Along with producer David Heyman, writer Steve Kloves is the longest serving member of the Potter crew. His job was arguably the toughest of the lot: shapeshifting JK Rowling's vision from page to screen without losing the unique magic of the Potter world. Since those early scripts, he's gone on to write every Potter movie except The Order Of The Phoenix. The man deserves a rest, you might think. But no! We phoned him up and made him answer lots of questions instead. The result was a fascinating insight into the most successful movie franchise in history.
Warning: This interview does contain Deathly Hallows: Part 2 spoilers
How did you get involved in Potter? I believe you got it from a list of scripts at Warner Bros. and hadn't really heard about it before that.
Steve Kloves: What would happen to a writer like me is that I would get an envelope with half a dozen synopses of books and the occasional, say, Texas Monthly article, and I was very, very bad about reading these envelopes. Out of the 25 that were submitted to me over the beginning of my career, I read maybe two or three. I happened to read the contents of this one and, again, it had about six or seven synopses and the first six, I didn't get through. The last one was something called ‘Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone’ and the title was interesting but the synopsis couldn't do it justice. There was something about it. I don't know what it was, there was just something about it, and I decided go into a bookstore about a block from my office. I had to ask for a copy because these are the days prior to it being stacked like soup cans. I bought it and I was about ten pages in when I called my agent and I said, "I think I'm going to want to do this movie called Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone." And he had no idea. He asked, "What is it about? It seems to be about a boy that goes to wizard school." He just thought I was messing with him. "It's really good," I said. Little did I know it was going to be the next 11 or 12 years [for me].
It was just one of those things that was meant to happen and it's down to very weird things. I mean, I even made a film called Flesh And Bone which I wrote and directed with a boy who has a star on his forehead. It's very eerie because that movie was made in 1992 and came out in 1993, and here I was reading about a boy who had a lightning bolt on his forehead. I just felt this weird kinship with this material.
You formed a very close working relationship with JK Rowling and I know she's now a friend of yours as well. What was your first meeting with her like?
|The thing is about Jo though, which is remarkable for someone who had had no experience with the filmmaking process, was her intuition.|
The thing is about Jo though, which is remarkable for someone who had had no experience with the filmmaking process, was her intuition. Wwe had a conversation the very first day I met her where she said, "I know the movies can't be the books and I know this can't be for a fact because I know what's coming and it's impossible to fully dramatise on screen what I'm going to write. But I just ask you to be true to the characters, that's all I care about." And that's kind of always my watchword to this day.
When you've got such a spectacle going on around the edges you have to have a focus…
Steve Kloves: Well, I'm only really interested – okay, primarily interested - in character and the other thing was that I had no idea what the ending of the story was. I don't think I'll ever be in that situation again, where for literally seven years I didn't know how it was going to end. My lifeline was always the characters and I was able to guess how things were going often enough. Not always because her plots are fiendish but mostly I think it is just about following the characters.
What about when those last books came out? Was it a different process knowing how things were ending?
Steve Kloves: Yeah, there's a movie reality and there's a reality of the literature itself and by the time we had came to the conclusion we had to show fidelity to the text. I adored the books, but there had to fidelity to the story we had told through the films. I think Warner Bros. did some study around about the time of Goblet Of Fire that found that there was certain people whose primary understanding of the story came from the film - I think more than 50% at that point. It meant the audience coming in hadn't read every book. I run into more people who understand it through the books but I'm surprised that occasionally I do run into people who haven't read all the books.
I've met a few people who I can't talk to about the eighth film because they haven't read it yet and I can't believe that there still are such people.
Steve Kloves: It’s almost like Jo has invented a new colour because ten or 11 years ago if you'd mentioned "Harry Potter", you would have thought it was someone's accountant. Now you can go to Kenya or Zimbabwe, you can go anywhere and people would know what you're talking about.
What about your process? I heard you do a big draft and then whittle it down to what works on screen?
Steve Kloves: Yeah, that's true to a certain degree. It's a little bit of an overstatement but I've always written long no matter what I'm doing, but in this case [it was] maybe a little longer than normal. What makes Jo's work singular is details: I always thought the small magic was the most interesting thing. I follow what interests me and that might mean I follow Harry down a corridor to have a conversation with Luna just because I'm interested in what he and Luna have to talk about. I think Jo's a little like that in the books, though.
It’s instinctive rather than always thought out?
Steve Kloves: Yeah, Jo has this incredibly complex blueprint in her mind, but also she has this sort of devilish impulse towards the shaggy dog story. Life is messy and the books have a controlled messiness which makes them very easy to slip into and recognise what's happening. Even though what’s happening is remarkable, it feels recognisable because of the texture she gives the moment. But there are so many little details that they tend to get wittled out a bit. My collaborators want to know why I turned down that quote by Harry to have him talk to Luna. They usually don't share my enthusiasm for those moments, but for the most part we see eye to eye, although there are moments I probably go off the rails a bit.
How's it been working with four directors over the eight films? Have there been major changes between them? They're very different personalities obviously.
|All the directors had very different personalities, all of them, and quite distinctive. It's interesting. It's ways of working in a way. Alfonso had a kind of madness.|
Then you had Mike Newell who works very loud in the sense that if he likes something you say he just laughs. He's a great audience and really understood the school part of it. And then you have David Yates who works very quietly but intensely. What's interesting working with David was watching him evolve. When we first started working together, I'll be honest, the first cut I saw of Half Blood Prince I felt, "Wow, this thing is rushing along." And David has this incredible modesty about not overstaying his welcome as a director and one of my goals was to make him overstay his welcome because I think he's so gifted. He was such a good director when he came on, and I watch him now and I think it's extraordinary what he's doing. He needs to do everything in [The Deathly Hallows: Part 2]. He has to do spectacle, he has to do intimacy, he has to do humour, and no-one really pays attention to what he does. What I love in the last movie is that I felt that David started to luxuriate in the moment and let it actually play. I love the fact that we're not actually rushing through things now, even though I really like the last film.
You need that calm before the storm to a certain extent. You need to reconnect with the characters a little bit before you go into this, presumably, bombastic final film.
Steve Kloves: And also I feel quite strongly that you make movies for your best audience, not just the loudest. I think Part One was made for our best audience. I mean, I've never had a stronger reaction to one of the Potter films as I did to that one. It's a bleak time, I don't know how we were supposed to sugar-coat that but I also think the dance sequence is really a special moment. You don't realise how difficult that is for those two actors to pull off - to play all the levels. Anyway, it's a long-winded way of saying that it’s like I’ve had different dance partners and it's my job to adapt to them, though I do push back a lot. That's kind of my value. They are all strong characters, these guys, and I don't think they want someone who is just going to say “yes”.
I asked David Heyman about his favourite ever moment and he said the dance scene was his top moment.
Steve Kloves: Well for me too. It's my proudest moment because I was also surprised because I thought I was going to get push back, because I've had push back before, and much to my surprise David Heyman, David Barron and David Yates all loved it. Then Emma and Dan read it, and I thought Em and Dan would like it but the Davids might say no. Then Jo was the one - but when she saw it, she loved it. I think, to me, it was incredibly faithful to the book just because so much has happened.
You have some way of getting that across the explanatory colour about people's emotions, so you have to have those moments…
Steve Kloves: Yeah, I think that's right. This was a very profound moment because Ron had left and it had affected both of them in different ways. And I think it not only affected them in terms of their relationship singularly, but it affected the whole dynamic suddenly and showed how complex that triangle was. There was a tendency to think it wasn't very complex, but I remember writing a line where Hermione says, "You're my best friend Harry" from the books, and I remember thinking, "God, I know that's right," because what's sad about that is that she's not Harry's best friend - Ron is. There's a loneliness there in being in the triangle. I just felt that these characters are so rich; I don't think people realise how rich they are.
It's hard to imagine anyone else playing these characters. Especially after hearing the story about them writing essays about their characters and Emma writing ten pages and Dan managing a page and Rupert saying the dog ate his homework.
Steve Kloves: As you know, Emma is truly brilliant. Emma was always the one who, we thought, might leave, and I always said that if one of the kids left I would leave. And I would have because I only wanted to write for those three. I'm actually kind of amazed they all ended up doing it. It was the most important thing that happened to the movies. I remember sitting in an office 10/11 years ago with Lorenzo di Bonaventura, David Heyman and Chris Columbus and we were having this 15 minute conversation about special effects. I said, "You guys, the special effects you're gonna have is those kids. Cast those three kids right and it'll never end but if you miss, forget it. It'll never work." And it's always been true.
And no one has gone off the rails.
Steve Kloves: Well, I always say it wouldn't have happened in America. There's no way they would have got through without something happening. I still don't know how it happened. Well I do in a way; they're all pretty great. They're pretty special, all of them.
I just want to ask about the last book. I guess it was pretty inevitable they were going to split it into two films.
Steve Kloves: No. David Yates, I think, was initially against it. We had come close on Goblet Of Fire and I think it had something to do with The Matrix. The two Matrix films had been released really close together and it’d complicated things for Warner Bros. in ways I don't think they wanted to revisit with Goblet Of Fire. Because we thought we were doing two movies with Goblet of Fire for a while and David Heyman and I ended up having four months of phone conversations about the pros and cons of one versus two. I always liked the idea of two conceptually but you wanted to make sure we could do it the right way. I was anxious that Warner Bros. would let us make two real movies as opposed to two movies with the money for one, because that's not going to work. But I had a remarkable conversation with (Warners COO) Alan Horn and he said, "Look, I know you and David are talking about whether to make one or two movies and I just want to say this to you; it's very attractive to the studio, obviously, for us to have two movies but if it's right for it to be one movie, I will support that decision because I want to do the right thing on this." It was one of those remarkable moments when you're just saying, "This doesn't happen in Hollywood." I knew Alan meant it because he sees it as his legacy. The irony came when I was writing it and I called David Heyman at one point and said, "You know David, could it be three?" I can’t imagine it being one movie now. I couldn't have done that.
You would have to get everything out of the way and go straight to Hogwarts, I guess.
|I was anxious that Warner Bros. would let us make two real movies as opposed to two movies with the money for one.|
I thought it would be, to be perfectly honest, because I found the first part of the book a little slow but I'd forgotten about how much was in there to get through.
Steve Kloves: It was always very rich but it was oddly cinematic. I think that's why David Yates really relished approaching it. I think that's when he came around to two movies as well. He reread the book and says, "Oh boy, this is going to be hard as one movie..."
So what about Part Two? It's always struck me that you have this enormous battle but in between you have these flashbacks and you have this crazy afterlife experience…
Steve Kloves: I actually loved it. Initially it was a case of 'Be careful what you wish for' because I went from having two and a half hours to five hours. When you had a two and a half hour canvas you knew that things would drop out immediately - some of the smaller stuff in the book went right off the bat - but it didn't happen on this. So it took me a little while to get going. I actually loved those flashback scenes because I loved the Snape back stories and I really loved that whole thing going back to young Lily (Potter, nee Evans) and young Petunia ( Dursley, nee Evans. I just thought that was incredible. It's going to be highly evocative in the movie.
The battle, as a battle, didn't particularly interest me but I found my way into it [because] I knew David Yates and his team would come up with the scale and the spectacle. David and I talked and decided that it wasn’t going to end like other movies conclude. We didn't just want to do just do spectacle; we wanted to tie character and emotion to everything that happened. We wanted either Neville (Longbottom) to be involved or Seamus ( Finnigan) or a character we'd come to know at least somewhat, so it wasn't just like, "Wow, look at that blow up." I spent about three months working on the battle sequence putting dialogue in certain places and making sure it had a rhythm. I loved going to King's Cross and seeing Dumbledore because it was so weird. Having 1000 CG soldiers going across a plain doesn’t interest me because 20 years from now it's going to look goofy anyway, but I think Michael Gambon and Daniel Radcliffe talking to each other for seven minutes, might still be riveting 20 years from now. I’m not interested in body count, I'm interested in someone dying where we're going to feel something.
It feels like there is a lot of emotion in that last battle scene, a lot of really significant losses, and some surprises too - like Mrs Weasley suddenly confronting Bellatrix.
Steve Kloves: We've got all that. I think it shows just how complicated it is for Harry to stand and at the same time, he's willing to surrender himself to death. It’s an amazing thing to put into popular literature. It's very complicated emotionally and it was easy to write all that. It's not black and white, any of it. To me, it was about Harry realising that too that people were dying for him and that was just heartbreaking.
It feels like all those characters know they're just a distraction so Harry can complete his mission.
Steve Kloves: Well, Voldemort has ultimately played that card. The one thing about Voldemort and what's great about what Ralph (Fiennes) does is that he feels intelligent. In fact, if he accessed his intelligence more instead of his own ego he would probably be successful. Because what he does in this and what he says to Harry is, "Oh, you're going to let more people die for you." And that's the card that ultimately works but Harry has a card up his sleeve that he doesn't know about. It's brilliant.
Did things become more difficult without a Dumbledore-explains-it-all scene? I remember you saying about one of the earlier films that audiences know, at some point, there'd be a scene where he explains everything.
Steve Kloves: What I always loved about Dumbledore was his sense of humour and his speaking in allusions, where you wondered if they made sense on some level, and you could have a little fun with that. He's very self-aware, Dumbledore. He knows how he affects people at times. You know, he's a man who has a terrible burden and who has, in a way, sent this boy to slaughter and he just hopes he's able to figure it out.
Did your writing for Dumbledore change when Michael Gambon took over?
Steve Kloves: Not really, not initially. I think Michael has a different way of playing him. Richard (Harris) had this natural impishness. I’m not sure if it’s true, but there’s a story about him being wheeled out of The Savoy on a stretcher due to illness, and going past the restaurant and saying, "It was the food!" Richard was fun; he had that twinkle in his eye. I think Michael's different; he works with a different sort of palette. Michael was very, very good at conveying profundities and toning them with seriousness but somehow it not being pretentious, whereas Richard did it with a sort of glint in his eye. It's a different kind of Dumbledore but I think both are incredibly effective.
It never felt jarring going from one to the other but when you look at them they're very different performances.
Steve Kloves: It's a good point but I think that's a credit to Michael Gambon, you know. Michael is so gifted. I think he may have found a way to maybe take the audiences' hand and lead them into his Dumbledore and once he established that relationship he was able to work the way he wanted to work. I think he is literally that gifted. I'm not saying he was mimicking Richard in any way [but] I think he was respectful that someone had come before him and in a way made that blend happen.
What about the triumphant Voldemort speech? I've been hearing a lot about this from the actors involved. Is that something you pretty much lifted from the book or did you play with it a little bit?
Steve Kloves: I played with it but the essence will be Jo's. In a way, I also tailored it to Ralph. The way Ralph plays Voldemort is so brave because there's a slightly preening quality to him. There's a self-indulgence and a self-involvement which is his downfall so I played him luxuriating in the moment a tad too much. But Ralph had such a way of playing it that it's not the typical thing in a movie where you think, "Okay, now he's setting himself up and someone's going to hit him with a pie." Ralph does it much more subtly.
I was just going to ask about the '19 years later' scene. Is that as on the page or did you tweak it?
Steve Kloves: It was very similar to the book except that I wrote some completely new stuff for Harry with his daughter and that was my attempt to at least accent the ten-year journey. I was very, very happy with it but it's almost entirely Jo except in terms of the emphasis on certain characters and certain emotions. There's something about her work that I found very easy to weave my stuff within hers.
Well we’d better wrap up. Good luck, although I don't think it needs it.
Steve Kloves: We never - and I really mean this - take anything for granted. I don't think we once started one of them and thought, "They're going to show." It used to be a joke between me and David Heyman that they “would just come” and then not. There was always this nervousness. I hope it works. I hope people enjoy it. I always count on luck.