'The Chamber of Secrets' is a surefire hit. But with scarier scripts, a new director, and child stars who keep growing and growing, future Potter fodder may require some wicked wizardry.


Dan, you’re hearing noises now! look up! It’s getting louder! Louder! Now turn. Turn now! Eyes wide! Eyes wider! Get those eyes wider! Dan, you’re scared! Cut.”

These are a few of Chris Columbus’ final words as godfather of Harry Potter. It’s the penultimate day of shooting on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. There’s a wrap party scheduled for tomorrow where Budweiser, champagne, bottled water, and tears will flow. A gym teacher will do back flips. Star Daniel Radcliffe will belch and rattle on about The Simpsons. But for now, Chris Columbus is all business, directing exactly how one has always suspected the man behind Home Alone directs.

With the end near, it’s a slightly wistful late-summer day on the set of what’s now rivaled only by the doings in a galaxy far, far away as the world’s most lucrative movie franchise. And deep in the guts of England’s Leavesden Studios — the rotting former airplane factory that houses the sparkly world of Potter — Columbus looks like he’s dragging his feet finishing up what he calls ”the best job in Hollywood.” He frowns at the expansive, dimly lit classroom set in front of him: a clutter of sepia photographs, scarred desks, and what appear to be pieces of a massive dinosaur skeleton. The director calls for a quick confab with Kenneth Branagh (who plays Gilderoy Lockhart, egocentric Defense Against the Dark Arts professor) about the scene, in which his character answers fan mail while instructing everyone’s favorite bespectacled young wizard on the ins and outs of fame. Until, that is, their session is interrupted by the to-be-added-later hiss of a nasty giant snake called a basilisk.

After a word with his 13-year-old star, Columbus moves back behind a video monitor, offering a gentle smile to a gaggle of visitors. (Today’s guests: Kelly Preston and Colin Firth, who are shooting the drama What a Girl Wants nearby.) There’s a bit of Michael J. Fox about the director — a short, pleasantly energetic man, whose 44 years are betrayed only by the lines etched around his eyes. He orders the camera readied and calls action. Branagh confidently launches into his lecture — ”Celebrity is as celebrity does, Harry!” — and Columbus clears his throat, bounces on his toes, and starts in again:

”Dan! The basilisk voice starts…now! Get those eyes open! Wide, wider…”

Ten minutes later branagh sits outside the classroom set, sipping tea and responding to the rumor of the day: that the actor-director was a serious candidate to helm the adaptation of the third book in the Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. ”It was a little idle discussion that got blown out of proportion,” he says, casting a furtive glance at the absolutely no smoking on set sign 10 yards away. ”Listen, do you mind if I scandalously have a cigarette?” He peers around the set. ”Hold on, let’s make sure there are no children around…”

As Branagh suggests, there are some things that the wee ones probably ought not to see. Like celebrities sucking on Marlboro Lights or the drool that forms on the lips of executives at Warner Bros. (which, like EW, is owned by AOL Time Warner) as they consider the piles of cash Harry Potter has generated. But if the Potter series started out as a sure thing, the future suddenly looks a little more fraught with peril. Take the kids: They’re still evolving as actors. They’re mercurial. And — pity the poor editor — they grow at ridiculous rates. Then there are the books, which have gotten scarier with each installment, raising the very real possibility that the littlest of fans may be aged out of the movies. Throw in the departure of the well-liked director who started it all, the death of a critical cast member, and the lack of a new book to fire the franchise — and it turns out that the Potter movie machine may not be so well oiled.