Harry Potter Director Chris Columbus on Making the First Movie and the 3-Hour Cut

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The Harry Potter film franchise is one of the best, most successful, and most beloved book-to-screen adaptations in history, but we kind of take for granted that this was a given. It all had to start somewhere, and it fell upon filmmaker Chris Columbus’ shoulders to set the tone with the first film in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. He had to figure out how to visually design the Wizarding World, how to manifest magic in these films, and of course also had to cast the right actors in the right roles. If any one of these decisions had been off, it could have prevented the entire series from attaining greatness.

Thankfully, Columbus nailed it. But I’ve always been curious what it was like to be there at the very beginning, making decisions that would eventually influence an entire theme park years later. So when I spoke with Columbus recently for an upcoming episode of Collider Connected tied to the release of his new Netflix film The Christmas Chronicles: Part Two, I asked him about his experience making the first Potter. The filmmaker noted that at the time, the eyes of the world were on him as he was turning this beloved book into a movie:

“The reality is the pressure of the world was upon us, and on me particularly because I knew if I screwed this one up it’s all over. You can’t screw up this book. So I had to go to the set every day with sort of tunnel vision in terms of not thinking about the outside world, and that was a lot easier 19 years ago before the internet blew up.”

The director behind Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire revealed that he was a ball of nerves the entire time, but hid it from his cast and crew:

“The first film was fraught with anxiety for me. The first two weeks I thought I was gonna get fired every day. Everything looked good, I just thought if I do one thing wrong, if I fuck up, I’m fired. And that was intense. I didn’t let any of that show on the set, there was no frustration, I’m not a screamer, I get along with everybody and I want everybody to feel like they’re part of the family, so I just had to hide that side of my emotions.”

harry-potter-and-the-sorcerers-stone-kids-cast-social
Image via Warner Bros.

So I asked Columbus when he knew he had nailed the adaptation, and he relayed a story about screening an early cut that was almost three hours long for audiences in Chicago:

“By the time we finished the film and we screened it in Chicago – it’s good luck for us to screen our films in Chicago, so back in the day when we could go to a movie theater we would fly to Chicago and show the film to an audience – the audience loved it. The audience just ate up the film. The film was two hours and fifty minutes long at that point and the kids thought it was too short and the parents thought it was too long.”

The final running time of Sorcerer’s Stone is two hours and thirty-two minutes, so that’s 18 minutes’ worth of footage that was cut out of the film before its wide release. An extended version of the film was released on Blu-ray that adds in about seven minutes of those deleted scenes, while many of the other removed scenes are available on the Blu-rays and DVDs.

But back to the reception of Potter, Columbus said he was bolstered by that first screening and was finally able to relax while directing the second film, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, which was shot back-to-back with Sorcerer’s Stone:

“So I started to feel a little relief, and then when the first movie opened well I had so much more fun on Chamber of Secrets. It was like night and day, because then I could really let loose a little bit and bring a little bit more of my particular style to the movie. That was a very specific choice, the style of the first Potter movie, but part of it we were boxed into because as I said we had three cameras on the kids at a time. They were brand new, they had never been on movie sets, so they would say a line and they would look into the camera and smile. The first week they were just so delighted that they were in Harry Potter, it meant the world to them, so they would just be smiling like they were in a trance. So that was something we had to overcome as well.”

Columbus handed the directing reins over to Alfonso Cuaron for Prisoner of Azkaban after the exhaustive process of making those first two movies back to back, and when I asked if he ever considered returning to the franchise, he confirmed he would have loved to have adapted the final book but admits director David Yates — who helmed the final four Potter movies — did a terrific job:

“I always wanted to go back and shoot the final two movies, but Yates decided he was gonna stay with the series, and it was a great thing to do because I particularly love the very last movie. I think that is just a brilliant film, the second part of Deathly Hallows.”

Look for much more from Columbus on Potter and his career in the new episode of Collider Connected, which will be released on Collider on Thanksgiving Day.

If you missed what Columbus told me about his original darker version of the Gremlins script and the status of Gremlins 3, click the links.

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Image via Warner Bros.

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