By Aaron Hillis
Even if you’re the rare bird who has never heard of a Muggle, Hogwarts or Lord Voldemort, you won’t feel left out while watching “We Are Wizards,” a heartfelt and hugely entertaining doc about the Harry Potter fan phenomenon. Directed by Josh Koury (of 2002’s “Standing By Yourself”), the film isn’t just about groupies but what the Potter-verse has inspired among a few chosen subjects, including wizard rock bands like Harry and the Potters, Draco and the Malfoys, and the pint-sized Hungarian Horntails. Self-made activist Heather Lawver chronicles her successful fight against Warner Bros. over their persecution of Potter fan sites, and eccentric artist Brad Neely explains his “Wizard People, Dear Reader,” a hilarious audio commentary to be played in conjunction with the first “Harry Potter” film. Koury, who also teaches on the film faculty at NYC’s Pratt Institute, spoke with me between classes about his own Potter fandom, the ambiguities of copyright infringement and his decision to abandon the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival.
You yourself are a “Harry Potter” fan. What do you think it is about the series that has roused you and this legion of super-fans?
The books are very well-written, and everybody likes the underdog story. When it comes to the fan base, we try to let the people in the film speak for themselves. It’s always a personal relationship. What I think is significant about the series is that it’s been a part of people’s lives for so long. Let’s take [The Leaky Cauldron fan site founder] Melissa Anelli, who is 26 right now. The first book came out when she was 16. They were still an important part of her life back then. This film is about these people and their personal stories, but at the same time, it’s about using this inspiration as a stepping stone for other creative endeavors.
But how did this subculture get so big? We’re so inundated with media, viral successes are still typically fleeting, and yet this series continues to appeal to kids and adults of all demographics.
It’s the scope; it reaches people all over the world. What’s different about this particular tale is that “Harry Potter” was the right story at the right time and place. There’s also “Lord of the Rings” and “Chronicles of Narnia”; this isn’t the first great piece of literature that’s captured a generation, but it came out at a time for the communication age to grab hold of it and move it in an interesting direction. The wizard rock scene and the Harry Potter fan base don’t just stay concealed in a room. These aren’t nerds hanging out in their parents’ basements and going into chat rooms. They get their guitars and groups together and take it to the streets. It’s almost like a family.
Do you think wizard rock is a legitimate rock subgenre, or a novelty that will eventually wither?
It will fade in time. I’d like to be optimistic and say it’s going to last forever, but it’s not. Look, the last book came out a year ago, and it’s still as strong as it’s ever been, but you can tell that over the next year or two, things will start to slow down. But some of the more popular bands are just excellent musicians. Recently, I went to a wizard rock show where Draco and the Malfoys, the gentleman from the Whomping Willows, and some other fellow from a band that’s not in the movie all got together and played different songs. Man, they just wailed.
With such a wild array of possibilities, how did you track down and curate your subjects?
The process for finding our characters was basically Internet research. Also, people we interviewed would lead us into interesting directions. It would be pretty impossible to make an 80-minute movie that’s truly a retrospective of Harry Potter since the fan base is so long, and there’s an infinite amount of wizard rock bands and fan sites. From the beginning, we didn’t want to make a “Trekkies”-style documentary where you make fun of the nerdy kids. We wanted to focus our efforts and energy on finding people that we felt had something great to offer: real musicians, or Brad Neely, [who] is a great artist and a comedian. A lot of these are people that I was excited to hang out with, not just because we made the movie or in reference to the movie. Paul and Joe DeGeorge of Harry and the Potters are two terrific guys and great friends of mine now, and Brad Neely is a terrific guy to hang out with. That’s what inspired us.
The film chronicles the story of Heather Lawver and PotterWar, the fan organization that campaigned against Warner Brothers’ copyright bullying in 2001. Wouldn’t it be in a studio’s best interest to allow fans to grow the myth?
Yeah, it does, and that’s what they figured out. We make Warner Bros. a bad guy for a few seconds, but at the end of the day, we do try to paint them as a progressive company. 2001, which was only seven years ago, feels like a century in the Internet world. I think they were developing their attitude towards the fan base at the time, and realized quickly that it’s probably not in their interest to turn off the fan outlets out there. Warner Bros. has definitely pulled back and opened their arms to the fans out there. With the recent exception of J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. versus RDR Books, which was in the news in the past six months, they have a really terrific relationship with the fans. They probably wouldn’t admit this, but my opinion is that it mainly came to develop because of this PotterWar instance.
Is there any concern about using the words “Harry Potter” on the packaging of a film not sanctioned by Warner Bros.?
We’ve taken it to a copyright lawyer, and it should be cool and the gang. Warner Bros. is obviously a huge company and can do whatever they want, but as a documentary filmmaker, you have certain rights. We’ve also been very careful in making the movie. There’s no music, we don’t use any [licensable] fonts, and there’s no footage involved. We tried to be as respectful as possible, and that helps a lot. We do have to express that this is not a Warner Bros. or official Harry Potter product, which we’re more than happy to do.
Brad Neely’s “Wizard People, Dear Reader” is hosted on a site called illegal-art.org. Do you think its underground mystique helps it grow, or does it only limit its potential audience?
Brad is kind of a minor celebrity at this point. He does a lot of work these days, [like] that George Washington movie and [animated shorts] for Super Deluxe. But what that Web site does is promote work that’s in the gray areas of copyright. Brad has every right to distribute his audio. I think where they got into problems was when venues would rent the original “Harry Potter” flick and play it along with it. I don’t know what the solution to that is, whether everybody just brings an iPod into the next screening [or not]. “Wizard People, Dear Reader” is just really funny. It’s good comedy. The guys who do “Mystery Science Theater” released their own audio track to play with the first “Harry Potter” film, and it’s available for download, very popular, and they’re making lots of money off of it. So why is Brad’s illegal but theirs is not? The easy answer is, neither are, but if you’re a tiny artist like Brad, you can get scared and pushed around easier than some of the bigger dogs can. Once Warner Bros. started to shut down those screenings, that’s when people became interested very quickly about his audio release. He was on NPR and in Time. Everybody wanted a piece at that point. [laughs]
Do you think it was a cop-out when J. K. Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay after the series ended, instead of on the written page where her influence could’ve opened minds?
To a degree, it was. But I also believe that she probably didn’t have to say anything. That was blurted out at some sort of convention, where the question wasn’t “Does Dumbledore have any sexual interest?” There was nothing that led to that [directly]. I’m glad she said it, because it does open up people’s minds. Those who are upset about Dumbledore being gay are not really fans. They’re the people who think they have the right to tell people what to think and what they should read. There are wizard rock songs that make light of that issue, playing with it and having fun. That’s great because that’s what being open-minded is about. It’s a great reflectance when the fan community embraces it and celebrates.
You were the programming director for the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival, which ended in 2006. Why is the fest no longer around?
Well, the film festival is no longer around because the two founders, myself and Miles Kane — who’s actually the editor of “We Are Wizards” and helped develop the film with me — decided to close it for two reasons. One: It was difficult — you only have so much spare time in your life because we both have full-time jobs. We wanted to spend that time doing something creative. Instead of spending it on Brooklyn Underground, we decided to make a new movie. Two and a half years later, we have “We Are Wizards.”
The other reason is that we started the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival [because] we felt that there was sincerely a lack of venues for smaller films, and I think that’s been eradicated. Talking about the internet and communications, for a lot of great films — thanks to YouTube and other festivals that have emerged — there’s just less of a need. If you have a good work, it’s short, and people want to see it, they will see it. At a certain point, the reason for having a film festival becomes just to have a party, and that’s not what we were doing. Also, film festivals in general are more open to this work. Every year at Sundance, you see films that are getting more and more experimental, even the narratives. Hollywood films are getting more open-minded as well. What do we need another underground festival for?
[Photos: Harry and the Potters; Draco and the Malfoys; the Hungarian Horntails; director Josh Koury – Brooklyn Underground Films, 2008]
“We Are Wizards” is now open in New York.