I didn’t always enjoy reading, even though I majored in English. I always loved a good story and would get wrapped up in a great book, but I never had a hunger for literature. I was more focused on being a filmmaker. I just kept devouring films, hoping to learn something. Until I watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
The first time I heard about Harry Potter, I ignored it. As it gained popularity and more books came out, I wrote them off as children’s books – I didn’t want to waste my time with them. Stories about wizards sounded dumb to me, even though I loved Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and Chronicles of Narnia – yeah, I was a dumb and stubborn young adult.
In college my good friend, Eric, invited me to go see Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in the theater. I said no, firmly. He reminded me that Alfonso Cuarón helmed the film. I loved Cuarón’s films and if anyone could make a great children’s film, he could; he had already done it with A Little Princess. I begrudgingly agreed to go.
I dragged Lacey (my wife) along and we met a group of friends Eric had wrangled. But I came in defiant. I sat down with crossed arms – This can’t be good, I thought.
But from the first shot, I was engaged: Lumos Maximus. It was a long shot that pushed into the magic that Harry was hiding from his very muggle family… and holy shit, Daniel Radcliffe could act all of a sudden. The scene ends with a chuckle, and I thought this might be better than I thought.
In the next scene, a handheld shot framed a door as the doorbell rang frantically. It felt like we were about to be dragged into this world. It’s only a couple seconds before the action began, but the shot was so different from what I expected to see that I sat forward in my seat. Then BAM, the door opened and the Dursleys rushed in from the rain. It was chaotic, but the history of this family, how they felt about Harry and how he felt about them was present in the scene. There was tension, frustration, annoyance and even hints of hate within the movement, the dialogue, the faces. The camera was untethered, moving, shaky. We were there, in the house with Harry. We saw what he saw, felt his emotions. It felt real. It was compelling. I believed it. From that point on, I just watched the movie. I forgot about the technique, style and tone. I was in.
The rest of the movie kept getting better. Yes, it strays from the book on a plot level, but from an emotional and character level, it was spot on. Just Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Sirius Black makes the story richer. “I’ve done my waiting, 12 years of it. In Azkaban.” Watch the scene here (1:25 is magic).
Alfonso Cuarón pulled the movie out of the children’s film genre and into fantasy and drama, while bringing an independent film spirit to the story. As the darkness grew around the characters, the movie brought us closer to the characters. Cuarón used the long takes, constant movement, a strong focus on the acting and a realistic use of VFX to match the darker growing themes of the Rowling’s book, while keeping the humor, love and magic at the forefront. His technique was almost invisible, but on rewatch the craft is apparent with clear purpose behind each choice. But in that theater, the story flew by and as the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen next.
When we walked out of the theater, Eric just looked at me and smiled. He probably said something like ‘told you so’ but I was too busy thinking about the film to notice. The next morning, I drove to the bookstore and bought book 4 and devoured it. Then book 5. I was in. Deep.
If you know me, you know I love my family, coffee, film, my daughter’s new puppy, Maple, A Song of Ice and Fire and Harry Potter. But out of all those things, Harry Potter is the topic I will force into any conversation because I love it so much. I am always thinking about it. It is great storytelling and very cinematic on the page. It is magic from the first sentence to the final words.
I am not being over-dramatic when I say that the books made me a better filmmaker. Great literature can be a better tool for filmmakers than movies because it forces us to use our imagination. When we read a passage, we have to put the words into images. We are casting, lighting, framing, directing the action, setting the scene, choosing the colors and moving the camera all in our heads. A film does it for us; a book makes us to do it ourselves.
A kid recently asked me, “How do I become a better filmmakers?” I told him to read more books because that’s where we get our best ideas.
So, here’s to Alfonso Cuarón and JK Rowling for bringing me back to literature. Though I should thank Eric Bender for forcing me into that theater. I am forever grateful.
Below is a film very inspired by Harry Potter. And if you haven’t read the books you should. Order Here.