In anticipation of the Nov. 19 release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I, EW continues its look back at the making of the franchise. Today’s focus: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, director Chris Columbus’ return to Hogwarts. Coming off of his slavishly faithful adaptation of Sorcerer’s Stone, which grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide, Columbus had his critics. He also had his response to them: ”I’ve always felt that if you find a piece of material you love, you really shouldn’t change it,” Columbus told EW in 2002. ”People seem to think I had J.K. Rowling standing over my head with a sledgehammer, which was not the case. She left us alone – and she’s done it again on this picture.” With the Harry Potter merchandising machine in full effect – Tom Felton, then 14, spoke to EW about the surreal experience of torturing a Draco doll that looked like him – Columbus was still irked by accusations that he had delivered a first film that was nothing more than an excuse for action figures. ”I was very frustrated. Because we could have totally sold out,” he told EW. “I remember reading a review that said, ‘How can I judge it as a movie? It’s a corporate machine.’ And I thought to myself, you are so full of it. That is not what we did!’ Had I turned this thing into all the other horrific ideas that were going around – whether I took it to Hollywood and set it in a high school, put American kids into the production, whatever – I would have been drawn and quartered. I didn’t go in there with some kind of corporate mentality, saying that if we do it this way we’ll make such and such amount of money…. I think we made a classic film.”
Critics, including EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, who gave Chamber of Secrets a B+, warmed to Columbus’ reverent take the second time around, and praised the way he brought to life the fear in Hogwarts’ halls as Muggle-born students were threatened (and petrified), Harry and Ron were nearly devoured by giant spiders, and Harry went mano a serpent with a basilisk. As eager as fans were to see the return of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint), and Hermione (Emma Watson), they were equally excited to see the two new additions to the cast: Kenneth Branagh, who took a memorable one-time turn as flamboyantly vain Gilderoy Lockhart, the school’s new Professor of Defense Against the Dark Arts, and Jason Isaacs, who would stick around as Lucius Malfoy, the father of Harry’s chief bully and Slytherin nemesis Draco (Tom Felton). “Any time these two Master Thespians appear, working their facial muscles for fun and profit – and, for that matter, with every juicy scene involving Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall, or the late, lamented Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore – The Chamber of Secrets reaches its full power,” Schwarzbaum said. For this, Columbus also deserves some credit, as Isaacs told EW before the film’s release. ”I think Chris’ job consisted entirely of trying to stop me and Ken from trying to out-ham each other. Once you’ve got the wizard’s cloak and the waist-length blond hair and you’re waving a giant wand around, it’s quite hard to stay rooted in Method acting. Chris gave me a lot of ‘Listen, I think they could see that performance in America from here without broadcast. Shrink it down to camera size.”’
The franchise would, of course, rest on the shoulders of Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson, and everyone wondered how they were handling the pressure. ”They’re doing remarkably well,” Columbus told EW. ”I think the reason is that we auditioned the parents. And my biggest question [to them] was, if the kid says, ‘I wanna stop!’ will you let them stop? And they all said yes, which is important to me because Macaulay Culkin [whom Columbus directed in Home Alone and Home Alone 2] was in a situation where they kept putting him in movie after movie after movie.” Indeed, when EW took a look at the stars’ dressing rooms, we found them to be normal teens in the face of global fame: Watson, then 12, had a Brad Pitt calendar above her desk, a spangled purple belt on the floor (she was into fashion even then!), hairbrushes, Hello Kitty stickers, and adoring fan mail. Fourteen-year-old Grint’s room had a mini-billiard table, a guide to the 2002 World Cup, unfinished food, and, as we described it ever so delicately, “a charming poster that deals with the considerable comedic potential of flatulence.” As for Radcliffe’s room, it was “surprisingly neat given his taste for punk rock and Spider-Man and his reputation as a practical joker.” If the stress of filming another blockbuster was getting to them, they didn’t let it show. “We had a week with 300 extras in the Great Hall,” Watson said, “it’s boiling hot, the food stinks, everyone is dying of boredom, and we have to make everybody laugh. It got so bad that Dan had to get up onto the table with Robbie Coltrane [who plays groundskeeper Hagrid] and dance. He did the cancan. He did the macarena. The whole hall was laughing. Ask him about it! He’ll blush.”
By the time Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets opened on Nov. 15, 2002 (and grossed a magical $88.4 million, then the third biggest three-day opening ever behind Spider-Man’s $114.8 million and the first Harry Potter’s $90.3 million), preproduction had already begun on the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, helmed by Alfonso Cuarón. The young stars were wondering if their real-life growth spurts would size them out of completing the franchise. ”Who knows how many I’ll do?” Radcliffe told EW before Chamber of Secrets’ release. ”I’m doing the third, but after that they probably won’t want me. But it’s been good while it’s lasted.” Finishing the series without Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson is unimaginable at this point, but fans did have to do the thinkable, and envision someone other than Harris in the beloved role of Dumbledore. Harris, who’d taken the part in Sorcerer’s Stone because his granddaughter insisted that she wouldn’t speak to him again if he didn’t, lost his battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on Oct. 25, 2002, just weeks before Chamber of Secrets hit theaters. ”The kids particularly were very shocked,” Branagh told EW. ”He seemed a sort of grandfather to them. I loved his company. One of my favorite experiences of the whole shoot was a week we spent on location in a tiny hotel. One night Harris and Alan Rickman and I went on until about 4 a.m. with stories that were just so fantastic. He had a great life force. And I miss him.”
What are your favorite memories of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? If there’s one scene you have to watch every time you spot the movie on cable, what is it? For me, it’s when Fawkes, Dumbledore’s phoenix, comes to Harry’s rescue and cries his healing tear on Harry’s wound from the basilisk. I just love how even though Harry had been dying, he was respectful enough to tell Fawkes that he’d been brilliant. And then I have to watch Dumbledore tell Harry that he must have shown him real loyalty for Fawkes to aid him, and explain to Harry why he’s in Gryffindor instead of Slytherin – because he’d asked the Sorting Hat to put him in Gryffindor. That’s the difference between him and Tom Riddle/Lord Voldemort – Harry choses good over evil. Having that choice, and making it, is what makes you a hero.