November 17, 2010

Producer creates cultural phenomenon

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies at 4:19 am by dinaheng

No one has lived with the “Harry Potter” film franchise longer than producer David Heyman, who discovered J.K. Rowling’s first book in 1997, and took the project to Warner Bros.

For the last decade, the filmmaker and his team have kept the cast intact, and created blockbusters that have pulled in $5.7 billion at theaters worldwide, not to mention home video sales, retail products, exhibitions, and more.

Now that the first installment of the final film — “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1” — is ready to hit U.S. theaters this Frdiay, Heyman is saying a long good-bye to the series that has become a cultural phenomenon. For in reality, the good-byes began when the last scene of the final film was shot six months ago, and will continue next year when the second half of the final film is released in July.

“We were all aware that the end was nigh when we shot that last scene,” says Heyman, sitting in a room at Claridge’s Mayfair hotel in London. “We all felt the end was quite distant when we began, but suddenly, it was very affecting. It was the realization that the family would go away, and would never be together the way we were again.”

The family behind the films included not only an adolescent cast that has grown into adults, but Rowling, directors Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron, Mike Newell, David Yates, producer David Barron, Warner Bros. executives, a veritable Who’s Who of British thespians, and the talented crew behind the camera.

While the films are loved around the world, the British people hold special pride in the “Potter” films, and rightly so.

“That it has become what it’s become is unbelievable,” Heyman says, the day after “Deathly Hallows, Part 1” premiered in London. “Leicester Square (where the film premiered) was bananas. The devotion of the British fans is amazing. There’s a certain pride of ownership.

“This is a British book, and in a way, the films have become more British over time. (Director) Mike Newell had been to a school like Hogwarts, so he could relate to it. There’s a cultural specificity, but a universality, to it. We’ve all been to school, but this school authentically is very British, and there’s a real sense that this is ours. I’m not at all nationalistic, but we have — in front of and behind the camera — some of the best talent in the world.”

The universal themes and characters found in the “Harry Potter” series are key to the franchise’s success. Heyman notes that we all have had teachers we loved and teachers we haven’t loved. We’ve all had friends, and know people who are not what they seem.

“The images of fundamentalism are part of this world,” Heyman says. “Voldemort is a fundamentalist who knows only hatred. There are a lot of connections to World War II and the Nazis. The books are about outsiders, and there’s a political subtext within the films because of what Jo’s written.”

Heyman, who lived in the United States for 17 years, was educated in the United States and England. He is a former creative executive at Warner Bros., working on films including “GoodFellas” and “Gorillas in the Mist,” as well as a vice president at United Artists in the late 1980s.

Heyman returned to the U.K. in 1996 to become an independent producer, and decided to make books the center of his development.

“My secretary read ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ and brought it to my attention,” Heyman says. “I fell in love with it, and thought it would be a nice, modest British film. I had a first look deal with Warner Bros., and sent it to Lionel Wigram (a production executive there). What resulted came from a lot of luck, being in the right place at the right time, and trusting my instincts.”

He notes that Rowling was a perfect partner in the effort to bring what she created on the page to the big screen, understanding that there’s a big difference between writing novels and screenwriting. The producer credits her with sharing essential information about characters and plot points to come, without giving away the ending to the series.

Being an avid reader himself, Heyman says the books he read and the films he saw when he was 10 to 11 years old have made him who he is today, and he hopes that the “Potter” films will have a similar positive effect on future audiences.

“The films are very entertaining, but they’re also about something,” Heyman says. “They’re truthful, and are intellectually engaging. I feel privileged to have worked on ‘Harry Potter’ for more than a decade. It has been inspiring, challenging, and an awful lot of fun.”

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