Constructing Harry

Friday, November 18, 2005
A scene from 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire'

LOS ANGELES -- Mike Newell loved the magic of the "Harry Potter" stories. He was not quite sold on the magic that went into making the "Harry Potter" movies, though.

Newell, the director behind such character-driven tales as "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Enchanted April" and "Donnie Brasco," went into "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" worried he might get gobbled up by a visual-effects beast that could choke the human drama.

The first British director to oversee a "Harry Potter" film, Newell said he fought hard to keep the extravagant computer-generated imagery in its place, namely, in service of the story and not just a collection of pretty pictures for their own sake.

"I was daunted, and I was also ill-tempered," Newell, 63, said. "Because I felt very strongly that the tail wagged the dog, and that the special effects had on earlier films been the event. ...

"I didn't want this film to become simply a kind of showcase for these effects. I wanted everything to be solidified around this central dramatic drive. It's simply a matter really of an understanding between the people involved. So often, those people do glorious work. It's just that it isn't connected to the main film. It somehow stands aside from it. I hope we avoided that on this."

The film opens in Cape Girardeau on Sunday at Cape West Cine.

Newell succeeded in balancing story and visuals. The film has all the dazzling fireworks of its three predecessors, while putting the most human face yet on the bedeviling challenges of growing up the world's most famous boy wizard.

"Goblet of Fire" is adapted from the fourth book in the fantasy series by J.K. Rowling, the first of the books to hit epic proportions, topping 750 pages.

No longer the full wide-eyed innocents of their early days at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and chums Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) cope with more adult threats from the magical world and the jealousies and rivalries that come with puberty.

Much as he admires the first two "Harry Potter" flicks crafted by U.S. filmmaker Chris Columbus and the one made by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, Newell felt he brought the one thing his predecessors lacked: Intimate knowledge about the quirks of a British education.

"It wasn't possible for them to get that right. They'd never been to such a school," Newell said. "English schools are very, very eccentric. They're not like any other. I know they've changed now, but when I was in school in the '50s, I was beaten with a cane, a rattan cane, as thick as my little finger.

"And that was a very common occurrence, and so they were kind of dangerous and violent places, but they also were very funny and anarchic places. I wanted to get the sense of the school as a character, having a character, so that the kind of craziness that she, Jo [Rowling] is so good at, I wanted to find an organization into which that kind of stuff could fit and bring the two things together. Bring the individuals and the institution together. So I think that's something I could bring in a major way to the table."

To that end, Newell rewrote a scene to add a glint of schoolboy mischievousness and the corporal punishment it provokes, in which dour Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) bonks Harry and Ron in the head with a book for goofing off during a study period.

Radcliffe notes it was the first time the filmmakers had slipped something into one of the movies that was not in the book.

Before filming began, Radcliffe watched a number of Newell films, including "Dance With a Stranger" and "Pushing Tin." Radcliffe also familiarized himself with Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" after Newell mentioned the similarities he saw between the innocent hero of that movie (Cary Grant) and his puppetmaster nemesis (James Mason) and Harry and his mortal enemy, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).

"Goblet of Fire" pits Harry against older student sorcerers in a wizardry competition that turns out to have a darker purpose.

It was that core story -- Newell calls it the "scaffolding" -- on which he kept his focus in condensing the huge book to a 2 1/2-hour movie, retaining only frills and baubles that would connect to the main plot.

"He talked about it having a central spine with these little offshoots, I guess you'd call them nerve-endings, coming off it," Radcliffe said. "These little other strands that he kept reiterating, in which every scene had to push that central spine."

Co-star Brendan Gleeson -- who plays Hogwarts' new defense-against-the-black-arts teacher, Mad-Eye Moody -- said Newell has great rapport with child actors, treating them as insistently as he does adults when trying to shape their performances.

"He never patronizes them. He can be quite idiosyncratic," said Gleeson, who previously worked with Newell on another film with children in the leads, the 1992 Irish fable "Into the West." "Kids don't get spared things either, whether they're going fantastically well or there's a glitch. There's a great humanity in the way he deals with kids, and they respond to it."

Newell grew up a film fan but was more preoccupied with live theater, working as a stagehand, prop maker and bit player in an amateur theater his parents ran. Those early experiences led Newell to study theater in college.

He expected to take up the theater for a living but moved into television instead as the medium was blossoming in the early 1960s and hungry for new talent.

By 21, Newell was directing documentary segments on such odd little subjects "as the biggest rhubarb stick in Yorkshire," he said. "Wonderful, hard-hitting stuff."

Newell moved into television drama, then scored his first film success in the late 1970s with "The Man in the Iron Mask," made for British TV but released theatrically overseas.

Though he doubts he ever would take on a big visual-effects film again, Newell said he is no longer a skeptic on computer-generated imagery and would gladly use the technology on upcoming projects, which include a Western and an adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel "Love in the Time of Cholera."

"What I feel now is that I've learned a lesson for the future, and if I want to make a city in Venezuela for 'Love in the Time of Cholera' and can only find half a city, then CGI will fill in for me," Newell said. "If I want to do a story about the building of the Victorian railways, then CGI will be my greatest friend.

"It's a technique which I have now really learned and had an enormously steep learning curve and fantastic on-the-job training. I'm kind of a convert. I don't want to do it all like that, but I think simply it's a technique like any other. It's like having lights to shoot at night."

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