For producer David Heyman discovering Harry Potter
was like finding his "Holy Grail"
9 November 2001
Each Monday morning David Heyman would make his way through
London’s Soho district, where big West End cinemas neighbour
seedy little strip joints and sex shops. He would climb the
stairs to modest offices, above the music stores of Denmark
Street, sit down with his staff of two, and trawl through lists
of possible film projects, searching for the one great idea
that might provide him with the blockbuster he so dearly wanted.
It was Heyman’s secretary Nisha Parti who first drew his attention
to a new children’s book, by an unknown author, that she had
read over the weekend. It was about a boy who goes to wizard
school. Parti did not get much further in her enthusiastic report
before Heyman decided this was his holy grail.
That was four years ago and a lot has happened since. Harry
Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was just the first instalment
in a series of books that have proved the great publishing phenomenon
of modern times, selling 100 million copies in more than 40
Heyman and his little company landed a deal to produce a film
version for Warner Brothers, with a budget of more than $100
million (100m dollars) and the sort of advance publicity that
guarantees blockbuster status. Principal photography begins
this month on a sequel, and there are plans for another five
Not bad for the producer whose last film was Ravenous,
the cannibal western that went through three directors and survived
the threat of Robert Carlyle and the rest of the cast walking
out, only to sink without trace at the box office.
"Harry Potter was one of the first projects that came across
my desk," says Heyman, in a spare moment between checking budgets,
storyboards and designs at Leavesden Studios, where the first
film shot in conditions of utmost secrecy. "I don’t think anybody
could have anticipated the level of success it would reach,
but I knew that it touched me, I knew that I was moved by it,
I knew that it made me laugh. It’s mythic."
Heyman is a Londoner who studied History and Art at Harvard,
before going off to India to find himself or something like
that. He was not the first Briton to catch a bug in an exotic,
far-off land, but in Heyman’s case it was the film-making bug.
While backpacking on the sub-continent, he got a job as a runner
on David Lean’s A Passage to India and decided his future lay
Heyman worked in Hollywood for ten years, as an executive with
Warner Brothers and United Artists, and as producer of several
obscure, low-budget, independent films, including the black
urban drama Juice and the family road movie The
Daytrippers. Returning to London, he set up Heyday Films
at the end of 1996, with the intention of concentrating on adaptations
Heyman had returned to England with a "first-look deal" with
Warner, meaning they would pay the bills for Denmark Street
in exchange for the chance to invest in any films he wanted
to make. It was his head of development Tanya Seghatchian who
spotted an item in the press about Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s
Stone in June 1997.
Can I have a free copy of Harry Potter, please?
Seghatchian was worried she was spending too much on books -
not that she was spending too much buying the rights to books,
but simply spending too much buying copies of books. "I rang
up the agent and thought I’ll introduce myself to the agent
and maybe he will give me a free copy... and sure enough he
gave me a copy," she tells me.
That initial copy was given to Nisha Parti to read and assess.
"She read it over the weekend," says Heyman. "I was the next
person to read it," he adds proprietorially. Heyman was enthralled
by the story of the orphaned boy, rescued from a life of suburban
drudgery with his uncle and aunt by a gentle giant called Hagrid,
who takes him off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
"I read a page and fell madly in love with it, couldn’t stop,"
says Heyman. "I read it that Monday night and it was out to
Warner Brothers that week."
He was the first producer to register an interest with Rowling
and her agent. "Before the hype" he says. Strange as it may
now seem, not everyone shared his belief in the book, either
at Warner or in the wider Hollywood community. He had one big
supporter at Warner, another English executive, Lionel Wigram,
but others were less sure. "I think they took a punt because
they believed in my passion," says Heyman.
"Negotiations took quite some time and in the course of that
negotiation other people came to the table," he adds, "but that
was after the book had gained some recognition." Heyman’s early
enthusiasm and his promise of fidelity to the printed word were
vital in Rowling agreeing to a deal with Warner at the end of
1997, giving them the rights to the first four books and options
on the final three in a projected series of seven.
At this stage only one book had appeared, but copies were beginning
to fly off book-shop shelves like magic broomsticks. Rowling
was able to secure a deal described as "fair" by Heyman and
reported as approaching $1 million (1m dollars) elsewhere -
loose change for Hollywood, but a phenomenal sum for a first-time
Unlike most authors, new or established, she also secured a
continuing say in the shape of the film. Heyman maintains he
does not know her exact contractual postion. "The fact is she’s
got a veto," he says, "in that we run everything by her and
take account of what she says." Premiere magazine reported that
"to hear cast and crew tell it, only the Delphic oracle gets
consulted with more reverence."
Rowling, who worked out the storyline for the entire series
of books in advance, did not want to write the script herself,
but would comment on every draft in turn. Many leading Hollywood
writers turned the assignment down. Some were wary of Rowling’s
continuing involvement; others simply did not get it.
Finally, the remit to write an "incredibly faithful" adaptation
was accepted by Steve Kloves, who wrote and directed the wistful
romantic comedy The Fabulous Baker Boys - memorable for Michelle
Pfeiffer’s slinky songstress sprawled over a piano, and scripted
the under-rated Michael Douglas drama Wonder Boys.
How Steve Kloves broke the ice with Rowlings
Rowling still seemed reluctant to let another writer touch her
work, even though she would be standing over him every step
of the way. "I was really ready to hate this Steve Kloves,"
she says. "The first time I met him, he said to me, ‘You know
who my favourite character is?’" Rowling was sure he would try
to prove his coolness by preferring the happy-go-lucky Ron to
Harry. "I thought, ‘You’re gonna say Ron, I know you’re gonna
say Ron.’" But Kloves wrong-footed her and opted for the studious
Hermione, a character who bears some similarity to Rowling herself.
"I found her hysterically funny, frustrating, annoying and brillaint,"
says Kloves. "I just kind of melted," says Rowling.
Spielberg off list of potential directors
Within two years of initial publication, Harry Potter was
a huge seller in the US too and contemporary cinema’s most successful
exponent Steven Spielberg entered the frame. Spielberg had a
series of discussions with Rowling, Heyman and Warner executives.
He suggested the film should become a co-production with his
DreamWorks company, and Haley Joel Osment, the young American
star of The Sixth Sense, should play Harry. Then the rumours
really took off: there was talk of relocating the story in the
United States or alternatively that the film could be made as
a computer-animated movie, like Toy Story. Computer effects
were always going to play a vital role in the film, particularly
in the realisation of Quidditch, a fast and furious team game
played on flying broomsticks. Why not just go the whole way
and dispense with the actors?
Warner was keen to get Spielberg on board, but his ideas were
met with indifference and hostility by Heyman and Rowling, who
not only wanted to shoot in England, but wanted an all-British
cast. "There were things he said that I didn’t agree with, there
were things he said that I did agree with," says Rowling. When
push came to shove, it was the Oscar-winning director who dropped
out, not the single mum from Edinburgh,
who famously wrote in a local cafe, because a cup of coffee
was cheaper than heating her flat.
With Spielberg out of the picture, other leading directors were
mooted, including Robert Zemeckis and Rob Reiner, though the
final short leet consisted of Terry Gilliam (from Monty Python),
Ivan Reitman (director of Ghostbusters), Brad Silberling (Casper)and
Chris Columbus, who had young children and had proved he could
work with juveniles when directing Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire.
The candidates were invited to an interview panel, a normal
procedure for most jobs, but not something to which top Hollywood
directors normally subject themselves. What finally swung it
for Columbus was not his relationship with kids, but his relationship
with the paying public, who have flocked to his movies, which
impressed the Warner brass, and his pledge to remain faithful
to the books, which impressed Rowling - rather more than the
suggestion from another director that the film might benefit
from the introduction of a few cheerleaders.
The soft option?
Columbus was a controversial choice with fans who saw little
in his fluffy comedies to reassure them he could handle the
darker elements of the stories. Columbus was well aware he had
something to prove. "Over the years, people, particularly the
media, have implied that I’ve gone soft, because I’ve directed
some sentimental films... Once I got those stories out of my
system, I wanted to go back to where I was when I started out
as a writer, which is a much darker place... This was the film
that I was destined to do, that I had spent all those years
directing and writing and preparing for."
Columbus, whose earlier work includes the script of Gremlins,
insists he was particularly influenced by British films. "I’ve
always been a big fan of British cinema, everything from David
Lean pictures, comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets, emotional
dramas like A Man for All Seasons, and particularly the Hammer
horror films, which I adored. I found them very atmospheric
and evocative. I grew up watching these films and they influence
my early writing."
Rowling supposedly favoured Gilliam, but later said: "Let’s
just put it this way: I am very happy with the director we’ve
got." It was an unusual relationship for a director and author,
with Rowling proposing actors and Columbus endorsing her choices.
"A lot of these same actors came into my head while reading
the book," he says.
Big Robbie on board
Columbus’s appointment was announced in March last year, but
with no cast confirmed the anticipated summer start date was
looking less and less likely. Rowling suggested Robbie Coltrane,
the burly Scottish star of television’s Cracker, as Hagrid,
Heyman considered Coltrane "perfect" and he was the first actor
cast in an adult role. "There was no question of me not doing
it," says Coltrane. "My son would have killed me."
He too considered Rowling’s continuing involvement invaluable
when he was finding it difficult getting to grips with his character.
"She said ‘Well, think of him as one of those really big Hell’s
Angels that gets off a motorbike and then starts talking about
how his garden is coming.’" Coltrane was joined at Hogwarts
by a distinguished line-up of British acting talent including
Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, John Cleese and
Who will be Harry?
For the principal roles of Harry and his friends, the film-makers
wanted a young cast who could reprise their roles in the later
films. More than 40,000 boys applied to be Harry, but few had
the qualities for which the film-makers were looking and Jamie
Bell, the charismatic star of Billy Elliot, was, after careful
consideration, ruled out as too old.
It was late August, just a month before the start of principal
photography, before 11-year-old Daniel Radcliffe was introduced
to the world’s press in the round spectacles of the world’s
most famous apprentice wizard. Heyman and Kloves spotted him
during a visit to the theatre - not on stage, but in the audience.
Heyman knew his father. And he knew the son from his appearance
in the title role in a BBC adaptation of David Copperfield.
Heyman had previously been attracted by Radcliffe’s "Everyboy"
quality. He had told his casting director he wanted to meet
him, only to be informed the family were not interested. Now
Heyman had the chance to make a personal approach.
Heyman was working up to 20 hours a day in the final run-up
to production, but believes it will all be worthwhile. Heyday
Films may have scrounged the initial copy of Harry Potter and
the Philosopher’s Stone for free, but Heyman subsequently forked
out for several hundred to send to film people, beginning with
the writers who showed so little enthusiasm for the project.
They now have a Harry Potter first edition. By the time the
film went into production it was more valuable than first editions
of Burns and Stevenson, with a set of all four novels fetching
£23,500.(23,500 pounds) "And you know what?" says Heyman. "I
don’t have one." But he is getting a film instead. And it should
be worth a lot more.
"Ravenous was the worst experience of my career and this has
been the best... Every day I come to work with a smile on my
face," he adds. With further episodes stretching away into a
golden future, Heyman has good reason to smile.
is author of The
Legend of the Planet of the Apes (Boxtree)
Read the review of Harry Potter and the Philospher's Stone