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By: Sally Ann Flecker
Death Eaters swirl like wind devils around Harry Potter and his friends in a round chamber deep within the Ministry of Magic in the penultimate scene of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the movie based on the fifth book in J.K. Rowling’s phenomenally successful series. Shelves, stories high, collapse, sending thousands of crystal prophecies to shatter on the ground in an explosion of glass. The maelstrom culminates in a battle between the two most powerful wizards in the magical world. In an apocalypse of sound and fury, they shout ancient curses, shoot red veins of lightning from their wands, conjure monstrous infernos and explosions of water. The spectacle is dazzling and terrifying. And it does exactly what a film should do—lets you feel in your bones what you can only picture in your head when reading a book.
It’s also great fun to write an action-effect sequence, screenwriter Michael Goldenberg will tell you. With today’s production capabilities, anything he conjures up, filmmakers can make happen. Still, Goldenberg’s favorite moments are the quieter ones between Harry and his godfather, Sirius Black, the only adult Harry feels he can turn to for advice and understanding. “There are some moments in there that I am very proud of. A lot of that material is not in the book and was written to dramatize the connection between them,” says Goldenberg.
In 2004, he was picked to write the Harry Potter screenplay when the writer for the four earlier films, Steve Kloves, decided to take a break from the series. Goldenberg’s other screen credits include Bed of Roses (1996), a romantic drama he wrote and directed; Contact (1997), an adaptation of the Carl Sagan novel; and the live-action remake of Peter Pan (2003).
To write the Harry Potter screenplay, he read and re-read the novel, taking comprehensive notes and making outlines. But then, he says, you have to step away from the book and let the movie become its own thing. “You are translating from one language into a very different one,” he says. “The tools of a screenwriter are opposite to those of a novelist. In a novel, you have the luxury of digressing and exploring, and stopping to luxuriate in all the details. Screenwriting is first and foremost about compression—distilling, picking the one detail, the one telling image, or the dialogue that encapsulates what might have taken many pages in the book. We’re looking at it from the other end of the telescope.”
In any adaptation, he says, you start with what it’s really about: “This is a Mike Nichols question: What’s it about, and what’s it really about? Once you can answer that question, you cut away everything that’s not pertinent to that. You say, ‘We’re starting at A and we need to end up at Z. What do we absolutely need to get there?’ It’s all very intuitive. At its best, when you’re writing it, you’re seeing it in your head, and it starts to tell you what it wants to be.”
Oddly enough, Goldenberg says he finds parallels to screenwriting in musical composition, something he has done since he was a youngster. “When you’re writing music, it’s all about what you’re hearing,” he says, “rhythm, pace, the sculptural shape of it. I think movies are very similar to that because it’s taking place in time in the same way that the music is. You just sort of hear it.”
One of the moments that he “heard” when he read the novel is the scene in which Harry sees one of the memories of quasi-villain Professor Snape. Snape, then a young student, is being cruelly taunted by fellow student James Potter, Harry’s dad, just to make James’ friends laugh. In terms of the story, Goldenberg says, it wasn’t an obvious thing to keep. But it crystallized the movie for him.
“It’s a powerful moment when your parent—and especially a parent who Harry has idealized enormously because he never knew him—is revealed as a flawed human being. I remember that moment for me, and I know there is a similar moment for a lot of people—and not just your parents but that the people in charge are just as messed up and confused and uncertain as you are, and how terrifying that is. It’s the death of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy and God all wrapped up in one.”(Continued …)