It was to be a major big-screen reboot of one of the most loved children's books of all time, but numerous stories of unpaid wages, accidents on sets with "little or no" health and safety, and a "shambolic" shoot across three countries have left many of the cast and crew who worked on 'Heidi: Queen of the Mountain' wishing they'd never accepted the job offer.
In the 136 years since it was first published, Swiss author Johanna Spyri’s children’s book Heidi — the much-adored story of a plucky orphan girl raised in the Alps by her grandfather — has been adapted for screen numerous times.
Shirley Temple played the curly-haired titular character in a 1937 film version, while NBC’s made-for-TV movie famously interrupted a 1968 Oakland Raiders versus New York Jets football game (the subsequent angry calls crashed the network’s phone system). Thanks to a hugely popular 1974 Japanese anime series, the tale was brought to a whole new legion of fans in Asia (Japanese and Korean tourists make up the bulk of visitors to Switzerland’s rather kitschy Heidiland theme park), while just two years ago StudioCanal backed the latest German-language adaptation, with Bruno Ganz as the grandfather.
But few of the numerous adaptations can claim to have had such a troublesome ride as the as-yet-unfinished Heidi: Queen of the Mountain. The film, which started production in Manchester in the U.K. in 2015 before moving to rural Spain and later Mumbai, sees Bill Nighy as the neckerchief-sporting grandfather, while newcomer Sam Allison, previously seen on stage in musical adaptations of Billy Elliot and Matilda, plays the lead. Other stars include Helen Baxendale (Cold Feet, Friends), Olivia Grant (Stardust, Indian Summers) and Emilia Fox (The Pianist, The Casual Vacancy).
Despite the jolly nature of the film, The Hollywood Reporter has learned that the production has been beset with complaints and legal activity, with a trail of extremely disgruntled employees at every location. Scores of unpaid wages and bills, an ever-changing lineup behind the scenes as crewmembers left or were sacked (often without replacement), and general chaos on set — the shoot was labeled “shambolic” by one senior worker — are just some of the charges leveled against Heidi. Interviews with multiple crewmembers have also revealed dangerous working conditions, numerous accidents — some serious — and a general lack of concern for the welfare of both cast and crew. Most only agreed to speak on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
At the epicenter of it all sits Indian entrepreneur Sheetal Talwar, who is producing the film through his WSG banner and financing via his Vistaar investment group. Vistaar, which has offices in Manchester, was co-founded by Talwar and his wife, Bhavna Talwar, who happens to be directing the film.
At this year’s Berlin Film Festival, a 10-minute promo of Heidi was shown, with Bhavna Talwar telling the audience of buyers that they could expect delivery in December 2017, and that the film was set to be the first in a trilogy. At the same presentation, producer Simon Wright, who first developed and packaged the project with writer Paul Watson before the Talwars became involved, added that Heidi “hadn’t been done well for a number of years.”
For many of those who have worked on the current project, Heidi: Queen of the Mountain hasn’t exactly raised the bar.
In the U.K., THR has spoken to numerous former crewmembers claiming they are owed money, with figures heading into the tens of thousands of pounds. Several have started legal action or have been working with BECTU, the U.K. crewmembers' union (which had already put Heidi on its blacklist of productions to avoid). From Spain, THR has seen details of missing payments of more than 105,000 euros ($111,000), ranging from a few hundred euros for a hairdresser up to 18,000 euros ($19,000) for grip rentals.
When THR met Sheetal Talwar in Berlin, he disputed the amount of people with legitimate claims, citing “contractual” disputes, and outright denied there were any outstanding payments left in Spain. The producer estimated that the figure being contested was around 200,000 pounds ($250,000), a “small fraction” for a film he said has a budget of some 20 pounds million ($25 million). This budget was quickly questioned by several senior execs who had worked on Heidi, one suggesting he’d be surprised if it was as high as $5 million, another saying that such was the lack of transparency it was a “constant battle” to find the right number. “Every time I hear someone it’s a different figure,” added another.
A little over a month after THR first reported on trouble on the Heidi set, a sizable number of new allegations have emerged. THR once again reached out to Talwar, and after a number of cancelations — including one when he said he was near the latest London terror attack March 22 at the time he was supposed to call — he repeated his denial. However, he admitted that he had been shown a “new list” of figures from Spain that “somehow had got missed,” but insisted they have since been paid.
One senior source among the crew in Spain instantly labeled these rebuttals “complete bullshit,” echoing tens of others across two continents who say they are still chasing payments and reject Talwar’s claims that he’s always available to discuss grievances. Many say they’ve been emailing and calling for months without a reply. And it’s not an experience solely reserved for those behind the camera.
A group of actors who worked in Mumbai said they only received payments — and only half of what was originally agreed on and some five months late — after their casting agency stepped in with legal threats. Several also complained of being coerced into working extra days for no extra pay and expected to spend whole days in fitting for free (being asked to do urgent work not listed on a contract and then not being paid for it is a running theme across all departments THR has spoken to).
As it turns out, the British actors' union Equity has been involved regarding unpaid fees. THR has seen evidence of more than 137,000 pounds ($171,000) of wages being chased, a letter dated Dec. 2, 2016, and addressed to Talwar that said it would be “prepared to commence legal action on behalf of our members” unless payment was made in full by Dec. 9.
On Equity’s list are several senior castmembers, including Olivia Grant and Emilia Fox. One source close to the cast told THR that Grant said she would quit the production over the unpaid fees, and that Talwar had threatened her with legal action in response, something he acknowledges, but says erupted purely over “interpretations of her contract.” THR reached out to Grant's reps for comment.
A list sent by Talwar indicates claims of £72,000 in “cast payments outstanding.” He asserts that THR has its “figures wrong,” and that he’s in touch with Equity on a daily basis. “The written contract was clear that this would be paid on completion of filming,” he says, adding that Equity and he came to an amicable agreement on bringing some of the payments forward. "We said we were happy to do it."
For the record, while Equity tells THR that “good faith negotiations” have taken place since the letter was first sent, it confirms these payments have still not been made. One castmember also tells THR that there was “no mention” of being paid on completion.
Away from missing wages, there have been numerous stories of dangerous working conditions on set, with many claiming that there was a flagrant disregard for matters of health and safety.
In February, THR reported the tragic death from a heart attack of an Indian grip (one of a number of Indian workers sent to Spain), but there has been no suggestion of any malpractice in this instance.
However, a member of the costume team was forced to leave the Spanish production after being seriously hurt when she was struck by a tent (in an area another crewmember says was “known for being dangerously windy”), leaving her unable to work for several months after.
Isabella Artitzone, who served as assistant costume designer in Spain until she resigned, says that accidents on set were happening “all the time,” especially on the mountain where they were shooting (where, on another note, the nearest toilet was more than a mile away).
Among the injured was another colleague in the costume department, who slipped and was forced to work off set (before eventually quitting), claims Artitzone, while she adds that Helen Baxendale was one of the castmembers who fell.
Another source added that only when Sheetal Talwar himself slipped and fell over was a “small hand rail commissioned to be put up.”
On one occasion in the village of Mogrovejo in the Cantabria region where much of the production took place (a village one source said was “turned upside down” in the process, and was a “pain in the ass” for everyone living there), despite heavy rain followed by high winds, the producers were determined to continue shooting, so they had tarpaulin sheets put up, held by pieces of wood.
“All of the cast came down to rehearse, but a huge gust of wind came, with the wood splintering and shards darting towards the cast,” says Artitzone. “After that, the cast refused to come back on set until it was safe.”
When Talwar himself indicated that all was safe and they should continue shooting, "at that moment a massive shard of wood missed him by half a meter,” Artitzone adds.
“It was breathtaking in its lack of health and safety,” said another experienced former crewmember. “The whole thing was a complete farce.”
In India, while the Film City studios in Mumbai ensured weather conditions weren’t a factor, there were other matters to contend with.
Several of those who reached out to THR described the “horrific” conditions they faced. “Filthy, smelly, dangerous...leads and wires were everywhere,” said one, another adding that there was “little or no health and safety.” A number discussed the horror of seeing "rats and rats droppings" in the canteen area (catering issues were raised in both India and Spain, with food poisoning not uncommon).
THR has seen pictures of walkways for the lighting crew being held up by ropes (“a bracket fell down onto the set,” said one source), while a scene involving a “very slippery” staircase with “steep, polishing steps and low handrails” was the focus of much concern. “We found it so frightening as we were not allowed to look down where we were walking — and we had to do this eight or nine times before the director was satisfied.”
Talwar asserts that the studio, owned by Reliance, was the “number one studio in India” and that there was a doctor and ambulance on set at all times (sending THR invoices to display as much). But many of those working there said they were never told who the medic was, and the standard practice of handing out call sheets with the necessary details on was ignored. One even requested a copy and was told they “weren’t allowed them.”
When tackling accusations on Heidi, Talwar is keen to point out a track record in the industry that includes a number of production credits, with such films as the 2015 Nazi trial drama The Eichmann Show, starring Martin Freeman, 2009’s Demi Moore and Amber Heard-starring family comedy-drama The Joneses and upcoming Orlando Bloom-led priest abuse drama Romans on his catalog.
But a quick scratch below the surface reveals that Heidi isn’t the first project where serious issues have arisen.
In 2010, reports emerged of a number of crewmembers battling for payment for their work on the Bollywood film Mausam after scenes were shot in Scotland, while a year earlier a legal tussle erupted between Talwar and the producer Nicola Scott over the film Good Sharma after Talwar refused to release the Indian footage. Even on Romans, currently in post, THR has heard of one senior executive “owed thousands” by the producer.
Speaking to THR, Philip Clarke, an executive producer on The Eichmann Show, said that dealing with Talwar was the “worst year of my working life,” adding that the 365,000 pounds ($456,000) he had eagerly promised when he came on board as an investor was whittled down by more than half to 175,000 pounds.
“Not one payment was made on time. Every time we were begging for it, and we were constantly on the edge of running out of money,” he says. “But we couldn’t afford to fight him in court.”
Being unable to meet the legal costs to fight Sheetal Talwar is something not unique to Clarke, with several of those who worked on Heidi saying that the producer is extremely happy to flex his considerable financial muscle when it comes to lawyers fees.
Speaking to THR while in Berlin, Nigel “Archie” Knowles, who helped build sets in Manchester, said that Talwar had run up legal costs of $30,000, considerably more than the $11,000 Knowles was fighting to be paid. Another said that he “doesn’t care about spending.”
Talwar claims the reason he’s willing to spend such figures on legal costs is because he’s not prepared to pay anything he believes is an “incorrect payment.”
Scores of cast and crew only agreed to speak to THR off the record because of ongoing cases, either individually or via their unions, or simply because they feared the chances of ever being paid would dramatically reduce the second their name was seen in print. Alarmingly, several claim they fear reprisals from Talwar. “Everyone is scared of getting sued by him,” says one, another adding that “his favorite hobby is litigation.”
In response to this, Talwar says that he doesn’t “enjoy litigating,” but adds that he doesn’t want anyone to “take him for a ride.”
“When it comes to a position that our principles are being challenged and we’re being challenged on what is legally our right, I will not let our legal rights move,” he adds.
However, Talwar may come up against a force with somewhat larger legal clout.
THR has seen evidence that complaints regarding the production of Heidi have been passed to the British tax department HMRC. With the film having taken advantage of the U.K.’s generous tax credit system (with accounts indicating that 800,000 pounds has been claimed so far), should any of the unpaid invoices from those claiming to be owed money be found to have been put through the books, it would be a far more serious affair than simply dealing with unions.
If and how Heidi: Queen of the Mountain gets completed remains to be seen. Talwar claims there’s another week of production remaining in Spain — “we’re figuring it out, it’ll be some time in the summer” — before post, but several sources who worked on the film say there’s a lot more to shoot (one suggesting as much as 25 percent), assuming the necessary crew can be found.
“Nobody is going to work for this guy,” says one who has been in touch with many of those involved in the first stages of production. By contrast, Talwar says he expects to be working with “more or less the same crew,” although he admits some might not be available.
“I’m here to make films,” Talwar explains. “[Heidi] is not my first film, it’s not my last film.”