwriting 101 says movies need to keep moving forward and have protagonists that, like, do stuff, not just lurk about and watch other people do stuff. Kloves was girding himself for a grind, but after writing an unwieldy draft that included almost every flashback, the scribe and the franchise’s current auteur in residence, David Yates, changed course. ”We distilled the flashbacks down to three,” says the director, whose dark adaptation of Phoenix grossed $938.5 million globally (second only to the first Potter flick) and who has signed on for both Hallows films. ”We see Voldemort as a little boy, and then on two occasions we see him as a student. By doing that, we honor the spirit of what Jo [Rowling] had done but avoid getting stuck in narrative cul-de-sacs.” Yates, whose bookish demeanor belies an exuberant, boyish energy, was a celebrated TV director in England prior to Potter. He says the franchise’s ”great creative canvas” inspired him to return. ”You’ve got the biggest train set in the world here,” he says. ”If you can think it, you can do it.”

Yates was a firm yet gentle leader on set. After watching Radcliffe and Watson execute a lackluster take of that scene on the staircase earlier that day, Yates bounded out of his chair, zipped up to the stage, and said, in a way that actually sounded constructive and sweet, ”It feels like you’ve rehearsed this a million times before and you’re just falling into it. I need you to throw yourselves into this.” The kids certainly had good reason to raise their game. With Yates and Kloves choosing to abbreviate Voldemort’s backstory, Prince brings the Harry/Ron/Hermione friendship front and center. Put another way: ”There’s more for me to do, which I’m really pleased about,” says Grint, who, with Watson, had seen diminished screen time over the past two movies because of an adaptation strategy, initiated by Cuarón, to keep the focus on Harry. A subplot from Phoenix in which Ron became a Quidditch jock was scrapped, for example, but it’s now been revived for Prince. Sadly, Grint found that manufacturing the illusion of the high-flying sport wasn’t that exhilarating. ”I always wanted to do it,” says the redheaded actor, who turns 20 this month. ”But imagine literally sitting on a broom for hours in a big blue room, just on your own. A bit boring, and it does hurt quite a bit. Something of an anticlimax, I guess.”

Watson, 18, had initially resigned herself to having a smaller role in Prince. ”Reading the book, I didn’t think Hermione would be in it that much, but it’s turned out to be the most interesting and challenging experience yet,” she says. A private, artsy soul who was the last of the trio to sign on for the final films, Watson relied on her own journals and instincts to connect with Hermione’s achy-breaky heart. Radcliffe had to maneuver through his own amorous maze in Prince — the opening sequence finds Harry flirting with a waitress, and at Hogwarts, he becomes increasingly smitten with Ron’s sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright). He says he played the scenes by importing lessons from ”the Daniel Radcliffe school of flirting.” Which means? ”Look at them until they notice you and hope for the best,” he says. You wouldn’t think the hectic life of Harry Potter would allow much time for cultivating real-life dating experience, but somehow Radcliffe has acquired some. ”I never had any idea how to talk to girls until a year or so ago,” says the 19-year-old actor during a break from shooting last April. ”I still come out with trivial crap when I’m flirting, but I like to think I’m doing it in a faintly endearing way.”

There was one bit of romantic intrigue that didn’t make it into Prince, however. In Kloves’ first draft of the screenplay, he had written a line (not in the book) in which Dumbledore fondly recalls a Muggle girl from his youth. He was quickly, quietly corrected. ”I was walking through Leavesden with Jo on our way to the first reading,” Kloves remembers. ”As we entered the Great Hall, she leaned toward me and whispered, ‘I saw the line you gave Dumbledore, but the thing is this: Dumbledore is gay.”’ After Rowling revealed the wizard’s sexuality to the rest of the filmmaking team — and before she made international headlines last fall by sharing this news publicly — Yates decided to strike the line. ”I just felt the scene worked without it,” he says. ”I think the fact that Dumbledore is gay is wonderful. It feels very authentic to the character.”

Prince‘s lovey-dovey angles make for a warmer film than Phoenix and serve as the calm before the storm that is Hallows, but the movie isn’t When Harry Met Sally…. ”This is very much a love story set against the backdrop of war,” says producer David Heyman. In a new scene, approved by Rowling and designed to dramatize Harry’s embattled world, an idyllic interlude at the Weasley home is violently interrupted by an attack from the Death Eaters. The film also includes the heaviest moment in the franchise to date — the one involving He Whose Death Must Not Be Named (so as not to spoil it for people who haven’t read the book). Radcliffe says shooting that sequence challenged him because there were extras on set at the time, many of whom treated it like a party. Complicating matters, the young actor has limited experience dealing with death, and worried over how to play the scene. ”I don’t pretend to have given an incredibly accurate rendering,” he says. ”To people who have lost people in their lives, if I don’t bring to the screen what they would want or expect to see, I take responsibility for that and apologize.”

He’s sensitive and respectful, self-deprecating yet serious — it’s hard not to be impressed by Radcliffe. By all the kids. It has been fashionable to bash director Chris Columbus for his too-literal adaptations of the first two Potter books, but damn if his casting doesn’t make him look smart. ”There’s an awful lot of so-called ‘child stars’ who get sucked into this business, and next thing you know they’re 15 and in rehab,” says Robbie Coltrane, who plays Hagrid. ”That hasn’t happened here. If anyone came here and said a rude thing about them, I think 300 strong men would leap into action and kill.”

Watson is slated to shoot her first leading-lady role this fall, the period drama Napoleon and Betsy, and plans to enroll at Cambridge. She says the stable, nurturing environment established by Columbus and Heyman is ”the reason Dan, Rupert, and I aren’t completely insane.” Or at least not insane in a bad way. Grint is one delightfully quirky dude — a guy who drives an ice cream truck, plays the didgeridoo, and claims The Joy of Painting as his favorite TV show. He’s no longer a kid, but that doesn’t mean he’s quite ready to leave Potter behind. ”It’s going to be sad when it’s over,” Grint says. ”I’ll be 22. It’s been such a big part of my life — half my life, actually, by the time we finish. Hopefully, I’ll do other stuff when this is over.”

The future weighs on all of them, none more so than Radcliffe. Committed to making acting his profession, he’s taken a spate of work recently that’s decidedly outside the Potter universe — most notably his emotionally and physically naked West End theater debut in Equus, which earned him admiring reviews during its blockbuster London run last year. (He’ll be reprising the role in New York on Broadway beginning Sept. 5.) ”If I had just done these films without doing anything else, I would have become very frustrated, and would have started worrying more about the pressure of life after Potter,” Radcliffe says. He hopes that his extracurricular acting will ”ease the public into the idea that I am going to be doing other things.”

Still, it will be a while before Radcliffe knows whether his exit strategy has succeeded. At the very least, he can say that his stage work has prepared him for Hallows, which begins shooting next spring. The young actor says he’s most looking forward to the haunting, emotional sequence in which Harry walks through a forest toward his final confrontation with Voldemort, accompanied by the ghosts of Sirius Black, his parents, and others. He’s also excited to shoot Harry’s last, dreamy encounter with Dumbledore, although he recently reread the sequence in the book and made the surprising discovery that Harry is naked during the scene. ”At first, I thought I had pants on,” Radcliffe says. ”Apparently not.” Is he nervous? ”Bah, I’ve sort of done that,” he says, with mock bravado. ”It’s all old hat now, really.”


Original article can be found here at Entertainment Weekly I August 13, 2008

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