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Producer is proud papa to 'Harry Potter'

David Heyman isn't the movie franchise's best-known name, but he's at

July 21, 2009|Geoff Boucher

WATFORD, ENGLAND — Like a proud father, David Heyman, the producer of the "Harry Potter" films, reached for a box of photographs when a visitor asked him about the young stars of the history-making franchise.

"They are not my own children, obviously, but they are like nephews and nieces or perhaps godchildren, and I feel really protective of them," Heyman said as he sat in his office at the converted aviation factory here that serves as the movie set for the "Potter" series. "Here, look at this one -- this is a photo taken the day the boys met. No one's really seen this before. They were taking a little walk together to get know one another . . . ."

The black-and-white snapshot showed "Potter" stars Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint as chubby-cheeked adolescents strolling side by side, their eyes cast down to their shadows. Heyman took the photo in 2000. Much has happened since then. Those meek boys are now world-famous young men, and their sixth film together, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," has, since its Wednesday opening, racked up more than $400 million worldwide. For those keeping track, that means the saga of the Hogwarts school is closing in on a staggering $5 billion in lifetime box office.

At the very center of the franchise is the erudite Heyman, the 47-year-old London native who has been the architect of the franchise from Day One. On the set in Watford, outside London, Heyman has been the steady steward for a massive franchise that has employed four different directors but chugged along with a remarkable lack of friction or frenzy, as least by all outward appearances.

That's not to say the going has been entirely smooth. Heyman, who prides himself on his affinity for "Potter" fans, found himself with a muggle revolt last year when Warner Bros. abruptly postponed "Half-Blood Prince" for eight months to better position the film in the marketplace. He agreed with the logic and praises Warners as a partner but added: "I won't kid you. My heart sank when they came to me with the idea."

Heyman and company have also struggled mightily to keep the large cast intact and their paydays manageable in a franchise that makes a mountain of money but also fills entire valleys with the fortune spent on salaries, effects and marketing.

Over two interviews -- one last year on the movie set and one last week in Santa Monica -- the producer explained that his success has been keyed by keeping the veteran "Potter" crew largely intact and somewhat sequestered on the Watford set, which, he says "remains a place of pride but no ego, more like an academy, which it plays on screen."

He also enjoyed the kind of luck that makes you believe in magic.

Heyman had studied art history at Harvard, and after stints in L.A. and New York he was back in London with a plan: "I wanted to make films based on books. I'm passionate about books, and you need passion in this business because it can be brutal."

In late 1997, a copy of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" (its title would be tweaked for its U.S. release) came through the office and was quickly banished to the shelf for low-priority prospects. A secretary happened to pluck it from the pile and took it home for a weekend. Her favorable review got Heyman to look past "the rubbish title." He fell in love with the book and snatched up the rights.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2000. J.K. Rowling's books were a sensation and Heyman was seven months into his increasingly anxious search for a lead actor.

"One night, looking for a break, I went to the theater with Steve Kloves, the screenwriter who has written five of the six films. There sitting behind me was this boy with these big blue eyes. It was Dan Radcliffe. I remember my first impressions: He was curious and funny and so energetic. There was real generosity too, and sweetness. But at the same time he was really voracious and with hunger for knowledge of whatever kind."

He coaxed the youngster's parents into bringing him by for an audition. "I watched that audition tape recently -- we'll be putting it on one of the DVD releases -- and I barely recognized him."

The casting of Radcliffe as Harry, Grint as Ron Weasley and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger is especially impressive in hindsight. The trio's selection was arguably one of the best show-business decisions over the past decade, considering the instant risks and eventual rewards. Critics are praising their acting in this latest film as a leap forward for each of them, and, more than that, they have shown admirable grace and steadiness in the face of teen superstardom. In other words, there wasn't a Britney in the bunch.

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