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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Set Visit 1

by Joe Utichi for Rotten Tomatoes

As RT is brought into Leavesden Studios, past a pair of workmen poring over blueprints for a large, conical tower with a tall spire roof, the sense that we’re entering a slightly different world than the one we’re used to is immediately evident. Through a pair of unassuming white doors on the side of a nondescript warehouse to the north-west of London we’re lead into the heart of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and, indeed, the whole Harry Potter universe.

When Warner Brothers took out an exclusive lease on the studios ahead of the production of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at the turn of the millennium, that universe began to make its mark inside. Sets were built, costumes and creatures created, props stored. As we visit the studios in January 2008, 80 days into the production of this sixth and (kind of) penultimate film in the franchise, everywhere we turn past the perimeter gates there’s a familiar Harry Potter sight to take in.

On a trip to one stage, away from the main complex, we pass giant serpent heads from Chamber of Secrets, chess pieces from Philosopher’s Stone and part of the bridge from Prisoner of Azkaban. At one of the many prop stores dotted around the complex there’s a London phone box from Order of the Phoenix and in the creature shop there are models galore used in the production of Goblet of Fire.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe)

But the main focus of the studio right now is on Half-Blood Prince and RT has arrived about halfway through principal photography. Familiar sets – the Hogwarts Great Hall, Dumbledore’s office, the Gryffindor common room – are fully constructed as they have been semi-permanently since the first film (in fact, the Great Hall set has lived on its own stage since 2000) and plenty of finished sets are in place for this movie. The interior of the Hogwarts Express train has just been used for a scene between Harry and Draco Malfoy, they’ve shot Christmas on the Burrow set – the home to Ron’s family, the Weasleys – and they’re getting ready to shoot some flashback scenes in an immaculately presented Potions classroom involving their new adult character, Professor Slughorn, who’s being brought to life by Jim Broadbent.

Half-Blood Prince really belongs to Dumbledore and Harry though, as the old wizard prepares his young protégé for his final steps on the quest to kill Voldemort. Despite the grandeur of the sets they’ve created — including a giant green-screen warehouse full of crystalline rock that will form the backbone of the film’s cave sequence — it’s a smaller scale than Harry Potter is used to, as actors Daniel Radcliffe and Michael Gambon spend much of the film alone with one another.

“The brilliant thing about [the cave scenes] was that we did them at the at the end of a three to four month period where Michael and I had been working together almost exclusively,” Radcliffe tells RT. “For about the first two or three months of this film we were almost the only two actors in. The relationship between me and Michael had really built up over that time and got to the point where after three or four months we were absolutely ready to do the cave stuff.”

Considering much of the action takes place at Hogwarts, where hundreds of students go about their business in the background, the change of scale was more akin to a play than a blockbusting movie. “There was that kind of dynamic where you get to know someone very, very well in a short space of time,” Radcliffe continues. “Your relationship becomes based on certain things. I think mine and Michael’s relationship is very much based on our senses of humour. I think I now understand the way he works more and I think we’ve become much closer through it.”

But, for now, the action is centred on the Great Hall set. As RT returns to the cavernous creation and takes a seat at the foot of one of the dining tables that runs the length of the set, we’re presented with a rather unappealing looking breakfast. Racks of stale toast line the centre of each of the four tables occasionally complemented by a box of Cheeri-Owls cereal, some House Elf Special marmalade or a litre of orange juice stored in a hog’s head-shaped jug.

Every foodstuff we see is real, we’re told, because the actors and extras will have to eat it. When they’re shooting a turkey dinner from the top of the set, with everyone in their seat, the kitchens are on overtime – not only does the food need to be real but Health and Safety says it has to be replaced every few hours if it’s being eaten. On our table, though, this food has seen better days. We’re not in the shot so it’s not necessary to replace it and, rather appropriately, we spot a plate of fried tomatoes which are going ever-so-slightly rotten.

The scene being shot today is set right before a key game of Quidditch between Gryffindor and Slytherin, two of the Hogwarts houses. “It’s the point where Ron comes in [to the Great Hall] and he’s absolutely terrified; a nervous wreck,” Radcliffe tells us. Ron has joined the Quidditch team this year and he’s having difficulty with the pressure. “To restore his confidence Harry pours – or appears to pour – Felix Felicis [luck potion] into Ron’s orange juice.”

Harry (Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermione (Emma Watson), Luna (Evanna Lynch) and Ginny (Bonnie Wright) all feature in the scene, as do an army of young Gryffindor extras, all dressed in house colours ready to support their team.

In between every shot, the film’s director, David Yates, is engaging with his young cast. Laughing with them, taking them through the scene and encouraging them to have their say. It’s a simple moment, but with every take it gets tighter and more interesting as he and his actors find the right tone. The end of the scene is changed in one of these discussions – ignoring Hermione’s complaints that slipping a luck potion into Ron’s drink before a big match is wrong, Harry and Ron high-five and leave the scene, no doubt providing the right momentum to take the shot straight into the match. 18 months later we see the result of this improvisation — it’s made its way into the final cut of the movie.

This scene also introduces us to the newest member of the young cast – Jessie Cave as Ron’s love interest Lavender Brown. Up until now she’s been somewhat sycophantically stalking Ron, and in this scene she bounds up to him and does nothing to settle his nerves by overenthusiastically saying, “You’re going to be brilliant today… I just know it!” Boisterous, girly and with big, frizzy hair, Cave nails the part and her physical resemblance to a slightly dorkier version of Hermione is perfect – the relationship between the two close friends has never been more strained than by the introduction of Lavender.

“Ron is basically set off because he hears that Hermione and Krum kissed at the Yule Ball [in the fourth movie], and they probably did,” explains Emma Watson. “So he’s going off with Lavender Brown, which no-one can really understand because she’s seriously annoying and very, very girly. Hermione is upset because there’s always been something between her and Ron and I think she’s beginning to acknowledge the fact that she has feelings for him, which she’s never done before.”

Newcomer Jessie Cave agrees. “I think it’s brilliant that the character of Lavender was created to instil jealousy in Hermione and to act almost as a catalyst for the two of them to eventually get together,” she says. “It’s quite fun to play a loud character like Lavender, because I guess everyone has a loud character inside of them waiting to jump out!”

It’s likely testament to J.K. Rowling’s writing that all of this hormonal, relationship-centred human story can come through in the penultimate book in a series about an epic battle between good and evil. The feeling on set is that Half-Blood Prince is very much the first half of the series’ two-part finale and that perhaps it’s the teen wizards’ last chance at innocence before they face their ultimate test in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

The film opens untraditionally away from Privet Drive – the Dursley family doesn’t feature at all – as Harry eats at a cafe at Surbiton railway station and flirts with the waitress serving him. It’s a small character moment, but it’s crucial; if we as an audience don’t believe Harry has some depth to his character we just won’t feel the sacrifices he makes in the next film.

Between relationship troubles and the sense of exhilaration Harry feels as he learns what he’s to do in the final battle, this is a more human story. Even Quidditch makes a long overdue reappearance, though the producers will be delivering a new look for the uniforms and the game itself this time around. It’s been a long time, four years in fact, since a match has been played in a Potter film and perhaps that’s as much to do with a certain actor as it is the time constraints of big-budget movies…

“Dan’s not particularly pleased with Quidditch being back because he has to sit on his broom for five hours a day,” laughs Yates. “If you’ve ever sat on one of those brooms, and I’ve never, it just looks incredibly uncomfortable. They’re not the most seat-friendly contraptions!”

And there’s no small amount of comic relief in Ron’s fumbled romances with Lavender, either, both in the film on the set. Early on in the shoot they filmed the scene that immediately follows the Quidditch match – Ron kisses Lavender. “I didn’t actually see that one being done,” says Radcliffe with a real sense of disappointment in his voice, “just ’cause I thought it’d be pretty funny!”

Of course, Rupert Grint begs to differ. “He was on his own for his kiss,” he protests, “I had a room full of people cheering and I was standing on this little plinth so that made it even worse!”

“Rupert has brilliant comic timing,” says Watson, “It comes very naturally to him. So I’ve been in fits of laughter to the point where we’ve lost huge amounts of takes because I’ve been corpsing!”

While these moments will undoubtedly lend the film a lighter tone, though, there’s no question that there’s also plenty of peril in the anticipation of the final battle. We’re brought, in this film, to the orphanage of the young Tom Riddle in one of Harry’s many tutorials with Professor Dumbledore in which he shares with Harry the memories of those who were there when Voldemort was gaining strength the first time around. “His need in this film is basically to kill Voldemort,” says Radcliffe, “and he realises that the way in which he’ll do this is to become Dumbledore’s favourite foot soldier. That’s the role you see him gradually moving toward in this film. He’s preparing for the seventh film.”

After the events of Order of the Phoenix, in which Harry learnt that Voldemort was exploiting a connection the pair shared to cause Harry immense anger, it’s understandable that he’d be keen to take the final step that’ll set him on his way to destroying this ultimate evil. What he’s learnt up to now and what he’ll learn especially as he gazes into the memories of Voldemort’s ascension is that there are plenty of similarities between him and this Dark Lord. Indeed, he recognises a similar sense of jubilation in the ten year-old Riddle at being introduced to the wizarding world as he felt when Hagrid delivered the same speech Dumbledore gives to Riddle to the similarly orphaned Potter in Philosopher’s Stone.

In fact, perhaps what troubles Harry is that Voldemort had less reason to turn to evil – Riddle’s room, we see, is no bigger than a cell, but that’s certainly plenty of space in comparison to the cupboard under the stairs that was Harry’s home for eleven years, and while they’re both orphans, even Riddle didn’t have to deal with the Dursleys as guardians. As important as it is for Harry to understand their similarities, he also has to get to grips with their differences, and while they’re vast they’re also much harder to spot.

“What’s interesting about [Dan's] development with Harry is that you’re seeing someone who’s learning to play by grown-up’s rules,” Yates tells us. “There’s a good line in the book and in the film which is, ‘If the monster was there it was hidden deep within,’ and this notion that Harry’s learning these skills and developing these abilities at an interpersonal level, a human level; it’s interesting to see that in Harry, who’s always just been Harry.”

Another of the film’s young cast is given a chance to shine in this film more than any of the others. Draco Malfoy’s father Lucius may be in Azkaban prison after the events at the Ministry of Magic at the end of Order of the Phoenix, but his son has been tasked, by Lord Voldemort, to perform a very important mission. “He has many different challengers to face in this one,” Draco star Tom Felton tells RT, “David and I have spent many an hour talking about his journey through the film and where he is mentally each scene. There’s hopefully another side of Draco that you’ve not seen where he’s not just a slimy git; he’s a poor child who’s been forced into this terrible deed, which isn’t great.”

It’d be difficult to reveal the exact nature of Draco’s mission without spoiling the story, but suffice to say that the young Slytherin doesn’t perform brilliantly under the pressure. With the Dark Lord breathing on his neck, and the ever increasing sense of dread as he comes to the realisation that he can’t bring himself to complete the task, it’s a softer side of the character we’ve not yet seen. “He was always quite a two-dimensional character inasmuch as he didn’t like Harry,” continues Felton, “whereas in this one he doesn’t even have time for Harry anymore; he’s completely consumed by his thoughts on what’s going on around him.”

Felton at least has a connection to one of this film’s other new cast members should he need a mentor to help him through. Jim Broadbent has been brought on board as Professor Slughorn, Hogwarts’ new Potions teacher. “Quite coincidentally, the first film I ever did – The Borrowers – he was my dad in that,” says Felton. “It was a bit of a blast from the past, really, and I was very flattered and pleased to hear that he remembered me.”

Broadbent isn’t on set while we visit, but we’re shown a couple of Slughorn’s costumes, including a pair of light purple PJs carved from the fabric of a big armchair. In the film we learn that the professor is in hiding for fear of attacks from Death Eaters and when Dumbledore and Harry call on him before the start of term so that the headmaster can offer him the job, he’s disguising himself as the armchair.

We also learn that Dumbledore has brought Harry along to play to another of Slughorn’s passions; he’s a chronic networker, always looking to ingratiate himself with students he thinks are or will be important in later life. As the legendary ‘chosen one,’ Harry would quite simply become the prize of his network of friends.

“I think Harry ultimately likes Slughorn,” says Radcliffe. “He thinks he’s a very good person and that his heart is in the right place, but he’s just very opportunistic and totally self-obsessed. I think Harry, in a strange way, finds that endearing and in an even stranger way perhaps actually likes the fact that Slughorn is fascinated by the aura of fame and glory that he sees surrounding Harry.”

One thing is certain: the film’s young cast definitely like Broadbent. “He’s such a brilliant actor and he’s so immersed in the character, which is always a treat to see,” enthuses Radcliffe.

“He’s a really nice guy and really funny,” agrees Grint, “and he’s just what I imagined Slughorn to be.”

There seems to be a sense that this is the first part of a two-part finale – or three-part if you count the split for Deathly Hallows as two films – and it seems that the biggest concern should be in making sure this film’s finale keeps its audience interested going into the next. “It’s really tricky and we’ve struggled with it a lot,” says Yates. “I think ultimately it will feel like part of a bigger journey. We’re still trying to make the journey as complete as possible in many ways but I like the idea that this is an involving story and I like the idea that you can sit in a movie theatre for two and a half hours and still come out and go, ‘Wow, I want to go back and see what comes next.’”

So is the mood on set subdued by the feeling that the films are winding down? For many of the young cast this experience has lasted nearly half their lives – when the final film is released in 2011 it’ll have been more than ten years since Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson were announced as Harry, Ron and Hermione.

Surprisingly, feelings are mixed. Some, like Grint, are certainly sensing the end in sight and already thinking about their plans for the future. “It does feel like it’s coming to an end now,” he says, “I’ve got to start thinking about what to do after this.”

But others, including Felton, are just happy to enjoy the moment. “We don’t talk about that,” he laughs, “It’s almost like school but twice as important as far as leaving it all behind. It’s not nice to think that it’s going to be all over soon. It gets me a bit upset and a bit teary.”

All of them are agreed on one thing though: they’ll miss it when it’s gone. “I’ve always had the routine of us getting together every year to do one of these,” continues Grint. “It’ll be quite sad because it’s been a massive part of my life.”

Of course, even as we anticipate Half-Blood Prince, when we visit the set we’re already keen to learn the secrets of the two-part Deathly Hallows adaptation. The films will mark Yates as the Potter series’ most prolific director, having helmed four of the eight. “It’ll be lovely to finish off the series,” says Yates. “We started doing things in the fifth film that we’ve carried through to the sixth film so there’s a continuation and there’s a sense of wanting to continue that momentum really.”

For the cast there’s no harm in thinking about how much they’ll enjoy filming the moments they’ve read in the seventh book. Radcliffe was quick to make with the spoilers as he told us what he was looking forward to. “I think it has got to be the walk into the forest to find Voldemort and, also, the King’s Cross chapter. I’m looking forward to doing all of that.

“It’s weird because those scenes always seem to be the ones you shoot about two weeks into filming. Which is great because you get them over with and you’re not worrying about them, but it’s the difference between getting a book and going straight to the back and going, ‘OK, fine,’ and getting a book, reading it through, and being moved by it.”

“It didn’t end how I expected it to end,” says Grint. “But I was really pleased with the ending and I thought it ended really well. It’s going to be cool to shoot; I’m looking foward to it.”

Back on the Great Hall set, though, any sense that the films are coming to an end, that they’re making the penultimate chapter in what has already become the world’s most successful film franchise, and that they’ve got an explosive finale ahead of them is pushed to the back of their minds as they concentrate on getting this particular moment right. As the end of the working day approaches and Grint starts giggling at Cave’s antics immediately after sipping his juice, Radcliffe suggests perhaps he’d spiked it with laughing tonic by mistake and it’s clear that if there’s a weight on their shoulders they’re having far too much fun to show it.

1 comments click to show
  • Trooper says:

    This is my first visit here, but I will be back soon, because I really like the way you are writing, it is so simple and honest

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