Harry Potter and the Prodigious Producer: David Heyman says farewell to a magical film series


An interesting thing happened to producer David Heyman during the dozen years he has been Pottering around so profitably in the vineyards of cinema. Some call it Life.

“I remember I was living in my sister’s flat when I was making the first couple of Harry Potter movies,” he dimly recalls. “I met my wife on the third. I remember us getting married on the sixth, having a child on the seventh. I remember those dates.

“We’ve all grown up in some way or other. We’ve become like a family on the film. I’ve kept on talking to the same production designer, same special-effects guy, same makeup and many of the same cast. We’ve all been on these films since they started. It’s kind of amazing it’s all coming to an end, and we’re going off our separate ways.”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 world-premieres July 7 in London’s Trafalgar Square, the first film ever to do so (even with the numerous Lord Nelson movies). Just how “deathly” remains to be seen—although the seventh and emphatically final book in J.K. Rowling’s prodigiously successful series spilled the beans, somewhat. In any event, such a prestigious point of departure as Trafalgar seems tantamount to a British hero lying in state. Certainly, in his brief years and this last decade, the Boy Wizard has performed enough magic on the English film industry: His seven screen chapters have already grossed $6,376,419,658 worldwide and gone on to become, by far, the highest-grossing film franchise of all.

Look for those numbers to jump even farther into the cinematic stratosphere July 15 when The Last We Will Ever See of Harry Potter goes into global release. It being the announced parting shot of the Warner Bros. series, brace yourself for mother lodes of repeat biz.

Heyman has arrived at this much-envied zenith before his 50th birthday, which won’t be coming up for days afterward (11 days, in point of fact—on July 26).

Like David O. Selznick, who peaked with Gone with the Wind when he was 37, he could well spend the rest of his career trying to top his own awesome act, struggling gamely to achieve something that would at least have the same weight in his obit’s first line as “producer of the Harry Potter movies.” Lots of luck with that one!

For now, CineEurope’s “Producer of the Decade” is not that far away from the Everest he has just scaled to see the shadow it will throw over his future. “I think Potter clearly is and always will be a huge part of my career and my life,” he concedes. “I’m very proud to have it so, but I think and believe and hope there will be other films that, if I am not remembered for, the directors and the actors probably will be. In fact, I don’t know how much I’ll be remembered. Producers generally aren’t. I’m happy to stay behind the camera.

“I am hugely passionate about what I do. I feel incredibly privileged to be doing what I am doing, and I feel a great responsibility to the writers, the directors, the talent. I’m also financier, but I feel particularly responsible to the work and the audience.”

This point in time is an interesting juncture for Heyman. “As a producer, you go through large periods of not knowing what’s next. And I’ve had that wonderful veil of security of having been in pre-production, production or post-production since 1999. I am now about to enter a world of the unknown where I don’t know what’s going to happen next—and that’s a little daunting, a little scary—but I’m excited about the prospects. I really am. I’m really looking forward to what’s next.”

In truth, the post-Potter train has already left the station for Heyman. He now speaks of his recent fantastical past completely grounded in the reality of Gravity, an expensive, Potter-less sci-fi enterprise he is attempting to make without a wand.

Stars have been falling all over this project like meteorites ever since its inception—Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey, Jr., Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, Blake Lively and Marion Cotillard—but, when the cameras started rolling in London last month, the only two still sticking were Oscar winners George Clooney and Sandra Bullock.

Bullock will occupy most of the film’s footage as an astronaut tracing her way back to Earth after satellite debris decimates her space station. Alfonso Cuarón, who helmed HP3 for Heyman (i.e., Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), is at the controls of this one, and Warner Bros. will release the results “sometime in 2012.”

The producer, who has delivered his share of high-flown fantasy in the immediate past, is promising “something unlike anything you’ve seen in space. There are lots of special effects. We’re not shooting in 3D, but we’re post-converting them into 3D.”

Heyman himself makes no pretense at being a special-effects wizard. “When I began the Potter series, I was truly an ignoramus,” he admits, “but, just as the technology has improved, so my understanding of it has improved. The key to it all is in having really great people around you who know what they’re doing—a very strong visual-effects supervisor and team. We were blessed to have Tim Burke for seven of the eight Potters, and Tim was truly fantastic to work with. He made it all possible.”

As befits a series finale, Burke goes for broke and gives Heyman plenty of bang for the buck. The concluding film is based on the last half of Rowling’s final book—the action half. If there was a discernible dip in spectacular happenings in the series, it was in the first Deathly Hallows, which focused more intently than previous installments on the three teen leads—Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint)—as they sorted out the corners of their triangle. Most of the fire-and-light displays more or less sat it out.

“Definitely, Deathly Hallows Part 1 was a more intimate story,” Heyman allows, “but it’s one of my favorites because I like taking the time to enjoy these characters and seeing how they are affected by the world they’re in. I really have a soft spot for that sort of thing. This one is epic and operatic—there’s a lot of action—and at the same time there’s the stuff I like most: the human stuff that’s very moving and affecting.

“When the idea was initially mooted to do the last novel as two films—it was actually the idea of Lionel Wigram, our executive producer—I thought it was a terrible idea, but when we came to breaking down the book into a screenplay, it became very clear that we couldn’t tell the story in one film and do it justice.”

A more focused approach to adapting the Harry Potter sagas took hold when American director Chris Columbus relinquished the reins to Mexico’s Cuarón for installment three. “Alfonso figured it out—and I think he was absolutely right—that to impose some form of cinematic structure on these books, you have to tell the story from Harry’s point of view, so that’s what we did.” That rule of thumb was followed by the subsequent Brit directors: Mike Newell, who did number four (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), and David Yates, who did all four of the final half of the series.

“With the last book, everything already is from Harry’s point of view,” Heyman notes. “In the earlier books, there were things I was sad to lose—Hermione’s SPEW [Society for the Promotion of Elfish Warfare] and Ron’s Quidditch—but it made sense in creating this cinematic structure. The last book is all from Harry’s point of view. Were we to tell it as one—in one film—it would have seriously compromised the way we tell the story. And I don’t even think it would have made any sense.”

What happens in Part 2 is still a matter of secrecy (open secrecy, one could almost say). The battle between good and evil in the wizarding world moves toward a showdown. Our intrepid trio of teens continues their quest to find and destroy the remaining Horcruxes of the evil Lord Voldemort (a no-nosed Ralph Fiennes).

And wave after British wave of famous faces who have appeared in the series in the past pass in review one last time in various degrees of fleetingness: Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, Gary Oldman as Sirius Black, Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid, Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, Emma Thompson as Sybill Trelawney, Michael Gambon as Albus Dumbledore, John Hurt as Mr. Ollivander, Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall, Ciarán Hinds as Aberforth Dumbledore, Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy, David Thewlis as Remus Lupin. Timothy Spall as Peter Pettigrew, Julie Walters as Molly Weasley, Miranda Richardson as Rita Skeeter, Jim Broadbent as Horace Slughorn, Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy, Miriam Margolyes as Pomona Sprout, Gemma Jones as Madam Pomfrey, Peter Mullan as Yaxley and Simon McBurney as Kreacher.

One might think there was enormous pressure on Heyman, this being his last chance to bat for the Potter team, but he pooh-poohs that notion. He says the pressure issue came up with the first film and has come up, like clockwork, every episode since.

“We want to make each film better than the last,” he declares. “We are all big fans of Potter and are ambitious for the films—so, to a degree, it’s not about pressure from outside. It’s the self-imposed pressure of just always wanting to do the best.”

Heyman admits to mixed emotions about leaving Potterville forever. “On the one hand, I’m really excited about having the time, and the opportunity, to embrace new challenges. I’m really looking forward to that. But at the same time, I’ll be really sad. In so many ways, this has been the greatest gift imaginable—to work with the quality of acting talent that we have and to have the great Stuart Craig as production designer and to be able to make those films in the U.K., in the way that we have with the support and independence that we’ve had. We’ve been working with the very best in the business. The studio really just let us alone to make the films.”

Most of Heyman’s post-Potter production slate revolves around his recent workmates, but he is reluctant to peer very deeply beyond the Cuarón-directed Gravity. He optioned Mark Haddon’s book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and assigned Steve Kloves (who scripted seven of the eight Potters) to adapt and direct it. “We’re at that stage where Steve is writing the script and I’m waiting oh-so-patiently for it to be delivered. David Yates and I are also planning to do some things together.”

Another project about to lift off is an animated feature. “It’s in very early stages—an animated story using ten Beatles songs—not masters, just the music. They’ll all be covered. It’s a sort of falling-in-love story involving a dung beetle and a ladybug.”

Which sounds suspiciously like the insect edition of Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. “That’s not our model, but I love that movie,” Heyman says. “I’ve got a three-year-old, and I want to get all those old Disney movies and start showing them to my son.” And, after the Disney cartoons, boy, does he have a film series to show his kid!