Alfonso Cuarón Reflects on “Prisoner of Azkaban” 20 Years Later

For all the magic and power present in the Harry Potter series, it never escapes the reader that Harry’s friendships are his real strength. Aside from being willing to take on the challenges of being associated with the world’s most famous boy wizard, Ron and Hermione never flinch from keeping Harry in check when it is warranted. Luckily for the wizarding world, Alfonso Cuarón, director of the third Potter film, had similarly secure friendships.

In an interview marking the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban‘s release, Cuarón spoke with Total Film about his experience contributing to the franchise. 

As Cuarón has previously talked about, the director’s involvement with the film was heavily influenced by some valuable, if abrasive, input from a fellow director. When he was first offered the project, Cuarón recalled being a bit confused, saying that he was largely unaware of the franchise as a whole. Soon after, he expressed this feeling to his friend Guillermo del Toro, who did not mince words.

I said, ‘You know, they offered me this “Harry Potter” film, but it’s really weird they offer me this.’ He said, ‘Wait, wait, wait, you said you haven’t read “Harry Potter”?’ I said, ‘[I] don’t think it’s for me.’ In very florid lexicon, in Spanish, he said, ‘You are an arrogant a**h***.’ 


A still from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban showing Harry and Ron in their Divination class

Harry and Ron have to muddle through Divination without Hermione’s help in “Prisoner of Azkaban.”


David Heyman, who produced all eight Potter movies, acknowledged that Cuarón was a unique choice for director, given the mature nature of some of his previous projects, such as the raunchy Mexican road film Y tu mamá también. Given the developmental challenges the film’s young protagonists were soon to face, however, Heyman asserted that Cuarón’s experience would be an excellent fit.

‘Y tu mamá’ was about the last moments of being a teenager, and ‘Azkaban’ was about the first moments of being a teenager. I felt he could make the show feel, in a way, more contemporary. And just bring his cinematic wizardry. 

Anyone who’s seen Prisoner of Azkaban can attest that cinematic wizardry is exactly what happened. Cuarón implemented his distinctive style from day one. Heyman spoke about the director’s work with the young actors to encourage them to start considering their characters’ emotions and motivations within the story. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint took to this challenge with enthusiasm.

Chris [Columbus] would help them with intonation and get them excited; Alfonso was treating them as young adults: what are you feeling? Alfonso also had the three kids write essays about their characters. Dan wrote a page, Emma wrote 10 or 12, and Rupert didn’t give in anything. Just perfect. 

Cuarón also influenced the wardrobe department, resulting in uniforms worn with a bit more of each character’s personality. Michael Gambon’s entrance as Albus Dumbledore allowed for the headmaster to have a bit of an image adjustment as well. And of course, this is the film where we are introduced to David Thewlis as Professor Lupin. Cuarón expressed that the new character should embody the style of “an uncle who parties hard on the weekends.”

But perhaps the most noticeable difference between Cuarón’s film and the others is his distinctive style, which invited the audience further into Hogwarts.

I wanted to stretch things. Open up the universe. To feel that Hogwarts is set in a geographical place… and to create a geographic logic to Hogwarts. 

Much of the action was shot with wide-angle lenses to catch the characters’ body language and orient them in relation to the castle. This created a viewing experience very different to Chris Columbus’s films, which favored a lot of close-ups. Cuarón had good reason for the change, citing character growth. “A child doesn’t have a sense of orientation,” he reasoned. “Places are places.” The result, of course, was a stunning third installment and a satisfying evolution of some of our favorites.