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Steve Kloves

Harry Potter: Peter N. Chumo II Speaks with Steve Kloves (from Creative Screenwriting Magazine ©)

When I interviewed Steve Kloves last year about his adaptation of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys [CS, Vol.8, #1], he was surprised that we made it through the conversation without the subject of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone being raised once. At that time, his work on Wonder Boys was in the past, he had already finished his adaptation of J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter novel, and everyone was asking him about his involvment with this literary phenomenon. The writer and director of such adult fare as the Fabulous Baker Boys and Flesh and Bone, Kloves may at first seem like an odd choice to adapt the story of the orphan who discovers his destiny as a wizard. A favorite of children (and adults, for that matter) around the world, the story nonetheless "made perfect sense" to Kloves as his next project. As he explained to me, "It had a lot of things that I feel are important in movies. It had a very specific, richly evoked world, great tone and atmosphere, humour, great thrills, but mainly three characters at its center that I just loved and wanted to write and I thought would be fun to write."

Q: It seems that, while you've done great work in the past, one would not automatically think that your previous screenplays would lead to Harry Potter. How did you get the assignment?
A: I was sent a package of overage with about seven things in it, and I'm notoriously bad at reading those. They usually turn to dust on my desk, but for some reason I opened this packet from Warner Bros. I breezed through the first six and wasn't that interested. The last one was Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and I don't know why I responded to it because it's impossible to distill the book into two pages of coverage, but there was something about it that intrigued me. So I called my agent, and I said, "look, I think I'm interested in this one. Let me read the book." I read it and then really knew I wanted to do it.

When [...]

Q: What was your vision for the adaptation?
A: Well, it was very similar to Wonder Boys actually, which was that I felt that the movie was the book, and I don't mean literally. All the elements of the movie were there, and we didn't need to reinvent the wheel. What was critical was to translate what was charming about the book to a screenplay. There were two things that I said to Warner Brod. that I felt very strongly about from the get-go. It should be all-English—I didn't think we should try to muck around with that, that I didn't think we should try to shoehorn in an American star or an American child because I thought that would ruin it. And the other thing I felt was, you're gonna have the greatest special effects in the world on this movie, but it's gonna live and die on these three kids. I think that's what we have to work from. That has to always be the touchstone, that these three kids are gonna carry this movie, and if you don't become involved with these kids, then become involved with the movie, no matter how great the troll or how great the dragon is.

Q: Like your earlier work, Harry Potter is a character-based story.
A: I think what makes the books for people is that the human dynamics among the children and among their teachers are very recognizable and very real. I think the thrills are important, but the thrills are sucessful because you become so involved with these children. When I first met Jo [J.K.Rowling], I just hit off with her very quickly, and I said, "One thing I have to confess to you is that I was not a big fantasy-fiction reader as a kid. I don't have those referencecs." And she said, "Relax, I wasn't either." So I felt like in a way we had this kinship from the beginning. That was not the literature she was reading as a young persaon.

Q: When we talked about Wonder Boys, you said you e-mailed Michael Chabon for help and advice. He understood you'd have to cut things, that a novel was different from a film. Did J.K.Rowling feel the same way?
Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
A: It was amazing because there was a little deja vu. She fully understood that a movie was a movie. I think Jo always fully understood that, no matter what the the movie became, the books would exist, and it wouldn't reflect on the books in any adverse way. And then if the movie was goog, it would be a good thing. I don't think she was overly apprehensive about that. She was only trying from the beginning to determine what the treatment of the books would be. It was one of ththose odd things where I think probably my resume was a great introduction for me to Jo because I think Jo looked at my resume and said, "Well, they're clearly not going with the usual suspects." She knew a lot of the stuff I had done, so she felt comfortable. The thing about Jo was was that she was always incredibly helpful when I needed her. She was always at the other end of an e-mail if I needed a piece information about the world. She has been nothing but a great asset to me. She's also just one of the great people of the world. Becoming friends with her has been one of the best things about doing it.

Q: We usually think of a tension between the author and the screenwriter, but maybe that's not always true.
A: There certainly have been celebrated cases of that. I felt a kinship with Michael Chabon's prose, and I felt a kinship with Jo Rowling's prose, and then I felt a pretty strong kinship with both of them as people. Maybe it's just dubm luck, but it's happened twice now. They're both serious writers, and they take their work seriously, and I took their work seriously, so that was part of it as well.

Q: When we talked about Wonder Boys, you mentioned respecting the work of the author, and it sounds like the same case here. But it seems like there might be a little more pressure with Harry Potter. As great a book as Wonder Boys was, it wasn't a cultural phenomenon like Harry Potter. So you have this huge fan base to please as well. Or is that something you just can't think about when you're doing the work?
A: Yeah, it was twofold. When I took it, I was told that it was somewhat of a sensation in the UK. The best way for me to describe it at the time that I took the Job, if you were a parent of a child of a very specific age, you had heard of Harry Potter. Within four months, he was on a cover of Time magazine. I won't lie to you; there was that one moment when it was on the cover of Time and I realised just how beloved the book was worldwide, where I had this one moment of anxiety. But then I realized that my job didn't hange. I still faced the same challenges. I'm still trying to make the best movie I could out of this book. And also I realized that I was an enthusiast as well, so that I trusted that the other enthusiasts, even if they didn't agree with every decision I made, would at least understand why I made those decisions. So the pressure I felt and the nervousness I felt was what I always feel when I'm writing. I felt the same thing on Wonder Boys—I just didn't want to screw it up. In a weird way, I took comfort from the fact that, because the book had become such a phenomenon, I was lucky enough to have discovered it before it became a phenomenon, and in a way that was affirmation for a lot of the choices I'd made, which was tremendous fidelity to the book. Being faithful presents real challenges, and the truth is, it is sleight of hand because people feel like it's been incredibly faithful to the book. And so when it exploded, I felt like that choice has been confirmed by everybody, that that was the right choice.

Q: Can you give an example of how you met one of these challenges?
A: The only example I can give is that there's a kind of comprehension of things involving the dragon, Norbert. It was something I was feeling a long time when I was working on the script, and finally fired up an e-mail to Jo, and I said, "Look, Norbert is killing me." It is an incredibly circuitous route to get the children into the dark forest. I kind of outlined a way I wanted to try to do it, and I asked if she had any ideas. And she said, "Look, if I had to hange anything in the first book, it would be that." She said, "Don't kill yourself. If you can find a more economical way to do it, I'm all for it."

Q: You took one step out.
A: Not only that. No one noticed yeet, but we put Ron in the forest.

Q: Instead of Neville. It is Ron who gets the detention with the others instead of Neville.
A: I know it sounds small, but it's not a small thing. I had, at one draft in the script, this real line with Neville, so it required me taking that out, and there was some great stuff with Neville because Neville was a fun character. But it jst always felt right to me that Ron should be there. That's one example. There are others as well, some more subtle, some equal to that. What I think is gratifying so far is, people aren't even noticing it, and that was kind of the idea.

Q: Because this is the first book in a series and there's probably going to be several more movies, were you careful about amy changes you might make that could affect later films? Maybe there's a detail in book on that doesn't seem important now, but it will be important in a l ater book so you need to have that in the movie.
A: That's why I was so grateful to have Jo on the other end of an e-mail. I read this book so many times. There would occasionally be something that just seemed slightly superfluous in the book, but it kept blinking at me, and whenever that happened, I would e-mail Jo and say, "Tell me if I'm wrong, but does this apparently incidental moment mean something?" And she would just wink back in an e-mail and tell me I was on the right track. She drove me crazy because the mantra became, in a sense, "I can't tell you 'cause that's gonna happen in book 7." But there were a lot of things like that. So she was incredibly helpful, and it would have been hard for me in some ways if she had not been there, and I'll give an example. I wanted to know a little bit more about Professor McGonagall. Did she know Lily and James Potter, Harry's parents? Not because I was gonna put that specific information in but because it informed the way I wrote the scene about Harry. If professor McGonagall was interacting with Harry, was she sympathetic to him? What did she think of his father? What did she think of his mother? And the truth is, she thought differently about both. She's seeing the son of these two people she knew—she's going to have preconceptions, and so what are those preconceptions? And so that informs the scene I write. With Jo, the books are just the thinnes surface layer of what she knows about this world. It goes so deep it's frightening.

Q: So it's important for you to get down character relationships that you wouldn't necessarily see but that will be important later and have them in the back of your mind.
A: Also, I had thought about the school. I had an older brother, and I remember I always entered in his shadow every year, Kloves was not a common name and they would say, "Oh, you must be Mark's brother," and my brother unfortunately was a tremendous student. So I wanted to know what shadows is Harry emerging from that his parents cast when they were at Hogwarts? That to me was important just 'cause I had remembered that about school.

Q: Does that lead to when Harry looks at the trophey case and sees his father was a Seeker on the Quidditch team?
A: It really does. And there's a moment in there a lot of people won't catch, which is when they're on the staircase, Ron says to Harry, "You know, it's scary, she knows more about you than you do." And Harry says, "Who doesn't?" It's one of the threads of Harry's character that he knows less about his own history than other people do; his learning about Harry Potter as we are. And that's a really remarkable thing. It's almost like a character who's amnesia and then you watch him rediscover his world. So that's the way I wrote Harry. If you notice, Harry doesn't speak a lot in the movie, especially in the beginning, and that was by design. I felt he was a character who needed to listen because he is literally and metaphorically a Seeker. He needs to learn about his life.

Q: You said that what attracted you to the book was these three characters, these three children. It seems like you don't have many children in your other screenplays. There's the little girl who lives near Jeff Bridges in Fabulous Baker Boys. Is it a special challenge writing for the voices of children or for children in the audience, since you haven't had many children in your audiences before?
A: Baker Boys prepared me. I didn't have children of my own at the time I wrote Baker Boys, and I worried forever that I was making the little girl too smart. And then when I had children of my own, I realized that I had not made the little girl smart enough. My kids at four were saying things I was having this ten-, twelve-year-old girl say. So what I always felt was that Jo never talks down to here audience. She doesn't write for a specific age group; she just writes the books. That was my touchstone as well. And also she delineates the characters so beautifully in the book that they have singular voices. They're fun to write, and they're very specific characters. I didn't really worry about children in the audience other then as long as I was true to Ron and Harry and Hermione, the kids would recognize them as I did when I read the book and as obviously most of these kids have when they've read the book. As long as I remained true to their voices, the kids would embrace them.

Q: Character is your main concern, but are special effects a challenge for you? Does knowing that effects will be in the film in any way affect your writing?
A: You have to deal with them, but I think people get pigeonholed. Just because I tend to like to throw curveballs doesn't mean I can't throw hit when I have to. It's just not something I choose to do most of the time. But to answer directly, I really did consider the way these effects would play out, as did Chris and David Heyman, the producer. We really talked about this. We were trying not to have in this movie anything that was just a gag for a gag's sake. For example, you have this troll sequence, but what that troll sequence is really about is the trio bonding and Harry and Ron accepting Hermione. The same thing is Quidditch. At the very end of it when Harry is standing there being cheered and holding up the Snitch, it's about Harry being accepted by the school at large and by the world he has found himself in. So in other words, with every gag we try to have another element, either a plot development or character development within those moments, so it's not just thrills.


Q: Could you talk about your relationship with Chris Columbus? How did it compare to your relationship with director Curtis Hanson on Wonder Boys?
A: I don't know if I would compare them, but they're similar in the sense that both are writers, so they know how to talk to writers. I really feel blessed having gotten to work with these two guys right in a row. I can't tell you what a big deal that is. They understand how helpful it is to do some of the mental groundwork together before you send a writer off. I had very strong opinions about what I thought the movie should be, so I had anxiety when I was driving to meet Chris the first time because I didn't know what his point of view was going to be. He may say, "Look, we gotta get rid of this, we gotta get rid of this." But instead, literally the first thing he said was "I think what you're doing is right, and I think we have to continue to stay faithful to the book, and that's going to be the way that I'm gonna approach this all the way through." So right from the beginning, I felt really relaxed with him.

Q: What about some of the changes you made? The beginning material with the Dursleys has been considerably shortened from the novel. Is that because it is a lot of exposition and you wanted to get to Hogwarts sooner?
A: Well, it's a few things. Jo's palette is normally not primary colors; the Dursleys are the most primary of characters. They're the most obvious, and I think a little goes a long way in a movie. But it's a balance you must strike because you want to convey enough of Harry's situation that hopefully people feel emotional when you see what he's emerged from by the end of the movie. On the other hand, I don't think you want to stick around too long in the beginning. I think they're especially difficult and challenging characters for a director to bring to life because they're the most one-dimensional characters that Jo has written. You take a character like Dumbledore, who's really fascinating, because he really bears the weight of the wizard world on his shoulders, but he has a kind of antic, mischievous sense of humor. And all the characters are that way—they have little wrinkles that are really interesting. There're not as many wrinkles with the Dursleys. So I always wanted to move through that quickly.

Q: How about the flashback to the death of Harry's mother? That's not in the book.
A: No, it was something that Jo gave us, which she had planned to put in the book but did not use. And so she gave me these three remarkable pages of prose, which initially I used to open the movie. The problem was that we all felt that it was tonally a very odd way to begin the movie. You didn't sort of ease into the wizard world the way the books do; you were pitched off a pier into cold water. So what we did was, Chris shot it, but used it as a flashback in the scene with Hagrid.

Q: When Harry goes on to the final battle with Quirrel, it seems like in the movie he is more heroic or has a more decisive role in his victory. Dumbledore is not involved the way he is in the book. Was that a conscious choice?
A: Yeah. Jo's reason for Dumbledore's help in the book is that Harry is learning to be a wizard, and she has seven books. Obviously, what she's setting up—I swear to you I don't have any specific information from her—is some huge challenge for Harry by the end of the books. So I think she felt she could get away with that. In a movie, we felt the need to sort of give him a more heroic posture. Also, I never liked the idea of Dumbledore swooping in 'cause we were going to go right to a scene with Dumbledore anyway. I felt it would be better if he's suddenly there, if he comes into the hospital wing as a opposed to swooping in and saving Harry. Though I tried different versions of motivating Dumbledore's entrance, I never was happy with them. I always felt that Harry should be alone in that chamber at the end.

Q: It would have been confusing for people who haven't read the book. They would be wondering why Harry's not the hero at the end. Because when you're watching the movie, you're not thinking of six other potential movies down the road.
A: From the beginning we consciously all worked as if it was a stand-alone movie. The idea was that you could be satisfied watching this movie and you don't need a conventional cliffhanger. Although I think the ending in a way works both ways. I love the way Dan [Radcliffe as Harry] says the line "I'm not going home. Not really". So in a sense it opens up the next one, but it's very subtle.

Q: Yeah, but it's also because he's found a home. This is his real home as opposed to the false home of the Dursleys.
A: That was the thing that we tried to weave through the movie, that he was in a sense finding his home and finding a family during the course of this movie.

Q: When we talked about Wonder Boys, you thought Michael Chabon dealt more with farce, and you with melancholy. That's a simplification, but you have those scenes like Michael Douglas's pensive moment at the end of the film. It seems like there were similar scenes in Harry Potter. The first night at Hogwarts, when Harry is petting the owl and looking out his window while all the other kids are in bed. Or when Harry looks in the mirror and Dumbledore says it's not good to dwell on dreams and forget to live, and then we see Harry sending his owl up.
A: That's a big one to me. I'm really proud of that moment. This movie was blissfully free of economic discussions most of the time, but at a certain Harry Potter and Hedwig point you do have to say, "How much is this going to cost that you guys are all conjuring over there in London?" 'Cause right there what you could do is go outside to the castle and do a dissolve. And I went away and wrote this incredibly complicated visual idea, which was that Harry takes the owl out into the snow and that he flies away and the seasons change, and he comes back. Now, you're not seeing what I initiallyy wrote because what I initially wrote evidently came in at something like $750,000, the most expensive paragraph I've ever written in a script. But what you are seeing is a pretty close approximation to it. I love that moment because it is Harry alone; it is that pensive moment, it's that kind of melancholy, and I think it's oddly moving. You're seeing the bird fly away and things change. You're right, those moments were really conscious choices on my part. I always wanted to spike the movie with those kinds of moments because I feel Harry is a kid who is emerging literally and metaphorically from darkness. There is a shadow over him, and I felt we always had to express that, that everything is not just hunky-dory once he gets to Hogwarts. Not just because of the peril he faces from the outside world, but he has an interior landscape that is a little dark because of where he comes from. It's something Jo can express in prose, but visually how do you express Harry's interior landscape? The moment with the owl was really it for me.

Interview with J.K.Rowling on the film | Интервью с Дж.К.Роулинг о фильме
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