WATFORD, England — A phone booth, suspended from wires, is being carefully lowered onto the floor of a great atrium.
It lands amid scores of witches and wizards rushing about, none of them paying the slightest attention to Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), who’s just stepped out of the phone booth.
After his desperate battle with the reborn Voldemort at the close of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the previous film in the series, you might think that the wizarding world would give Harry a hero’s welcome and then unite with him to fight the Dark Lord. But in the forthcoming “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” — which opens July 11 — the wizard government is in spin mode, downplaying (and outright denying) Voldemort’s return in order to not cause panic; the forces of evil are being ignored while the forces of good are discredited. And so, after Harry himself has been forced to commit an act of illegal underage magic in self-defense, the boy wizard has to defend himself in yet another way: by going to court at the Ministry of Magic. (The phone booth out of which he’s stepped is the Minstry’s secret entrance to the Muggle, i.e. non-wizarding, world.)
“That’s why I’m looking like a square,” Radcliffe joked, noting his button-down shirt. “Harry’s put on his best shirt — well, we decided these are the Weasleys’ clothes, which he’s sort of been lent. And he’s combed his hair. Sort of.”
Even though it’s an incredibly stressful day for Harry, it’s also a wondrous one, because he’s never seen this part of the wizarding world before. “What’s terrific about these stories is that we’re introduced to new worlds all the time,” said director David Yates, “or bits of the universe you weren’t quite sure existed. And now Harry’s in part of the Potter world that he as a character and we as an audience have never experienced before. I love the idea that just below your feet — in fact, you can probably even hear it if you put your head to the sidewalk and have a listen — is a hidden world parallel to ours” (see “MTV News Exclusive: David Yates To Direct ’Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince’ “ ).
Although Harry is traveling by phone booth to this scene, Ministry of Magic employees and visitors mostly arrive via a network of chimneys, using Floo powder (an explosive substance that enables wizards to travel from one place to another via fireplace quick as lightning). And so built along the walls of a long hallway on this soundstage are gilded fireplaces that light up green when a witch or wizard arrives. To drive the parallel home, Harry arrives at the phone booth via the London Underground in the scene prior.
With more than 300 extras on hand to create the sense of a morning rush hour, this is one of the biggest scenes in the movie — no wonder it took three months alone to build this set at the sprawling Leavesden Studios, where all the Harry Potter movies have been filmed. The sets are both inside and outside: The 80-acre backlot includes the familiar facade of Privet Drive, the dull suburban neighborhood where Harry must spend his summers with hostile relatives.
The attention to detail on this set is astounding. Some office-bound witches and wizards stop at the Ministry Munchies stand to buy a coffee and Danish; others peruse the Daily Prophet newspaper as they make their way to the far end of the hall; and some, already working, type frantically in upstairs offices or push carts piled high with parchments.
If you forgot for a moment that this was supposed to be a magical world, it might seem totally Muggle. But that’s the magic of it. Sure, a lot of the details about the Ministry — such as the fountain with the golden statues — can be found in the Potter books. But the details here — the bustling life of this world — have all been invented for the film, which makes the actors feel even more fully a part of it.
Maybe that’s why so many people — not all of them actors — want to take part in this scene. A publicist has planted her parents as extras, and the director’s assistant is playing a newsboy handing out copies of the Daily Prophet — a paper that now contains more propaganda than accurate reporting. This day’s front-page headline, for example, is: “Dumbledore: Daft or Dangerous?” It’s an ominous indication that Harry’s great defender is losing clout, and may not be much help in this latest crisis. And Harry himself is taking a drubbing in the Prophet too — in stories like the one that’s headlined “Potter Plotter?” Obviously, these are dark days.
“The whole way the Daily Prophet is casting Harry as a villain or a liar is obviously desperately frustrating,” Yates said. “All these stories are propagated, which are completely untrue. J.K. Rowling created these parallels, and they echo things in our world very clearly — the denial of truth in the outside world, a government trying to suppress and control information” (see ” ’I Have So Many Questions!’ Harry Potter Fans Analyze ’Order Of The Phoenix’ Trailer” ).
Meanwhile, not far away, Harry’s friends Hermione Granger and siblings Ron, Ginny, Fred and George Weasley are trying to get some information of their own in an interior set for 12 Grimmauld Place, the secret headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix organization. Covered by a second-unit camera team, the actors — Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Bonnie Wright and James and Oliver Phelps, respectively — are crowded into a hallway, eavesdropping on members of the Order with one of author Rowling’s many magical inventions, an “Extendable Ear.”
“It’s an ear on a string, but you need to dislodge the wax to hear through it,” James Phelps said.
“It’s a weird magical way to secretly listen to a conversation in the kitchen,” said Wright. “And it’s disturbed by Crookshanks, Hermione’s cat, who comes along and starts playing with the Ear because he thinks it’s a toy. He runs away with it, and we’re quite annoyed because we’re trying to find out what’s happening.”
Obviously, a theme of searching out the truth informs both of these scenes. Because ultimately, finding and fighting for the truth is Harry’s biggest battle this time around. The atrium he’s in at the beginning of the film is also the site of a “massive fight sequence at the end,” Radcliffe said. “But Harry’s fight is a more silent, underground fight this time.” Indeed, Harry has to defend himself not only in the Ministry court, but also the court of public opinion — and the deck is stacked against him, even more than he realizes.
“It’s not a proper trial,” Radcliffe said. “The Minister wants him to be convicted. But Dumbledore turns up to defend Harry, which is lucky, because otherwise, it would be a short film: Harry’s convicted, goes to Azkaban [prison] — cut to credits!”
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