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The creators of Harry Potter break out of character to discuss The Prisoner of Azkaban

By Lucinda Dickey

H arry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban reunites much of the cast and crew of its blockbuster predecessors, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. In the third big-screen fantasy based on J.K. Rowling's best-selling novels, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) return to Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft for their third year of school. As was the case during years one and two, there's laughter to be had, Quidditch to be played and an array of obstacles to overcome. Likewise, there are familiar friends to embrace, such as Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and Headmaster Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, stepping in for the late Richard Harris), and old enemies with whom to deal, including Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) and Professor Snape (Alan Rickman). This time, everyone's abuzz about the presence of soul-sucking Dementors, fearsome flying creatures on hand to protect Harry from Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a murderous escapee from Azkaban Prison who was last heard muttering Harry's name and heading toward Hogwarts.

On screen and off, there are several important newcomers to the Potter party. In addition to Gambon and Oldman, Emma Thompson is on hand as Professor Trelawney, and David Thewlis plays Professor Lupin, the current Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, who's got a nasty habit of howling at the moon when it's full, but also emerges as an unexpected link to Harry's parents. Behind the scenes, Chris Columbus, who directed Sorcerer's Stone and Chamber of Secrets, passed the baton to Mexican-born Alfonso Cuarón, but remained on board as a producer.

Radcliffe, Watson, Coltrane, Cuarón, Columbus and David Heyman took time recently to speak with Science Fiction Weekly about Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which opens June 4.

Alfonso Cuarón, did you feel pressure taking the reins of this?

Cuarón: No. Because I love the material so much. I connected so much with the material. It's one of those things I remember reading it and saying, I know how to do this. It rang so close.

What was most difficult about directing this film?

Cuarón: The most difficult thing was the length of the process. It's three years of your life where you work seven days a week from 7:30 in the morning till midnight. That's what makes it difficult. I didn't stress it much because it's such a mighty machinery that Warner Brothers and the producers have put together. The only thing is it's a long journey. It's like going into a marathon. You've got to answer the zone.

Yours is a less literal translation. What was the thinking?

Cuarón: Jo Rowling asked for it. She asked that I be faithful to the spirit of the book. Don't be literal. I was also aware that the books are getting lengthier and lengthier. To do a film adaptation of that, you end up doing a miniseries or something. For me, what was important with Steve Kloves as a writer was to nail the theme of the film and allow whatever elements of the book to stick with that theme. What didn't stick, even if it was a wonderful scene, we have to move on.

Visually, what did you personally most want to see realized? The Time Turner?

Cuarón: That was an important element. But another thing is we set out to do a character-driven film with cool visual effects, not a visual-effects film with some characters around. It would be a disservice to the Harry Potter books if you go the visual-effects route. I'm trying to establish a universe around Harry that actually exists. It's not just a backdrop for his adventures, but that universe. I'm talking about the school and the muggle world—to have depth and layers.

Why aren't you directing the fourth movie?

Cuarón: I am too lazy. It's too much. It was too much. I need a long siesta. No mas. Later on, I would love to come back, but at this point it would have been irresponsible [to do] both the third one and fourth one.

Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe, did you teach Cuarón anything about your characters before he set about making the film?

Watson: Yeah. One of the first things that he did when we met him is that he asked us to write an essay about our characters. Not just to help us, but to help him to see the character through our eyes. He gave us a lot of freedom with that as well, which was really good.

Radcliffe: I think that it's quite important to mention that when we did the essay, we basically did exactly what our characters would've done in that situation. So I wrote a page. And it was fine. It was OK. It wasn't great. Which is what Harry does. Rupert [Grint] didn't do it. Rupert forgot to do it. I always get the figure wrong.

Was there anything from the book that you loved, but that didn't make it into the film?

Radcliffe: There was one scene in the third book. I can't actually remember what Harry said in it, and I may have this wrong because I haven't read the book in quite a while, but it was something like he comes out of Lupin's office and basically sits down. It's almost him just slightly despairing, but telling himself that he's got to get himself together if he wants to fight the Dementors. That's all I can remember, actually. Other than that, I think I got to play most of the great scenes from the book.

Emma, what response have you gotten from fans about Hermione being such a strong female character in Prisoner of Azkaban?

Watson: I suppose the film isn't really released [yet], so I haven't had anything from this film, which is really her girl-power film. But I hope I've done justice to her character, because it's my favorite book. And it's such a great part for her in the third book. I hope that I did her justice and she's what they all thought she'd be.

Daniel and Emma, how did you prepare yourselves for the emotionally tough scenes in the film, and how did you work it out of your system after the camera stopped rolling?

Radcliffe: I don't know. Harry, being a teenager, has the same feelings as every other teenager, basically, but because of his past I think that he feels those feelings of anger or loneliness more strongly. I think that was kind of hard for me. But because I'm obviously feeling the same things as him, I just kind of took what I was feeling and basically just exaggerated them. I listened to music or something to get me in the right state of mind for filming, and I just kind of hoped for the best.

Watson: I have to say that Dan focused so hard on a lot of the scenes in this. One of the scenes that he did, he was so into it that he almost fainted.

What scene was that?

Radcliffe: It was one of the Dementor scenes, where it was me and Sirius by the lake and I was having my soul sucked out. I do this kind of stupid thing where I forget to breathe properly. I haven't done it lately.

Daniel and Emma, you've worked with some of the best British actors in the business on these films. What's that been like?

Watson: Well, there's been Emma Thompson, Gary Oldman, David Thewlis ...

Radcliffe: Timothy Spall [who plays Peter Pettigrew]. Michael Gambon as well.

Watson: Yes. What a cast, really.

Radcliffe: It was amazing. Ever since I've started doing the Harry Potter films I've been watching films a lot more. I've watched, I'd say, 90 percent of Gary Oldman's films, and I have so much respect for him as an actor. I think that he's one of the greatest actors of his generation, and it was a complete inspiration to work with him. He's actually the nicest guy as well. He gave me a bass lesson. He's a really great bass player. It was actually so amazing for us to be working in the same room as Gary, David Thewlis, Timothy Spall and Alan Rickman all in one go. It was unbelievable.

Watson: Daniel almost bit my head off at the beginning. He said, "Gary Oldman's been cast as Sirius Black," and I went, "Who?" Now I know that is the most terrible thing that I could possibly say, ever. Even though I didn't know him, just working with him, he did such a good job. He's great.

Robbie Coltrane, Hagrid has so many pets and wonderful animals. Do you have pets at home, and what are they, if you do?

Coltrane: So, straight in with the deep psychological stuff. I've got some fish at home, cold-water fish, obviously. And I've got two dogs.

How do you feel about being an action figure?

Coltrane: Well, there's not much action involved. He just stood there, really.

We're actually referring to toys made in your image.

Coltrane: Well, I really object to it, because the deal was that we didn't get any residuals so long as they didn't make the action figures look like us. And then they made action figures that looked exactly like us, having said that our images were not what was selling the toys, it was the books. And I thought, "You know what, I'm having my intelligence insulted here." So you may see a little litigation in that one.

Was there a sense of camaraderie between you and the other British actors, the older contingent?

Coltrane: The older contingent. [Makes a grim face.] I hung out with Gambon a lot because we were up in Inverness for a week and it just rained every day. We just sat and talked about engines and things. You know, he makes these superb pistols and guns and stuff from scratch. And I rebuild old motorcars, so we could bore the whole table with [technical] talk. People falling over with sheer boredom.

Speaking of Gambon, how do you feel he made the transition as Dumbledore?

Coltrane: I thought he did brilliantly. And he kept that sort of West Coast Irish accent. I don't know where his mother's from, I can't remember, but he's from Limerick, so he carried over that soft Irish brogue. It's very nice.

When all this is over, are you thinking about playing a truly evil character?

Coltrane: I just want to play a pimp right now. A real sleaze.

Chris Columbus, you had a hand in choosing Cuarón as your successor. How was he with the kids?

Columbus: It was an easy transition. I mean, Alfonso is such a warm, terrific guy with the kids. That was my major concern. That's why I wanted to stay on. That's one of the major reasons that I wanted to stay on as producer, because I didn't know him. I didn't know anyone that we were considering except for one of the directors, but I really wanted to absolutely make it a comfortable place for the kids. I was just concerned that they would get someone who was a screamer and made them feel uncomfortable. I mean, we'd created such a world that was a real family, a real, true family.

David Heyman, how did your responsibilities change with Columbus no longer directing?

Heyman: A close relationship with the director. Kept asking questions and making suggestions. Supporting and allowing the director to realize that vision. Really, a producer's job, one of the fundamental parts of this job is to help the director realize their vision, and Mark and Chris and I worked really hard to allow Alfonso to make the film that he wanted to make. The film that he wanted to make was faithful and true to the spirit of the book. So, no, it was very similar, actually.

How has Daniel Radcliffe changed since the film series started?

Heyman: Gosh, it's funny. I don't think that he's changed that much. He's grown up. He's a 14-year-old. He's still enthusiastic. He's still generous. He's really sensitive and compassionate and really good. He really cares about other people. He wants to make sure that other people are OK. He's curious. He's an avid film watcher. He watches films, all sorts of films. I think he liked Twelve Angry Men. He liked Donnie Darko. Really eclectic stuff. Chris gave him a guitar and a record player. So he's a big music fan. He's a big fan of punk and guitar music.

Columbus: His musical hunger is amazing. I've seen him graduate from pure sort of pop rock when I first met him, which was going on in England at the time, to punk to now more sophisticated newer bands. It's really graduated from the point where I or David or anyone could tell him about music to the point where he really tells up about it now. The first question I asked him when I hadn't seen him in a few months, I asked him at the premiere, "What are you listening to?" Because I wanted to know. The last thing he turned me on to was Franz Ferdinand, and he mentioned it months before it came here. So that's one of the things. He's just brilliant at music.

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Also in this issue: The cast and crew of The Stepford Wives


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