Blockbuster movie Gravity hit theaters today to rave reviews: it’s garnered a 98% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes so far. You’re probably familiar with the two leads, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. However, the man behind the writing, production, and direction of the movie — Alfonso Cuarón — might at first seem a little less familiar.
You’ve probably seen at least one movie of his, though: he directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in 2004, which was met with universal acclaim and huge box office success, and irrevocably changed the tone of the series. Cuarón had big shoes to fill. The original director, Chris Columbus, stepped down after the beloved first two movies. Rather than succumb to the enormous pressure, Cuarón got the most out of his aging ensemble and opened up new, darker dimensions of the already rich Potter universe.
Cuarón faced many challenges in directing the third Potter movie. He was not only replacing Columbus — a legend who had been with the movie franchise from the start — but making the leap from more modestly budgeted films to Hollywood blockbusters, transitioning from Spanish to English, shifting his focus from Mexico to the United Kingdom, and moving from adult narratives to a children’s series. He was also dealing with a critical personnel change. Richard Harris, who had portrayed Albus Dumbledore, passed away right as Cuarón was joining the team — a devastating development for all involved — and important new cast members Gary Oldman (Sirius Black), David Thewlis (Professor Lupin), and Emma Thompson (Professor Trelawney) had to be integrated into the existing crew. Perhaps most shockingly, Cuarón was not at all familiar with the series.
Cuarón took the chaos and ran with it. His first instinct was to draw from his most recent project, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and focus on the characters’ adolescence and increasingly complex relationships. "I had just finished a film about the passage of two teenagers into adulthood; in Azkaban, it’s about moving from late childhood into early teens," Cuarón said. "It’s about that rite of passage."
The first two Potter movies lived in an exhilarating, magical world of good versus evil; the third, on the other hand, deals in ambiguity, where people and things might not be as they appear. Most basically, Cuarón changed the color scheme to reflect this darkening. The bright colors of the first two movies were replaced by the blacks, blues, and grays of Azkaban. The film also relies heavily on wide-open, overcast scenery: many of the forest scenes were shot in the Scottish Highlands.
Cuarón knew that changing visual effects wouldn’t save the movie, so he worked hard to develop his young cast, which was centered around Daniel Radcliffe (Potter), Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley), and Emma Watson (Hermione Granger). He assigned each an essay about the emotional experiences of their respective characters, and encouraged them to offer their own ideas throughout the filming process. (In accordance with their characters, Watson worked hard on her essay, Radcliffe appreciated the increased responsibility, and Grint simply didn’t do the assignment.) "That was the most important piece of acting work that we did on Azkaban," Cuarón said. "Everything they put in those essays was going to be the pillars they were going to hold on to for he rest of the process." Sure enough, the movie showed a marked difference in the way the three actors carried themselves while portraying young teens dealing with the complexities of adulthood.
Fundamentally, Cuarón guided the series from a magical children's universe into a terrifying, complex world of adolescence and crime. He introduced themes of politics (Cornelius Fudge), psychosis (Sirius Black), beytrayal (Peter Pettigrew), and torture (dementors), all the while keeping the magic and whimsy of the series very much alive — just think of those majestic hippogriffs. It may be possible that Cuarón wouldn’t have landed a project like Gravity without Harry Potter's brand name, but it’s definitely the case that Harry Potter wouldn’t have evolved as it did without Cuarón.