Exclusive Q&A: Harry Potter Producer David Heyman's Career

English producer David Heyman made his name in 1999 by snagging the film rights to the first four books in the Harry Potter franchise for around $2 million. The penultimate movie in the series was just released.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

English producer David Heyman has made his fortune and name snagging the Harry Potter franchise back in 1999 when he paid around $2 million for the film rights to the first four of J. K. Rowling's books. He brought the series to Warner Brothers -- his former employers -- and it has since grossed $4.48 billion worldwide, becoming the highest grossing film franchise in history. In making it a huge success, he's done far more than just be the guy who signs the checks.

Now the final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (or HP 7), has been made into a mega-movie -- fitting for such a mythic tale -- that is being released in two 2 1/2-hour films. The latest just came out, racking up blockbuster sales and the final half is due out summer of this coming year.

This incredible audience hit has included nearly everyone from the last two generations of British actors. Being in a Potter film is almost as much of an award as it is to get an Oscar nom. The few English actors who have not been in one of these films either has been working in some other franchise like James Bond, has been knighted or has an Oscar already.

What makes the 49-year-old Heyman singularly interesting as a producer is that he oversees such creative, challenging and thought-provoking projects whether they be this mega-costly fantastical series or his minimally budgeted indie efforts such as Is Anybody There? or The Boy in The Stripped Pajamas.

So if anyone can offer insights and an overview to the creation of this cinematic series that equals the literary one that is its source, it's Heyman. So somewhere between releasing the last Potter film and producing this massive two-parter, Heyman talked about his Hollywood experience, the making of these mega-hits and his indie films as well.

Q: The idea of a big franchise movie was always thought of as an American concept, yet the biggest franchise before Potter was an English one with James Bond.

DH: I think that's true, and most certainly traditionally that has been and is the case. But I think that there are many very good series written in the UK - The Lord of the Rings comes out of the UK - and this long tradition of children's fiction is out of the UK. So it's not really surprising that something that positive comes from the UK.

The other thing is some people say, "Did you ever think about taking it to the States and making it in an American high school?" No! Because actually, yes there are distinctions, but I think the very Britishness of it is one of its appeals.

Q: I thought people would say, "Is it too British? Are people going to get it?" Even though The Lord of the Rings originated with a British author it went beyond the Britishness of it all but part of the Potter films' charm is their pure Britishness.

DH: Absolutely, and I think we've celebrated that more so as we've gone on. We had an American director [Chris Columbus] on the first [Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and second, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets]; Mexican [Alfonso Cuarón] on the third [Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban]; and then on the fourth [Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, we had one Englishman, Mike Newell; and then on the fifth [Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ], sixth [Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince]. and now seeing it through to the end [Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows], we have another Brit at the helm. And that's great too.

Q: What made you decide on director David Yates to handle so many of the films and close out the franchise. I like the idea that you tried out different directors; a lot of people considered the Alfonso Cuarón version to be the standard by which everybody has to set the meter, so what was i about David that made him the guy you could live with all the way to the end?

DH: We asked each director to come back; we asked Chris to do the third, Alfonso to do the fourth, Mike Newell to do the fifth, but they said no. David said yes. It's funny; Alfonso to me is one of the great filmmakers, and the first film will always have a special place in my heart. It's interesting that the sixth was probably the best reviewed of any Potters we've had.

Q: What sold you on David? He wasn't a household name; when you took on Alfonso, he wasn't either. So what did you see in these independent directors?

DH: Ultimately, a great filmmaker is a great filmmaker. When I hired Alfonso, it was because I loved Y tu mama también and I loved his first film, and I also loved A Little Princess. He'd had experience with doing kids' films and I think A Little Princess is an astonishing kids' film. He had a real sense of magic. But also, even though Y tu mama también may have made some people notice,

I mean what were Harry, Ron, and Hermione going to get up to? For me, that film was about the last moments of being a teenager. And Azkaban was about the first moments of being a teenager. And Alfonso understood the nuances of teen relationships.

A similar thing connected me to David; they're both humanists. David is a humanist; he approaches everything from the character's point of view. That really was the reason why I got involved with Potter. It was not the fantasy and magic but it was for the character, for the characters and the truthfulness of those characters. And David is all about finding that within the performance and within the moment. And I think that's why you see the performances I think, of the kids, or one of the reasons why you see the performances of everybody has taken a step up in the sixth film.

Why I had David on the fifth film was because, in that film, the wizarding world was becoming more political. Politics was beginning to seep into the world; a lot of in-fighting within the magic world. Both State of Play and The Girl in the Café dealt with politics, but did it in a very entertaining way so you never felt like you were in a polemic. Particularly in State of Play; it was an entertainment.

Potter has some pretty rich themes, but it always has to be an entertainment, and I thought that David would do that. You look at Sex Traffic, State of Play, and The Way We Live Now, and he is clearly a director of remarkable talent who gets the best out of actors, is a very good story teller, and who has passion like Alfonso, Mike, or Chris, for the material.

Q: Was the decision to split the final book into two parts inevitable?

DH: It wasn't inevitable and when [veteran Potter screenwriter] Steve Kloves began the adaptation process and we talked about it, we were always going to do it as one. But when Steve was working away on it we came to the conclusion that actually there was no way to do the story justice by doing it as one film.

The reason is we made a decision to tell the story from Harry's point of view. As a result, things fell by the wayside, like SPEW, which is the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Warfare, because it was Hermione's story and it was something I loved. But in terms of taking the process from simply transforming the story to really adapting the books, which I think took place with our fourth film. When it came time to doing the seventh adaptation it became clear to all of us that this entire final book is from Harry's point of view, there's very little you can cut out, and there's very little that doesn't relate to Harry.

That's one.

And two... The nature of the story is such that if you cut anything substantial out, the story would not make sense because so much is tied up and connected in this final book.

Q: Did you ever ask yourself why Voldemort became evil?

DH: Look at the way that Draco Malfoy is portrayed in this film. There is so much more to him than simply being a bad boy. I think Voldemort is a tragic character, and the way Jo's written him, he has two failings: one -- he has never known love, and two -- he is a fundamentalist. He sees only one way and is completely closed to any other. I think those are his most evil and most tragic qualities.

Q: You still have to make sure he seems human.

DH: Yes, exactly. I think that you need to look at the why, you need to explore the heart of, you need to find the essence of the character. Again, David is very good at approaching that.

I made a film called The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which wasn't particularly well received in the States but has been relatively a big success internationally. It's not on a Potter scale, but in relation to what it cost, it's on a big scale.

And there's a character in it who is he's a good man actually. So what I love about him, about that character, [is that] he's a family man, a really decent family man; he's lost his child, his wife, and clearly there's a very big secret hanging there. Yet, by day he kills thousands of people.

Though I'm not sure Voldemort is quite human, he is equally fundamental and blinded. I think Ralph Fiennes does this so brilliantly, [provide] elements of Voldemort's character that you can cling on to, that an audience can relate to or understand, and makes him that much scarier.

Q: Interesting that you made that movie, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, in relation to Harry Potter, because Voldemort could be perceived as a Hitler-like figure.

DH: Well, I think that within Jo's work, the WW II [nostalgia] etc, that context very much plays a part.

Q: And in light of making a move like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which I liked and don't understand why it was dumped on by the American critics. I thought you took great risks with that movie going even further into understanding how that character behaves.

DH: It's a very simply told story, most certainly for a young audience for whom it is their first exposure to the Holocaust, and I think as a fable. I'm proud of it and it's quite affecting.

Q: It's interesting to look at the two series, Narnia and this one, and how they approach similar contexts; kids coming of age while battling evil, dealing with it in a mythic land rather than in our own world, and how they approach it. Have you ever reflected on the two?

DH: I've already thought about it. I do think there is a difference in the school institution, and in the religious themes of Narnia, which they've diminished a little bit. That's one distinction. Jo is concerned as much as anything with the relationships and with outsiders, and with this idea of life being about the choices we make. That runs through Jo's fiction. She says it many times; we all have light and dark within us, but what determines who we are and how we are, is the choices we make.

Q: Though he's an outsider, Potter becomes the ultimate insider by also being the gifted one. They don't see it in the world of the Muggles -- normal people as they are called. He's caught in that place where on the one hand you know you're the smartest kid in school yet at the same time you're being put down by people and you don't understand it...

DH: Actually, what I like about it is that Harry isn't the smartest person in school; Hermione maybe is, but Harry isn't. He's kind of ordinary at school. He doesn't really want attention. People are not sure if he is the chosen one, they're not sure if he is a star pupil, but there's resentment on the part of some, you know, he's not cool to everybody and has the burden of being, quote-unquote, the "chosen one" -- it's a huge one.

That plays a big part in the sixth book -- in the sixth film rather -- and we see the burden that Malfoy feels in a very different way, for being the chosen one. Harry rises up and assumes his responsibility and the choices he makes between right and wrong; therein lies his greatest strength.

Q: Are there things about Harry Potter that you relate to your own life?

DH: I most certainly, if you look at the three films that I produced that we're talking about today, I'm very interested in the outsider. Handling a big film was a little more on the inside to a degree, but at the same time I live in London rather than Hollywood, I'm not at the epicenter of the business in film, and just feel a little bit like an outsider in general. I don't view that as a negative, I'm very happy about it.

By the way, the other thing I love in Jo's books is the whole notion of never judging a book by its cover -- as it were. Snape, who we perceive at the end of Six as being a force for evil, has another side. You look at Sirius Black, initially he seems really scary but is actually a good person. A lot of the Hogwart teachers have other sides, and that's something that interests Jo as well.

Q: Are you amazed that the series has been so successful or did it seem relatively foolproof?

DH: I didn't know that we were going to go to the end really until after the fourth film. Once we'd done the fourth film then I felt pretty secure that we'd probably march towards the end. I thought that with the sixth one, there might be a hiccup as it were. And I think the last film will be successful because it's the last one, but I was a little bit nervous about this one for various reasons.

As I've said, it was a bit of a tweener, a lot of it is setting up the next film, and one always has doubt - will people pirate it? What's happened is that I think people have assumed a certain ownership of these characters and these actors; they enjoy watching them grow up before their eyes -- our eyes.

Of all the great advantages I have, or we have, over other franchises is that we have Jo Rowling's books. Certainly other franchises, I mean look at Bond, have to create a new story each time. So, I'm always relieved, a little bit surprised and relieved.

Q: Are you going to miss the characters when this is all over? Are you going to miss everybody? Will it be hard?

DH: Hugely. When this is done, I'll have been in pre-production, production, or post-production for 12 years without a break. That is an amazing thing; it's like having a real job. And when you make a film, whether it be 30 days or 60 days, or however long it is, you become quite close. You become very intimate with people. You're working together for a single purpose.

We have been doing that for 12 years, and many of the same people who were involved in the first one are involved now. The same production designer, a lot of his same team, same props people, same costumes since the third film, same hair and makeup, same special effects and creature effects. There's a lot of the same personnel.

We've seen people go from runners in the producer's office to now being head of post production; people going into publicity who were in my office, becoming integral parts of the publicity department. People have grown and blossomed and we are all one. It's boring actually for people because we're a really happy, functional family, and when we all go our separate ways next year, for David Yates and the postproduction team and me in 2011, it'll be really, really sad. There will be a hole.

To be part of something where there's a receptive and willing and eager audience to work on material that you absolutely love, and I've never done anything this long. It's going to be really, really difficult.

Also, there's the security. I've always had another movie for the last 12 years. That's going to go and I'm going to join the ranks of the people who are desperately or hungrily or eagerly looking for the next film, and that bubble that is Harry Potter, that one where we have such independence and control of what we do, will disappear and I'll return to the real world where it's a lot more of a struggle.

Q: It's like you've been living at Hogwarts because it is its own little isolated bubble, as you say.

DH: I will take that and use it. Yes, it's true.

Q: There are still a lot of productions you have in mind for the future. Though I am sure it creates a sense of trepidation, there's also a sense of excitement.

DH: I'm really excited about the time that will be opened up and the possibilities that will be there. I look forward to working with Alfonso Cuarón and David Yates and Mike in years to come. And I've got some projects that I'm working in and I'm looking forward to that too, but it's a little more uncertain because everything will have been certain for the last period of time, but it'll be very exciting. I see new challenges ahead and I'm really looking forward to embracing them.

Q: At least you have this sure footing, you understand making an independent film and the ones with high technology. At least no one is going to throw something at you that you can't throw back at them. There's that sort of confidence...

DH: You're absolutely right. I think now I am capable also of producing and managing just about any film.

Q: Anyhow, the success of this series is rooted less in its technology driven elements. I mean, you have some explosions and a lot weird creatures but especially with the sixth film, the series seems a lot more about the kids and a lot less about the effects.

DH: It's funny you say that. One of the reasons why people are responding to the film is because we had the opportunity to spend time with the characters and, as I said before, that's what drew me to the stories in the first place. And that's probably what drew everybody to the story.

In some ways, though Steve has adapted this book the most -- all of the writing obviously is Jo's but he had to do a fair bit himself. At the same time it's the most Jo-like. I also think this way that David Yates has so cleverly jumped back and forth between dark and light as it were, between comedy and drama, so effortlessly, which again is something that is very much a part of the books. Often what happens in the adaptation process is plot would take precedence over comedy. In this one we've taken the time to enjoy the humor. It's a great pleasure.

Q: I've seen movies where they try to combine comedy with drama; some work and some don't but I thought that Potter series -- especially starting with the sixth -- you have really got the balance right, which is hard.

DH: Well part of it is that one of the ways that David Yates approached the comedy is it's not really for the most part, it's not slipping up on banana peals, it's actually very human comedy, and I think people enjoy that too. It's character comedy.

Q: Does Daniel Radcliffe ever feel like the straight man to everybody else? [laughs]

DH: You know what, sometimes, but I have to say, I think in that scene with [Horace] Slughorn, when he's taken the Felix Felicis, he's pretty funny.

Q: Everyone thinks of Rupert Grint as the one who handles the comic relief the most. But they're now all starting switch it up a bit more.

DH: Yes, I think that's true. I do think that Daniel has real comic talent, as does Emma [Watson] and Rupert. But again, what I love about the way David Yates approaches it; it's always from a position of truthfulness. It's all from character, and I think it just makes it feel honest.

Q: When you lost the character Dumbledore you lost Michael Gambon -- so much a part of the series. How does it feel to lose a character, thus the actor, when obviously, even if there's just one more movie, you're working with some amazing people and now you're losing a major character? It must be tough in a way.

DH: Actually in the book and in the film there is a scene with Dumbledore, so he'll be back for a very short period of time. He is dead, but there is a moment. He'll be back. Even when they do leave, they're still part of the team and I'm sure we'll see them around at some point during the H.P. 7 festivities.

Q: You've killed off characters but who do you miss the most -- and who is on that wish list that you have been trying to place in the next film? You've had almost every great British actor in your movies, so you must have had a wish list of who you want to add.

DH: Sirius Black was a character I loved. That upsets me. And Dumbledore too. And those two actors are giant. In the new film we have Bill Nighy, he's come aboard. He's playing the minister of magic. And we have Rhys Ifans, who's playing Luna Lovegood's father. Those are two people who were in the films and is in Seven. We have Ciarán Hinds who is a great theater actor.

Q: Oh I love Ciarán Hinds.

DH: So it's not too shabby. In terms of whom I would have liked, oh my goodness, there are so many great actors in Britain. That's one of the reasons why you look at the people we've had in our films it really is a who's who. But there are so many more great actors, I mean Judi Dench, Tim Roth, James McAvoy, you know there are so many young and old, who are so incredible, who haven't been in it. We could do Potter movies forever and not exhaust the huge talent pool that is in the British film business.

Q: Everybody wants to be in these movies. Who have you thought, "God I want to get him into the series, can we find a place for him?"

DH: It wasn't like we had that [ultimate] list, we just put together a list for each part, and we've just been fortunate enough to find the right person for each part.

Q: Of all the people who you've had, especially the young people; you've found new talent and you've launched not just the three kids' careers but others as well. Who surprised you the most?

DH: Look at Robert Pattinson. I don't know that there's any one person who surprised me. It's always great to see, for example, Gary Oldman - who had for the longest time been cast as the bad guy or done incredibly dark parts - show his really human, warm, and vulnerable side. That is such a treat. In a way Gary Oldman was being cast for his reputation or his body of work because he is one of the great actors but also against type. Actually the thing about Gary Oldman is that he has no type, he is just one of the great actors. So, that was a real treat.

There are so many. To watch Alan Rickman each and every day deliver his lines so deliciously. He's always surprising, just how he finds a new way to deliver and sometimes extend his lines.

And then there's the young kids; I think how Emma, she was always beautiful but how she's blossomed into this incredibly beautiful young lady, composed, brilliant. Rupert, who has just been showing by this seventh film, that yes, he's a great comedian, but he's also a great dramatic actor.

And Dan, who has so many colors and shows them in many ways I think has the most difficult part in the series. Yes, he's the hero, but it's a really difficult role and he does it so brilliantly.

Then you have the directors and all the crew, There are so many great stories, I know I'm being boringly enthusiastic, but really it's been a most remarkable ride and I'm going to enjoy the next two years because there will never be anything like it again in my life.

Q: I watched Alan Rickman tease out his lines or just walk down the corridor and it's a great pleasure to see him do what he does; he always has this sort of ironic air to his performances. It's as much in him as a person as it is on screen. He doesn't just deliver lines, they sort of sliver out of him.

DH: He's amazing and such fun.

Q: You'll have two good books out of this series; a great book on acting and a book about making these films; you should be doing the huge volume.

DH: I have no plans for such a thing. I leave the writing to people much more talented than myself.

Popular in the Community