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Movie Magic

On July 15, a mere few days after this article hits newsstands, the final installment of the Harry Potter film series will hit theaters in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people will fill seats, buy popcorn, wear 3D glasses and say goodbye to the most successful movie franchise in history.

I will be one of them.

When I heard we had booked an interview with the films’ producer, David Heyman, I put in a professional request with my editor—complete with promises to work over the weekend and some sort of hair-pulling fit at my desk—to please, please do the interview.

I’m a bit of a fan. My husband returned home from a business trip once with a gift for me: a boxed replica of Hermione’s wand. (I may have had some sort of fit on that day as well, but it was more of the jumping variety.) I’ve read all the Harry Potter books, authored by J.K. Rowling, and I own every movie that has been released on DVD.

And I’m not alone. Harry Potter, both in book and film form, has become a worldwide phenomenon. Really, it’s so successful that the phrase “worldwide phenomenon” doesn’t cover it anymore, not when you can Google “worldwide phenomenon” and get results like mullets and rock sculptures. It’s not just the revenue that makes it a success, although the films have grossed over $6.3 billion since the first one, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was released in 2001. And it’s not just the loyalty of the fans either; ask George Lucas about fan loyalty, and he’ll tell you it’s something he was familiar with “a long, long time ago…”

What makes Harry Potter so successful, and what first showed producer David Heyman that he was onto something that would spread like nothing any of us had seen before, is its universal appeal, the connection audiences immediately feel with the characters—kids fighting against forces seemingly too large for them to overcome.

“After the first film, I went to India for Christmas,” Heyman says in his soft, British accent. “And I was in a car in Bombay and someone pressed up—those kids selling things on the streets—they pushed up the first two Harry Potter books against the glass. And I said, ‘Oh my goodness. So no matter where I am I can’t get away from Harry Potter!’ Not that I wanted to. But actually at the moment I did. I was having a holiday.”

Dumbledore's Army

Heyman, 49, has told countless interviewers that, no, he did not know the films would be the kind of phenomenal box-office record-breakers they have become. “Throughout making the first film, we knew that there was interest,” he says. “But when it came out and it did what it did, it was like, Wow. I don’t think anybody anticipated that.”

The seven books have been made into eight films, with the final story spanning two screenplays. Throughout, Daniel Radcliffe (as Harry), Rupert Grint (as Ron Weasley) and Emma Watson (as Hermione Granger) battle evil at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In the fourth film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry, Ron and Hermione start a student organization to practice spells for “defense against the dark arts.” They call it Dumbledore’s Army, after their Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, played in most of the films by Michael Gambon. In each movie, the students test their classroom skills in ‘real-life’ battles alongside their mentors, played by various legendary British actors, including Emma Thompson, Gary Oldman and Alan Rickman.

The films’ epic scope has helped create a cultural icon of the boy wizard, generating vast merchandising, worldwide tours and a shared vocabulary reminiscent of Star Trek fandom. Director David Yates has said that audiences feel like they know the coming-of-age teens personally: “The audience and fans have a relationship that goes back 10 years, and that’s something really magical. That is actually more important than all the battles, frankly, and all the special effects and everything, because they are going through the cycle of life that we’ve all been through.”

But behind the fan firestorm, Heyman was focused on running a business: “As a producer… just as with any business, you have to look at the market and determine what that market will accept and what that market is willing to pay for the product that I have. That being said, I think for me what has always been integral to my business approach and the way that I approach the films is I’m drawn to projects that I connect with. I had no idea that Harry Potter would have achieved the level of success that it has, but it was something that touched me, that moved me, that made me laugh, that I could relate to. You’ve got to realize that this is in 1997, early 1997, before the book was published. I connected with it. And there was a belief that if I connected with it, that others would.”

The Boy Who Lived

In 1997, Heyman had just moved home to Britain and launched Heyday Films, after previous stints in Los Angeles as a creative executive for Warner Bros. and as a vice president at United Artists. He had already produced two short independent films, but they were small projects. “I was a struggling producer,” he said in an interview for The Telegraph, so he brokered a deal with Warner Bros. to pay for his office in London in exchange for giving them a first look at whatever interesting projects he might find. Then he set to work looking for books that might make good movies.

That spring, Heyman’s secretary, Nisha Parti, took home a manuscript that no one else in the office had bothered to read. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had yet to be published. Parti read the entire manuscript over the weekend.

At the Monday morning staff meeting, Heyman asked if anyone had read anything good recently. Parti raised her hand and said, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.” Heyman was unimpressed by the title but asked what it was about. “About a boy who goes to wizarding school,” Parti said.

So Heyman took the manuscript home, read it that night and was captivated by the story of the one boy who had faced the most powerful, evil wizard… and lived. He called Rowling and her agent. “I was enthralled,” he recalled. “It drew me in. I just loved the characters, Jo’s [Rowling’s] voice.” But Heyman wasn’t the only one interested. The small-time producer had to compete with the likes of Disney during his negotiation with Rowling.

“Jo wanted what was best for her books, and she sensed that I understood her book, [she knew] that I was British, I related to them, that I would do everything in my power—which at the time, frankly, wasn’t that much other than being a producer. It wasn’t like I was a huge mogul, that it was my own money, that I was going to pay for it myself and have all the control. Absolutely not. But she appreciated that I had passion for her material.”

After Rowling was onboard, it took some convincing—and maybe a little magic—for Heyman to persuade the very American studio Warner Bros. to option the rights for the very British Harry Potter.

Heyman’s instincts paid off, but he also invested some common business sense to broker the deal. “Once I love a project or a piece of material, I am aware of certain things that I enjoy or that touched me that might not appeal on as large a scale…. So in that sense you’ve got to look at the market; you’ve got to understand who is the right buyer, who are the right people who are going to go to that film, who are the right people that are going to finance it and make it the appropriate budget.”

Filmmaking is usually a short-term project compared to most other small business endeavors. While it could be years between projects, and Heyman says it could take another decade to see a project realized, “Once it takes off and once you get financing for it—not development but production financing—then the process is quite quick. About a year and a half from beginning to end. Of course, with Harry Potter it has been much longer than that because it’s eight films. But again, like a business, you’re looking clearly for things that will appeal to the financier, being the studio for example. With Harry Potter, there are multiple revenue streams; you have the DVDs, you have the film itself, you have the merchandising, etc.” From the start, Harry Potter appealed to both investors and audiences alike.

'Hogwarts, Hogwarts, Hoggy Warty Hogwarts'

When people began to suggest American actors, an American Hogwarts School or other Hollywood-centric solutions for the transition of Rowling’s books to the big screen, Heyman was adamant about protecting the original vision. “The themes and ideas that are integral to J.K. Rowling’s universe are universal, and they do not need to be located in the United States. You do not need an American lead to make that story more appealing. Part of the appeal of the book is that, yes, we have all been to school, but this feels like a specifically British institution, and I think you would be losing some of that.” Harry, Ron and Hermione, who cheerfully sing the silly Hogwarts theme song in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, would probably agree.

And thanks to Heyman’s influence, the Harry Potter films have maintained a universal appeal while remaining true to their British origins. Heyman and his team receive fan mail “as far as from the Philippines to China and Japan and Brazil,” he says. The final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, will be released in more than 40 countries in just over three weeks in July.

Each film release has reflected countless hours of work. “There were thousands of people who worked on each film,” Heyman says. “And every one of them is a part of making these films what they are. And every one of them is integral in the film’s success. It is a true collaboration…. With any business, you hire people to help you realize your project. I think the key was that everybody working on the film was ambitious for them; everybody wants to make each one better than the last…. So we would never settle for anything that was less than it could be.”

When casting began for the first movie, more than 40,000 boys had applied to be Harry. The boy who won out, Radcliffe, and the two other leads, Grint and Watson, started filming the series when they were 11 years old. “It’s great to see how they’ve grown, not just as actors, but as people,” Heyman said recently. “They are funny and wicked and naughty and bright. And I think as actors, their work is just getting better and better.”

“I love them, I just love them,” Rowling said of the three leads after April’s BAFTA ceremony in London, where she and Heyman were honored with the award for Outstanding Contribution to British cinema. “You could not meet three better adjusted, nicer, more talented people. And it’s almost miraculous, you know. David and [director] Chris Columbus found these three kids who turned out to be incredible actors and incredible people. So how lucky were we that we managed to keep them?”

The three stars have avoided the Hollywood curse of crazy that befalls so many young actors, in part because Heyman chose to film at Leavesden Studios in bucolic Hertfordshire instead of a studio lot in Los Angeles. The humble surroundings, regular presence of family and friends, and on-site schooling Heyman set up for all the kids helped keep them grounded.

“He is about as far away from the cliché of a Hollywood producer as you could possibly get,” Yates has said of Heyman. “He is not a brash, arrogant, tough kind of producer. He’s a good guy with a big heart and huge empathy… all the things that you think would get him eaten alive in this industry.”

As a producer, Heyman acted as a mentor and manager to an enormous staff rolled into one—not unlike Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts. It was Heyman’s job over the course of 12 years to ensure that each project was fresh and innovative and that all involved were pushing themselves toward their best. He had to “be someone who, along with the director, asks the hard questions and who is prepared to say no when things aren’t quite good enough,” he says. “And fortunately, each director shared that. Chris and Alfonzo and Mike and now David—now these are people who were hugely talented and are not complacent.”

In fact all four directors—Chris Columbus, who directed the first two movies, Alfonso Cuarón, who directed the third, Mike Newell, director of No. 4, and David Yates, who has been director since the fifth film and wrapped the final installment earlier this year—all have had great passion for the fictional world, which alters as the characters age. “The books get more mature, the characters grow up, and over the initial films we brought in new directors to re-energize and reinvigorate each step of the way to have a fresh viewpoint,” Heyman says. “We are the ultimate fans. And we didn’t want to let ourselves down, let alone the public, and most certainly not Jo.”

He Who Must Not Be Named

In 2001, Heyman sat in a darkened London screening room, ready to view the final cut of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in which Harry first meets “He Who Must Not Be Named,” the evil wizard who killed his parents. “Sitting in that first screening with Jo, the first time we showed her the film, I sat next to her. Jo is a person for me who is the standard-bearer, and if she enjoyed the film, then it’s OK… I would be fibbing if I said I didn’t look across nervously if she was laughing at the right places, if she was enthralled in all the right places.”

As the movie ended, “she gave me a big hug,” he recalls. “She has loved each of them, but that first one was probably the most nerve-racking, because she had never done it before.”

Like Harry’s first day at Hogwarts under the Sorting Hat, that day seems like a long time ago to Heyman, who gave a speech on the last day of filming and “struggled to get the words out” as he addressed scores of people who have become his second family. But while Heyman acknowledges that moving on will be “very difficult,” he also admits to some excitement about upcoming projects, including one with director Cuarón and another with Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves.

“Oh my goodness, I can’t wait,” he says when I ask if he looks forward one day to sharing the Harry Potter books and films with his 3-year-old son. “I hope he enjoys them. I hope that he is taken to this magical place. One of the things I love about this book is it is this magical world, and yet we all know a Ron, a Harry, a Hermione, and a Neville, a Seamus. We all know them. We either are or we know them. We’ve always had teachers that we liked and teachers who we didn’t like. And so it all feels really relatable and real, and maybe, just maybe, there is a Hogwarts out there.”

This fan can only hope.

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