‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ at 20: The Film That Started It All
“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” ruined Daniel Radcliffe’s expectations for what is normal on a film set.
The Great Hall, where he shot many of the scenes from the first of eight films based on the J.K. Rowling series, was a phantasmagoria of detail. Platters of real lamb chops, roasted potatoes and puddings sat alongside 400 hand-lettered menus and — for at least one scene — hundreds of real, glowing candles. The hall set took 30 people a little over four months to construct.
“I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of sets I’ve been on since in my career that are of that scale,” Radcliffe said in a video interview from his New York apartment in October.
Directed by Chris Columbus, the story of a boy who, upon turning 11, discovers he’s a wizard and goes off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry opened Nov. 16, 2001, and went on to gross more than $1 billion worldwide.
When Radcliffe and the young actors who played his friends, Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger) were making the film, they weren’t just pretending to have the time of their lives — they were, Columbus said.
“That’s why we shot with three or four cameras — if one of the kids looked into the camera or smiled like they couldn’t believe their good fortune, I had something else to cut to,” he said in a phone conversation on a walk near his home in Malibu in September.
That joy was in large part thanks, Radcliffe said, to Columbus’s infectious passion for his work.
“Chris approaches set in the correct way, in my opinion, which is the attitude that we are the luckiest people in the world to get to do this for a living,” he said.
Columbus wasn’t initially sure he wanted to do a film about wizards, but after his daughter Eleanor (who has a cameo as Susan Bones) kept bugging him to read the books, he finally cracked open the first installment and read all 223 pages in a day.
“I thought, ‘I have to make a movie out of this,’” he said.
But when he called his agent to set up a meeting with Warner Bros., “She said, ‘Yeah, you and about 30 other directors,’” Columbus said.
So he came up with a strategy: He asked for the last meeting slot with studio executives and spent about 10 days writing a script from the director’s point of view.
“I think the most impressive thing about that to them was that I did something for free,” he said, laughing. “No one in Hollywood does anything for free.”
Some six weeks later, he learned the job was his — with one condition: He had to fly to Scotland to meet Rowling.
“I sat there for two and a half hours, talking nonstop, explaining my vision for the movie,” he said. “And she said, ‘That’s exactly the same way I see it.’”
He also got her to go to bat for him on one major casting decision: his Harry. He loved Radcliffe from the moment the actor read for the part — “He was phenomenal,” Columbus said — but the studio wasn’t so sure.
“Finally, I called Jo, and I said, ‘Will you look at this kid?’” he said. When she pronounced him “the perfect Harry Potter,” Columbus recalled, the studio went along.
Radcliffe, now 32, said that while he does not consider his performance in the film brilliant acting, he’s no longer embarrassed by some of the scenes the way he was in his late teens.
“Now I’m able to look back and go, ‘OK, you were a kid, it’s fine,’” he said, laughing. “It’s still a lovely memory.”
In separate interviews, Radcliffe and Columbus recalled what it took to shoot four key scenes. Here are edited excerpts from our conversations.
The Great Hall
Creating the main gathering place at Hogwarts, where the students eat all their meals at House tables, was a mammoth undertaking.
COLUMBUS When the actors walk into the Great Hall for the first time, what you see on their faces is the genuine reaction to seeing this incredible set for the first time.
RADCLIFFE It never really lost that power.
COLUMBUS The production designer Stuart Craig and [the set decorator] Stephenie McMillan had such an incredible eye for detail. I opened up one of the menus, and realized they’d handwritten all 400 on parchment paper. I thought, “Oh my God, this is the real deal.” I’ve since never had such extraordinary production design.
But there were a few hiccups.
COLUMBUS The food came in — an American Thanksgiving feast — and it was meant to last for eight to 10 hours. I came back the next day, and it was still the same food! By Day 3, I can only say the scent of the Great Hall was getting a little funky.
There was also a mishap.
COLUMBUS When all the kids file into the Great Hall for the first time, we see hundreds of floating candles in the air. And then something horrible happened — the flames of the candles started to burn through the clear string holding them and started to drop! We had to get everybody out of the set — and then we shot it two more times, telling ourselves, ‘We’re just going to add C.G.I. candles.’”
RADCLIFFE We scattered! I’m sure Chris was more stressed out by it, but as a kid, you’re like, “This is really funny.”
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The Quidditch scenes are some of the most exciting parts of the film. But the rigs the actors rode were a little, erm, bumpy.
COLUMBUS Our stunt coordinator, Greg Powell, came up with these brilliant rigs that gave all the actors a sense of almost being on an amusement-park ride. What you see on their faces a lot of times, particularly in the Quidditch match, is real — they were a little terrified, but for the most part, as 11-year-old kids, they were having the time of their lives.
RADCLIFFE Looking back, it would have been totally acceptable for me as an 11-year-old in interviews to go, “Yeah, the Quidditch scenes are pretty painful.” But at the time, it was like, “I can’t say anything bad or negative about anything,” so you’re just like, “No, no, no, it’s great.” It was a broomstick with a thin seat in the middle, and you didn’t have stirrups — or, if you did, they were very, very high up — so you were basically leaning all your weight onto your junk when you leaned forward.
COLUMBUS A few weeks before I started the film, I ran into Steven Spielberg. And he said, “There’s one thing you’ve got to do: When these kids get off these rigs, they should be rubbing their thighs like athletes, like it’s really been this incredibly painful experience.”
RADCLIFFE I think on the fifth movie, they made a broom that had more of a rowing machine tractor seat, and we were like, “Why has this taken so long to change? This is much better!”
The Troll Attack
When Harry and Ron are fighting the troll in the girls’ bathroom, Ron casts a spell to drop a club on the troll’s head — but not before it flips Harry upside down and swings him around by his ankles.
COLUMBUS Whatever C.G.I. character couldn’t be there in person, I had to be. So in the second film I was Dobby, the Basilisk — and here, I was the troll. In the wide shots I could only shout and act like a maniac off camera, but in the close-ups, I could actually be next to the camera pretending to be a troll. It was one of the most intense physical workouts I’ve ever had.
RADCLIFFE One of the great things about the films early on was that a huge amount of the effects were practical. The shot of us ducking as the bathroom stalls explode when the troll hits them with the club — some of that was very real. It’s always better to react to something that’s there.
The Chess Game
One of the obstacles guarding the Sorcerer’s Stone is a giant wizard’s chess board, which Harry, Ron and Hermione must play their way across. The film’s designers created 32 pieces, that were up to 12-feet tall and weighed as much as 500 pounds.
COLUMBUS Stuart and I thought it would be interesting to build as much as possible so we could get the kids’ actual reactions of being on these enormous chess pieces. The only things that were augmented in C.G.I. were some explosions — though we did some practical ones, too — and some scenes where the pieces actually had to move. I think it was the pawns that had to draw their swords.
RADCLIFFE Of course, they d got an international master to devise a chess puzzle. The attention to detail was really cool.
Some fans have pointed out that the game isn’t strictly accurate.
COLUMBUS I saw the first cut, and I said, “This is really, really slow.” I was adhering to an exact chess game. So I said to my editor, “We’ve got to cut this back.” I can’t worry that the game is being played exactly as a chess expert would play it.
RADCLIFFE It was an incredibly cool set — we were literally playing on this massive chess board every day surrounded by fire — and the effects in that scene hold up in a way that not all the effects from the first film do.