Director Chris Columbus recalls feeling a sense of terror when he signed on to direct Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the late 1990s. “I was undertaking this job where billions of people were going to be scrutinizing every move,” he tells Polygon, on the occasion of the movie’s 20th anniversary. “So weirdly, every decision was important, every decision would eventually affect what would come later.”
The first Harry Potter film debuted in theaters Nov. 14, 2001, and turned Potter book fever into a worldwide phenomenon. Led by 11-year-old Daniel Radcliffe, Sorcerer’s Stone was paramount in establishing the visual design of the first movie, which would continue on not just in the subsequent movies, but also in the multimedia future of Harry Potter, including theme parks built in its image. But in 2001, only four books had been published, leaving the exact direction of the series unknown to the filmmakers and audiences. What Columbus did know, however, from conversations with author J.K. Rowling, was that the books would get grim — and that ultimately informed the set design.
“We did put into the design the fact that these sets have to start off with some sort of storybook kind of warm fantasy feeling,” he explains. “And then as the series progressed, we had to utilize the same sets and create a darker world.”
Columbus directed the first two Potter movies, and went on to produce the third, but was not involved with the later adaptations. However, his early gambles stuck, from the Quidditch uniforms to the Great Hall. Some, like the set design, were deliberate choices, but others were a matter of casting luck.
“Voldemort in the first film was not played by [Ralph] Fiennes, but he looks almost exactly like him,” says Columbus. “It’s interesting to me that you can watch these films back to back without a hitch in terms of Oh, that was Voldemort. That was Fiennes in the first movie. We got lucky with that one.”
For the most part, Columbus remains pleased with how the choices from the first movie went on to define the seven following films. But there is one thing he still thinks they didn’t quite get right.
“Harry’s scar was so incredibly difficult to get right. I don’t know if we ever really did to be honest with you,” he says. “But we struggled with that for months. When you’re working with kids under 16, or something, you can’t really use prosthetics, or you couldn’t back then. We couldn’t really utilize a prosthetic scar, which is kind of what I saw, like a real scar. That’s the one detail, an important detail, that I wish I could go back and tweak.”