His Wizard Connection

'Potter' Producer's Feelings As An Outsider Help Him Get What Harry's All About

July 17, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

David Heyman, the producer of the Harry Potter pictures, comes from British moviemaking royalty.

His father, John Heyman, executive-produced David Lean's A Passage to India and produced Joseph Losey's The Go-Between. Norma Heyman, David's mother, produced Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons.

That should have made Heyman feel like a pure-blood prince of moviemaking.

Yet growing up, he thought himself a bit of an outsider. With his parents divorced and his father living in New York, he fell for "the romance of America" and yearned to go to school across the Atlantic even when he was studying at elite Westminster School. In love with America as the land of opportunity, the center of 1970s popular culture and the home of liberal-arts education, he ended up getting an art history degree from Harvard University.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Friday's Movies section about the producer of the Harry Potter movies referred imprecisely to Harry Potter's bloodlines: His father and mother were both wizards, though his mother was born to a non-wizard family.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

The in-and-out feelings he carried in his head connected him to Harry Potter, the boy of half-wizard, half-"Muggle" stock, who shakes up the status quo at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

"You find my credits ... eclectic?" Heyman asks, with a chuckle, over the phone from Los Angeles.

Variety and range have been a hallmark of his career from its inception.

He entered picture-making as a runner on Lords of Discipline and Ragtime, and a production assistant on A Passage to India. He worked as a creative executive at Warner Bros. on films such as Gorillas in the Mist and Goodfellas before breaking out into independent production with such distinctive films as the superb observational comedy The Daytrippers, the directorial debut of Greg Mottola (who went on to do Adventureland and Superbad).

His experience in the mainstream and several arcane estuaries has served Heyman well in pushing the Potter franchise.

Heyman had moved back to London in 1996 and established Heyday Films when he got hold of Harry Potter. First a Heyday assistant and then Heyman thought the chronicle of a boy wizard in magic school was fantastic. Warner Bros. optioned it for Heyman's company. The tale of a bespectacled orphan who becomes the world's bulwark against ultimate evil was just the ticket for a filmmaker with a taste for the fringe. But when the series became an international phenomenon, how did Heyman maintain creative control?

It came down to a gal named Jo.

"I had established a relationship with J.K. Rowling," Heyman said Tuesday on the phone from Los Angeles, shortly before Ha rry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince would smash all known records for midnight shows. "She knew I 'got it' and was incredibly loyal and supportive to me ... so the more successful the book became, the more leverage I got."

When Heyman enlisted Steve Kloves as screenwriter, "Jo was immediately comfortable with him. Also, when Steve was writing his first Potter script and Jo was writing her fourth Potter novel, they found themselves in similar positions." Rowling had never experienced the extraordinary pressure of producing a major work on deadline. Kloves had never transferred a global sensation to the screen.

They became comrades in arms, with pens. Heyman says Kloves, who has written all but one of the Potter scripts, has given the series more than its remarkably sinewy consistency: "Not just great dialogue and understanding of the books, but also visual descriptions that make certain things so clear to other filmmakers. He is a director, too, and it will be great to get him back behind the camera." (Heyman will produce Kloves' projected movie version of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time).

Heyman credits the remarkable stylistic elasticity of the series to the choices of each man at the helm. Chris Columbus, the director of Potter 1 (and then Potter 2), "even wrote his own draft of the script, which we never saw. He loved every word of the book." Columbus' sound foundation work included assembling an eerily apt cast and eliciting evocative settings from production designer Stuart Craig. The director also had the wisdom to eschew "a contemporary signature" in favor of "a timeless aesthetic." The movies would go on to encompass, as the books do, up-to-date social tensions, but they would always be rooted in a world of fable.

To some observers, Alfonso Cuaron, who made Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, was an odd choice to follow Columbus, because Cuaron entered the franchise after his sexually graphic coming-of-age movie Y tu mama tambien. But for Heyman, it was the perfect calling card. "Alfonso had just made a brilliant movie about the last months of adolescence; Azkaban was about children entering ... adolescence."

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