Exclusive Interview: Paul Harris Shares His Journey to Creating the Wand Choreography of ‘Harry Potter’

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Paul Harris/Photo: Alyssa Tieman

Exclusive Interview: Paul Harris Shares His Journey to Creating the Wand Choreography of Harry Potter

Choreographer Paul Harris didn’t know what he was getting himself into when he received a call from director David Yates. Up until Harris’ involvement in Order of the Phoenix, there was no established wand language used in the films, and now, they desperately needed it. Harris would go on to choreograph the Veil Room and Atrium fight sequences and establish the language of the wand used moving forward. During LeakyCon Dallas 2019, I was able to chat with Harris about his journey to becoming a choreographer and the creation of the wand language.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix/Warner Bros.

Alyssa Tieman: How did you get into choreography?

Paul Harris: Long story, but short version. I started dancing when i was seven years old. I was the world champion of ballroom dancing, and I was sort of number one in the world at various levels from the age of about ten to eleven, that’s called juvenile. And then same again when I was a junior. By then, I started to do jazz and ballet and other forms of dance. I side-stepped into a form of dance called–in the states it’s called theatre arts. And it’s basically theatrical partner dancing. I don’t know if you’ve heard of a guy called Pierre Dulaine, he’s the guy Antonio Banderas plays in Take the Lead. That’s the form of dance they did, and that’s what I moved into.

And then I quit dancing altogether and I went to drama school and I trained as an actor. I worked as an actor for six years, doing predominantly theatre. I did West Side Story in the West End, and I did To Kill a Mockingbird in the West End. Which is Broadway, essentially. And then, I played a dancer on a TV series called Casualty, which was a hospital drama. Which had nothing to do with dancing. The storyline was that my character, who was going to a dance competition with his partner, kills someone in a hit-and-run accident. But they continue and they do the competition.

A top agent happened to see the storyline and mentioned it to someone who happened to know me, and the guy said, “Well, the choreographer was the actor, the guy who played the role.” And he said, “Oh, really? Could you get him to call me?” Because at the time, all the main pop artists, choreographers, were with this agent. But he said, “We don’t have anyone with these two skills genuinely to this level.” He asked me to go in for a meeting, I went in and that’s what he said to me. He said, “You should think about this.” And I said, “No, no, I’m an actor. I don’t dance anymore. I only did that, what you saw, because I was playing the role myself.”

Then about three or four months later, he called me, completely out of the blue, and said that a script had been sent to him for a film that was already in production on Isle of Man, which is a little island off the coast of Britain… The script was sent to me, which had never happened to me as an actor. They never said, “Do you want to see the script?” as an actor. So, I received the script. It was 1997, so there wasn’t any internet, and I just said what I thought, and I wasn’t bothered really. It wasn’t particularly what I wanted to do. The line producer called me and said, “What do you think?” I told him what I thought, and he said, “I’m going to get the director to call you.”

The director calls me and says, “I understand you think the dancing’s not right in our script.” And I said, “Well, it’s not right. ‘Cause it’s such and such.” The film was set in 1872. And I said, “I think the dancing in your script is about 100 years out of period.” So I thought, that’s done, I’m not gonna hear anymore about that. But I did. And the reason that I did is because they knew. That was their issue. The director wasn’t happy with what was there. They had a choreographer onboard in the Isle of Man who had persuaded them to change it. When I saw the original draft of the script, it was what I’d said. So, they asked me to go to the Isle of Man, and I wasn’t working as an actor, so I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” I went.

There were two pivotal sequences which involved dancing. It was a true story, actually, about somebody who laid claim in the 1870s to a British inheritance, and he was trialed to be a fraud, and thrown in prison. He died in prison. And subsequently, DNA showed that he was actually the real person. And that case is used in law. It’s used as the training of lawyers in Britain. Anyway, the crucial scene was on a ship crossing from Australia to England. There was a montage of this guy gradually becoming, training, to be a gentleman to make a claim to this inheritance. And the core of this montage was dancing. So, you kept seeing dancing, dancing, dancing.

The two actors concerned, literally, the second I opened my mouth working with those two actors, I knew that’s why I went to drama school. Not to be an actor, but to contextualize 17 years of dancing. If I jump forward 13 years, that director is David Yates, who became the director of Harry Potter.

AT: That’s cool.

PH: It was almost like an epiphany. It was like my two backgrounds collided on that day. I’ve been told, my ex-partner at the time, she always said to me, “You should use your dancing.” But I always saw them as two very separate things. ‘Cause I’d been very successful in the world of dancing. I saw acting as something else. And I couldn’t see a way. She always said, “Use you’re dancing,” but I didn’t know how or what. I didn’t really give it any thought. And in that instant, there it was. Right in front of me. And I haven’t done anything since.

AT: Moving into Harry Potter. You did all the choreography and created the wand language. What was it like joining Harry Potter, and then, looking at and creating that language?

PH: Well, the word that you used is the word David Yates used. He said, “There needs to be a language.” He’d identified, obviously, that up until that point, there was no physical grammar. So he called me, literally called me himself, and said, “I’ve got a job for you, mate.” And I said, “But you’re doing Harry Potter. We’ve had this conversation. There’s no more dancing in it.” He said, “Yeah, it’s a bit complicated. Can you come in to Leavesden.” I remember saying, “I’m going into Asia the following week, on the Wednesday.” This was a Friday. He said, “Is that written in stone?” And I said,” For Harry Potter, probably not.” On Monday, I went in, and David explained what he wanted.

Initially, he wanted a movement for a spell. But when I went away and read the books, properly, and watched the films with a different eye… I said, “I can’t do that. I can’t do what you want me to do because every single spell was being seen. Every spell that’s been written has been seen already with little to no physical action. So I can’t suddenly introduce this convention whereby it won’t work anymore unless this movement.” However, luckily, the level, the status of the wizards who have been executing magic up until this point, was lower than the status of the wizards that were about to. I don’t know if they needed to at that point, but it was convenient for us ‘cause i was able to establish that they needed to verbalize, to say the name of the spell in order to make it work.

Even in that film, in Order of the Phoenix, we got to the stage where Voldemort waved his arm and Harry Potter dropped his wand. So the parameters were, needing to say the name of the spell for it to work, to no even needing a wand. That was the range of movement. And I remember saying to David, “There has to be some physical element, because what makes one wizard better than another? It can’t just be they bought a better wand. There has to be something. From the inner power of the wizard to manifesting itself physically.” It was unusual, at the time. I didn’t think anything more than, this is a bit out there, as far as jobs are concerned. But David saw it. He knew. He said, “In 10 years’ time, there will be kids all over the world doing this.” And he was absolutely right.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix/Warner Bros.

AT: You mentioned that you’re in the studio tour, in the mirror. Who would ever think?

PH: I mean, when they called me, I was in the Philippines. They emailed me, actually. The agent that asked me to come in in 1997, remained my agent until he died in 2014. He emailed me, I think it was the end of 2012, I was in the Philippines, and said Warner Brothers studio tour. Which I was aware of. I knew they’d opened a Harry Potter thing, but I hadn’t been, at that point, and I didn’t really know what it was. Other than it was a behind-the-scenes tour. Then he emailed me and said about this. I was like, “Okay.” When I’d done it and I saw it, that sort of when it really kind of hit me. “Man, this is huge.”

AT: In the panel, you were talking about in dance, there were these core principles and you tried to incorporate that into the wand lore. What are the movements that acted as the core of the wand language?

PH: The core principle was that dance is derived from a set of positions that has existed since 1661. So, those positions are fairly definitive. They haven’t changed since they were devised by the French court. So they served for the entirety of ballet. However complex the choreography, they come from those same five positions. So that was in my mind. And I thought, this is not impossible. I thought it was not possible to do a movement for a spell. I had to find a solution. And i thought, that is the solution.

I started to learn about kung fu, and I realized that certain parts of kung fu are also derived from six positions. So what became essential was that I could arrive at where I needed to arrive at choreographically from the positions that I came up with. And obviously, they couldn’t replicate. It was the principle that was the same, it wasn’t the positions. The principle of fixed positions being the bedrock of what it was that we were gonna come up with.

AT: You also mentioned how the actor would hold their wand and perform all the moves was different between each other them.

PH: The first conversation I had with Ralph Fiennes, that’s what he said. He had established already that he held his wand in a particular way, and it was very important that he got to carry that on. I already thought that. In my head, it wasn’t just how they were holding it. It was the whole personalization of it. I thought that was completely imperative that they were able to do it as their character. I would think the same about dancing. For me, because the work that I do is primarily in the context of drama, dancers that look like dancers aren’t that useful to me. Dancers who are great but look like regular people are much more useful for me. Because the setting in which I create dance, usually, is normal people dancing.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix/Warner Bros.

AT: Can you talk about Sirius’ death sequence? You mentioned that it was all done in one take.

PH: Yes, there was a master. Dance sequences are often shot with a master that will capture the whole thing. Sometimes they do that at the very beginning, sometimes they do that at the end. But ideally, there’s a master that captures the whole dance. And then, it’s obviously shot from different character’s perspectives, from different angles. There’s pick-ups, feeds, or whatever it may be. In the case of the Veil Room sequence, there was a full master of the choreography from action to cut.

Unlike, say the Dumbledore/Voldemort duel, which obviously, wasn’t possible because the special effects were so massive and the room was destroyed, so it had to be rebuilt. They were like single movements that result–I mean, some of them were done consecutively. You had a little running sequence, but largely, when I think about that in retrospect, I think of that as being a series of movements that resulted in these massive effects. Whereas, in my memory, the Sirius Black sequence was literally a piece of choreography from start to finish. With some quite specific detail that David wanted, like the Robin Hood moment. The nice moment side-by-side and, “Nice one, James.”

AT: It’s a wonderful sequence. Was it harder or easier to have one that was a continuous sequence?

PH: They’re both fun. Although it’s not dancing, I’d say the Sirius Black death sequence is more what I’m used to. In that when I create a dance, there’s usually a master. Therefore, I usually can’t create a dance that’s just bits. I have to create a full dance that can be broken into bits. With the Atrium sequence, I didn’t have to create a full sequence. I had to conceive the full sequence in my head, but once we’d blown up the Atrium, we couldn’t carry on. We had to cut and redo it.

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