‘If you recast me, I’ll f***ing kill you’: An oral history of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

As the first film adaptation of JK Rowling’s blockbuster novel turns 20, Sam Moore speaks to director Chris Columbus and stars such as Fiona Shaw and Matthew Lewis about the film’s joyous yet daunting production, the naughtiness of Richard Harris and the fight to cast Daniel Radcliffe

Thursday 11 November 2021 19:33
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<p>‘I wanted kids who didn’t have a lot of experience’: Daniel Radcliffe and Hedwig the Owl in ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone'</p>

‘I wanted kids who didn’t have a lot of experience’: Daniel Radcliffe and Hedwig the Owl in ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone'

By the time Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone arrived in cinemas on 13 November 2001, JK Rowling’s original books had already captured the imaginations of children the world over. The films, however, shot the eponymous wizard into the stratosphere.

Upon release, it became the second highest-grossing film of all time. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson immediately became the most famous 11-year-olds on the planet, and terms such as “muggle” and “quidditch” entered the popular lexicon. This was a universe that welcomed the world and audiences flocked to it in the same way they did Star Wars 25 years earlier.

Adults, meanwhile, embraced the series with as much wonder as young people, obsessing over the tiny details of wands and horcruxes and interrogating every plot twist. Retrospectively, it feels like Marvel mania was built on the shoulders of Harry Potter.

While the critical consensus is that the movies got better later as they went on, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was roundly praised upon release. The Independent said: “Everything about this movie flies.” Roger Ebert gave the film a glowing four star review and called it a “classic”. The Guardian also called it “fantastically enjoyable”.

Twenty years later, it’s impossible to think of a world where Harry Potter isn’t shorthand for magic, where Hogwarts isn’t the most famous school in pop culture and where universities don’t have their own Quidditch teams. As the first film in the franchise turns 20, director Chris Columbus and a host of its stars – including Fiona Shaw, David Bradley and Matthew Lewis – recalled the making of a magical modern classic.

“I don’t want to say the first book was boring… but I couldn’t get into it”

Everyone has their own Harry Potter entry point, even those who ended up starring in the film adaptations. From stumbling on them at school book fairs to noticing your co-star on a BBC sitcom had become obsessed with them, they are stories almost as compelling as what Rowling first put down on paper.

Chris Columbus (director): My daughter kept saying, “Dad, you should read this and make it into a film!” To be honest, I kind of ignored her because I wasn’t interested in wizards and magic. Then The Chamber of Secrets came out and she asked a million more times, so I read it. And in two days! A lightbulb went off in my head, and I knew I had to make the movie.

Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom): I bought Prisoner of Azkaban from the school book fair because everyone else had been on about them. It just sat on a bookshelf for a while because I hadn’t read the first two. A school friend ended up lending me [The Philosopher’s Stone]. I read the first chapter and couldn’t get into it. I don’t want to say it was boring… but I couldn’t get into it. My mate told me he was the same, so I skipped to chapter two and just fell in love with it. To this day, I’ve never read chapter one of Philosopher’s Stone.

David Bradley (Filch): We were on holiday in Sardinia with the kids and they were into this book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I don’t normally read that kind of thing but I thought I’d better read it to see what everybody was talking about.

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Zoe Wanamaker (Madam Hooch): I found Harry Potter through [Wanamaker’s BBC sitcom] My Family. Gabriel Thompson, who played my youngest son, Michael, would always be sat in the corner just reading and reading. When I was younger, I used to read a lot of fantasy so I started reading them [too].

Fiona Shaw (Aunt Petunia): I went on holiday to Cornwall with two children. We sat on the beach and I was reading it aloud and as I was reading it, they were saying every line in the book ahead of me. They already knew it off by heart. It was in their bloodstream.

Columbus: I called my agent and said I wanted to talk to Warner Bros about directing Harry Potter. He told me to get in line because there were 25 other directors ahead of me. I needed a plan to get the job. I went back to my agent to make sure I was the last director the studio saw. Between that conversation and the interview with Warner Bros, I took the brilliant script by Steve Kloves and did a director’s pass and rewrote it with my ideas and brought that to the meeting. Nobody does that, nobody writes anything for free in Hollywood. That startled them. Then after the meeting, I just left them the script. About six weeks later, I found out I had the job.

Chris Columbus directs Daniel Radcliffe and Maggie Smith on the set

“They certainly weren’t picking me for my acting abilities”

JK Rowling insisted that the Harry Potter film cast stay British (or Irish, in the cases of Fiona Shaw and Richard Harris), preventing a certain Mrs Doubtfire star from teaching Defence Against the Dark Arts. It did mean, though, that British luminaries such as Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman and Fiona Shaw received some of the biggest roles of their careers.

Columbus: I wanted kids who didn’t have a lot of experience. If you cast kids from the Disney Channel, in a sense they’ve had too much of it. By that point, they have a certain bag of tricks and you don’t get a naturalistic performance.

Lewis: I first attended a big open audition. I’d been acting since I was five so I went down with my agency – a big group of kids all on this bus. I was given a raffle ticket with something like number 465 on it. We were sat there for hours! As it was an open audition, any kid could go in, so you’ve got theatre school types doing their friggin’ tap dancing and vocal warmups.

Bradley: My kids told me they were making a film of the book we liked and that I should be in it. I quite fancied playing the part of Snape. I thought he sounded like a cool, suave guy, but my daughter told me I was a Filch so that tells you how they see me.

Sean Biggerstaff (Oliver Wood): I was originally going to audition for the part of Percy Weasley. Without even reading the lines, the casting director Janet Hirshenson said to me: “Oh no, you’re much more of a Wood.” As I’d just read the books, I knew that the only physical description of Wood was that he was “burly”. I was a 17-year-old cyclist so could not have been further from that.

Chris Rankin (Percy Weasley): My audition process was weird. I was watching the BBC’s Newsround when I was 16 and waiting for Neighbours to come on. There was a news piece that said they were making a Harry Potter film and they wanted kids to write in to Newsround to request an audition. I thought, well, I’m 16, ginger and a school prefect. Realistically, the only part I have a hope of getting is that of the 16-year-old ginger prefect.

Clockwise from top right: Luke Youngblood, Zoe Wanamaker, David Bradley, Sean Biggerstaff, Chris Rankin and Matthew Lewis

Luke Youngblood (Lee Jordan): I remember them wanting energetic, funny and cheeky. And obviously a Black guy. The casting director explained to me that my character was a commentator and there’s this game where people fly around on broomsticks. She told me to commentate on a match. There was no script, no sides. I just had to improvise.

Wanamaker: I auditioned for Chris Columbus. Nowadays you don’t do that. Everything’s on Zoom and it’s s***.

Lewis: After being at the open audition for three hours, my mum went to me: “If we leave now, I’ll get you a McDonalds.” I actually told her no. Eventually my number was called and I was given a paragraph to read from the book and it was some of Harry’s dialogue about a dragon. All I had to do was say my name, read the paragraph and look down the camera lens. I was in there for less than a minute. Eventually, [I got] a recall for the role of Neville. I did a screen test on the Gryffindor common room set and was then in a boardroom with some Americans. I don’t think I’d ever met an American before.

Youngblood: As I was leaving the audition, I asked Janet Hirshenson when it was going to be on TV because I thought it was for a children’s TV show. She just looked at me and said: “Darling, this is a Warner Bros feature film.”

Columbus: Rupert Grint and Emma Watson were so perfect and so easy [to find], but Harry Potter was by far the hardest role to cast. We looked through thousands of auditions but nothing was quite right. One night, I was watching BBC One and David Copperfield was on. In it was a young Daniel Radcliffe. He was only in it for a few minutes but I thought, ‘This is Harry Potter’. I told the casting director that I’d found Harry but she told me I’d never get him as his parents were in the industry and they don’t want him to be overexposed, which he would be with this role. That was a hurdle to overcome. About a month later, [producer] David Heyman went to some West End production and in the audience was Daniel Radcliffe with his parents. David was aware of how badly we wanted Dan for the film, so in the intermission he approached his father and somehow convinced him to come in to audition. And that was how we found Harry Potter.

Emma Watson as Hermione Granger

Bradley: The kids were terrific. The three of them grew into the roles so well. Rupert was always smiling when he was supposed to be serious.

Lewis: I was very similar to Neville as a kid. They certainly weren’t picking me for my acting abilities. I suppose at that age, if a kid can stand on a mark and remember their lines, that’s half the battle.

Rankin: Julie Walters [Weasley mum Molly] was cast quite late in the process. There were lots of rumours but it was always thought that she was the best person for the role. When she was confirmed, us Weasleys were very excited. We were filming the King’s Cross scene in a freezing January and we were in our green room and we could hear her bounding down the corridor going: “Where’s my boys? Where are my sons?” That was how we were all introduced to her. She’s been my second mother for 20 years and exactly what the character needed.

Shaw: Both Daniel Radcliffe and Harry Melling [Dudley Dursley] were wonderful. Especially Harry, he had this gift of understanding something so deeply at the age of 10. Both boys were so bright. Richard Griffiths and I would set challenges for them, like naming capital cities of countries. They were both very good but I remember they were always a bit stumped by Australia.

Columbus: I didn’t know JK Rowling wanted to keep the cast all British until I met her. I went to Scotland and didn’t shut up explaining my vision for the film. At some point, I mentioned that I was thinking about casting all-British actors and she said: “That’s exactly how I see it.” Robin Williams was interested in playing Lupin. Jo was intrigued by the idea as that would have been film three, but we decided to stick to our commitment.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone: Official trailer

“It was like herding cats”

Chris Columbus came to the film with a big reputation, especially for working with children. He’d been behind the camera on Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire and also written The Goonies.

Biggerstaff: We were in very safe hands with Chris. It was so clear he was taking on the responsibility of working with child actors, which, as a general rule, people don’t. You look at what happens to child actors – directors and producers use them for what they want and then don’t take any responsibility for their lives. He really looked out for us as young people and he deserves a lot of credit for that.

Rankin: He’s got a way of bringing out the best in people who don’t have the first idea of what they’ve signed up to. It never felt like there was any pressure on us.

Lewis: He never lost his temper or raised his voice. He never made anything our issue. I can only imagine how stressful it was. It was like herding cats.

Youngblood: I think him having four kids himself probably helped. We could be terrors but he was so lovely.

“They hung a dead mouse from my apron”

The Harry Potter movies set up base at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire with Northumberland’s Alnwick Castle doubling as Hogwarts. On a $125m (£92m) budget, filming commenced in September of 2000, just over a year before the film’s scheduled release.

Columbus: I didn’t realise it at the time but you’re basically designing a world that doesn’t exist. [Production designer] Stuart Craig and myself jumped into it like kids in a toy store. We wanted to create a world that would hopefully sustain through time.

Shaw: We had two special effects things that make me howl about Hollywood. One was when the letters arrive for Harry out of the fireplace. We were told they would shoot out. This was done in two different ways. At first, it was done by a man behind the fireplace going whoosh and throwing them out. They then got a machine that sent the letters flying out quicker, but we had to tidy them all up afterwards. The second special effect thing was in the scene where I’m looking out the window and all the owls are looking back. Because the camera was behind the owls, they had this tendency to look back at the camera, so to stop the owls looking at the movement behind them, they hung a dead little mouse from my apron. That’s Hollywood.

Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw and Harry Melling look on as Daniel Radcliffe is swarmed by letters

Lewis: We’re in costume for the first time. We all have broomsticks. Zoe Wanamaker is Madam Hooch. It felt like we were actually at Hogwarts. I’m so nervous, and Chris says to me: “Matt, this week is all about you.” It was the quidditch lesson scene where I end up on a broom. Eleven years old, first time on a movie set and they strap me to a broomstick 30ft in the air. That was Zoe’s first day too. We reminisced about that a couple of years ago and she told me how nervous she was.

Wanamaker: I was. You always want to do a good job. First day at Alnwick Castle, I walked on set and all these boys were standing there with broomsticks and it was exactly like the book. I thought it was great but the flying stuff was so funny. It was all a machine. You walk onto this huge set to do the flying and there’s a little broomstick on this machine and it was broken. It’s so The Emperor’s New Clothes.

Columbus: So many times during the film I would be the fourth actor off camera, pretending to be the troll in the dungeon. I’d be the one hopping about so the kids had something tangible to react to.

Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley

Youngblood: They built the tower in the quidditch stadium but then everything else was CGI. It wasn’t until the screening that I had any idea what quidditch looked like.

Lewis: I actually got stuck on a broomstick and flown all over the place by this crane attached to the back of a truck. They raced this truck around the castle grounds with me 30 or 40ft in the air. It was wicked. Imagine going to work and doing that?

Wanamaker: The props were fantastic. I had to take photographs of the sets and the props but I got told off – they were very jumpy about that. But there was so much detail. The menus for the feasts in the Great Hall were all handwritten. I had lots of questions for the costume designer, too, particularly over the leather boots, which I thought were a bit fetish-y.

“I look up and it’s Rik bloody Mayall!”

The Young Ones star Rik Mayall was initially cast as Peeves the Poltergeist, a fan favourite from the books, who loved to torment the students of Hogwarts. While the comedy legend filmed his scenes, they were cut from the finished movie and have never seen the light of day.

Rankin: Usually when we did stuff with the ghosts, you didn’t have John Cleese on set reading his lines [but] a wonderful entertainer and mime called Les Bubb. For Peeves, though, Rik Mayall was literally stood by the camera doing Rik Mayall.

Lewis: Rik Mayall was my absolute hero. I used to watch Drop Dead Fred on repeat. I went to the read through and we all had cards with our names on and when I saw Rik’s name on one of these cards, I just lost it. My first big movie and the one bloody guy I’m obsessed with is here. So I sat down and pretended to read the script because I was so nervous. Then, out of nowhere, somebody plonked themselves in the chair next to me and I look up and it’s Rik bloody Mayall. He was completely high on life and the same when we got to set.

Rankin: He was completely anarchic. We never got a straight take. We spent three or four days with Rik Mayall hurling abuse at us in a way only Rik Mayall could. I’m sure he taught us words we weren’t supposed to know.

Lewis: The only problem was that he was too bloody funny. We were supposed to be terrified but he just made us laugh. I think that’s the main reason they cut it.

Rankin: I know he was really miffed he got cut. I think he said it was the biggest paycheck he’d ever gotten for a job he hadn’t done.

“I just missed going for a pint with Richard Harris”

In the 20 years since the film’s release, a number of its actors have passed away. Richard Harris, who played Dumbledore, died of cancer shortly after finishing filming the second movie, The Chamber of Secrets. A decision was made to recast the role, with Dumbledore brought back to life by Harris’ fellow Irishman, Michael Gambon.

The late Richard Harris as Dumbledore

Columbus: Richard Harris is one of the greatest characters I’ve ever met.

Wanamaker: I think he was naughty.

Columbus: Absolutely. One of the naughtiest men. With a devilish sense of humour. Quite the prankster too. I remember, near the end of his life, he was carried out of the Savoy Hotel on a stretcher and as he passed this long line of people waiting to get into the restaurant, he started shouting “it was the food, it was the food”. A truly hilarious man.

Wanamaker: You come across so many extraordinary people in this business and he was one of them. There was a day where me and Maggie Smith were sat in the makeup room doing crosswords and having a gossip when Richard comes in, in full costume and just falls asleep. Because he had the long hair and the beard, we tied it all up with little bows. Cut to about 4pm and one of the assistant directors comes in to say they were wrapping for the day because the kids can only work so many hours. Richard’s eyes open and he slowly lifts himself out the chair and he just screams “WHAT!” in full costume. He was so pissed off. I could not stop laughing.

Columbus: David Heyman and I went out to dinner with Richard and he told us he’d stopped drinking but then the first thing he did was order a beer. I said to him, “I thought you’d stopped drinking”. He answered, “I have, but beer isn’t drinking.” He drank six beers that dinner.

Bradley: When he was living at the Savoy, he asked me over for a pint. After rehearsals one day, I made my way over and asked the barman for Richard Harris but he told me he wasn’t there, that he’d been taken ill. He died a few days later. I just missed going for a pint with Richard Harris.

Columbus: The sad thing is, I visited him in hospital a few days before he passed away and he told me, “If you recast me, I’ll f***ing kill you.” I didn’t think I had anything to worry about, I thought he was going to be okay. No one had any idea how sick he was. Five days later, he passed away.

Since the franchise came to a close, two other important Potter figures have died: Uncle Vernon actor Richard Griffiths died following heart surgery in 2013, and Alan Rickman – adored for his performance of Severus Snape – died of pancreatic cancer in 2016.

Shaw: Richard Griffiths was the most special man. So garrulous, he just loved talking. He was famous for regaling people with all the stories he had. He was the child of two profoundly deaf people so was the only speaker in his house. He could talk to 40 or 50 people at once and have them all crying with laughter. He also had the most beautiful handwriting you’ll ever see. It was so delicate, like him. We both just loved being funny together. He and Harry Melling would just be so clownish together. They were both so rowdy and I’d be there being uptight and skinny.

Bradley: I first met Alan Rickman in 1978.

Wanamaker: Alan, David and I all started at the Royal Shakespeare Company together. That’s why it was so nice, we all knew each other. Alan was a devil for stealing props [from the Potter set] but he always auctioned them off for charity. I think he auctioned a letter and it fetched £25,000.

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape

Biggerstaff: I first met Alan when I was 11. He was auditioning for the play The Winter Guest. I was too young at the time but when he came to do the film version of it, he remembered me. To this day, I don’t know how instrumental Alan was in getting me Harry Potter but I’ll put it this way: the agent I was with was also Alan’s agent, and I know Alan had put a good word in to David Heyman. I know I owe him a lot but just how much, I still don’t know. I never got over being slightly starstruck by Alan.

Lewis: Alan was a dream and I didn’t appreciate it until it was over. I wish I had an awareness of how fleeting everything would be. You think you have 10 years but before you know it, it’s over. I was terrified of him for the longest time. He kept the Snape persona when he was on set. Not to an absurd degree but just with us kids. I think he did it to instil a bit of fear, and it worked. He was so generous. He was constantly bringing kids to set to take them on tours and he’d do it all in character.

“Children would be afraid of me”

In the 20 years since the release of The Philosopher’s Stone, it’s received seven sequels, along with a West End spin-off – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – and a prequel series based on Rowling’s Potterverse guide book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The original sets have been turned into an official museum, while Rowling herself has become a billionaire. The series is as popular as ever, if slightly more polarising than it once was – Rowling has become a contentious figure due to her stances on gender, while the books have drawn criticism for its depictions or lack thereof of queer characters or characters of colour.

Youngblood: I am disappointed with the lack of diversity in Harry Potter [Youngblood is one of only two Black characters with speaking parts]. So many Black people have come up to me and said “thank you for doing this”. It’s extremely important for people to see others who look like them doing things like this. I want to see more of it. Black Panther shows just how much of a success it can be. But I am so thankful for it. I love that people still love it and can escape to this magical world.

Biggerstaff: I was very, very slow in realising how big Potter was going to be. It only hit me when the autograph requests started coming in before the film was even released.

Women walk past a ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ billboard in Shanghai in early 2002

Shaw: For a long time after Harry Potter, airports were a very interesting place for me. Any children waiting with their parents, they’d be afraid of me. One very interesting incident was when an air hostess came up to me. She told me she was genuinely terrified of me. I think Harry Potter is about kids having their vengeance on the adult world. It was great fun to be part of that oppression.

Bradley: I had similar reactions to Fiona. The small kids would see me and run behind their parents’ legs and hide. I’d have to smile to show them that my teeth weren’t Filch’s. The kids do love meeting me though. Sometimes I have to do a bit of Filch for them and then a bit of Game of Thrones for their parents. I remember meeting JK Rowling at the premiere and I cheekily asked her to sign my menu card. She wrote on it: “To David, who was fabulously fowl”. I still treasure that.

Columbus: When I see bits of the film pop up on television, it feels as if it was made yesterday. Hopefully, for the audience, it feels as timeless for them. I remember being terrified when it came out. If it didn’t do well and the fans revolted, I was thinking I’d have to go into witness protection and assume a new identity. I still think fondly about going back to Harry Potter, just one more time...

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