TV & Movies
Chris Columbus Is Nostalgic About Harry Potter, Too
The director of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone reflects on the film, 20 years after its release.
Harry Potter is TikTok famous. Exactly 20 years after Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone hit theaters, a dramatic scene from the movie has gone viral: the one in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione play a ruthless, life-sized game of wizard’s chess. Chris Columbus, the director of the first two Harry Potter films, could hardly have predicted the advent of video-centric social media apps back when he was shooting the sequence — but he has an idea of why it’s caught on. “It’s probably the emotional highlight of the film,” Columbus tells Bustle. “I’m very proud of that one.”
Longevity was always Columbus’ goal. By the turn of the millennium, his work already included instant classics like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire, and he fully intended for his adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s 1997 book to garner similar acclaim. That Gen Z-dominated TikTok has embraced the decades-old movie proves Columbus succeeded.
But the Boy Who Lived doesn’t just live on via social media. Though fans’ relationship with the franchise has been complicated by Rowling’s transphobic comments, Harry Potter remains one of the biggest franchises in cinema history, having propagated everything from film spin-offs to a Tony Award-winning play to theme park rides to an (in-the-works) TV show. Loyalists collect facsimiles of wands and cloaks and don pieces from Harry Potter fashion collaborations — or get inked with more permanent emblems. Columbus, who kept a copy of the golden snitch from the set, understands the impulse. “[The snitch] deteriorated so poorly,” he says, “Now I wish I had a few more props from the film.” (Luckily, Rowling’s inscription in his copy of Philosopher’s Stone, which indicated that he “would’ve been sorted into Gryffindor,” has survived.)
There’s a funny thing that happens when a phenomenon like Harry Potter reaches such heights and stays there for so long: It casts a shadow that pop culture shapes itself around, whether intentionally or not. So when a film like Malignant comes along, and its parasitic monster seems indebted to a familiar villain, fans can’t help but point out the similarities. And Columbus sees them, too. “That’s the first thing I thought of when I saw that film: ‘Oh, this is another version of Quirrell,’” he says. “It’s kinda hard not to go there!”
Below, Columbus reveals which scene made the kids crack up on set, why Voldemort was recast, and what it was like meeting Harry Potter influencers.
Let’s start at the beginning. When you set out to direct Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was there any specific part from the books that you couldn’t wait to bring to life?
Oh God, all of it. At the time, which is interesting — I don’t know if it still holds true, because there were only three books [published] — the kids who were reading the books were obsessed with quidditch. Once I got the job, every kid I knew would ask me, “How are you gonna do quidditch? What’s that gonna look like?” They were just so excited about that. And that was basically the biggest challenge, because I wanted to treat it like a real sporting event.
Although it worked beautifully on the page, I didn’t understand all the rules. So I asked Jo Rowling if she could write down some rules for me, exactly how this game worked, and she basically wrote a playbook with all the rules for quidditch, all the penalties, so I could understand it. And that sort of became the catalyst for how we were gonna build the set. There was such specificity about how tall each of the rings were … I was really happy with the way it turned out. Although I would like to go back and revisit the visual effects, to be honest with you. I think we could do a better job today.
Aside from the quidditch scene, is there anything else you’d do differently if you had a chance to back and remake Sorcerer’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets?
Definitely the first movie! I mean, the first movie we were inventing the entire world and visual effects was part of that, and as a result, we didn’t have enough time to develop everything in the movie. So while there were some sequences I’m quite proud of in terms of visual effects, quidditch is one that I’d love to go back and work on. I don’t know if anyone’s interested in [seeing it redone], but there’s part of me that is. A good friend of mine is a guitarist from the E Street Band, Steven Van Zandt. And at one point he said to Bruce Springsteen after Darkness on the Edge of Town came out, 30 years after it had come out, he said, “You know I’ve always hated the mix on that album. Let’s go back and remix it.” And Bruce said, “Are you crazy? People have been listening to that this way for 30 years. They love it. Don’t change it.” So part of that advice kind of sticks with me about quidditch. Why really hurt someone’s memories of it just to satisfy my own technological nerdiness?
The casting was perfect. How did you feel when they were considering recasting the actors a few movies later?
Well, the kids were never a question. The kids were cast from the beginning and it was never even brought up to me personally. Maybe there were conversations that I didn’t know about, but by the time we got to Chamber of Secrets and I produced Prisoner of Azkaban, there were never any discussions about replacing anyone. At that point, after Sorcerer’s Stone, we would’ve been in enormous trouble if we replaced any of those cast members, they suddenly became beloved characters.
People were replaced because, unfortunately, Richard Harris passed away, that’s why Dumbledore was replaced. And Voldemort. I hired a voice actor to play Voldemort [in The Sorcerer’s Stone]. His performance in the film is animated and we didn’t know at that point how much of a role Voldemort himself in person was gonna be playing in later books. We didn’t know at that point that we would need to cast basically an actor on the level of someone like Ralph Fiennes. So that’s exactly why Ralph was cast.
You’ve spoken about how Rowling secretly told Alan Rickman about Snape’s arc during the first movie, and you begged Alan for details but he wouldn’t give in. Was there anything else that you weren't allowed to know, or knew before everyone else?
No. I can’t think of anything, except we were privy to Goblet of Fire probably two or three months before it was released. An assistant from Jo Rowling’s office came into our production offices carrying three gigantic cardboard boxes and in each of these boxes was the typewritten manuscript, which was hundreds of pages of the Goblet of Fire. And [producer] David Heyman got one, [screenwriter] Steve Kloves got a manuscript, and we read it, so that we had a little insight into where book four was going.
I mean, the biggest insight that Jo gave all of us was that the books were gonna get progressively darker and darker and darker, and we needed to prepare the films for that. So we knew in the first film that it was more of a storybook; Hogwarts was being introduced as this warm, welcoming place, but it had to also be a place that held tremendously dark secrets. And we knew that in the design of those sets, those sets could immediately turn from something warm and inviting to something terrifying. The first film’s set needed to be essentially built for seven movies, which later became eight movies, but it was all in preparation for the entire series. We laid the ground for seven films.
The wizard’s chess scene has gone viral on TikTok, with users reenacting, dubbing, and even making merchandise inspired by it. Were you aware of the chess scene’s TikTok success, and did you have any idea it would be the sequence that stood the test of time?
I did, because I was doing interviews and I met with two — I didn’t even know these people existed — of the biggest Harry Potter influencers. I didn’t know Harry Potter needed to be influenced by anybody but I guess Harry Potter did. And these two women were so nice and sweet about how Harry Potter changed their lives, but then one of them asked me if I would do the TikTok version of this “Not me, Not [Hermione].” So I did that. Probably my first and only TikTok.
What was it like filming that scene?
It was one of the scenes where we built everything physically — all of those pieces, the room. So when the kids got to that set, they saw those things for the first time. Ron was actually on the knight, on the horse, moving forward. There were explosions happening. There were some CGI effects but very little. I think that scene works so well because the kids’ performances are so strong in that scene. At that point in filming, they were really becoming very, very good actors.
When I first saw the cut of that scene, I said to my editor, “This is painfully slow.” He said, “Well what do you expect, it’s chess. Those pieces don’t move that quickly. They’re made out of stone.” So we spent a good four weeks re-editing that particular scene, tightening it up, and I think I spent the most time working on that scene in the movie than any other scene. I’m proud of it because it’s probably the emotional highlight of the film.
You previously mentioned that shooting the first film was like an acting class, because the kids were so excited and green. Do you recall which scenes in particular made them extra giddy or took longer?
The first scene we shot with all of them, the flying lessons, was really a situation where they were all in costumes for the first time. They were raising their broomsticks and they were all so happy to be there. They were giddy with delight. So they would say a line that was maybe not meant to be funny and they would break out laughing or would look into the camera. I realized, OK, these are kids who have never been on a movie set before, with the exception of Dan Radcliffe who I think just did a few days on David Copperfield, so I needed to become the fourth actor. So I was just off-camera reading lines performing like a madman and just doing whatever I could to coax the performances out of the kids until, after a few weeks, they became a little more comfortable and they started to become really good actors.
By the time we reached the middle of the second movie, we were able to forgo three cameras. We could actually shoot an entire sequence where they were walking and talking and not have to cut away. So the first film is filled with cuts because of that, and the second film is a little more fluid. And the third film there were a lot of sequences that were done in one shot because the kids at that point were total pros.
J.K. Rowling’s comments about the trans community have complicated the series’ legacy for many fans. As a creator yourself, do you think art can ever truly live independently from the artist? Do you feel a responsibility to be an ambassador for the franchise, and to look after the legacy of things you create?
I don’t really have any comment on that. At this point I’ve done like 70 interviews about the franchise so I’m hoping that I’m an ambassador for the franchise, at least one of several. But I got no comment on that.
You’ve directed these legacy movies like Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, the Harry Potter films that have become a part of annual traditions. What’s the secret to making a good family movie?
Filmmakers tend to have an idea of what family movies should be. Ninety percent of the time, filmmakers will end up talking down to the audience and making films for 10-year-olds. As a parent myself, I want the experience of watching the films with my own children. For me, we make the films for the parents and the adults as well. The definition of family film is a loose interpretation, [it’s] essentially a film that everyone can watch together, everyone from grandma to 5-year-old. So for me, it’s being able to create something that has an elegance to it and a timeless quality that people will want to watch 20 years down the road. That was the mantra I had for the crew on Home Alone that extended over to Harry Potter. “Guys, we’re making this film, and when the film is playing on television 20, 30 years from now, I want people to feel as if it were made yesterday.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.