'Harry Potter' Producer Reveals Secrets Behind 'Fantastic Beasts' Film

David Heyman - H 2016
AP Photo/Joel Ryan

David Heyman, who will be honored at Saturday's Producers Guild Awards, talks to THR about the biggest difference between the forthcoming movie and the Potter franchise.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

David Heyman, who will be honored with the David O. Selznick Achievement Award at the 27th annual Producers Guild Awards, has something of a magic touch, quite literally, when it comes to building family-friendly franchises. In 1997, the London-based producer scooped up the film rights to J.K. Rowling’s first, not-yet-published Harry Potter novel. He went on to shepherd all eight of the films in the $7.8 billion franchise. He then reunited with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban director Alfonso Cuaron for the space epic Gravity, which won seven Oscars and earned $723.2 million worldwide.

Heyman, 54, launched a second family franchise with The Weinstein Co.’s Paddington (a sequel is aiming to hit theaters in 2017), produced a pair of Alicia Vikander-starring love stories (Testament of Youth and the upcoming The Light Between Oceans) and next returns to the Potterverse with Warner Bros.’ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, starring Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, a wizard cataloging magical creatures, which will hit theaters in November.

Why did you decide to return to the world of Harry Potter?

It was exciting to move on and to embrace new challenges with Gravity and Paddington, but when it finished, there was a not-insignificant sadness because [the Potter films] had been such a big part of my life. Jo Rowling created such an incredibly rich and deeply conceived world. What you read in the books is in some ways just the surface of this world. I’d ask her about the [character Sirius Black’s] family tree because we had to paint it on the wall [for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix], and the book only had two names, and half an hour later I’d receive a family tree going back six generations with 100 people. I’m sure Newt Scamander and his story have been in her mind for many years. We were sitting around wondering what else we could do in this world, and [producer] Lionel Wigram, who is the person I first brought the first [Potter] book to, thought about maybe doing a documentary about Newt. That idea was floated to Jo, and she responded to doing a film about [that character].

Is Beasts designed as a franchise?

We’ve talked about making a couple, but with all these things — and this may be a failing of mine — I don’t look at them as franchises; I look at them as films. We want to make each film as good as we can because if you don’t, you won’t have a second film or a third.

What’s the biggest difference between Fantastic Beasts and the Harry Potter films?

Not having to work children’s hours. (Laughs.) And it’s set in 1920s New York as opposed to the U.K. in the ’90s.

Many of your films have been based on books. Are you a voracious reader?

I love to read. I read for pleasure and I read for work. For me, books have always been a source of great films, from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Godfather to Strangers on a Train. There’s a long list of great book adaptations. It just happens to be one of the areas I focus my attention on. That being said, what’s most important to me is stories that move me and stories I connect to. Many of my films are about outsiders because in some way I think we all feel like outsiders, whether it’s Harry Potter or Paddington. I’m not sure I realized that going in, but looking back on the films that I made, I see that continuum.

What’s the biggest challenge facing producers today?

There is this emphasis on big, big films — which obviously I’ve been a part of — and the window is closing on low- to midbudget dramas, which are the reason that I got into the film business. Those American films of the 1970s or the European films of the ’60s and ’70s — that’s what I grew up on. Those stories about morally ambiguous characters where the world is very gray. Yes, those films sometimes get made, but it’s harder and harder. I think also the biggest challenge is there is so much competing for people’s attention. There’s great television; we’re in this golden age. I’m hoping to work in television. I’m probably one of the last people to come to the table, but hopefully there’s a little room left. I also think that technology is such that you can make films on an iPhone, you can edit on your computer, you can distribute yourself in some ways. Of course the challenge remains of how you get heard with the immeasurable amount of entertainment choices available.

Do you have a project that’s been stuck in development that you still hope to make?

I have the rights with Warner Bros. to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a wonderful book by Mark Haddon. Steve Kloves, who is such a brilliant writer and director, has been talking about it, but he’s been so busy [producing] The Jungle Book and Fantastic Beasts. I’m hoping there will come a time before too long where that film will see the light of day because it’s something that I love and moves me.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started in this business?

It’s something I know but I struggle to do: not take it all personally. On the one hand I think it’s important to take it all personally because you have to fight to the bitter end to make it as good as it can be, but at the same time, as one faces rejection on a daily basis, it can be hard at times.