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."