David Heyman is the British producer who successfully shepherded JK Rowling’s wizarding franchise through a decade of record-breaking on-screen success. The key, he says, was striking a blockbuster balance between commerce and creativity.
In early 2004, when still in post-production on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, producer David Heyman met with director Mike Newell to discuss the next movie in the Potter franchise, The Goblet of Fire.
The men were in agreement on just about everything. There was only one snag: Voldemort’s nose. Heyman wanted Voldemort, on-screen for the first time courtesy of award-winning thespian Ralph Fiennes, to appear without his nose. It was a nod to JK Rowling’s description of the Dark Lord having, ‘a nose that is as flat as a snake’s with slits for nostrils.’ Newell disagreed. They were paying for Fiennes, complete with nose, and not for an actor with a digital hole in the middle of his face.
“It became a huge debate, literally for months, about Ralph Fiennes’ nose,” explains the 50-year-old Heyman, who has since become – thanks mostly to the Potter franchise – The Most Successful British Producer of All Time (the series has made almost £5bn at the box office).
Naturally, Heyman won the battle, the nose was removed, and Fiennes’ characterisation became one of the defining portraits of blockbusting villainy. And yet, adds Heyman, the clash with Newell is emblematic of the Potter screen story, and how every step in the eight-movie journey has been about nurturing the core of Rowling’s source novels, and making sure that they arrive on screen in the most faithful form possible. “It was always about communicating the essence of the story,” he says. “And doing it clearly, and protecting it along the way.”
“It was always about communicating the essence of the story. And doing it clearly, and protecting it along the way.”
To understand this better, Heyman says that we need to flashback to Soho in 1996. There, he is newly returned from Los Angeles after making the hit urban drama Juice, and sitting down to a dreary Monday morning ideas meeting.
He’s told about a book from the ‘Low Priority’ shelf called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. He doesn’t like the title, but is intrigued by the ‘wizard school’ premise. He takes it home that night. And, of course, he falls in love. “When I read it I was reminded in some way of reading books when I was a child,” he recalls. “It was about a school. It featured teachers that I felt I knew. And characters, the Rons and the Hermiones, that I knew from my world. Beneath all the magic and fantasy, what I connected to was something very tangible.”
His ‘first look’ deal with Warner Bros (they paid for his office, in return he showed them possible projects) meant that the studio was eventually persuaded to close the deal on the book rights in 1998. It’s rumoured that Warners paid Rowling $2 million. Heyman scoffs, “I can tell you that it was considerably less than that. And though I won’t tell you what it was exactly, I can say that it was a good deal.”
Almost immediately, of course, creative nurturing became creative protection. Warners, an American studio, wanted their adaptation to relocate Hogwarts to the US. “That was something that I was vehement in my opposition to,” says Heyman, “because I felt part of the pleasure of Harry Potter was its cultural specificity, even though the stories are universal.” After that battle was won, it was about hiring the right screenwriter. Heyman went completely leftfield, choosing an untested and mostly un-commercial writer in Steve Kloves. Again, eyebrows were raised. “But what I liked about him was his ability to preserve an author’s voice in a screenplay,” says Heyman. “He did it with Michael Chabon’s voice in Wonder Boys and I knew he could do it with Jo Rowling’s voice for us.”
And it wasn’t just Kloves, either. Heyman says that every person chosen for the Potter experience was a leader in their field. “Stuart Craig, our production designer, has been nominated for nine Academy Awards and won three. He’s a visionary!” In fact, he says, the real key to Potter’s creative success was the wider team, and not any one individual artist. “Surround yourself with people who are ambitious for their art, and determined to be the best that they can be,” he says. “It’s fundamental.”
A decade on, Potter has transformed Heyman’s professional life in immeasurable ways, and yet it brought with it the possibility that he might forever be known simply as ‘Mr Harry Potter’ and not a diverse producer in his own right. Heyman shrugs. “The responsibility is mine to make films that might be mentioned in the same breath as Harry Potter,” he says. “But you know what? If I’m only known for Harry Potter alone, that’s not too bad, is it?”