David Heyman would be the first to
admit that he’s been fortunate. The son of a celebrated producer on one side
and a legitimate film finance pioneer (go ahead, look it up) on the other,
Heyman’s path into the entertainment industry was a pretty well-paved one. It wasn’t
the family name, however, that first spotted the potential in a children’s
novel titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but an instinct for story that had been honed through years of work as a
producer and studio executive.
From the moment
he plucked then-unknown J.K. Rowling’s manuscript off the slush pile, and
subsequently through eight feature films, four directors and two Albus
Dumbledores, David Heyman was the faithful steward of the big-screen existence
of Harry Potter. When it was all over, he had
produced one of the most revered and beloved film franchises of all time. Since
its conclusion, he’s continued to collaborate with top talent from the potter
films, most notably director Alfonso Cuarón, with whom he shared an Oscar
nomination (and won the PGA’s Darryl F. Zanuck award) for the boundary-pushing Gravity. Subsequently he also put on screen such diverse stories as the
family-friendly Paddington, the powerful holocaust tale The Boy In The Striped Pajamas, and next year, writer-director Derek Cianfrance’s stark period drama The
Light Between Oceans.
This season finds him in production mode, producing the potter prequel Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, set for release next year starring Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne. It was
during a long, night-time car ride from the Fantastic Beasts set in the north of England to his home in London that David Heyman
caught up with Produced By, covering even more ground via
conversation than his driver did on the m1.
So what were your early experiences in the
I grew up with two parents in the industry.
Both are passionate, committed and tenacious and I was exposed to the highs and
lows of the business from a young age. I learned a lot from them. My mother,
Norma, produced Dangerous
many other films. My father, John, is a pioneer in film finance and was once an
agent to stars like Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Harris, so you
can only imagine the chaos in the Heyman household.
I worked as a runner on
various films, like Ragtime and Lords of Discipline. After I graduated
college, I travelled to India and ultimately ended up as a runner on A Passage to India, which was a fantastic
experience. I actually doubled for Alec Guinness in one scene. At 21 years old
I didn’t look very much like him but I probably had more energy than he did
cycling around in southern India with spectacles and a turban. I was a huge
admirer of director David Lean and the humanity in his films, his ability to
combine the intimate with the epic. He had worked as an editor before becoming
a director, and he had literally edited the film in his head before he shot it.
While working in post-production, I saw that he had often shot only what he
intended to use in the final film. If an actor wasn’t going to deliver a line
on camera, he often wouldn’t film them saying it!
he knew what he wanted.
Yeah. It was an incredible privilege to watch
him work. After that, I moved to New York to work in development with my
father. Around that time, I was approached by Lisa Henson, a friend from
university, who had just been promoted to VP at Warner Bros. and was looking
for someone to replace her. She asked if I had any interest in moving to LA. I
didn’t know whether LA would be my home forever, but it certainly would be an
invaluable experience to work in the system as opposed to on the fringes,
which was where I was.
Lucy Fisher, Lisa’s boss,
visited NewYork and we met and got on, and she asked me to work with her. It
was a terrific opportunity and education. One of my tasks was doing story
notes. During my first week, two of the projects I covered were Police Academy … I can’t remember which, Police Academy 4 or 5 …
Well, they’re all so distinctive.
[laughs] Yeah, exactly. The second was GoodFellas.
Really? That was your first week? Police Academy 5 and GoodFellas?
I’ll never forget having to do those story notes. The GoodFellas script
was remarkable, but I managed to muster a page of notes to justify my job and
gave them to an executive … I’m not going to say which executive it was, but it
wasn’t Lucy! They said, "These are good, but you’ve missed the most important
note of all: How do we introduce Henry Hill in the most sympathetic light?” and
I said, "But it’s a Martin Scorsese film. They’re not about sympathetic
characters. They’re about characters who may be unsympathetic, but you come to
understand through the course of the film why they are as they are.” Didn’t
matter; I was told to include the note, which I did. Martin Scorsese and Irwin
Winkler ignored it completely, and Henry Hill was introduced in GoodFellas
exactly as he was in the script.
For how long were you at Warners?
I started at Warner Bros. in January ’86. In
October ’87 Roger Birnbaum offered me to be a VP at United Artists. I was 26
years old and it seemed like an offer I had to accept. I spoke to Lucy and she
asked that I not leave. But I was young and foolish and impetuous, and took the
job anyway. I was there for eight months, then the writers’ strike happened. [laughs]
And as the last person hired, I was the first person fired. That
lead to a period of travel and reflection for me. By the end of it, I thought,
you know what? I want to be a producer. A young producer, Neal Moritz, who had
pitched to me when I was an exec, suggested we work together and we partnered
for around five years. We worked out of his house in Westwood. We really
complemented each other. Neal harbored no doubts. I questioned everything. We
could say exactly what we wanted to each other without being offended, because
it was all about getting things done. And we trusted each other. We still do.
It was brilliant.
At the time, I was really
interested in urban films, and obsessed with hip-hop. Carhartt jacket, hoodie,
Timberland boots. You wouldn’t believe it now looking at me, but yeah, that was
me. My closest friend, Peter Frankfurt, gave me a script by Gerard Brown and
Ernest Dickerson, who was Spike Lee’s cinematographer. Several years earlier, I
had tried to persuade my father to finance She’s Gotta Have It, but hadn’t pushed hard
enough! I read the script and loved it. Juice wound up being financed by Chris Blackwell.
We went to New York and began the casting process, with Ernest directing. One
of the people who we cast was a rapper named Tupac Shakur. He came in with
another rapper called Shock G, who was auditioning. Shock G didn’t work out,
but Tupac asked if he could try. And just hit it out of the park. Everybody’s
jaw dropped. He left the room, shut the door, and then stuck his head back in and
said, "By the way, you’d better give me the part because I know where y’all
live.” And he shut the door again. He got the part. He had a wicked sense of
humor. I adored him and respected him in so many ways. But he was
self-destructive. I’m still sad that he’s no longer with us.
Anyway, it was such an
exciting time. We were shooting up in Harlem; I’d never produced a film before.
We were working with a great cast and crew, from whom I learned so much. We
ultimately sold it to Paramount and actually did quite well.
Sounds like a very invigorating way to
start a career.
After that, I made a couple of other films.
And frankly, they were not "me.” I didn’t want to live in LA anymore. I wanted
to leave because in some way I felt that LA was "winning.” [laughs] Which is ironic, because Neal is now one
of the most successful producers in the world, and I’ve been pretty lucky
myself. We’ve done better apart than we did together. But I hope one day Neal
and I will work together again.
So I left LA, went first
to New York and then London. It was the time of Cool Britannia. There was Oasis
and Blur and Trainspotting and Four Weddings and a Funeral. It was very alive.
Warners gave me a first-look deal which allowed me to pay for my overhead and a
small office that I’m still in today. I set out to be a bridge between the U.S.
and U.K. and decided to make books a central part of my business. One, I’m a
voracious reader. Two, books had probably the best ratio of development to film
at the time. At the time, the British books weren’t so aggressively pursued, so
I thought I could distinguish myself.
Ned Tanen, head of
Universal in the 80s, once gave me some wonderful advice. He said, "If you want
to work in the film industry, you should get a job in distribution.” I asked,
"Why?” He said, "Because nobody else wants to do it.” The point that he was
making was: don’t follow, lead. You’ve got to look for ways to differentiate
yourself and not do what everybody else is doing. Anyway, I went around, met
editors, agents and publishers. We had three shelves for incoming manuscripts
and screenplays: priority, medium priority and low priority. Tanya Seghatchian,
my very bright development executive, read an article in a trade publication
about a book that hadn’t yet been published. She called the agent. The book
came in and sat firmly on the low priority shelf for a couple of weeks before
Nisha, my secretary, who only read material from that bottom shelf, took it
home. At our Monday morning I asked, "Anybody read anything good?” And Nisha
replied, "Yeah, I read Harry
Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” I said, "Hmm, not sure about that title.
What’s it about?” "It’s about a young boy who goes to wizard school,” she
replied. My interest was piqued.
I took it home that night
and I fell in love. I couldn’t put it down and there began my Potter odyssey. I sent it to a friend of mine at
Warner Bros, Lionel Wigram, whom I had known since I was 14. He responded, but
I’m not sure many others at the studio really got it at the time. It hadn’t yet
become a phenomenon. I think they thought, "Listen, we invested this money in
Heyman. Let’s give him a shot.” They had no idea if it was going to pay off.
Neither did I. I thought if I was lucky, it might be my Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I had no idea that it
would become what it became. What I did know was that I connected with it. It
made me laugh. It moved me. I related to Harry and the characters at Hogwarts.
We all, in our own way, feel like outsiders. And no matter who we are, no
matter how successful, no matter how happily married we are or what good
friends we have, there are times where we feel alone. At least I do. And I felt
that story was something that people could connect with. It was about something: being true to yourself. It was
about loyalty and friendship and fighting prejudice and so much more.
So after a lengthy
negotiation, on the eve of the U.S. publication, Warners optioned it. We met a
lot of writers, and heard different takes. One wanted to set it in America;
that was not an option! We finally hired Steve Kloves. He was an unusual
choice, I suppose, because he hadn’t written any family films. But that wasn’t
an issue for me. He was a sophisticated writer, who wrote rich, layered
characters. Also, he was brilliant at capturing an author’s voice and the most
important thing was to retain the spirit of Jo Rowling’s writing. When they
met, Jo immediately liked him. So we had our screenwriter. As Kloves was
writing the films, the books became wildly successful. All of a sudden they
were No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list. Now
there’s all this pressure as he’s trying to finish the script. At the same
time, Jo, who had written the first two or three novels essentially without any
expectations, now had all this expectation. And she was struggling as she he had
written herself into a little bit of a hole on Goblet of Fire but had a firm
publication date! They really bonded through that shared experience and
Kloves delivered the
script towards the end of 1999 and it was wonderful. Warners green-lit it
immediately. We met a few directors and decided on Chris Columbus. He was such
a passionate fan and wanted above all to be respectful of Jo and true to what
she had written. Chris was beyond generous to me. He embraced me as a partner
in the process and I learnt so much from him. The first person we hired was
Stuart Craig, the great production designer. Then we began casting, scouring
the U.K. to find our three young leads. By June, we felt like we had good
options for Ron and Hermione but we didn’t have our Harry. We even, out of
desperation, expanded the search to the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. We
looked everywhere. And here we were, less than 10 weeks before filming. It was
a scary time indeed … we were making a film called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and we didn’t have our
One evening, Kloves and I
went to the theater and seated in the audience, I noticed this boy with big
round blue eyes. He seemed an old soul in a young body. And then this voice
called, "David, great to see you.” Sitting next to the boy was his father, an
agent I knew called Alan Radcliffe. The play started but I paid little
attention to what was going on up on stage. I kept on turning around and
looking at this boy. When the play finished, I went to find Alan and his son,
but they’d gone. So the following morning I called ICM and asked if Alan would
allow Daniel to visit the studio to meet Chris. Alan said, "Why don’t you meet
him first, and then we can decide.” So Dan, his mum and I went out for a cup of
tea and we spent two hours chatting. Dan had this incredible energy. He was so
curious and intelligent—a curiosity and intelligence that have helped make him
the actor he is today.
Alan agreed that Dan should meet with Chris, who really liked him—actually
Chris had spotted him in a production of Great Expectations but been told that he
didn’t want to audition for Potter—and brought him in for the final auditions. Chris looked
at three kids for each part, in different combinations. When we screened the
footage, it was clear to all Emma and Rupert were our Hermione and Ron. But
there were some who weren’t so sure about Harry and so I suggested we sleep on
it. The following morning we watched the screen test again and Chris announced,
"It’s Dan Radcliffe.” Phew! We couldn’t have done better! A couple of days
later we had to do a press conference and the journalists were asking all sorts
of inappropriate questions. I’ll never forget, one asked Rupert, "So how much
are you making for this?” and this 12 year old boy quips, "You know, I don’t
know how much in Muggle money, but I do know in Knuts and Galleons, if you
Then we cast the other roles. Every adult we
approached wanted to do it because their children or grandchildren wouldn’t
have it otherwise. Richard Harris agreed because his granddaughter, Ella, said
she wouldn’t talk to him if he said no.
We made the first two
back-to-back, we prepping the second as we were posting the first. Chris did a
brilliant job. I wouldn’t be sitting here today having a conversation with you
were it not for Chris. He cast our three leads and so many others, chose Stuart
and many of our department heads and helped create the film world and an
atmosphere and culture in front of and behind the camera that lasted till the
end. And he directed two beautiful films.
How did you settle on Alfonso Cuaron to direct the third film?
Towards the end of the second film we had to
decide on who would do the third. I wanted Alfonso. I had loved his first film
and also A
which Jo had loved, too, so I enlisted her support. It may have seemed strange
to look at Y Tu
Mama Tambien and
think, this is the person to direct Harry Potter. What would Harry, Ron
and Hermione get up to in this film if this man directs it? But it was a great
film; it was clear to me that he was the right director. Y Tu Mama Tambien was about the last
moments of being a teenager, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was about the first
moments of being a teenager. Alfonso understood the nuances of teenage life and
the way that teenagers communicated. And in A Little Princess he had shown an
imagination that was perfect for our world. If this series was to go to the
end, we needed to shake it up, to have a visionary filmmaker to make it his
own. And that was Alfonso.
And so the films were
growing up, just like our young actors. The third film, in terms of box office,
was the least successful, but it was more mature, more contemporary and that
led us in a direction we continued on till the end.
Alfonso decided that he
didn’t want to direct the fourth film, so we hired Mike Newell. We hadn’t had a
British director yet, which was surprising given how British (yet universal)
the books were. Mike was a really good actors’ director and it was important,
as the young cast grew, that they continued to be challenged. He was a
wonderful director of romantic comedy and thrillers, both of which were
essential elements of Goblet
And then came the fifth film, and the Potter world was becoming more
political. It was very important that we imbue the film with the spirit of a
political thriller as the kids come together to form an underground
revolutionary movement, a bit like the French Resistance. And so we hired David
Yates, who had made Sex Traffic and State of Play, two
dynamic political thrillers for the BBC, directorial tour de forces that were
amongst the best TV I had seen. And he brilliantly directed the last four films
in the series.
One of the things I’m proudest of in the Potter series is that in each
film a director’s vision shines through. Jo Rowling’s voice is front and
center, clearly, but each director channeled that voice and has made their
films their own. Without that voice, a film is a blancmange and I am not a fan
of blancmanges. A director with a vision is essential, even, or maybe
especially within a franchise. Having said that, we never approached Harry Potter as a
franchise. We were simply trying to make each film the best it could be!
While making the Potters we had marriages and divorces, young ones
beginning school and graduating, people who just started off in the business on
the first film worked their way up to become heads of departments by the end.
It was an amazing thing to be a part of. We were like a family—mostly
functional, sometimes dysfunctional—but a family. The last day on Potter was a
very emotional day … Lots of tears and
hugs. We’d seen births, deaths and the entire cycle of life. So it was an emotional
I can imagine, especially having lost people along the way.
Yes. We had indeed. As we
were finishing the eighth film, I was approached by Alfonso, who was and
remains one of my closest friends, about Gravity. It took me not a moment
to say yes. Alfonso is a master
filmmaker and to work with him his a privilege. It’s hard, but it is a
privilege. He pushes everything, everybody to the absolute limit. I am a better
producer for having worked with Alfonso Cuarón. He’s a truly brave
filmmaker. He dares one to fail. He dares himself to fail. But he never does.
Alfonso doesn’t want to direct a film he knows
how to make before he starts working on it. In Gravity, which was set entirely
in space, he wanted to create an immersive experience, with long, unbroken
shots. Given this, how were we going to create the illusion of Zero G? The
answer was ultimately to develop entirely new technology specifically for this
We began with a lengthy
period of R&D. Alfonso and Tim Webber, our inspired VFX Supervisor, and a
stuntwoman went up on the Vomit Comet (the airplane NASA uses to train
astronauts) to get a feel for movement in a weightless environment. Alfonso and
Tim loved the experience, but the stuntwoman threw up the entire time.
And we tried the
traditional approach of hanging actors in suits from wires, but it quickly
became clear that this was too limiting. Sandy Bullock is one of the most
gifted and committed actors I have ever worked with and dealt with countless
challenges on the film. But even she could not have hidden the effects of
gravity or have endured hanging upside down for hours on end! The breakthrough
came in two stages. First, Tim Webber suggested that we only shoot the faces of
the actors and that everything else be created in the computer.
Second, one of our two executives,
Chris deFaria, asked, "Why don’t you have the camera go around the actor
sitting on an office chair?” The principle of what Chris suggested was right,
but the solution was wrong. It made perfect sense that all the motion be
created by the camera, the actor would hardly have to move at all. We began
working with a two-ton robot with a camera at the end of it, the same kind of
robot they use in manufacturing cars, which could make repeated movements with
great accuracy. Part of the problem was now solved, but we were still
struggling to move the lights quickly or precisely enough.
That was when Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki], our
genius cameraman, along with Tim Webber came up with the lightbox, a 9’x9’ box
made up of LED panels, on which was screened what Sandy Bullock was meant to
see and which provided the light source. There was a tilt-rig for the actor in
the center of the lightbox, and track leading away. on which was the robot.
The long shots were sometimes composed of 20,
25, 30 separate shots. Because the end of each shot had to connect with the
beginning of the next, all the camera movements had to be absolutely precise.
So the entire film was prevised and prelit and camera movement, tilt-rig
movement, light movement were all preprogrammed.
We had no idea how we were going to make Gravity at the beginning. We had
to explore. We went on a journey. And at times you go, "Oh, no. Is this really
gonna work?” But ultimately you never lose faith because Alfonso is a pioneer,
he’s bold and brave. And together with his creative partners Tim and Chivo we
believed we would get there in the end.
At the beginning of the
preview process, the film wasn’t testing well because it had none of the
backdrops. When you’re showing the film to people with grey bodies and no
environment it’s not quite as immersive as you might like! [laughs]
Yeah, not quite.
But when we went to Venice and screened it for an
audience as a finished film for the first time the response was extraordinary.
Alfonso’s courage had paid off.
While we were in the last stages of
postproduction and the beginning of the awards season, I began producing a film
called Paddington, working with a wonderfully imaginative
writer-director, Paul King. He was very much like Paddington himself … warm and
generous and very funny. We developed it at Warners but they put it in
turnaround. We took it to every studio and they all passed. The French company,
StudioCanal, ended up financing it. And now I’m in post production on Derek
Cianfrance’s The Light Between Oceans, starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander
and Rachel Weisz, and in production on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which I’m afraid I can’t really say that much
What’s it like to be back in Jo Rowling’s world?
Oh, it’s great. The story takes place 70-plus years before Potter. It’s inspired by a book
that Jo wrote for comic relief. It’s "authored” by a man called Newt Scamander,
who’s a magizoologist, and it’s a story of his adventures in New York in the
1920s. It’s funny and thrilling and fresh and original, and features adults,
not children. I think it will be enjoyed by Potter and "non-Potter” fans alike.
You really think it might appeal to the five "non-Potter” fans that are
still out there?
[laughs] I hope so. It’s rich and resonant, and fun
and moving. It’s a really delightful mix. And its great to be back in Jo’s
wizarding world and to be working with David Yates again.
So what advice would you give to younger producers starting their
I would offer a couple of pieces of advice to a young producer.
I would recommend a young
producer think beyond film. Don’t give up on movies. Movies are wonderful and I
hope they never die. But as a story teller, think about television, think about
short form-content, think about video games, look at other ways to tell
stories. A producer in 10 years time is going to be looking at a very different
landscape than a producer today.
As a producer you are only as good as the
artists with whom you work, so you must seek out that extraordinary talent,
find it, nurture it and support it.
Most important, you’ve got
to listen to your gut. And if you believe in something, don’t give up on it! Gravity was
a project that many thought wouldn’t work. Paddington was rejected again and again and again. Potter was
rejected by many agents and publishers. My father told me about how Winston
Churchill, at the age of 90, hobbled to the lectern to deliver a speech to
graduating students. "I have just nine words of advice to give to you,’ he
said. "Never give in! Never give in! Never give in!” So … never give in!
- View all article from the December/January edition of Produced By magazine