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When Steve Met Jo

Index ID: WSTMJ — Publication date: April 2011

Note: Article included in the April/May 2011 issue of Written By Magazine.

I was kept informed about the people who were in the running to adapt the script, but it wasn’t my call. I heard that Warners was interested in having Steve Kloves do something for them and had been looking for a project that appealed to him. I believe he was shown a few things. He told me that Potter was the only one that interested him; I don’t think he was just being nice.

I knew he’d written and directed The Fabulous Baker Boys, which was a big plus because I loved that film and everything about it. Nevertheless, I was incredibly wary before I met him. He was going to butcher my baby. He was an established screenwriter, which was just plain intimidating. He was also American, and we were meeting shortly after a review of the first Potter book in (I think) the New Yorker, which had stated that it was unlikely the British idiom would translate to an American audience. You have to remember that my first Warner Bros. meeting did not take place against a backdrop of massive American success for the novels. Although the books were already very popular in the U.K., it was still early days in the U.S., and I therefore had no real means of backing up my opinion that American fans of the book would rather not have Hagrid “translated” for the big screen, for instance.

Steve and I were introduced, in L.A., by David Heyman, the producer, and we almost immediately went into a lunchtime meeting with a big studio executive. Three things happened within a couple of hours that caused every qualm to vanish and made me adore Steve, an attitude from which I haven’t deviated in 13-odd years.

Firstly, Steve turned to me while food was being ordered and said quietly, “You know who my favorite character is?” I looked at him, red hair included, and I thought: You’re going to say Ron. Please, please don’t say Ron–Ron’s so easy to love. And he said: “Hermione.” At which point, under my standoffish, mistrusting exterior, I just melted, because if he got Hermione, he got the books. He also, to a large extent, got me.

Lunch proceeded, and the senior exec held forth, dominated conversation. It swiftly became obvious to me that in spite of all the effusive praise of the novels he was pouring forth, he hadn’t read a page of them. (A reliable source had told me later the exec had read “the coverage,” which he always felt was more useful than reading the original material.) Next, he began to suggest things that would need changing, primarily Harry’s character. “No, that won’t work,” Steve said pleasantly. When lunch was over, David, Steve, and I went off for coffee together. On the way, Steve opined that you had to tell “them” up front what would work and what wouldn’t. No point prevaricating. I was now in a state of profound admiration.

When it was time to say goodbye, I wrote my email address down for Steve on the back of a torn receipt in my wallet. He read the address, then flipped over the receipt and said, “Penny Black–what’s that?” I said: “It’s the make of the top I’m wearing.” He tucked the receipt away muttering, “I just like knowing stuff like that.” As odd names on scraps of paper are perennially fascinating to me too, that clinched my feeling that I’d met a kindred spirit.

The important thing to know is that I had complete confidence in him, from that one meeting in L.A. He’d said enough during those few hours together to convince me that he had a real connection to the characters. As we subsequently agreed during our decade-plus email conversation about the books, when you strip away all of the diversionary magic, the Potter novels boil down to the characters; our relationship with them and theirs with each other.

Under the Invisibility Cloak

We started emailing back and forth pretty much from the moment I got back to Scotland. We hardly ever talked on the phone; in fact, I remember calling him once from Germany, where I was on tour, about some script issue, and he sounded absolutely thrown to hear my voice. I think he’d forgotten I had one. Anyway, with a 12-hour time difference between L.A. and Edinburgh, email was a practical and successful way of collaborating.

Steve would ask me questions, sometimes about the background of the characters, sometimes on whether something he’d had one of them say or do was consistent with what had happened to them or what would happen. He very rarely took a wrong turn; in fact, I’m struggling to remember any occasion when he did. He had a phenomenal instinct about what each character was about; he always plays that down, but he made some very accurate guesses about what was coming.

Actually, I’ve just remembered the only time he did get something wrong, and it was a funny one. We were at a script read-through for Half-Blood Prince at Leavesden, so for once we were side-by-side in the same room. I hadn’t read the very latest draft, so I was hearing it for the first time. When Dumbledore started reminiscing about a beautiful girl he’d known in his youth, I scribbled DUMBLEDORE’S GAY on my script and shoved it sideways to Steve. And we both sat there smirking for a bit.

I don’t think he ever pushed to know what was coming next. Odd, really, when I look back; except that I’ve got a feeling that as a fellow writer, he understood that I needed some space. There came a point where my bins were being searched by journalists; keeping tight-lipped was a way of giving myself creative freedom. I didn’t want to be tied down by expectations I’d raised; I wanted to be at liberty to change my mind. But I did tell Steve a few things. I used to share what I was doing as I was doing it. I remember emailing him while writing Goblet of Fire and telling him that I had back story on Hagrid that I wanted to put in, but I was wondering whether it wasn’t too much, given how big the novel was likely to be. He emailed back saying, “You can’t tell me too much about Hagrid. Put it in.” So I did.

Inevitably, things had to be cut between novel and film. It never bothered me. Steve’s a compassionate surgeon. We couldn’t make eight-hour-long films, and I’d rather have had him wielding the scalpel than anyone else.

It’s been an intense relationship, forged under very unusual circumstances. Steve has come closest to being inside the world with me–actually, he has been inside the world with me but always a year or two behind. Nobody else has come close to that. The sheer length of the collaboration has made it unique.

He’s become a great, real friend. I remember, on a subsequent visit to L.A., the two of us ended up in a bar at my hotel, sitting at the only table where we were allowed to smoke, like a pair of pariahs. I said to him: “Do you ever feel like you’ll be found out?” And he laughed and said: “All the time. All the time.” That was the same conversation when he told me Dumbledore was “burdened with knowledge.” So he might not have got Dumbledore’s sexuality right, but he understood something much more fundamental.

These days we don’t need to email for work purposes–we just do it to hang out together in cyberspace. I’m always trying to get him and the family over to Scotland. He’ll fit right in, this sardonic, freckly guy with a nice line in black humor. He tells me he works better when it’s raining; he should buy a holiday home here.

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