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In conversation with producer David Heyman: From Potter to Paddington, never losing Gravity

May 22, 2015

Film + EntertainmentInterview | by Francesco Cerniglia


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When we hear the words film producer, our minds generally refer to a stereotypical Hollywood studio mogul with big bucks and an attitude. Does the name Weinstein ring a bell? Here in the UK though, those names tend to mostly remain in the background, behind the headlines-grabbing talent. Yet, producers are essential to make things happen and not just from a financial standpoint. Their support is hugely creative from the script development stage all the way to post-production and their passion for a project can make a huge difference in the career path of writers and directors looking for a chance to turn their vision into moving images.

If there’s one name in the British Film Industry that you should probably become familiar with is David Heyman aka the man who brought to life ‘the boy who lived’. His London-based Heyday Films production shingle is indeed responsible for the worldwide record-breaking phenomenon called Harry Potter but in the course of his illustrious career he has produced a wide variety of titles, often in cahoots with Warner Brothers, such as Yes Man, I Am Legend and of course the ground-breaking cinematic achievement that was Gravity, which also granted him an Oscar nomination.

His family pedigree and ivy-league education may suggest he was destined for success in the film business but Heyman is a self made-man who has followed his own path and accomplished a lot, including a steady collaboration with Hollywood because of his passion for film, his instinct for character-driven, quality storytelling, despite mostly gravitating in mainstream cinema (though let’s not forget films like The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas or Is Anybody There?) and a renowned first-hand involvement on the sets of his films, following the action up close and personal.

His latest success was last Christmas’ delightful adaptation of Brit-icon Paddington, from Michael Bond’s famous children’s books, which exceeded everyone’s expectations becoming a huge box office success and a critical darling, rare thing for family films, I assure you. Now that Paddington has recently been released on DVD and Blu-ray I’ve got the opportunity to chat with Mr. Heyman not just about his latest cinematic triumph with this adorably funny and witty gem of live action and CGI animation but also about his career as a producer and what it takes in order to get a shot in this business. Charming, funny and so British-gentlemanly, here’s some interesting insight from someone who knows what he’s talking about!

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Congratulations on the well deserved success of Paddington and for winning me over, since I admit I was quite skeptic, not just ’cause it’s not exactly my cup of tea but especially ’cause of its Britishness and the fact that in my homeland (Italy) it’s never been such an iconic thing. What did you think when you learned the film had become a hit? Is there a secret ingredient to what made it so special both with audiences and critics alike?

I’ve been asked this before about Potter and Gravity and the thing is, in the end, that I have no idea because if I did, I would bottle it and then repeat it. It’s not something you can buy off the shelves, it’s just something that happens. Anybody who says they know, are obviously fools, because nobody knows. In terms of why it connected with people, in hindsight, I think it’s that the film has a big beating heart and poses the question of whether we should all feel like outsiders one way or another. Paddington is very much about an outsider who finds a place to belong, he’s accepted for who he is and by doing so, he enriches the life of the people around him.

Was there more uncertainty than usual on the fate of the film at the box office?

Not really. I assume there was a little less uncertainty about Harry Potter 5 and even with that, we were making a slightly darker story and were wondering how it was going to be perceived. For me there’s always uncertainty, even on the day before a film comes out at the cinema but that gives you motivation to keep making something better.

What was the biggest challenge production-wise whilst making it?

Well, the first inevitable one was bringing Paddington to life organically in his moving, talking and being the center of the comedy and the beating heart of the film. It was challenging, uncertain and we couldn’t know until we’d done it. The other main challenge was adapting Michael Bond’s books that are short and could make ten minutes films whilst we had to create a narrative that extends over 90 minutes.

Colin Firth was originally cast as Paddington but then you agreed together that his voice wasn’t working out for the character and had to find a new actor with the release date approaching. Did you ever have anyone in mind as a back up all along?

We didn’t have anyone in mind because we didn’t feel comfortable until Colin was no longer involved. That was nerve-wracking because it was late in the process and we had to find someone but couldn’t delay the release so there was a huge time pressure. Colin was always the first choice; he’s warm and funny, he was wonderful in the part and it was just the timber of his voice that wasn’t right for the character. He’s a sensitive and brilliant actor and by casting him, at first we partly saw the opportunity to carry on the legacy of Michael Bond, the author of the books, who also narrated the British TV series and was in his 50s-60s, so we thought that would be good for Paddington but it wasn’t. Thankfully, in Ben Wishaw, we’ve been lucky to find the right person to replace such a great actor like Colin.

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS – PART 2

Given the success, is it fair to assume you are working on a Paddington sequel?

We’re discussing it and see if we can come up with stories and ideas that would make it worthwhile but we’ll only do it if we can find the right story to tell.

Considering your filmography and other projects in development or pre-production such as the Potter’s spin-off Fantastic Beasts, is there anything in particular that attracts you to the fantasy genre?

To be honest, I actually don’t really like fantasy and I’m not that interested in it. Harry Potter came by because I liked the character and it was about things I could relate to rather than the fantasy elements in it. We’ve all been to school, we’ve all felt like outsiders, we all would’ve wanted to go to a school like Hogwarts, so my interest was grabbed mostly by those elements.

Let’s talk a bit about your career. I was wondering if you recall having any epiphany about following the producing path.

Not really, there wasn’t any eureka moment. I just sort of fell into it. I’ve always loved film, began working in it and there was a time when I thought about leaving the business. I’ve worked at Warner Bros and then at United Artists but I was fired during the writers’ strike as part of the typical last-person-hired-first-one-let-go scenario that these situations create, so I went off traveling and started mulling over what I wanted to do. I wrestled with several ideas like becoming an art dealer or opening a restaurant but then I realized that I simply didn’t want to be in the system and become a studio head or an executive, I wanted to be independent. Now, obviously, as a producer, in a way, you’re always working for the people who are financing the film and you’re supporting the director, the crew and the talent but it’s different from working at a corporation.

Film Review Gravity

If you were asked some advice by aspiring filmmakers, writers and producers what would you tell them?

I think the essential thing is that you have to really do it. And you have to really want it because it’s very hard to accomplish and it’s easy to give up since you’re going to face rejection on a daily basis, so you have to really believe that this is something for you. Like Winston Churchill once said to a class of students, ‘I have nine words of advice I’d like to share with you: never give in, never give in, never give in.’ I think that’s so true and I’d like to add, don’t be frightened of being different, don’t do what everybody else is doing ’cause otherwise you won’t stand out. In other words, forge your own path and when it comes to storytelling, think about characters that are relatable.

Paddington is now out on DVD and Blu-ray

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor