21 Jun 2009: Amy Raphael gets to the beating heart of The Half-Blood Prince and discovers how Daniel Radcliffe and co have grown into their roles since those early, pre-teen days

Prepare yourselves, Hogwarts fans: the long-awaited sixth film is out next month. Given exclusive behind-the-scenes access to cast and crew, Amy Raphael gets to the beating heart of The Half-Blood Prince and discovers how Daniel Radcliffe and co have grown into their roles since those early, pre-teen days

Somewhere off the M25 in a 500,000 sq ft studio, Emma Watson is swearing. “Oh shit,” she says, pouting. “I’ve said the wrong lines.” She frowns at her script. “Can we sort this out?” She looks down from the astronomy tower at director David Yates. He gently guides her through the scene in which her character, Hermione, is talking to Harry Potter about Voldemort’s soul. Harry looks very serious. “I’m not coming back, Hermione … I have to finish what Dumbledore started.”

  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  • Production year: 2009
  • Country: Rest of the world
  • Cert (UK): 12A
  • Runtime: 153 mins
  • Directors: David Yates
  • Cast: Alan Rickman, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Jim Broadbent, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Rupert Grint, Tom Felton
  • More on this film

Action stops again. Watson focuses on the script. Yates and Daniel Radcliffe discuss Harry’s frame of mind. Radcliffe may have made his debut in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 2001, when he was just 12, but he is still, it seems, finding his way around the character. Yates talks him through it. “Harry’s in a cold, dark place at the moment, but I would caution against melancholy … you’ve got to make sure Harry’s not weighty but more fluid, freer.”

It’s a few days after Easter 2008 and Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire is playing host to Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, the sixth film in a series of eight. The astronomy tower has been constructed in one of myriad studios in this vast metal hangar. Leavesden, which was once an aircraft engine factory, previously provided the setting for GoldenEye, Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and The Dark Knight but is now exclusively home to the Potter films.

It’s such a huge place that the cast and crew have pushbikes to pedal from one location to the next. Somewhere in here is Europe’s largest film-making tank; Radcliffe spent six months learning to dive for an underwater scene in The Goblet of Fire. When I’m left on my own for a minute or two by the hyper-vigilant press officer, I wonder if I’ll ever find a way out of Hogwarts. But the press officer quickly returns and continues the guided tour from the Weasleys’ musty, cold and dark living room (which smells, oddly, of clean washing), past piles of rolled-up rugs and old duvets and onto the Great Hall.

Although nothing to do with Harry Potter is small in scale – to throw in a random figure, its creator JK Rowling earned more than £5 a second last year – the Great Hall is still breathtaking. It’s the real thing, a cavernous school hall that serves proper food during filming because it’s the cheapest and most realistic way of doing it. The long tables were commissioned in beautiful, solid wood and then battered by the props department in the name of authenticity.

Elsewhere, new sofas are ripped with razors for the same reason. At any given time, around 1,200 people are at work on the sets. In the sprawling art department, tables are decorated with models of the Great Hall, the dormitory, Hogwarts. In one corner a bunch of people are making props for a shop that will probably appear only fleetingly in The Half-Blood Prince

It’s impossible not to be impressed with the world of Potter. It’s partly the sheer scale of it – almost seven million copies of The Half-Blood Prince were sold in America within 24 hours of its publication; the first five films earned $4.5bn at the box office – but it’s also the endless positivism of the Potter cast and crew. Even David Heyman, co-producer of all the Potter films, admits it’s unusual. “I sound as though I’m part of some cult when I talk about the films, but everyone involved is just incredibly … nice. It will never happen again, this little island of film-making where the only pressure is that which we exert upon ourselves.”

Heyman’s Leavesden office is decorated with white leather sofas and chairs, a designer coffee table and a huge Mac. Casually dressed in T-shirt, jeans and leather boots, he displays no obvious sign of wealth – yet here’s the man who took the first Potter book to Warner Brothers. Although The Philosopher’s Stone was placed in a low-priority tray, Heyman’s secretary took the book home one weekend and returned to work gushing about it. “I read it and was captivated,” says Heyman. “The writing was so vivid and the characters so easy to relate to: Harry the outsider, Hermione the swot, Ron from a big family, the battle between good and evil. I went to a school like Hogwarts, but without the magic.”

Heyman submitted the book to Warner Brothers and negotiations began. He didn’t meet Rowling until the deal was almost done. “I’ll never forget the lunch we had in Alastair Little [in Soho]. Jo had been to a publisher’s party the night before and she was, quite literally, a shade of green. She’d clearly had a good night out and eating fish was the last thing on her mind. She was very much the same then as she is now: funny, irreverent, compassionate, kind, generous. Very discreet and private. Damn! She’s hard to punch holes in …”

There was talk of Steven Spielberg, Alan Parker or Terry Gilliam directing the film. In the end, the first four Potters were directed by Chris Columbus (who did two), Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell. The fifth Potter, Order of the Phoenix, was directed by David Yates – and it is Yates who will be at the helm for the last three films. The final book, Deathly Hallows, is being released as a two-parter in 2010 and 2011: shooting will finish next April and Yates will spend a further 18 months editing, adding music and perfecting visual effects.

That Yates ended up making Potter films at all is nothing short of astonishing – and a perfect example of Heyman’s ambition. In 2003, Yates directed the brilliant TV mini-series State of Play and a year later won a Bafta for the harrowing, hard-hitting Sex Traffic. After meeting the gentle Merseysider several times, I never imagined him being lured by the world of wizards, magic and CGI. A principled, political indie film-maker entering the corporate world of the blockbuster just didn’t seem to make sense. And yet Heyman saw it otherwise: a fan of State of Play, he wanted Yates to not only tap into the political back story of the Order of the Phoenix but also to make the film edgy and emotional.

Yates saw it as a challenge he couldn’t refuse. “I like the infrastructure of making a blockbuster; it’s like having a big train set.” His cinematic touchstones for Harry Potter range from American Graffiti to David Lean’s epic vistas, Ken Loach’s social dramas and Scorsese’s inventive trickery. He insists that Harry Potter is a theatrical experience; in fact, he sets out to make the films “rich, big and artful”. Yet he is also disarmingly honest, wondering about the impact of Potter on the film industry. “Is it a good thing that a movie of this scale comes along every so often? Does it mean that everyone is always looking for that scale of event? I’m not sure. But event pictures, which have been in existence since Jaws, are part of the landscape now. We probably just have to accept it.”

Alongside his determination to constantly question, Yates’s great skill as a director is in taking actors to another level – he did it with a young, fresh-faced James McAvoy in State of Play and again with Anamaria Marinca in Sex Traffic. And he thinks he might have done it again with Frank Dillane, son of actor Stephen, who makes his debut in The Half-Blood Prince as Tom Marvolo Riddle. “I had a weird feeling with James and Anamaria and I’ve got it with Frank, too. He’s just special.” Yates thinks the best performances come when the cast feel safe. “You don’t get good performances by treating actors like puppets. And actors generally trust me.” Rupert Grint, who plays Ron Weasley, sees it more simply: “David’s wicked. Really cool.”

Although Yates is not at all lovey, he does end up sounding like he’s in Heyman’s imaginary cult when discussing his coterie of young actors. “As the kids get older, they’re more fun to be around. They constantly amaze me. Given that they’re at the centre of this extraordinarily popular-cultural event, they’re really centred, level-headed, perceptive, funny. Really, they’re fabulous.”

Although I only manage to shake Emma Watson’s hand as she swishes off to have her hair cut (she is the only key actor who doesn’t have time to talk, either because she’s busy getting three As at A-level or because she’s immersed in filming), her co-stars do indeed seem, if not fabulous, then at least grounded. Rupert Grint, whose Potter audition tape showed him rapping, is friendly and laid-back, while Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley) is unengaged but supremely professional. She says the kiss she has with Harry in The Half-Blood Prince was awkward but she “just got on with it”. Tom Felton, who plays the dastardly Draco Malfoy, says that after years of taking his job for granted, he’s taken a vow to enjoy the remaining films. “I’m going to take loads of photos and make sure I stay in touch with everyone …”

It should come as no surprise that the most interesting of the young actors is Daniel Radcliffe, who has already proved his serious acting credentials by taking to the stage for the warmly received Equus. Heyman says that they got lucky with the cast, then points out that the main credit goes to their parents. “Dan’s father Alan gave up work to look after his son, to be a chaperone. Initially he was looking after Dan on a daily basis, running through his lines, talking about the part. As Dan grew up, he was given space to be his own person. Dan’s parents also implemented a strict regime from the outset: they ensure he has juice in the morning, all the vitamins he needs and enough sleep.”

I see Alan Radcliffe walking up a corridor at one point, but he’s not with his son and seems more interested in chatting to the crew. When I meet Daniel, he confesses he stayed in bed till 5pm the previous day, getting up only to watch the cricket. This is not some actorly decadence but exhaustion: he’s just finished two weeks of night shoots in which he arrived at the studio just before 4pm and left at 5am. “Around 3am is the mental, laugh-at-anything hour. That’s when I become a stand-up comedian because the least funny jokes will still get a laugh.”

Given his disturbed sleep patterns, does he have strange dreams? Does he ever dream about Harry Potter? “I probably dreamed about him when I was younger, but these days my most common dream is falling off buildings and onto trampolines, which is great fun. I used to have one recurring dream where I killed people and got killed. I don’t know what my subconscious is trying to tell me …”

I ask about Yates cautioning against melancholy when Harry and Hermione were up on the astronomy tower and Radcliffe laughs. “The Half-Blood Prince is funnier than the previous books, which has given me the reins to be a bit more stupid. But I actually prefer doing the slightly darker side of stuff. I’m not so comfortable with being funny. One of David Yates’s jobs on this film is to make me see that it’s not always about the darkness in the scene; I have in my head that darkness in a character equals credibility and of course that’s not the case.”

Although The Half-Blood Prince has already been pushed back from last November to this July – apparently to guarantee Warner Brothers a major summer blockbuster – there are no press screenings until the start of July. The studio says it has nothing to do with the quality of the film (dodgy films are often screened at the last minute) and everything to do with piracy. So there’s no way of telling if Radcliffe has left the melancholy behind. Yates insists he has. “Dan has a got a very dry sense of humour, so he’s actually quite good at light comedy. The Half-Blood Prince is much lighter than Order of the Phoenix; it’s much more of a romantic comedy.”

Harry Potter the romcom? Yates laughs. “Yes, absolutely! It is a romcom of sorts. It’s a delightful look at teenage sexual politics, really. It may end with an apocalyptic battle of the dead but it starts as a romcom. I think the audience need to feel they’re not getting the same experience each time.” Does he have fun directing the Potters? “Oh God, yes. I have too much… I have a lot of fun. And this one will feel tonally different. It will feel more playful, more magical, more emotional. We’re very excited about this one. We feel as though we’re moving it on again.”

Although each of JK Rowling’s books has captivated millions worldwide, it’s not a given that the films will continue to do the same. Does Yates not feel there’s a danger of the films feeling increasingly stale? He shakes his head emphatically. “There are three things that will stop Potter becoming stale. I’m very restless and am not going to let it fall into a stasis. Jo Rowling’s source material is endlessly evolving and book seven, the final book, is a great ride. It can’t feel stale because a good story is a good story. Third, what will always keep the films fresh is the fact that you’re watching the actors grow older in real time.”

It is indeed fascinating to watch the young cast grow up on screen – have a look at early interviews on YouTube and you’ll notice their feet dangling above the ground – and Yates has also got around the potential problem of being lumbered with an existing cast by giving cameos to older actors with whom he’s previously worked. One of the best things about the Potter films has always been the appearance of national acting treasures such as Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, David Thewlis and, in The Half-Blood Prince, Jim Broadbent.

I ask Broadbent about his experience of playing Horace Slughorn, Potions Master and head of Slytherin House at Hogwarts, and it seems that he, too, has been bitten by the Harry bug. “It was an extraordinary thing to be part of. The main sets feel so permanent, having been there since the start, which means it’s very easy to get drawn into the world of Hogwarts. It was rather daunting turning up on set with all these young actors; it could so easily have been a nightmare, given that the five films have had such huge success. But the kids turned out to be terrific. There was no brattish behaviour or starry, Fame Academy behaviour; they just get on with it.”

And perhaps this is the key to the success of the films: producers David Heyman and David Barron have created what the latter describes as “our reality”. The young cast have never been allowed to develop attitude. Each new director has had to stay within the perimeters of the world so carefully set up at Leavesden; accordingly, there’s no room for an individual director to take off on a flight of fancy. And the continuity of cast and crew is impressive, too; although Radcliffe initially signed on for the first two films and seriously debated doing three and four, he did finally sign up till the end.

He says it’s because “it would be very stupid to walk away so near the end” but I’m guessing the fee wasn’t irrelevant. Rumour has it that he started off at £60,000 per film and now commands £6m. He laughs. “Apparently. I don’t know. I don’t take an interest. I’m not taking it for granted – I’m very, very lucky because I can do whatever I choose for the rest of my career. I can be very selective, which will be a joy. But I’m clueless about the money side of things. As soon as you start paying too much attention to money, your priorities start to get mixed up.”

If Radcliffe has decided to focus on acting instead of personal wealth, then Warner Brothers has also been very careful not to alienate Harry Potter’s fanatical fans with too much commercialism and hype. As early as 2001, Warner Brothers chairman Alan Horn talked of wanting to “maximise this franchise in every way and that means we need also to make sure that the children and parents who love the stories do not feel that we have blown it”.

According to everyone I speak to at Leavesden, Warners has been remarkably hands off. It’s only when Yates started to get a bit arty on The Half-Blood Prince that the studio had something to say. “The only major run-in we’ve had since I came on board is regarding the look of this film. We had a fairly major negotiation about its look. Bruno Delbonnel, who was also cinematographer on Amelie, made it look very distinct and different to the previous Potters by using all these monochromatic washes. The studio wanted more colour added to it and we obliged. And actually it’s no less artful with the new grade; it looks more beautiful, more inviting. When you’re sending 28,000 prints around the world to goodness knows how many cultures, you need a show that pulls you in.”

I get a sense that, while some of the young actors could happily stay at Hogwarts forever, others are preparing seriously for life post-Potter. Radcliffe, who took AS-levels but not A-levels, has a tutor teaching him Anglo-Saxon poetry and other delights – he wants to be sure that when he stops filming Potter next year and turns 21, he won’t be outclassed by Oxford and Cambridge graduates.

I ask Yates if he will remember how to make a small indie film and his face lights up. “Oh, mate! You bet! I’m going to line up a dozen kitchen-sink dramas, all for BBC4. That about three people will see. But I won’t care! I’ll go to work in a minibus with a small crew. Just to shake me out of all the habits I’ve picked up making multimillion Hollywood pictures. It will be good for my soul …” He pauses, lost in his dream. “But my commitment to Potter is absolute. First of all it’s my job to make sure we go out with a bang and, as the Americans would say, put on a show.”

He is being summoned back to set with some urgency. So he offers a firm handshake, gets on his bike and whizzes back to the astronomy tower to teach Daniel Radcliffe how to make his first romcom.

• Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opens on 17 July