Talk about symbolic. It’s the end of a long day’s location shoot on the Harry Potter franchise. Total Film is sat yakking with the series’ now-signature director, David Yates, in a dressing tent. Suddenly, it all goes inky-black.
Just one of the crew powering down the lights for the day. Fitting metaphor, though, for a saga that gets darker with every episode, right?
“For me, this is a warmer, lighter film than Order Of The Phoenix,” says Yates.“I loved the intensity of the fifth one, but it had all this bloody earnest teenage-angst stuff, whereas this is a little bit more of a romantic comedy – until things turn dark in the third act…”
We’ll get back to that. In the meantime, hormones are off the hook at Hogwarts: “There’s a lot to do with Ron and Hermione’s relationship in this one,” says Emma Watson.
“Which is great, because it gave us the chance to do comedy. Hermione got very serious in the last couple, so it was nice to do some funny bits with Rupert [Grint], who’s great at that sort of thing.”
But slightly awkward when it comes to love scenes, mind. “There’s a bit of a kiss with Jessie [Cave, who plays Lavender], which was quite embarrassing,” confesses Rupert Grint.
“That particular scene, I hadn’t known Jessie that long and there were loads of people around; it’s after the Quidditch match and I was standing on a little plinth, so it wasn’t really that romantic!”
Quidditch match? Yes – it’s back. “The technology has moved on so we’ve made some refinements,” grins Yates. “I was always intrigued by how violent Quidditch could be. You’ve got these players moving at enormous speed and crashing into each other… It’s a bit like American football, which got me excited.”
But it’s not all fun and games. Or loveydovey. At heart, Half-Blood Prince is all about getting prepped for the final showdown between wizards good and bad.
“Number six is kind of the hardest book to film,” reflects Harry’s alter ego Daniel Radcliffe, looking distinctly un-wizardly in chunky winter casuals and without specs.
“It’s a great book, really exciting, but also very much a lead-up to the seventh one. There’s a lot of exposition that has to go on, but they’ve done a really good job.”[page-break]
As usual, the movie hews closely to JK Rowling’s source novel while exercising some cinematic licence. In the book, events in the outside world are often relayed via Potter-verse newspaper The Daily Prophet.
On screen, there’s less reporting, more action. Rowling’s passing reference to the fall of a ‘Muggle’ bridge, for example, has turned into an opening set-piece salvo: large, loud and London-based. “Let’s just say the Millennium Bridge doesn’t get well treated,” quips producer David Barron.
But one book-to-script tweak had to be unwritten when Rowling unexpectedly outed one of her creations. “There was a line of dialogue where Dumbledore refers to the opposite sex in a romantic way,” says Heyman.
“But after the first read-through, Jo told us that this wasn’t in keeping with his character! So we made the change…” The Hogwarts headmaster’s sexuality isn’t made an issue of in the film. “Although there is his obsession with knitting patterns,” smiles Yates.
Dumbledore is very much to the fore in Prince, training Harry for battle while heading towards his own date with destiny. “It’s a big movie for him,” says Heyman, lauding Michael Gambon’s commitment to the role. Yet, as with the character, there are revelations to be had about the veteran thesp…
“The secret about Michael Gambon is that, as much as he’s revered, he’s also the most unprofessional actor in the word,” joshes Radcliffe. “He never takes anything seriously, which is why he’s great fun to work with.”
The actor spins anecdotes of Gambon playfully bombarding him with rubber rocks – and real ones – on set. "So I threw bits of stuff back at him. It was really infantile. And he’s a ‘Sir’, isn’t he? ‘Sir’ Michael Gambon, my arse!”
Much as he enjoyed mucking about with Gambon, Radcliffe missed another of the series’ father figures – Gary Oldman.
“It was sad to do the first film without Gary,” he sighs. “He was a bit of a mentor who let me know when I was crap and when I was good. Actors aren’t always the most generous, so when someone like him said ‘That was really good,’ to a young actor like me, it was amazing. So I kind of missed that.”
Still, the pair keep in text contact; and besides, there are other mates around – like fellow mainstay Tom Felton.
As bad boy Draco Malfoy, Felton has skulked on the sidelines for the last eight years but in Half-Blood Prince, Harry’s classroom arch-rival finally slopes into the spotlight.
“This is my favourite of the films,” says Felton, as cheery as Draco is sneery. “The first one I’ve worked on from beginning to end, not just a month here and there.”
Felton’s big moment comes when he and Radcliffe square up for a scrap that plays like something out of Bond or Bourne. “It was great,” raves Felton.
“We spent a week in this misty bathroom set, rolling around in the water having all sorts of fights. It’s a longer sequence than it is in the book.” There’s blood – but also some fleshing-out.
“This film develops the character further than before,” he says.“We take the chance to explain why he’s such a complete cretin, that he’s not just doing it for the sake of it.” [page-break]
More character shading comes in the shape of flashbacks to Voldemort’s youth, magically conjured by Dumbledore as part of Harry’s training. Not easy, casting evil incarnate as a kid.
Luckily, it doesn’t sound like they have another Jake Lloyd on their hands… “It took a while,” recalls Heyman. “There was a lot of discussion
over how similar they should be to [adult Voldemort] Ralph Fiennes.”
In the end, they decided on Fiennes’ own nephew, Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, as the 10-year-old future dark lord; while Frank Dillane (son of Brit-actor Stephen) takes over for the teenage years.
“Both of them have this disquieting sense of darkness about them,” Heyman praises. “Frank projects a kind of superciliousness – he’s
very superior, very in control of the situation. And with Hero, as with Ralph, it’s all about the stillness… He evokes Voldemort so successfully, so creepily.”
The film’s visuals also play their part in establishing eeriness. “The choice of angles, the extreme close-ups, the pacing of the scenes,” recites Heyman, going on to laud director of photography Bruno Delbonnel, the French lenser responsible for Amelie’s lavish palette.
Half-Blood Prince goes for an equally heightened look, U-turning from the stark, dark timbre of Phoenix. “It’s very layered, incredibly rich,”
says Yates, before revealing that number seven – Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows – will be more naturalistic “with loads of hand-held cameras”.
“I want to shake things up every time I go into this world. I like experimenting as we go along,” says the director, best known pre-Phoenix for the original BBC version of State Of Play.
Now, his rep rests on Harry Potter, which he’ll preside over until 2011, when Part 2 of Deathly Hallows hits cinemas (with Part 1 due late 2010).
Three previous directors have graduated from Hogwarts (Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell), so why did Yates decide to sign up for the long haul?
“It was around the end of Pheonix,” says the fortysomething, looking out over a forest set covered in imitation frost. “I got a taste for it. It’s a big, wonderful world to play in.
"You get all the resources you need to tell the stories, the people are terrific and the studio keep off your back. I was smitten with all those things combined and I wanted to be the one to see it through to its completion."[page-break]
There’s still a way to go, but thoughts are beginning to turn to the journey’s end. “It’s going to be weird when it’s all over,” muses Grint. “I’ve really enjoyed it and part of me will miss it. But it’ll also be good to be free.”
While he and Radcliffe express a desire to carry on thesping post-Potter, the third member of the trio isn’t quite so sure…
“I really don’t know,” says Watson, her face flecked with fake nicks and cuts. “I think I need to find some real belief in myself away from this. I know that I can play Hermione, but… we’ll see.”
Despite the chilled atmosphere on set, no doubt facilitated by Yates’ mild manner, Watson feels anxious. “I feel pressured, because this my last go, my last shot. I don’t want to have any regrets – I want to know that I’ve done the best I can possibly do.”
At least she’s earned the admiration of Heyman, who speaks of his young actors with quasi-parental pride. “Emma got the highest marks in the country on her English A-level, Dan got three As in his AS-Levels… they’ve all experienced other things that feed back into Harry Potter.”
Having worked on the series since the very beginning, the producer’s as big an attachment as anyone to the series – and he’s approaching the end with mixed feelings.
“I feel excitement and sadness. Firstly because there’s a real sense of family, but also because it’s very rare, in these times especially, to be in production for such a long, continuous period.”
And when it’s finally over? “I’m going to take a six-month holiday,” states Yates, raising his usually quiet voice over the hubbub of production packing up for the day.
“Then I’m going to do what I’ve always wanted to do: big movies followed by tiny ones. I’ve literally been overlapping postand pre-production so there hasn’t been time to squeeze anything else in.”
Radcliffe, on the other hand, has found windows for a number of ventures, notably his stage stint in Equus and self-mocking turn in Extras. “Doing stuff like that was tough,” he reflects, “but you were learning new disciplines, so you couldn’t help but come away with a new confidence.”
And has that confidence translated into more input on Potter? “Totally. I always used to feel my ideas were going to sound crap, but over the last two films I’ve felt a lot more comfortable about that kind of stuff. David can’t shut me up!”
Though he’s keeping mum on potential future projects (“I’m not going to jinx them!”), it’s not hard to get him gabbling about what’s in store for wizard-watchers. “This one’s more epic than the fifth film,” he enthuses.
“There’s a scene near the end that’s like something out of Paradise Lost, with Michael Gambon standing on this little island with flames swirling around him… It’s pretty cool, I have to say!”
For more exclusives from Harry Potter, take a look at the latest issue of Total Film Magazine.
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