Chris Columbus couldn't stop smiling. He had successfully completed directing "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," opening in theaters across the United States today, and had started filming the next in the series, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," at a manor house about an hour's drive from London.
He was sitting at a long table. Nearby was a centuries-old fireplace, tapestry-adorned walls, and several suits of armor. Pointing to the armor, he added, "Dan will love this." He was referring to 12-year-old Daniel Radcliffe, who stars as Harry Potter (see interview, below).
Settling into a high-backed, slightly faded red-velvet chair, Mr. Columbus confides: "During the shooting, I dreamed every night about the film. It haunted me. I kept running the next day's work through my head. Because of [Britain's] child-labor laws, the young cast could only work four hours a day, so I'd dream of ways to make my time with them count."
Columbus soon learned that children have short attention spans. To help them stay focused, the director would constantly talk to them and often tell jokes.
"When Harry is flying on the broomstick, I'm talking to him, moving my body, waving my arms," Columbus says. I suddenly saw the entire company watching me. I must have looked like a fool, but whatever it takes."
Columbus tried to keep his cool. No matter what happened, he stayed focused.
"I got a shock when I was about halfway through filming. I was looking into the camera lens, when I felt a tug on my sleeve." Columbus turned around. Here stood the young Radcliffe, who is in every scene, sporting an enormous black eye.
"I guess he saw my look of horror," Columbus says. "He immediately started laughing and began rubbing off the inky makeup he'd put on."
The director, who has four children of his own, never forgot that Dan, and his young co-stars, Emma Watson as Hermione Granger and Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, were still kids.
Columbus first learned of the book when his daughter, Eleanor, then 11, placed it in his hands and said, "This would be a fantastic movie."
"I devoured it in one reading, and started playing it as a film in my head." Eleanor can be seen walking with a group of kids in a crowd scene. She has no dialogue. "I had to get her in the movie somewhere," he said, "or she'd never smile again."
Steven Spielberg was originally set to direct the film. But he bowed out in order to work on the film "A.I."
Columbus then began a campaign that rivaled a knight in a medieval battle. "I did nothing but live and breathe Steve Kloves's script, which was really faithful to the book. When I met with producer David Heyman and other studio executives, they were impressed by my dedication."
Before Columbus arrived, there had been suggestions to switch the locale to the US, to use an older child who looked young, and to make the movie animated. The executives admired Columbus's desire to follow Rowling's dream. Also, they knew he had directed one of the top-grossing comedies of all time, "Home Alone," as well as "Home Alone 2" and "Mrs. Doubtfire."
When he finally received "the call," his family knew it meant moving from California to England for a year. One day, Columbus ran into Spielberg in a London restaurant. They knew each other well. Spielberg had bought three of Columbus' early screenplays, the first being "The Gremlins" in the early '80s.
Spielberg said, "I know the only person to play Harry Potter - Haley Joel Osment." Columbus said, "He's not British, and I'm committed to an all-English cast, and want to be faithful to the integrity of the book."
The adults were superbly trained British actors - Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, and Alan Rickman. They didn't need much direction - "usually just a simple suggestion, 'a little more' or 'a little less' was all that was required." This left him free to concentrate on the three leading children: Radcliffe had starred as David Copperfield on the BBC, but Grint and Watson had only been in school plays.
"I grew to love these three as a family," Columbus says. "I've tried to prepare them for fame and fans."
He'd seen Macaulay Culkin become an overnight child star in "Home Alone" and all the conflict with his family that followed. When he cast the three children for "Harry Potter," he interviewed their parents as well, explaining some of the pitfalls of sudden fame.
Halfway through the first movie, Columbus was asked to direct the second Potter movie. "It meant my family staying in London another year," he says. "They voted yes."
What if Columbus were asked to film the longest Potter book, No. 4?
"I'd divide it into two movies," he says. "One would be released at Thanksgiving and the other at Christmas." You could see his eyes sparkle as he ran the possibility through his mind. As he left, he was still smiling ... and dreaming.