Moviehole on the set of Harry Potter!

Walking through the new Harry Potter set in Leavesden studios, England is an odd and hyperreal experience.  Unlike most film sets where you have to mentally squint to imagine how the bluescreen, plasterboard and general fakery could possibly look convincing on the big screen, the impression here is that reality is checked at the door and you have indeed entered Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
It is the first day back at school – or the first day that the full cast of Hogwarts students are back on a soundstage one keeps telling oneself - for the 6th Potter outing, Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince. Its an oddly recognisable feeling tinged with nostalgic embarrassment: the halls are buzzing with the kind of gossip that could only be generated by hordes of teenagers.  Stories are embellished, rumours becomes fact and fellow pupils who last year you wouldn’t give the time of day to have suddenly become ‘hot’.  The atmosphere within School halls seems no different today, despite, as I remind myself again, this school’s fictional status.  Every so often an Assistant Director (aka substitute Teacher for the purposes of this narrative) will call out for silence or try and herd the uniformed bodies to their correct classrooms. And at Hogwarts, being one of the better boarding schools that Great Britain has to offer, the pupils actually do exactly as they are told.

In the Harry Potter world our teenage heroes have been ostracised by their peers, suffered the death of loved ones and battled the kind of evil that is more typically found in fairytales.  What keeps the franchise so accessible is that the more fantastic ordeals faced by Harry and his mates are felt with equal amounts of turmoil as the typical teen dramas such as exams, dating and ‘The Future’. Half Blood Prince deals with the creeping realisation that the safety and comfort of school days is coming to an end. This is in the forefront for not only the pupils of Hogwarts as they enter their second to final year, but also the actors as they work on the penultimate story.  “It has to end sometime, it can’t go on forever,”  says Tom Felton, who thankfully is nothing like the annoying little snot of the early films or the aspiring death-eater that Draco Malfoy has become in the more recent entries.   Felton is friendly, charming and self-depreciating, and the lack of any Malfoy-like qualities in his personality attest to pretty solid acting ‘chops’.  Like any soon-to-be school leaver, Tom has concerns about the future but his focus is on the challenges that this school year brings and the integral part that Malfoy plays throughout the story and especially its shocking ending.  However he jokes “When I’m stacking shelves at Tesco’s I’ll be thinking…they really were good times!”

We head into the Great Hall, a fully realised and incredibly realistic stone-built set.  The scale is mind-boggling with long wooden benches comfortably seating the entire school divided into its 4 houses of Slyverin, Hufflepuff, Gryfindoor and Ravenclaw.  Careful planning by Warner Brothers and the producers means that Leavesden has been booked for the duration of all 8 adaptations (the seventh book is being divided into 2 films), which means that over the best past of a decade a small army of artists, headed up by Production Designer Stuart Craig, have been able to build extensively, but most importantly, build to last.  The Great Hall is mostly solid stone and the tables have a layer of wear and tear that may have been partly added by the art department, but its easy to believe that some of the marker pen graffiti has been added over the years by bored teen actors waiting for directors to get to the damned point.

Such attention to detail is evident throughout the other sets, for example Dumbledore’s study contains an entire back room that to my knowledge has never even been seen on screen.  Craig explains that Dumbledore would spend a lot of time in his study and would probably like a more comfortable place than behind his desk to sit and relax. After a cheeky sit down on his Headmaster’s chair I have to agree and the antique furniture, well worn cushions and impressively intelligent selection of books all reflect his taste.
Even when trying to take a break from the sets you never truly escape the wonderful world that has been created. Props from the film found lying in the mens’ toilets at Leavesden could just as easily have been some ancient artifact cheekily stolen and sequestered by the Weasely twins where the teachers would never find it.

The films have become darker as the franchise has progressed in much the same way as the books have; the characters have matured  and the stakes have become greater, and this has worked well as the audience has had to wait years between book installments and grown alongside them.  If you read ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ as a child, just as you reach the age where it began to seem a little childish, the next installment would come out which matched your slightly older tastes.  As I sit down with Director David Yates  I’m wondering about the child who a few years from now will be able to binge on the complete franchise on bluray, without the necessary time in between to age with the characters.  “The spirit of the sixth book compared with the fifth book is very different.  The fifth book was quite intense and emotional and wrought and was all about that period of teenage angst and this story is much more about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” says Yates with a wry smile, “its about the sexual side of being a teenager and the politics that the world has”, immediately laying to rest any fears that the naysayers who complained about the tone of 2007’s The Order of The Phoenix would be in for a repeat performance.  Indeed, Yates seems very aware of his critics but equally sure of his approach.  Being chosen to helm these two films was a surprising choice initially, due to his background in TV dramas such as State of Play and independent, smaller films, but in retrospect its clear that its merely the latest in a long line of correct choices made by producers David Heyman and David Barron.  Yates brings an intelligence and emotional sensibility to the films that is perfect for the ages of the characters and audience alike, much in the same way that Christopher Columbus was the perfect choice to direct the early films with their childish sense of wonder. “I think that that’s one of the strengths of the series, it keeps it all different kinds of flavors” explains Yates.  The studio must have liked what they saw as he has also been trusted to take the series to its conclusion, and to split the final book into 2 films, in order to do justice to its volume and complexity.
“In the last story Harry suddenly discovered the world is a little complicated, in this story he gets quite complicated himself.  He starts to become a bit of a player, he starts to be quite manipulative in terms of relationships.  Its quite an adult Harry…he does things that you’d never expected Harry in the other films to have ever done… which is quite provocative for a character that is supposed to be our hero”
Daniel Radcliffe looks remarkably fresh considering he’s been on set for 6 months, mostly acting his scenes with the adult cast, and has spent the last few weeks locked away on a green screen with no natural daylight.  As he sits down he explains that he’s been sitting on a broomstick for 3 days, but in a rare concession to his star posterior they’ve thankfully changed the seat on the broom and its “not nearly as painful as it used to be”.
Of course, when talking to Daniel you feel a little sorry for asking the questions that he must have answered thousands of times before, being the face of a global franchise for the best part of a decade.  “Its a lot easier than people expect it to be,” he explains.  “95 percent of the time people are absolutely, totally polite, very subtle about it and really really nice.  Occasionally you get some people who get a little bit obnoxious and want to shout out to all their friends and stuff, but it happens so rarely that its never been a problem really.”  Radcliffe genuinely seems to live his life as he wants, with a deep passion for live music, festivals and cricket, and thankfully doesn’t feel that the role has forced him to watch his behavior in public.  The impression from comments that his co-stars and director let slip throughout the day is that he’s a very well grounded guy, with his feet firmly on the ground and as yet hasn’t felt the need to rebel against the role.  There was speculation in the press that his recent role in Equuas was the rebellion that people were waiting for, but in fact the general impression was that it was merely an interesting part in a well received play that ended up garnering rave reviews and sold out box office.  We speak about future roles and whilst giving honest and in depth answers he also displays a caution usually found in more seasoned actors.  He seems keenly aware that remarks are taken out of context in the press, and expressing an interest in a role doesn’t mean that he’s signed to a film, but its safe to say that his future films will be actor’s roles and not star vehicles.

We eventually steer back to the job in hand, and how his character has changed for The Half Blood Prince. “In this film he’s much more together.  He’s much more organized and focused and he’s realized that he’s been talking about defeating Voldermort for five years now…and this time round is the first time that he does something towards it.  He actually formulates a plan…and Harry I think starts to view himself as Dumbledore’s favourite footsolider in the army.”

Daniel gets called back to set, and is quickly replaced by Rupert Grint, who is quizzed about how his character is different for this film.  “Ron’s a bit more cocky in this one, he’s got a girlfriend and he’s on the Quidditch team”. This brings us onto the subject of Lavender Brown, Ron’s primary love interest in the film.  “Just before Christmas we did the kissing scene.  We didn’t talk about, or rehearse it…we went straight into it…I was feeling alright about it until the actual day”  he breaks out into a big grin and then blushes at the memory “It was a room full of people, everyone’s cheering, I’m standing on a plinth…its really embarrassing!”. Grint isn’t looking forward to filming the developing relationship with Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger either, “It’s gonna be really weird, because I know Emma so well its sort of like a brother and sister sort of thing and will be a bit awkward I think.  We’ll sort of just deal with it when it comes to it”  Emma Watson seems much more prepared for it.  “I’ve been saying it for years!… She’s now beginning, at last, to recognise her feelings for Ron, where as before she’s always been in complete denial about it.  I’ve always known that they were going to get it together.  So, it nice to have that ‘yes – I’m right'”.  It’s rather fun to see these two actors behaving so like their characters off set, Grint appears to deal with things as they come up, and Watson seems to be a forward thinker who admits that her favorite way to relax is to crack open a book and learn, whilst protesting that she’s not very similar to her character. Really. “ When I was younger I was probably Hermione, as I get older and she’s become a much more complex character I’ve probably needed more direction”

In fact, out of all the actor’s I meet today Grint is probably the most like the character he portrays; he’s friendly, self depreciating and easily embarrassed.  He also has quirky interests (the ice cream van that he owns is being repaired, but not before he perfected his Mr Whippy technique, and he’s not playing as much golf as he’d like), and instead of being guarded about the realities of onset life, he is refreshingly frank (Quidditch filming is a bit anticlimatic and uncomfortable apparently). But he has a good perspective as most of the actors do, and is determined  to appreciate the remaining time that he has left in the Harry Potter world.  “It’s going to be quite sad when its over, it definitely feels like its coming to an end now.  I’ve met some really cool people and hopefully we’ll all stay in touch, but its going to be sad definitely.  Hopefully I’ll find something else to do.”

Our tour of the set concludes with a visit to a huge blue-screen stage containing a large crystal island with a basin at its centre. Even the cast members, who have been working on these sets from the beginning, are still dazzled by their authenticity. “Wow – this is amazing… That they can build something like this” Radcliffe remarks. This is the setting for one of the more traumatic moments in the story and as we enter the studio, a strange foreboding atmosphere descends on our touring party, who have previously enjoyed a day filled with smiles. Even though the set is surrounded by blue-screen (a cave and lake will later be added) and is man-made, like all the other sets at Leavesden, it really does feel convincing. Readers who are familiar with The Half Blood Prince will know the significance of this set and that it marks a turning point for Harry where nothing will ever be the same again. Audiences around the world will soon have to face what Radcliffe and his co-stars are realizing now: the conclusion of Harry’s journey is on the horizon. That it all starts with the actions of Harry and Dumbledore on this very island makes it all the more real for this Potter fan.  It’s the beginning of the end, and we’re in for one hell of a ride.

Thanks to Roadshow Films (Au) & Warner Bros

– James Kennett

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