Berlin: 'Heidi: Queen of the Mountain' Faces Accusations Over Missing Payments to Crew

Bhavna Talwar - H 2017 - Getty

U.K. unions have stepped in, while several crewmembers have claimed there are "a lot of people owed money," something disputed by producer Sheetal Vinod Talwar.

With lush green hills, cute goats in flowery bonnets and Bill Nighy bellowing the titular character’s name from the doorstep of an idyllic log cabin, Heidi: Queen of the Mountain — for which a 10-minute promo was shown at the EFM — looks like one of the more cutesy, family-friendly titles battling for buyers’ spends in Berlin.

But behind the scenes, there has been a less cheery chorus of dissent from crewmembers who worked on the as-yet-incomplete production from Indian banner WSG, based on the much-loved (and much-adapted) 1881 children’s book from Johanna Spyri.

Last year, BECTU, the U.K. crewmembers union, published a story in its in-house magazine, Stage, Screen and Radio, asserting several of its members were owed money, also highlighting that there had been complaints of “poor treatment" on the set of the film, being directed by Bhavna Talwar (Dharm).

The claims were echoed by several contacted by The Hollywood Reporter, most of who wanted to remain anonymous because of ongoing or pending legal cases against WSG Film Heidi, the Special Purpose Vehicle subsidiary company set up in the U.K. for the film. Heidi producer Sheetal Vinod Talwar (The Eichmann Show, The Joneses), also the husband of Bhavna Talwar, is the sole director of WSG Film Heidi.

“There are a lot of people owed money,” said one senior crewmember who worked with the production, which began in Manchester, U.K., before moving to rural Spain and later India. “I know [Talwar’s] attitude to people and not paying bills: 'Let them take me to court, I’ve got money to burn.'”

Nigel “Archie” Knowles, who worked building the set in Manchester, says he has a court case pending over an outstanding payment of £9,000 ($11,000). He says Talwar has already run up legal fees of £24,000 ($30,000) rather than settle the case.

“This is just my story. Times that by 50 odd and you’ve got the number of people who are after money from him," he says. "He’s paid some people but there are a massive list of unpaid people. At some stage, this list is going to come to light."

Even more alarming, on set in Spain — which one former crewmember said was “shambolic,” with crew allegedly walking off after several days (something Talwar denies) — an Indian grip tragically died of a heart attack while working one morning.

Speaking to THR in Berlin, Talwar said the death was “clearly unfortunate,” adding that the grip had worked with him from his very first film and that he “died of natural causes.”

Regarding the payments, he said the amount being disputed was "under £200,000 ($250,000)," a small fraction of the film’s reported budget of nearly $25 million. But others have contested this budget. One exec who worked on the film said it “was a constant battle about what was the right number."

Talwar denies that there are scores of claims against him, putting the number closer to 13 or 14. He said there are “no payments pending” from Spain, where one former Heidi crewmember said he saw evidence of outstanding monies “in the region of €125,000. ($133,000)." According to Talwar, he's actually "invested £3 million ($3.75 million)" in a deprived part of the country.

A winding-up order over unpaid bills was issued against WSG Film Heidi by Peel Holdings, the U.K. real estate conglomerate that owns MediaCityUK in Manchester, home to Talwar's 20,000 square-foot office for his production company Vistaar and The Pie Factory, the studio space where much of Heidi's interior scenes were shot.

"He's obviously paid that," said one crewmember. "He’s paying bills for people who have more teeth."

However, Talwar claims the issue with Peel was simply over "lost bills" going to the wrong address, adding that he deals with Peel on a daily basis and that Vistaar was one of the first companies to set up in MediaCityUK.  

Speaking to THR, BECTU confirmed that around 15 to 20 of its members had complained, and that payments had or were being made, but only after it had lawyered up. BECTU also denied Talwar's claim that he hadn't been contacted by the organization, saying several of its emails had gone unanswered.

Among the fears from several crewmembers is that the WSG Film Heidi company will be wound up, with rights to the film itself transferred to another company, thus leaving bills unpaid and those chasing payment unable to sue. Talwar assures this isn't the case, with none of the previous special purpose vehicles set up for his other films having wound up. "And also, Heidi is a trilogy," he says.

But it's not only crewmembers who have issues with Heidi. Equity, the actor's union, stepped in to act on behalf of one its clients. A spokesperson said that "discussions are ongoing with a hope to resolve matters soon," without going into detail. A list of outstanding bills sent to THR by the production company listed £55,000 ($69,000) outstanding to "cast members." Talwar said it wasn't a dispute and has been resolved.

Speaking of the shoot in Spain, one former crewmember said that the actors, including Nighy, were aware of the "absolute chaos" on set. 

"They couldn't believe the state of what was going on. I’ve never known anything like it — it was an eye-opening experience. But it’d be nice to get paid for the experience," he noted.