LOS ANGELES -- Mike Newell loved the magic of the ''Harry Potter" stories. He was not quite sold on the magic that went into making the ''Harry Potter" movies, though.
Newell, the director behind such character-driven tales as ''Four Weddings and a Funeral" and ''Donnie Brasco," went into ''Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" worried he might get gobbled up by a visual-effects beast that could choke the drama.
The first British director to oversee a ''Harry Potter" film, Newell said he fought hard to keep the extravagant computer-generated imagery in its place, namely, in service of the story and not just a collection of pretty pictures.
''I was daunted, and I was also ill-tempered," said the 63-year-old director. ''Because I felt very strongly that the tail wagged the dog, and that the special effects had on earlier films been the event."
Newell succeeded in balancing story and visuals. The film has all the dazzling fireworks of its three predecessors, while putting the most human face yet on the bedeviling challenges of growing up the world's most famous boy wizard. It earned $102 million at the box office in its first weekend.
''Goblet of Fire" is adapted from the fourth book in the fantasy series by J.K. Rowling, the first of the books to hit epic proportions, topping 750 pages.
No longer the wide-eyed innocents of their early days at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and his chums cope with more adult threats from the magical world and the jealousies and rivalries that come with puberty.
Much as he admires the first two ''Harry Potter" flicks, crafted by US filmmaker Chris Columbus, and the third, made by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, Newell felt he brought the one thing his predecessors lacked: intimate knowledge about the quirks of a British education.
''It wasn't possible for them to get that right. They'd never been to such a school," Newell said. ''English schools are very, very eccentric. They're not like any other. I know they've changed now, but when I was in school in the '50s, I was beaten with a cane, a rattan cane, as thick as my little finger.
''And that was a very common occurrence, and so they were kind of dangerous and violent places, but they also were very funny and anarchic places. I wanted to get the sense of the school as a character, having a character, so that the kind of crazinesses that she, Jo [Rowling], is so good at, I wanted to find an organization into which that kind of stuff could fit and bring the two things together."
To that end, Newell rewrote a scene to add a glint of schoolboy mischievousness and the corporal punishment it provokes, in which dour Professor Snape (Alan Rickman) bonks Harry and his friend Ron in the head with a book for goofing off during a study period.
Radcliffe notes it was the first time the filmmakers had slipped something into one of the movies that was not in the book.
Before filming began, Radcliffe watched a number of Newell films, including ''Dance With a Stranger" and ''Pushing Tin." Radcliffe also familiarized himself with Alfred Hitchcock's ''North by Northwest" after Newell mentioned the similarities he saw between the innocent hero of that movie (Cary Grant) and his puppetmaster nemesis (James Mason) and Harry and his mortal enemy, Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).
''Goblet of Fire" pits Harry against older student sorcerers in a wizardry competition that turns out to have a darker purpose.
It was that core story -- Newell calls it the ''scaffolding" -- on which he kept his focus in condensing the huge book to a 2 1/2 hour movie, retaining only frills and baubles that would connect to the main plot.
''He talked about it having a central spine with these little offshoots, I guess you'd call them nerve endings, coming off it," Radcliffe said. ''These little other strands that he kept reiterating, in which every scene had to push that central spine."
Newell grew up a film fan but was more preoccupied with live theater, working as a stagehand, prop maker, and bit player in an amateur theater his parents ran. Those early experiences led him to study theater in college.
He expected to take the theater up for a living but moved into television instead as the medium was blossoming in the early 1960s.
Newell got into television drama, then scored his first film success in the late 1970s with ''The Man in the Iron Mask," made for British TV but released theatrically overseas.
Though he doubts he ever would take on a big visual-effects film again, Newell said he is no longer a skeptic on computer-generated imagery and would gladly use the technology on upcoming projects, which include a western and an adaptation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel ''Love in the Time of Cholera."
''What I feel now is that I've learned a lesson for the future, and if I want to make a city in Venezuela for 'Love in the Time of Cholera' and can only find half a city, then CGI will fill in for me," Newell said.
''I'm kind of a convert," he adds. ''I don't want to do it all like that, but I think simply it's a technique like any other. It's like having lights to shoot at night."