The sorceress’ apprentice

Times Staff Writer

ONCE upon a time, when children knew nothing about publishing dates and the most famous wizard was Merlin, writer-director Steve Kloves was asked if he had any interest in adapting a children’s book that was very popular in the United Kingdom.

He was torn -- he had just finished adapting the dark literary comedy “Wonder Boys,” which had been fun. But Kloves, who wrote and directed “The Fabulous Baker Boys” and “Flesh and Bone” and who wrote “Racing With the Moon,” wanted to get back to directing. And his own material. Still, he liked this children’s book, especially the main character, and was assured by friends with preteens that the movie would be greeted with much enthusiasm. So he said yes.

Four months later, Harry Potter landed on the cover of Time and Kloves found himself on a franchise train that has run with all the speed and pell-mell precision of the Hogwarts Express through four movies, three directors and what will undoubtedly turn out to be more than $3 billion in box office returns just a little more than halfway through the projected seven-book, seven-film series.


And to hear Kloves tell it, it’s been wonderful, inspiring, satisfying and all the other adjectives so often evoked by those involved in good moviemaking.

But it’s also been six years, man, and that’s a long time. When he began working on the first book, and while in the flush of early romance, Kloves said he would adapt all of them, if J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. would let him. He felt lucky, privileged, blessed. And in a town full of starving, scrabbling screenwriters, many of whom would have gladly put the Imperius Curse on Kloves for a shot at his gig, he was. But work is work, which is why they pay you for it.

For six years, Kloves has left his own kids for weeks at a time to care for his magically challenged foster children in the U.K., put all his other projects on the backburner to take care of Harry. For six years, he has thrashed around in a world created by another writer, teasing movies from complicated books of increasing girth and violence then turning the scripts over to another fellow to direct.

“ ‘Harry Potter’ plots are so torturous to convey to the screen,” he says. “Jo has created such a vivid world that you don’t want to leave anything out. But you have to. And it’s hard.” So after spending almost two years on “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” which opened Friday, Steve Kloves did The Unthinkable.

He said “no” to Harry Potter.

“[Goblet of Fire] was very difficult because it was my favorite,” Kloves says. “Which always means you have to proceed carefully. And in it the wizard world gets larger -- which is great, I loved the way Jo stretched things out. But I still had the same canvas. It couldn’t be a four-hour movie.” Scheduling issues also interfered -- director Mike Newell wasn’t available in the beginning stages, which made things a bit difficult. Kloves loved working with Newell, who he found “just as invested in the characters as I am,” but still there were many changes even after the final script had been approved.

“Last Christmas, Mike looked at footage and decided he wanted to emphasize certain plotlines,” Kloves says. “Not a lot of work, but very meticulous throughout the whole script. I was still writing lines in June and July.”

Although Kloves has certainly made plenty of money from the four films, he insists that was never a consideration. “It sounds arrogant,” he says, “but I have always sold everything I’ve written. And in the time it took me to write one ‘Harry’ script, I could have written two, even three of my own. So ... ,” he trails off with a you-do-the-math shrug.

In fact, for more than a year he has been trying to write a screenplay for Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” another project he agreed to do 15 minutes before it became an official Hot Book. And he could never find the time to really get rolling.

“Every time I would get started,” he says, “Harry would come knocking.” So when it came time to sign on for No. 5, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which will be directed by David Yates, Kloves passed the quill to Michael Goldenberg (“Peter Pan,” “Contact”).

But then as so often happens after these break-ups, regret set in. His children, now 10 and 13, were not as thrilled that Daddy would be around more as Kloves thought they would be. “I was surprised at how disappointed they were that I wasn’t doing No. 5,” he says. “They never said, but I guess they thought it was cool that I wrote the movies.”

When Kloves read No. 6, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” he found himself regretting his decision even more. He mentioned this to Jeff Robinov, production president at Warner Bros., who instantly welcomed him back -- because everyone is happy with the work Kloves had done and also because this means Warner Bros. can have two writers working almost simultaneously. Goldberg started on “Phoenix” last year -- “Right about now he’s realizing he’ll be working on it another year,” Kloves says with a small smile -- and Kloves will soon start “The Half-Blood Prince.” “They want to film the two as close to back-to-back as they can,” Kloves says. “Because the kids are really starting to grow up. And if we lose the kids, if they have to recast for six or seven, I think we will lose the movies. That’s what makes them magic.”

Manner belies his mission

THERE is nothing in Kloves’ appearance or manner that would suggest he has spent the last six years of his life with at least one foot in a world of wizards, Death Eaters and house elves. But you might be able to pick him out of a Guess Which One’s the Screenwriter lineup. If you crossed the guy in the Apple computer billboard with the guy in the Gap billboard, you would have Kloves’ wavy brown hair, T-shirt and jeans, intense look and sudden, nice smile. The man sitting against the wall at the party, glancing at his watch.

As much as he loves the characters and the wizarding world -- Moaning Myrtle and Quidditch and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans -- as much as he loves being part of a movie that requires location work in castles and eerie forests, he is a film industry professional, well-versed in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. What he does is much more craft than magic.

Few writers have found themselves as emotionally embroiled in another writer’s project as Kloves has -- Entertainment Weekly recently identified him as “franchise scribe Steve Kloves,” which is probably not what he dreamed of becoming in high school. And few directors have worked as closely on a project without actually directing it.

“I don’t spend a lot of time on the set,” he says. “I never have. Because I think as a director myself I would be too tempted to get in there and mess around.” Because he is adapting what is essentially a work in progress, Kloves has had to develop an intuition about where a certain character or theme or plotline is going.

“Jo has been very generous and helpful,” he says. “She won’t give anything away but occasionally she’ll give me a wink, or let me know if I’m picking up on something that is going to become important later.” This requires an investment of time and emotion from Kloves that is far beyond the norm. Many screenwriters become attached to the books or stories they are adapting but in most cases, that attachment has a specific duration with, for lack of a better term, a sense of closure.

For Kloves, there is always another book on its way, another chapter in a story over which he has no control -- he can literally have some of his favorite characters yanked from underneath him. Not that he is always surprised by the turns in Rowling’s plots: The death of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore at the end of “The Half-Blood Prince” did not surprise him.

“This is a coming-of-age story for Harry,” he says. “And at some point he has to make the journey alone. Which he can’t if Dumbledore is around to protect him.” But he has no idea whether Professor Severus Snape is guilty of murdering the beloved Hogwarts headmaster. He is happy that Snape plays such a large role in the sixth book, mainly because he loves writing for Alan Rickman, who plays the professor.

“It’s hard because if you look at the books, Snape really just sort of hovers, as a threat, more than actually does something,” Kloves says. “And Alan is just a wonderful actor. He always says the lines exactly as I write them, including the ellipses. I have never met an actor who could act out ellipses, but Alan can.”

Likewise, he was hoping, for example, that the character of Draco Malfoy would come more into the fore in “Goblet.” “Tom Felton [who plays Malfoy] is such a wonderful actor,” Kloves says. “I was hoping that Draco would become a little more dangerous.” That seems to have happened in “Half-Blood Prince,” but again, Kloves has no way of knowing exactly where the character is going. He was pleased to be able to give Rupert Grint, who plays Harry’s best friend, Ron Weasley, room to stretch in “Goblet of Fire.” Grint, he says, is such a natural-born comedian that the filmmakers have to fight the urge to let him become simply the comic relief. “In ‘Goblet’ we gave him some brass, which made me very happy. Rupert is amazingly funny, but I didn’t want him to become Abbott to Harry’s Costello.”

During the last five years Kloves has learned that when it comes to adapting a beloved text, you are just not going to please everyone. He has endured criticism that he remained too true to the books (after the first two movies directed by Chris Columbus) and that he took too many liberties (after the third directed by Alfonso Cuaron). In the end, he takes satisfaction from the fact that he is working on a project that takes children seriously, something rare in Hollywood. And the success of the films speaks for itself -- critics can say what they may, but children love his work. He knows this from the box office numbers and from what he overhears as he shuttles his daughter and son and their friends around.

“In ‘Azkaban,’ ” he says, “I swear, the thing I heard the most from kids was not how great Buckbeak looked or how scary the Dementors were but how funny they thought it was when Hermione sees herself and asks, ‘Is that how my hair really looks from the back?’

“Kids are much less enthralled by dragons than they are by something funny Ron says. Which is great,” he adds, “because so am I.”