I had the pleasure to interview film-maker Justin Zagri about his most recently released project “The Greater Good” a fanfilm featuring characters and events from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.
GB: Can you briefly describe the setting and context for “The Greater Good”?
Justin Zagri: “The Greater Good” is the story about when young Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald had their falling out. Unfortunately this falling out resulted in a three way duel and the accidental death of Albus and Aberforth’s sister.
GB: Why did you choose to make a film about Dumbledore? What draws you to his character?
Justin Zagri: I wanted to first make a fan film about Harry Potter that would be a lesser known story. I didn’t want it to be something completely original or a sequel. There is so much material in the books that the movies didn’t cover. At first I thought it would be cool if I did the climactic duel between Grindelwald and Dumbledore that ended the wizarding war of 1945. But then I remembered that the duel was said to be 3 hours long, and was fought by both of them in their 60’s. So that just felt impractical. But then I remembered that they also fought when they were young, and Aberforth was there and it was a 3 way duel AND Ariana was killed. Drama, action, tragedy, what more could a filmmaker ask for?
GB: What draws you to the world of Harry Potter and Hogwarts? What features of world building and storytelling in HP appeal to you as a filmmaker?
Justin Zagri: The world of HP is magical but what really does it for me is that it is set in reality. It is a secret world hidden under the nose of real people. People like Harry and Hermione bridge the gap between fantasy and the real world, which is one of the reasons why it makes them so relatable. JK also built up an amazing arc for Harry and everyone else around the themes of love and death. These themes are extremely prominent in film so it makes it very appealing to translate to that medium.
GB: Do you want to further explore the world of HP? What other characters would you like to see developed more?
Justin Zagri: I would love to! These things cost time and money though so that needs to be taken into account. If I did do another one, it would probably be about the Marauders. A lot of fans want to see that and I can see why. They are in some ways shadows of Harry, Ron and Hermione. They were the first bunch, and since we know little about them, fans really want to see more of them.
The founding of Hogwarts also interests me. So does more of Grindelwald. I would also love to see more about young Tom Riddle, too. Maybe the first person he killed and how that affected him, why he did it, etc.
GB: As a fan, what defines the world of HP for you? What do you think were the most important steps to making your film feel “in universe”?
Justin Zagri: The world of HP is really appealing because the characters are written so well. Believable yet fantastic at the same time, they could be real people. You want to be taught by Dumbledore. You want to fight by Neville’s side at the battle of Hogwarts. You want to crush on Cho Chang. These characters have real conflicts and relatable problems. Magic doesn’t solve everything. Sometimes it makes it worse. The fact that any witch or wizard has in their hand the power to kill someone at the age of 11 is also an interesting dynamic. In the wrong hands, or a bad situation, it can mean disaster.
To make my film feel in-universe, I wanted to make sure the characters were as accurate as possible. I read and researched as much as I could before I put pen to paper, and did the best I could with the actors to make sure they understood their characters and could depict them with accuracy and drama.
GB: Have you written other fanfic before? Are you on Pottermore? How important is interaction with the fan community to making a good fan film?
Justin Zagri:Fan interaction is paramount. The books are nothing without their readers. The movies don’t make money without their viewers. Word of mouth is the ultimate advertising, and its free! One of the reasons I chose to make a fan film is because while my college thesis went to several film festivals and won a couple awards, it din’t go to any of the big ones like Sundance or Cannes. So it did nothing for forwarding my career and cost me a lot of money to send to film festivals with a press kit and everything. With a fan film, distribution and advertising is completely free, and the film is made successful by word of mouth alone. Hopefully that is what happens with this film.
And yes I am on Pottermore. Not as much as I’d like cause I’m busy making a living or trying to make more films. But I love how I get little extra facts on every facet of Potter. I hope we get to know more about Grindelwald!
GB: Using magic in Harry Potter relies heavily on the use of special effects in addition to traditional fight scene choreography. What do you do to help you, your actors, and your FX artists visualize and achieve those effects? What point in the filmmaking process do you include your FX artists?
Justin Zagri:The first thing I did was come up with action that would help tell the story, and get involved with our characters. The big and fast exchange between Albus and Gellert for example, was meant to show the intensity of their growing rivalry out of the loss of their friendship. Albus was defensive and wanted to just subdue him. Gellert was angry for being rejected and wanted to cause him pain. Same goes with the punch out sequence. He had his wand in his hand, but chose to punch him instead.
I choreographed the entire fight scene beforehand, with my basic knowledge of effects in mind. I knew what I could do and what I couldn’t do, so I worked around that. It would be embarrassing if anyone saw me running around in my apartment figuring out the dynamics of the battle.
Chris Cramer who played Albus is also a fight choreographer and stuntman, so he came up with the choreography for the big 3 way duel. We worked on each character having a distinctive style. Aberforth being very brash and forceful, Albus being very refined, and Gellert being a combination of the two.
Once I got to the point that everything was prepped, I talked to my visual effects guy about what I wanted to do, and made sure he could do it. Both Jake Akuna and Amy Carpenter did a fantastic job with the effects. On a special note, Amy found out about the project midway through and volunteered herself! Jake is so talented that he was busy on feature films like “Jobs” so he was happy to be relieved of a little work.
GB: What was your biggest obstacle and how did you overcome it? Any wisdom for aspiring filmmakers about making a fan film?
Justin Zagri:Biggest obstacle was post production, mainly cause it took so long. I shot this movie two years ago. Everyone has their own lives and unless you can pay them a daily rate which is usually impossible with a fan film, you have to work around their schedules. Be patient, know when to move on with people who just can’t help you, and stay focused. Don’t quit on your production. Id rather have a badly reviewed finished film than no film at all.
Fan films are interesting cause some people make them just for fun cause they love the story and characters so much. But if you want to make something that will be regarded on the same level as the original films, you need to do a lot. (not saying my film IS regarded on the same level, but I certainly tried)
-Prep your movies to the bone. Write the script, ask everyone their opinions. You don’t have to take all of their opinions seriously, just follow your gut. But don’t just rely on yourself. Learn to take criticism and your script will get better. You don’t want to see the first draft of Greater Good…
-Cast trained actors. Casting your friends is a lot of fun cause everyone is working together to create something! But again if you want to make something where people notice you have good actors, you need to cast good actors.
-If you can’t do something well yourself, find someone else. Know your limits and take that into account. I can’t do VFX to save my life.
-Finally, just go do it. Most people are too afraid to make their dreams happen. Find a way, even if it is part time. You will find your life to be much more fulfilling when you are at least somewhat pursuing what you want to do.
GB: What is the best way to see the film? How can fans best support you?
Justin Zagri:Find it on youtube! Or go to www.thegreatergoodfilm.com. You will see behind the scenes photos there, too. The website also has access to our Facebook page where I make regular updates.
GB: What are you working on next?
Justin Zagri:Next is a feature film. My original goal was to make features and I think I’m ready to do that. I’d LOVE to do more fan films, though. Actually because this film took so long to make, I made another fan film in the Batman universe called Riddle of the Mask. It released a week before Greater Good! So I’m always open to exploring more about these universes and showing things fans haven’t seen yet. But they cost money and time, so maybe a billionaire who wants to see the Marauders come to life? Hahaha we’ll see.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Justin Zagri. You can follow Justin on Twitter @jzagri