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01 June 2016
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Mike Newell On Harry Potter
'I felt like I didn't belong'

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After Christopher Columbus and Alfonso Cuarón had kicked off the Potter franchise, it was the turn of the first of two British directors to take the mantle. Mike Newell's CV had a diverse look to it prior to his trip to Hogwarts - Four Weddings And A Funeral sharing A4 space with Donnie Brasco - but, as he explains to Empire, nothing prepared him for joining a well-established movie franchise mid-stream. "It was an extremely odd experience," he says of The Goblet Of Fire. "I’m not sure whether it suited any of us..."

Mike Newell On Harry Potter
Mike Newell with Daniel Radcliffe

What was your encounter with Harry Potter?
Well, I read the first book and thought how brilliant it was. There were all sorts of things I absolutely loved in the book... the cupboard under the stairs; the owls arriving. I saw [the films] of course and they asked me if I was interested in doing one, and I said I was. They presented me with this 1000-page novel. The first question was whether I thought I could make two movies out of it, and I said I didn’t think there was enough plot. We decided to make one movie and I had to find a form for it, so off I went and came up with a thriller idea.

There were very serious discussions about The Goblet Of Fire being two movies. Was it when you came aboard that that finally stopped?
They presented me with that question and I said no. I could see that you could do all the Union of House Elves stuff, but while Jo Rowling is absolutely brilliant at writing 18th century novels in which plotlines loop back on themselves, obviously that wasn’t going to be good for a movie. It was really a Warner Bros. decision. What they wanted to know was “If it wasn’t that, what was it?” and I said, “Well, it’s a paranoid thriller like North by Northwest.” You’ve got a happy guy who is unaware that there are people out there who wish him harm, and slowly you track what that’s about and why. That provides the page-turning equivalent in the movie version.

You were coming into a very established group in a way, was that an odd experience?
Yes. It was an extremely odd experience and I’m not sure whether it suited any of us. I felt that there was a kind of impatience and that I had to learn lessons which they already knew very well - that they felt that everything was self-evident and all I had to do was follow the line. But I didn’t know what the line was. I mean how you work up a sequence that takes place underwater with mythical creatures that do not exist in life? What are the steps for that? You invent the creature, but how do you do that? You go off and create an infinite number of storyboards, and I didn’t really know how that was done.

I didn’t know the severity of the examination in the process. People come in and just pull it apart. You’d just sit down and it’d be pulled apart in front of your eyes. That was perfectly normal to them but not perfectly normal to me and nobody was giving me the inside track. And so, yes, I felt quite – I don’t know exactly – I felt that I didn’t belong. I remember sitting in meetings and they’d ask me questions and I’d say, “I don’t know yet, I don’t know yet”, which was the truth, but not what they wanted to hear. Gradually, that got ironed out until we were all very happy with one another and I look back on it as being a very happy time. It was a long time: it was two and a half years. That’s what they take. David (Yates) manages to do them faster now because he’s got all those stories in his hands, and there are economies of scale. But, as I say, I look back on it now with tremendous happiness - I’m proud of it and I liked all the people, we all got to fall in love in the end and it was good.

Was it your first big effects movie?
It sure was. I’d done a little bit of that stuff before but nothing like that, nothing where you’d have these huge sequences.

What about the cast in that stage of development – particularly the main three – what were they like at that point?
Well, I think one of the remarkable things about that whole series is that the main three kids have always been sweet, intelligent, cooperative, there to work and completely, fully engaged. Really, with children, that can often not be the case – they can be a pain in the arse. But they were tremendous right from the start. So that’s the first answer to the question – it’s a very complicated question.

I heard a story that on the third film they were asked to write essays about their characters and Emma Watson turned in ten pages, Daniel Radcliffe turned in one page and Rupert Grint didn’t get his done. Is that true?
The dog ate Rupert’s. That is entirely true. They had been very well cast and in all of this there is a great hero who is sung, but not nearly enough, and that is Chris Columbus. Before Chris Columbus, nobody knew anything. It may well be that (production designer) Stuart Craig had the whole thing up his sleeve all the time, and I think he did in a lot of the big visuals. Originally they were going to shoot it all around London; it wasn’t going to have that Scottish baronial look to it and the vast spaces and the grim mountains. It was all going be country houses round London. Stuart took it by the scruff of his neck and said, “No it isn’t, it’s going to look like this.” And I think everyone was a bit discombobulated by that to start with because there are some obvious cost implications. But he was right.

People didn’t know how to throw a spell before Chris came along. There weren’t characters before Chris came along, there was just the book. And he left us with this tremendous legacy. He cast the children and the children were marvelous. Then what happened was that the characters grew into the children and the children grew into the characters until they’re indivisible.

Mike Newell On Harry Potter
Rupert Grint, Mike Newell, Alan Rickman and Daniel Radcliffe

In terms of that world-building, Chris Columbus did a lot of that heavy lifting. His two films are sometimes criticised for being slower because they have this exposition to do, but was that freeing for you?
Honestly, I didn’t do close textual analysis. I’d watched them, of course – it was necessary to watch them - and I’d read the first one. I skip read the second and the third, and then Alfonso (Cuarón) came along. In a way, everyone’s a hero on these [films]. I don’t know what my particular heroism is, but I suppose there’ll be one somewhere. David (Yates) has taken on an unbelievable number of extraordinarily complicated films; Chris did what he did [laughs]. You can’t argue with the box office! I think it number one and number two made over a billion. So you can say what you like about Chris’s films, but that’s what they made, and I think he had a real vision for it. Then Alfonso came along and changed the vision very significantly and took the bull by the horns. That was his particular heroism. He said, “No, they’re getting older and the whole thing has to be more shadowed. There’ve got to be some bad things going on here.” He gave it a completely different look and tone, and he was a great big shapeshifter.

Sometimes it seems a little bit tame when the three are just getting on perfectly well. When you start introducing a little conflict it starts to shake things up and give it that little bit of extra edge. Was that your intention?
Yes, and obviously that was Jo’s (Rowling) strategic plan all the time - that they would stop this “we are the perfect three, we link hands and we march up the hill” and there would be this conflict between them. That was a very powerful thing to be able to do.

I suppose it’s part of growing up as well?
Sure, it is. I remember everyone was really worried when Rupert told Harry to “piss off”. Would the audience take this?

When I talked to Daniel Radcliffe recently, I was saying that one of my favourite scenes in the books was when Mrs. Weasley says “Not my daughter, you bitch!” He was saying that he’d been worried about that in the script because he didn’t like swearing in the films. He felt quite strongly about it and he mentioned the “piss off” line too. Do you think he feels some responsibility to the younger kids who are watching the film?
I expect he does, he’s Harry Potter! When my 15 year-old son was five, he thought he was Harry Potter and he dressed up in the cloak and the glasses. Dan’s right, he does have a bit of a responsibility. But then again, you can take these things too seriously.

So what was the greatest challenge? Was it dealing with these incredible effects scenes? What gave you the most sleepless nights?
I sleep. I don’t have sleepless nights. Actually, I’m not sure that's true - of course I have sleepless nights. The producer came up to me one time, white in the face, and said, “We’ve just fed 1100 people.” Some of those big scenes - the ball scenes - where those kids can only work four hours a day, you’ve got a call for 400 extras, then you need 800. It’s just dealing with those numbers. One of the great unsung heroes of this was Chris Carraras, the first assistant. This man would walk around with the weight of the world on his shoulders, the whole thing depended on him and his scheduling. He was a hero. It was his planning that did it. I can wander around saying, “My vision, my vision…” but somebody has got to deliver me four hundred kids, fed and costumed. It’s a huge thing, that. That was one of the things that was surprising: the scale. I’d never done anything as big.

The sets are famous for their detail. Kenneth Branagh talked about how the biographies that they’d printed for his character (Gilderoy Lockhart) had print inside them, like an actual biography of him with pictures. Did that all help the process?
I adored his character, I thought it he was so funny! And that’s true, the detail is absolutely fascinating. Whenever I was missing my mother and feeling ill done by, I would go up and sit in the art department and talk to the modelers and the drawers and Stuart (production designer Craig). I loved the art director. There were the props people and the set-dressers and whatnot – the main set-dresser was up for an Oscar this year. Didn’t bloody get it, of course. I don’t think she did. It’s weird, this huge success and people just brush it aside. “That’s Harry Potter, it doesn’t matter.” They’re very under-prized, I think, and it’s a shame.

Mike Newell On Harry Potter
Newell with Michael Gambon

You got that BAFTA...
Yes, that was really sweet. They ought to have had 200 people on the stage.

Maybe they’ll do a Return Of The King and suddenly give it all the technical prizes?
I wonder if they are. There must be huge pressure on Jo to do something else now. I wonder if she’s going to ditch those characters now and send them to the scrapyard, like the RAF sending Nimrod. “Now we’re going to cut it up now, Gov. We’ll put the wings over there and the tails over there.” So I don’t know. What do you hear?

She had said that she was done with Potter but there was a slight hint recently that she might revisit the world in some way. I’m not sure if I want her to, actually. Do you?
Well, no. One of the things that she would say, and I’m sure that she would be right, is that, “Well, they’ll just be waiting for me this time.” That life will just be a series of horrible ambushes because it will be thought that her decisions were cynical. And to some extent they would be, so I’m sure she’s right. She’s a very, very bright woman and I’m sure she won’t make that mistake.

I think if she returns it will be because she has a great story to tell, won’t it?
But will it be the next generation?

I was on the set for the final film and there were jokes that in 30 years they’ll come back and play the teachers in the remakes, had you heard that?
It must have been so odd, the last day. So odd. I’d love to have seen that.

Do you think there was an element of being happy on one hand, but also devastated to be finishing on the other?
Well, those children grew up. Dan was completely, individually educated on that film. He was at a school, but I don’t think he really went. He was at City of London, but I don’t think he really attended.

He was there every day of filming, wasn’t he?
Yeah, and I think he was tutored. Emma went to school, I think. But it actually became their childhood. It must be very odd.

Isn’t it extraordinary that they’ve turned out as normally as they have?
Well, it’s a huge tribute to the parents. The parents are very clever.

Mike Newell On Harry Potter
Robert Pattinson as Cedric Diggory

On the subject of the young cast, did you have any inkling of the future you would uncover in Robert Pattinson?
I could see it. It was quite clear that he was destined for great things.

No (laughs). But what he was, was wild in a very sweet way. He was a wild kid, he would have been a hippy if he were 30 years older. But he feels very responsible. Robert now, like Dan, takes the responsibility for those things very seriously, and there’s a lot of responsibility to take. Have you ever been to one with an ordinary audience? It’s like a Nuremburg rally, it’s just extraordinary. I went to see one in America and it was full of 12 year-old girls who would simply scream their heads off. The big thing about that character (Cedric Diggory) was that he was going to die. He was head boy and he was going to die. And so what I had to have was the classic Battle of the Somme, golden subaltern who manages to survive for three weeks and then is killed. Or the Battle of Britain pilot – the doomed young officer - and Robert was exactly that. It’s an accident of personality and of looks, and that’s what casting is always like.

Is it that same thing that got him cast in the Twilight movies? That same sense of slight doom about him?
That’s right, yes. He has the same sort of pale blond thing, which you can think of as bloodless but it isn’t. He’s a sweet kid, actually. A really nice boy, I’m very proud of him.

Do you think he had any idea what he was getting himself into with Twilight?
Absolutely not, I’m sure that’s true. I’m sure he didn’t see it at all.

Speaking of Cedric Diggory, the ending of that film and the book, it’s just a body blow isn’t it? It’s the first proper death of the series. How much of a challenge was that for you?
It depends on one absolutely brilliant piece of acting. (Cedric Diggory’s father, Amos, was played by Jeff Rawle)

The bit when he runs out? It’s devastating, isn’t it?
[Jeff Rawle] deserves real thanks and it’s the most marvellous piece of acting, and he’s built it up. He starts as somebody who worships his son, who lives through his son and can’t believe that he is dead. What he had to do – I remember asking him – was to howl like an animal. You go from triumph, overwhelming pride and love to horror and dreadful grief in seconds. It happens very quickly and he played it utterly beautifully. At that point it went from being a happy movie to a horrible movie, so there was a lot hanging on him. It’s a marvelous moment that is entirely made by the actor.

After that ending and the experience of the whole thing were you ever tempted to come back for another film?
I was asked to come back by a Warner Brothers guy, whose name was Lionel Wigram. But then what happened was that the whole business of getting one ready for release with the approach of the other one, they couldn't stay on track, they couldn't stay on schedule - and they were absolutely desperate because of kid's contracts and that sort of stuff, that there should not be a gap. You’ve got to be in preparation while you are editing and getting ready for the screening. So I couldn't do it.

They had 16 months solid shooting on both of The Deathly Hallows films while he was still finishing The Half-Blood Prince. That seems just mind-blowing, doesn’t it?
I know. I shot for nearly a year. It was a big, big thing. Anyway, I enjoyed it and I loved everybody involved, and came to know them and appreciate them in a way that I hadn’t initially. I’m proud of it and I think it’s a decent film.

Interview by Helen O'Hara

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