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Harry Potter producer David Heyman will produce Alibaba Pictures’ film adaptation of the children’s book series Warriors.
The collaboration came about when China’s Alibaba Pictures acquired the rights to the British book series about four clans of wild cats. There are 36 books in the main series of the novels, penned by a writing team under the name of Erin Hunter and published since 2003, which have sold over 30 million copies worldwide.
The first live-action film with computer-generated characters will be an origin story, which follows the path of main character Rusty, a pet cat raised by humans, and his joining a wild cat clan in the forest, Heyman told The Hollywood Reporter in Beijing.
“He’s stigmatized, he’s an outsider, he is not from the forest, he’s lived in the comfort of a human home,” Heyman said of Rusty. “So it’s about him getting acclimatized into this place, earning his place in spite of great prejudice against him and ultimately rising up.”
Heyman and Alibaba have not a placed a number on how many adaptations they will make of the novels. “The interesting thing about the books is there are such a lot of narratives. And the books are still being written, so there will be as many films as long as we can keep telling interesting stories and the audience is receptive of it. We’ll keep on making it,” said the producer.
Heyman said the first film could be in any language and not necessarily an English-language or Chinese-language film. “The beauty of it is there are no humans walking around in the stories. What you have is you have cats. Cats are not specific to any country,” he said. “Though I suspect it’d probably be set in a forest in the U.K., because the authors are British. We may use actors anywhere. It’s too early to tell, but we’re open to all possibilities.”
The film will be a China-U.K. co-production between Alibaba and Heyman’s Heyday Films. “The thing I love about this is that it will be an authentic collaboration between China and England,” said Heyman. “There are too many inauthentic collaborations between the U.S. and China, which feel contrived. They are arranged or false marriages. And this feels so organic, where we can use talent from both countries. And not just U.K. and China, it can be from France, from the U.S., wherever the talent is, we can use it.”
The film will not be using motion capture for the cats’ performance. “I think motion capture works best when there are humanoid characters — two arms, two legs,” said Heyman. “If you’re doing a cat, it doesn’t work. What we’ll do is to film actors for reference, like what we did in Paddington.”
Heyman is now trying to find a screenwriter to adapt the books. “There are six books in the first series. It’s important that we find a way so that the films doesn’t feel episodic … like a unified story,” he said.
The budget of the film is not yet set, said Alibaba president Zhang Wei. “We have to find a screenwriter, and we’ll look at the cost of filming and visual effects, to set a budget. What we know is we will use the best resources, the best team,” he said.
Heyman, producer of the Harry Potter film series, spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Paddington and The Light Between Oceans, sought out Alibaba Pictures two years ago. “I met with Alibaba, and I learned more about Alibaba and the culture of Alibaba, which was remarkable to me. I felt like I should go work for Alibaba,” he said. “It was such an inspiring meeting, not just because of the brilliance of their business, but because of the human nature of their business. It’s about connecting people and community. I think that is what we try and do in films. And I found with the people I met a kindred spirit. It’s very surprising, when you meet with people who might finance films — all they care about is money. I understand, it’s called the film business. But there is no business unless there is heart. And I think what interests me in this collaboration is that we share a desire to tell a human story, made with cats, but to tell a human story that is emotion, frightening, funny, generous. That, to me, is what excited me.”
China is eager to sell to the world its soft power through films, as evident in the upcoming English-language production by Zhang Yimou, The Great Wall, and Wanda’s investment in Hollywood. “Everybody wants to get into China, and China wants its culture out there,” said Heyman. “It’s not easy; there are different techniques in storytelling. Even though there is a lot of common ground emotionally and spiritually, and thematically. So I believe it is possible, and I believe what is great about this Warriors adaptation is that it’s not Chinese, it’s not British, it’s both. And so it’s the very best way for that soft power to be expressed.”
As for the recently released Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Heyman said dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald, played by Johnny Depp, would be central to the story in the next four films. He was surprised when J.K. Rowling announced it would be a five-film series. “When Jo Rowling began, it was going to be three films,” said Heyman. “Halfway writing the first, she said, ‘I’m going to write the first, and somebody else writes the next two.’ Because it’s hard, it’s much more collaborative writing a screenplay than writing a novel. Then by the end of the script, she said, ‘I’m going to write the next two.’ She’s now writing the second film. And halfway through writing the second, she said, ‘I’m enjoying this. There is much more story to tell.’ That’s when she decided it was five. I’m not complaining. I love being in that world, it’s a wonderful world to play in. Jo Rowling’s wizarding world is very rich.”
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