- The Washington Times - Friday, November 16, 2001

NEW YORK — Director Chris Columbus describes the producer and screenwriter for "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and himself as "truly obsessive fans" perhaps like the many young moviegoers the film is expected to attract when it opens today.

The movie is the first based on the "Harry Potter" books, the juvenile fantasy novels that have made English writer J.K. Rowling a prodigious, best-selling author.

Producer David Heyman, screenwriter Steve Kloves and Mr. Columbus already have begun production of the first sequel, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," although principal shooting is still a week or so away. Mr. Columbus got a head start on the main shooting by directing two of the juvenile leads, Daniel Radcliffe as Harry and Rupert Grint as his pal Ron Weasley, in a special-effects sequence about a magical flying car.

A "Harry Potter" movie could become an annual fixture for the rest of the decade. Mr. Columbus, who directed a two-movie phenomenon in the early 1990s, "Home Alone" and its sequel, doubts he would be equal to such a pace. Yet Mr. Kloves is working on the screenplay for a third installment.

Mr. Heyman acquired the Potter franchise for his London-based production company, Heyday, before the books had become a publishing colossus. He is likely to remain their cinematic patron for the duration.

Earlier this week, the producer, the director and several cast members continued a series of whirlwind promotional appearances with the news media at the Essex House Hotel.

Mr. Columbus, 41, and Mr. Heyman, 40, speak in amorous terms when recalling their discovery of the original Potter novel (titled "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" in its London edition). Mr. Columbus was alerted to it by his 11-year-old daughter.

Mr. Heyman, the son of former agent and producer John Heyman, who was prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, spent his early professional years as an executive at Warner Bros. in Los Angeles. He returned to London in 1996 to establish his own company under Warner's auspices. Mr. Heyman says he was looking specifically for promising literary material and was steered toward "Harry Potter" by two employees soon after the book was published.

"Warners had given me what's called a first-look deal," he explains. "They pay for my offices in exchange for a first look at the material I originate or acquire. Amazingly, 'Harry Potter' was the first property we found. Warners has supported me all the way, even though I had only produced two films, 'Juice' and 'The Daytrippers,' whose budgets were $3 million combined, for a gross of $22 million combined. Those figures look very modest, indeed, when compared to what a 'Harry Potter' film and series will entail.

"I read voraciously and decided I wanted to focus on books when I moved back to London," he says." At the time, I had a 10-year-old brother and 14-year-old sister. I wanted to find something that might become a film we'd enjoy seeing together. Being a considerably older brother, I'm often hard-pressed to find something we all like."

Mr. Heyman's scouts weren't wild about "Harry." They thought it had an interesting pretext: an orphaned boy at wizards' school.

"I took it home," Mr. Heyman recalls. "I read the first sentence. Then a paragraph. Then a chapter. Then the whole book in one sitting. I fell in love."

Mr. Heyman believed it was important that Miss Rowling be treated with the utmost respect by her movie interpreters.

"It was not a contractual thing," he says. "When I met Jo Rowling 41/2 years ago, I made a promise to her that we'd be faithful to the books. As they became more successful, that promise became more of an imperative. But I'm a man of my word. Jo has such knowledge of this world she has created. What we read is just the surface. Like a tree with deep, deep roots."

Miss Rowling evidently was there from the earliest script conferences. "She read each draft and gave us notes," Mr. Heyman says. "She had no casting approval, but she gave us suggestions. We tended to take those suggestions to heart and cast those people."

According to Mr. Columbus, "The key was the intensive preproduction work with Jo. She was just so open in terms of information. I think for every novel she's written she has another novel-length collection of information about the characters and their past. Jo was aware that certain things couldn't be transposed easily. There are maybe 50 to 100 things that readers will find different, but we kept all the changes in the spirit of the book. I would have liked to give readers a perfect duplication, but that would have required about a seven-hour movie."

Mr. Heyman's account of Miss Rowling's reaction to a private screening in London "just two weeks ago" may be remembered as one for the books in annals of movie lore.

"It was the most nerve-racking of the advance screenings as far as I was concerned," he says. "Jo was watching it with 50 of her closest friends. A daunting prospect. I fidgeted more than I ever have in my life. Our credits are at the end, as you know, and while they were running, she came up the aisle to where I was sitting. There were tears on her face, and she threw her arms around me. 'Thank you,' she said. 'I loved it. I loved it. I loved it.' At which I broke into tears."

Mr. Heyman got the job when Steven Spielberg passed on the "Harry Potter" project. That decision seems to have aroused the ire of Richard Harris, cast as the most august presence in the movie. He plays the elderly wizard Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Now a silver-haired and lovably irascible 71, Mr. Harris says he was intimidated into taking the role of Dumbledore by an 11-year-old granddaughter who threatened not to speak to him again if he refused it.

"I never read the books and never will read the books," Mr. Harris says. "Obviously, they're great books, but they're not for me. I tried to read the first one, having read the script, which was marvelous. I just couldn't.

"I never met Rowling, but I know she was very influential. Everything had to pass through her. When she met David and then Chris, they gave her their total promise not to screw around with the book. You know Hollywood; they can do their own thing. I mean, Spielberg, his quote, is typical Hollywood. He said something like he wouldn't do it because there was nothing for him to invent. That meant change. How stupid. There is nothing to change."

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