Before we even start this, let's do something important. Yesterday we found something that people on this Web site have been searching out since its inception. Yes, I'm talking about the Leaky Cauldron. Not the place. THE CAULDRON. Check it out.
And if you think that working on a Harry Potter Web site for nearly 11 years could make you jaded, or make finding the physical object upon which your Internet enterprises are based any less flabberghasting, well, I encourage you to look at this:
That's what happens when a Leaky webmistress stumbles upon the site's eponymous cauldron used in a fictional pub during the third film of the Harry Potter series. (And, you've got to know I love you to put it here. Yeesh.)
Of course, it's not the real one. There is no real one. That last sentence was inserted just for people who scoff at how we all take it too literally. Shuttup, you. We know. We are SANE. We know it's all fiction and fantasy.
But that's what's somewhat amazing about all of this: I have seen every set since I went to Prisoner of Azkaban in 2003, when I was the very first and only fan reporter to set foot on those now famous flagged stone floors - something which, though common now, at the time was secret and careful and precious. It felt like an experiment in a fan's ability not to cause medical emergencies while surrounded by Potterania. Will she survive? Will she restrain herself from nervous collapse?
For nearly a decade the WB warnings have rung in my head: Don't take a picture! Don't sneak a shot! You can't talk about this part! That part's a secret! If you tell ANYONE about ThisorThat thing we will have your head. We will send 13 scary clowns and, for good measure, the cast of Jersey Shore to your apartment WHILE YOU SLEEP! Beware the wrath!
We have beworn the wrath. And beworn it well. So I cannot overestimate what it is like to walk back into Leavesden for the something-something-number time, and hear the words, "Take whatever pictures you want."
What? Seriously? Can I just...touch this table here? Can I really lay myself down on the flagged stone? (We don't recommend this! It's just hard and cold. No magic will get into you by osmosis, though you do risk the chance of a few diseases.) Is it all right to just take my telephoto lens and zoom into the microfibers of Luna's Christmas tree dress? What about if I just cop a feel on Buckbeak? Can I really peer into Weasley Wizard Wheezes? And is security really not going to attack me in V-formation if I just...put my toe on the Knight Bus?
Going to these places and writing about them for Leaky all of these years has made them feel as though they only existed behind a veil. You couldn't know what it was like to be there unless, well, you had been there. Not really. Words are magic but they are not teleportation devices. Yesterday, I stood in the Great Hall, having a casual conversation with an old friend. A few minutes in I and stopped and said, "Hang on. I'm having a casual conversation with you. In the Great Hall."
Over the next few weeks you will see all the pictures, hear all the stories, get all the tidbits (yes, tons of cats in Umbridge's office; yes, that's a real stone statue; yes, filling the school hourglasses caused a bead shortage in Britain; yes, the Chamber door is that big). All of that is a ton of fun, and we will certainly be giving you lots of it (starting later today with press junket coverage).
Forgive me, but I don't think that's the real story here. After more than a decade of the type of tight security that had to include using doubles to fake out paparazzi and enough confidentiality waiver-waving to make the most gung-ho lawyer blush, it's all out there in the open. What other franchise could sustain a memorial this complicated and artful? What other movie series or cultural enterprise could expect success across multiple theme parks, a touring exhibition, eight blockbuster movies, seven still-record-breaking books, and now a museum of no-longer-in-use props and sets?
Star Wars and Lord of the Rings come to mind, as they often do in comparison to Harry Potter, but there's something bigger at work here: this franchise has ushered in a period in which moviemaking holds high the value of fidelity to source material. Look (yes) at Twilight; look most especially at The Hunger Games. Important, hugely commercial, big-even-for-Hollywood films that trust the source material: and it's more and more common, and Harry Potter is partly (perhaps even mostly) to blame, along with Lord of the Rings. If anyone thought that doing all that was easy, or involved cutting corners, or that all the stories of the hundreds of thousands of hours of worksmanship involved were bunk or even a tiny bit exaggerated, all they need to do is head to Leavesden. Which you can DO now. Legally. You don't have to hover around the outside like a big ol' creeper anymore.
It's also not just about the minutia: great effort has been made to make this a theatrical and intense experience for even the most hard-core fan, from the opening videos to the transition into the actual space, to the highlighting of the important fanly moments (the front gates of Hogwarts are right there for prime photo-taking opportunities, and it is not a let down to stand under them and imagine).
There were several times while finally seeing the finished product that I turned a corner and gasped: a combination of what I was leaving to what I saw just around a corner, and the placement of the music (which, while expectedly the film score, is curated in such a way as to heighten the entire thing) really made the whole experience come alive. I won't spoil the big finale here (or the entrance moment: and those who are should stop! Come on now, we have limits!). I will, however, talk about the thing that happened right before the gift shop, which was perhaps my favorite thing I've seen on any Harry Potter set, park, experience, whatever:
Instead of a wand shop where you can gawk at the thousands of boxes and stand in slackjawed awe at the artistry, you find yourself surrounded by the boxes of wands who have already found owners. On each of the 4,000+ boxes in that room, you will find the name of someone who worked on the films, in random order. From Daniel Radcliffe down to the very last grip, these names are jumbled and celebrated equally. A lovely man wielding a wand helped point out a few for me: the person who held Dan's second oxygen tank underwater while filming for Goblet of Fire; the janitors; the chefs, and the man who created that giant cauldron which filled me with such unique glee. A perfect, lovely touch: Just like a film, it ends with credits.
I've seen people grumble about prices, but let me tell you from an event-planner's perspective: these are reasonable rates and the (albeit giant) gift shop has things for all budgets. So maybe you won't buy the hundred-pound earrings, but there's some sort of keychain or mug in there for a reasonably sized wallet. I bought the following trinket as a reminder of MY LIFE:
If you've ever bought a picture of yourself on a ride at a theme park, you will also appreciate the pricing on the (really cool) images that you can have made of yourself flying on a broom or in the Ford Anglia. Plus, you know. There's Butterbeer. It's not like we won't all be there.
It's not a theme park. It's not a competitor to Disneyland. If you think that, you're going to be disappointed. Think of it as what it is, and be just as happy: an actual look inside some of the most complicated films ever made. I heard someone at a press conference say it was nice Britain finally "had something" to compete with theme parks. This is untrue. But it does not make this less, or that more. To be frank, I wish the United States had this.
(Disclaimer: I consult for Pottermore, Ltd., but that company is not the same, or a subdivision of, or a parent or owner or child or sister or brother or aunt or uncle or third-cousin-once-removed of Warner Bros. or Warner Bros Studio Tour. So, I can still say I like the Butterbeer and mean it. :)