By M.Y. Simms
As we eagerly await the fifth film in the Harry Potter series (not to mention Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows!), I started thinking about director David Yates, currently working on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Just who is this fellow? I feel a little anxiety in the pit of my stomach as I wonder what his vision of the Harry Potter universe will turn out to be. This director is probably more known in England than he is to North American audiences, something I realized while checking out his profile on IMDB.com. He has done a lot of television work, like Girl in the Café (HBO Films, 2005) and State of Play (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2003) – for which he received an award from the Directors’ Guild of Great Britain. Reassured? Should you be? Do you care? Before answering that, let’s take another look at the first four films to understand how each director has impacted the beloved Harry Potter universe. First, a few clarifications.
We all understand that the director is the person behind the camera who says “action” or “cut”; but of course, the job is so much more than that. The director could be compared to an orchestra conductor, only he has about twenty orchestras going at once! Think of all the departments involved in making a feature film, from casting to set design, from musical score to editing, from cinematography to stunt coordination, to special effects, to the cast, to the extras, to, well… the weather! The director has to bring all these factors together and many more, in perfect harmony while keeping the producers happy (by not going over budget) so that in the end, we can be wowed. It all begins with a vision; in this case, J.K. Rowling’s. Steve Kloves has adapted her work for the screen in the first four films and having worked closely with the author in the beginning, we know that this screenwriter shares her vision. In cinema, the screenplay’s the thing. As they say “If it isn’t on the page, we won’t see it.” Aside from administrative considerations, after securing the screenplay, the next step in bringing the vision to film is choosing a director who can translate the written words into images that reflect a unique universe from his own personal perspective. A million decisions are taken by numerous people before filming starts and throughout the several stages of production, but on the set, the director is the supreme power; he gets the last word. The buck may stop at the producers’ desk, but in the end, the “feel” of the movie rests in the director’s hands. Magic often happens when actors put their egos aside and trust a great director or when a director loosens the reins a little and allows an actor to bring something more to his or her part than was originally intended.
A director has to be many things to many people but above all he has to be a fierce defender of the precious vision that has been entrusted to him (or her). The first two Harry Potter films, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, were directed by Chris Columbus. You may recall that he was also executive producer for these films and producer for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Mr. Columbus has a distinguished career as a director; in North America, his best-known previous works are probably Home Alone (Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1990); Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1992); and Mrs. Doubtfire (Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1993). I have heard and read harsh criticism from fans on many occasions about Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets. The recurring complaint seems to be that these films were too simple and not magical enough, although early consensus was that the movies are almost “exactly like the books!” Remember how you felt when you first saw Sorcerer’s Stone? I don’t know about you but I was charmed. Sure, the films had more innocence, more candour than the ones that followed but hey, so did the protagonists and so did the audience at which these films were aimed. This was supposed to be a kids’ movie, folks; it was supposed to be simple, and I think Chris Columbus did a wonderful job. In all fairness to the directors that would come after him, Mr. Columbus did have the luxury of working with screenplays that contained most of the material in the books, seeing that the first two were much shorter than those that followed. The target was hard to miss.
In Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, the characters we had grown to love came to life thanks to a wonderful cast of seasoned actors as well as inexperienced newcomers to the craft of acting. We get a sense in these films that Mr. Columbus’s directing was extremely sensitive to the disparity between the two groups. Yes, some of the child actors could have been more convincing in certain scenes, but I am fairly certain that a great deal of the fun would have been sacrificed, not just for the actors but for the audience too. I’ll suspend my disbelief for fun anytime! As for the cast of adult actors, can you say: sublime? Here, the director hit the nail on the head at every turn and he assembled many truly skilled masters. The greatest surprise to come out of the movies is the fact that the character of Snape, so hated in the books, became extremely popular, as did the man who portrays him: Alan Rickman. Had Mr. Columbus not let Mr. Rickman do what he does best – which is a meticulous, unique, very theatrical kind of acting that takes TIME and commands attention because every-word-he-utters-takes-for-ever-to-
find-its-way-out-of-his-mouth, we would have missed out on countless delightful moments. You don’t really think it was hard for the kids to appear to be intimidated by Snape do you? Great actors do that; they make it easy for other actors to respond to their performance and this phenomenon can be easily observed in all the Harry Potter movies. The casting of Richard Harris for the part of Dumbledore was perfection; he had that twinkle in his eye and he conveyed that Dumbledore was solid as a rock and as wise as readers of J.K. Rowling knew him to be. There was a certainty about him.
This brings us to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuarón. While I am on the subject of the casting of Dumbledore, like most of you I was grieved by the passing of Mr. Harris and, for me, no one else can fill his shoes as Dumbledore. While Sir Michael Gambon is one terrific Shakespearian actor, he is just not, well… Richard Harris, who by the way, was not a classically trained actor but a very intuitive one. More on Sir Michael later.
Alfonso Cuarón also has a distinguished career and had worked in several areas of the movie business. His movie Y tu mamá también (IFC Films, 2002. Spanish language with English subtitles) received international acclaim. He has directed two movies that North American audiences are more likely to have seen: A Little Princess (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1995) and Great Expectations (Columbia TriStar Egmont Film Distributors, 1998). Mr. Cuarón’s movies have a truly unique signature: the man can set a mood that you can feel down to your bones. I haven’t seen the bulk of his work but I am convinced that I could recognize his style in a New York minute. There is a palpable texture to his films and it just pulls you in; it’s like you can literally breathe the air. Each frame is a stunning artistic composition that includes visual as well as auditory elements that envelop the story in a magical dance of wonder. Okay – you’ve figured out, no doubt, that Prisoner of Azkaban is my favourite Harry Potter movie so far and that Mr. Cuarón is my preferred director. He is a cinematic magician. His recently released film Children of Men (Universal Pictures, 2006) is, in my opinion, a masterpiece.
The pace of the Prisoner of Azkaban film is extraordinary and, interestingly enough, a lot of the action depends on time. Hats off to Steve Kloves for giving us a screenplay that had to cut mercilessly into the contents of the book without sacrificing the vision. Cuarón reached out to the younger actors and got them to give more rounded performances where they had to express deeper levels of emotion. At this point, the kids were older, more experienced in front of a camera, and their characters took on new dimensions. Again, the casting is brilliant in this movie with the new characters of Sirius Black, portrayed by my favourite genius of an actor Gary Oldman, and Remus Lupin, wonderfully played by David Thewlis. From an acting and dramatic point of view, I believe that the best sequence of all the Harry Potter films to date is the confrontation in the Shrieking Shack. From the moment Harry and Hermione walk up and find Ron on the bed with Scabbers, a.k.a. Wormtail, it is a magical feast for the eyes; also, the timing is perfect and the dialogue flawless. The scene just gets better and better as we discover Sirius behind the door and moments later, Lupin arrives and the trio is horrified that the two are actually friends. Then Snape erupts into the mix. Watching such greats as Oldman and Rickman bicker and hiss at one another is just too delicious. It doesn’t get better than that! Throughout the film, Cuarón reminds us that Dementors are a constant threat by using crows as visual cues and brings back the clockworks in the same way in reference to time being of utmost importance; these are just two examples of the cinematic language he skilfully uses to tell the story.
Next comes Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire director Mike Newell, who is well known in Britain and has done extensive directing for television. On our side of the pond, we know him best for Four Weddings and a Funeral (Gramercy Pictures,1994) and Donnie Brasco (Tri-Star Pictures, 1997). Let me say, before I continue, that I love all the Harry Potter movies. This one however, took a few viewings before I really warmed up to it. The first thing that struck me was the musical score by Patrick Doyle. The opening scene with Nagini slithering out of the graveyard was great; the music conveyed that something very nasty was afoot. After that, I was moved by the few moments of John William’s remaining original Harry Potter score, but the rest of the music wasn’t stirring enough for me. Can you hum a few bars of Mr Doyle’s score? I can’t; although I won’t deny that he is a gifted artist. I’ll bet nine out of ten people in the modern world can hum the Harry Potter tune (“Hedwig’s Theme”); that’s the genius of John Williams who has composed many of the most memorable soundtracks in movie history. One extraordinary thing about this movie is that it was the most technically complex and we were treated to some very impressive results with the dragon, the lake and the maze sequences. The Yule Ball set was magnificent and, again, great casting for the new characters. Brendan Gleeson’s Mad-Eye Moody was right on the mark.
As for Michael Gambon taking over the role of our beloved Headmaster, I personally was okay with that in Prisoner of Azkaban. Although he did not have that “tower of strength” aura about him, the twinkle in the eye was there. One can barely imagine how difficult it must be for even the most experienced actor to take on a role under such circumstances as Sir Gambon did. In Prisoner of Azkaban, it looked like he pulled it off, but things went south in Goblet of Fire. His portrayal of Dumbledore in Prisoner of Azkaban is very different from the one in Goblet of Fire. Sir Gambon has commented in the DVD interview that this role is easy for him; he just does what he is asked by the director and basically remains himself. If this is so, then Mike Newell simply didn’t get Dumbledore. Why would the greatest wizard in the world suddenly appear to suffer from chronic anxiety? I understand that things got serious in Goblet of Fire, but consider this: would Yoda, Merlin, Gandalf or Obi Wan have freaked out when things got serious and danger loomed? Like in the scene where Dumbledore asks Harry if he put his name in the Goblet of Fire? I think not. This Dumbledore was no longer the rock that we/Harry had come to depend on. And what happened to the twinkle? Where did the “magic” of Dumbledore go? Another character was tampered with by Mr. Newell, and that was Snape. The Potions master hitting Harry and Ron is simply out of character, and although it was very amusing to watch, any Harry Potter fan who has read the books will tell you that Snape would not stoop to such “slapstick” behaviour. One other detail that bothered me was the casting of Karkaroff. Yugoslavian actor Pedja Bjelac may look the part but his performance was way below par for a production of this calibre, in my humble opinion. Or was it a bit of sloppy directing?
Still, as I mentioned earlier, I love all the Harry Potter movies including this one. Mike Newell’s stroke of genius came when he asked Ralph Fiennes to play Voldermort. Who would have thought of casting a man with one of the most delicate and luminous faces on the planet to play the most imposing villain since Darth Vader? This director did and Mr Fiennes rose to the occasion with great enthusiasm, bringing to the screen his awesome skill in a mind-blowing performance. You-Know-Who was really back; as far as I was concerned, all was forgiven!
So what can we expect from the director of Order of the Phoenix? The recently released trailer gives the impression that we are in for a dark and suspense-filled ride. The book is gloomy indeed for Harry, but the magic and the fun are still very much present. We can only hope that Mr. Yates can balance all that out. Hopefully, he will help bring the magic back in Dumbledore so that our Headmaster can take on what lies ahead with the confidence we know him to possess even when he does not have all the answers.
Who will direct the last two movies? We can only speculate. If I had my way, I would have M. Night Shyamalan direct Half-Blood Prince. When rumours first came out to that effect, I could imagine what a quiet, creepy atmosphere he would create; lulling and entangling us all the way through Dumbledore’s and Harry’s investigations until he would knock us out of our seats when Snape does his dirty deed. I’m thinking it would be painful, but awesome in the hands of a storyteller known for creating spellbinding (pun intended) worlds.
For Deathly Hallows, I would bring back Alfonso Cuarón just to make sure that whatever happens to our favourite characters, we will reluctantly leave Harry’s world on a magical note.
It is not for us to decide who will direct the last two movies, but don’t you care just a little? I’m not losing sleep over it but I certainly do.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Directed by Chris Columbus. Burbank: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2002.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Directed by Mike Newell. Burbank: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2005.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Directed by David Yates. Burbank: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Burbank: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2004.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Directed by Chris Columbus. Burbank: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2001.