A MONTH OF MAGIC: Hero Complex is counting down to the Nov. 19 release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” — the penultimate film in the history-making “Potter” franchise — with exclusive interviews, photos, videos and reports from the set. Today, a rare interview with Steve Kloves, the screenwriter on seven of the eight “Potter” films.
Steve Kloves should smile when asked about his magical decade — after all, how many Hollywood writers see five of their scripts earn more than $4.7 billion at the box office? But instead Kloves lets out a gloomy sigh — this a man who worries that he has been a sorcerer’s apprentice for too long.
“If people like a ‘Harry Potter’ movie, it’s because of the book,” he said. “But if they don’t like it, then it’s my fault.”
Kloves is the prose middle-man between J.K. Rowling’s mega-selling fantasy novels and the Warner Bros. film franchise that reaches its seventh installment with the Friday release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1” and comes to an end next summer with “Deathly Hallows: Part 2.” Kloves has written seven of the eight scripts and that fact leaves the irascible writer conflicted — sometimes he wishes that he had written all eight, other days he wonders why he did any at all.
“The truth is ‘Potter’ was really strange for me, right from the beginning, it wasn’t the sort of thing I ever expected to be doing,” he said. “It was really, really nice in many ways but always a little odd…. I always saw myself writing movies that, you know, people don’t go see.”
Before Hogwarts, Kloves wrote the scripts for — and also directed — “The Fabulous Baker Boys” and “Flesh and Bone,” two films not exactly known for their special-effects budgets but highly regarded for their pulse and intellect. Those movies, though, put him on a short-list at Warner Bros. and one day he got a list of the studio’s available properties and he was intrigued by the short synopsis of a book about an orphaned boy wizard and his loyal friends.
“At that point, this was 1998, ‘Potter’ wasn’t that big a deal here in the States, and later one of my friends said to me, ‘If it had been on the cover of Time magazine before you signed up, you never would have done it,’” Kloves said. “And that’s absolutely the case.”
Kloves was ramping in profile himself. As he worked on the first “Potter” movie, he earned an Oscar nomination for his deft adaptation of Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys,” a very different tale of outsider souls in a school setting. But despite the later acclaim, “Wonder Boys,” directed by Curtis Hanson, had “opened with a whisper” at the box office, Kloves said with a smirk. “Just the way I like it.”
If Kloves seems uncomfortable with a broad audience the reason is obvious. He has been “No. 1 Undesirable” to some fans of “Potter,” a fierce and global constituency that winces when Rowling’s thick books are pruned into brisk blockbusters. Kloves never expected to give a decade of his creative life to any film franchise and he certainly didn’t expect to reach a point in his career where a Utah woman would start a Facebook page called “I Blame Steve Kloves for Everything Wrong in the World.”
Kloves turned 50 in March and three months later the “Harry Potter” cast and crew finished the last day of filming on the “Deathly Hallows” films. Those two milestones put him in a reflective mode. Sitting at an outdoor bistro on a recent crisp afternoon in Culver City, he tried to chew on a complicated mixture of pride, regret, nostalgia and inspiration now that Hogwarts is part of his past, not his future.
“The single greatest thing I take from the experience of the past 10 years is becoming friends with Jo. That’s a separate thing from all of this now, separate from ‘Potter,’ and it’s become a very important part of my life. I used to say she’s the coolest chick on the face of the planet. You read that first book and you thought, ‘Angela Lansbury wrote this book,’ then you meet her and she knows all of your music references and she’s funny. The first thing you pick up sitting down with her though is the intelligence. We had to make movies as smart as her books and as smart as her.”
Kloves is proud of the work he’s done but he still gets spooked by its reach and ripple. “I still don’t understand the magnitude of it,” he said. “I only catch glimpses of the size in my peripheral vision. It kind of freaks me out.”
Kloves responded by becoming the Garbo figure of the “Potter” franchise. He has attended only one of the red-carpet premieres and he long ago stopped reading the press coverage; he rarely sits for interviews and instantly regrets most of the ones he does grant. The low-profile approach has made the writer an especially convenient scapegoat, though, and Kloves says “the studio doesn’t mind that on some level.”
Perhaps, but Rowling has been one of Kloves’ biggest fans, as has filmmaker David Yates, who came on as director of the fifth “Potter” film and never left. Yates, now in post-production on the eighth and final movie, says the screenwriter’s “humor and humanity” sync up with Rowling’s sensibilities. “I think it’s a really terrific partnership of two really fabulous writers,” Yates said. “There is also a kind of delicacy and poignancy that he finds in some moments. He’s a real observer of small human touches.”
Still, Kloves can’t help but wonder if spending a decade in service of another writer’s grand vision cost him opportunities to find his own stories. “The movie you make at 30 or 35 is not the movie you make at 40 or 45 and I wonder what I would have done if I took that other path,” Kloves said. “It’s hard for me not to think about that.”
Kloves was born in Austin, the Texas capital of roadhouse souls, but grew up in Sunnyvale, Calif. He came south to Los Angeles with plans to attend UCLA’s film program but the school had other plans. He went to work as an unpaid intern at a Hollywood agency and worked at night on a script for a dark suburban drama called “Swings.” It stirred industry interest and led to “Racing With the Moon,” Richard Benjamin’s 1984 film starring Nicolas Cage and Sean Penn in a shipping-off-to-war tale set in 1942 California.
In 1989, Kloves delivered “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” a memorable, melancholy tune that starred Jeff and Beau Bridges as piano-playing brothers who bring a former “escort” — Michelle Pfeiffer in torch-song mode — into the act. Success follows, but so do love, heartbreak and sibling confrontation. Kloves is clearly proud of the mature complexities of “Baker Boys” but he also admires “Potter” for remaining earnest in an ironic age.
“In a cynical world, ‘Potter’ stands apart,” Kloves said. “Look, to take a dystopian stance as a writer or a filmmaker is not that difficult. It’s much harder to be earnest about things like loyalty and courage and friendship. Jo Rowling has been able to deal with these things in her books without being saccharine.”
Kloves wasn’t the only writer considered by Warner Bros. back at the start of the franchise, but producer David Heyman said Kloves won the job with his ability to find the human heart in a story teeming with computer-generated trolls, goblins and dragons.
I cant think of no other screenwriter who can capture an authors voice so successfully as Steve Kloves,” Heyman said. “ He did so in ‘The Wonder Boys’ and hehas done so in all the Harry Potter films he has written. He has the ability to get inside an author’s head and bring their voice to the script, to the screen. That is the greatest of so many gifts he has given to the Harry Potter films. There were even times when he wrote scenes that were not in the book that Jo said she wished she had thought of. He understood what to leave in, what to leave out, he gave the characters their voices, he was able to turn on a dime, from a dramatic moment to a comedic moment, from the intimate to the epic and he was able to adapt to the styles and demands of each of the four directors and give them what they needed and wanted. The Harry Potter films would be much less without him.”
Fans, though, don’t always appreciate the cuts and compressions needed for Hollywood purposes. Kloves has also pushed to put more humor in the movies — he said “it would be a waste” of the abilities of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint not to do so — and take the character of Dumbledore into directions not always seen on the page. Kloves said he holds Radcliffe, Watson and Grint in such high regard that if any of them had left the franchise, he would have been right behind them.
In this newest film, Kloves has added a scene that presents a tender moment between Harry (Radcliffe) and his friend Hermione (Watson) that was never in the books. The young wizards, on the run from dark forces and their own despair, share a dance — there are layers of emotions, tension and shared history that charge the air as a forlorn song crackles from a small radio. Kloves fought for the sequence — and quickly won over the “Potter” brain trust that includes Rowling — but knows that many purists will attack him for it.
The intensity of the “Potter” franchise — eight films in a decade — made the job a smothering one. Trips to the London set and “the daily immersion” in the marathon spring made the father of two fret about his family. It all became too much and Kloves walked away between the fourth and fifth movie — or at least he tried to.
“It sounds glib but they asked me on the wrong day for my final answer,” Kloves said of declining “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” a script that instead went to Michael Goldenberg (“Contact”). The respite that Kloves expected never materialized, however, since his labors on the fourth film went six months longer than planned and lasted well after the cameras started rolling.
“The joke that was played on me was that it didn’t make any sense: I took a break but the ‘Potter’ work didn’t stop at all,” Kloves said.
Kloves had planned to adapt the Mark Haddon novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” during that break and now he may go return to that as writer and director. Kloves makes it sound as if he’s not in red-hot demand right now — again, his “Potter” films are perceived as borrowed magic in some ways. But don’t expect Kloves to apologize for his Hogwarts adventure, despite any of his own regrets.
“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I get it. There was always something around that was cooler — the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies or ‘Batman.’ But I’ll tell you this, after 10 years we’re still here. And the quality control never slipped. The movies are very special to a couple of generations of young people too, and I think that’s something to be proud of.”
– Geoff Boucher
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