The production company behind the first Harry Potter film scrounged its first copy of the book, but that was long before big-shot film directors came knocking at its door.
Each Monday morning David Heyman would make his way through London’s Soho district, where big West End cinemas neighbour seedy little strip joints and sex shops. He would climb the stairs to modest offices, above the music stores of Denmark Street, sit down with his staff of two, and trawl through lists of possible film projects, searching for the one great idea that might provide him with the blockbuster he so dearly wanted.
It was Heyman’s secretary Nisha Parti who first drew his attention to a new children’s book, by an unknown author, that she had read over the weekend. It was about a boy who goes to wizard school. Parti did not get much further in her enthusiastic report before Heyman decided this was his holy grail.
That was four years ago and a lot has happened since. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was just the first instalment in a series of books that have proved the great publishing phenomenon of modern times, selling 100 million copies in more than 40 languages.
Heyman and his little company landed a deal to produce a film version for Warner Brothers, with a budget of more than $100 million (100m dollars) and the sort of advance publicity that guarantees blockbuster status. Principal photography begins this month on a sequel, and there are plans for another five after that.
Not bad for the producer whose last film was Ravenous, the cannibal western that went through three directors and survived the threat of Robert Carlyle and the rest of the cast walking out, only to sink without trace at the box office.
"Harry Potter was one of the first projects that came across my desk," says Heyman, in a spare moment between checking budgets, storyboards and designs at Leavesden Studios, where the first film shot in conditions of utmost secrecy. "I don’t think anybody could have anticipated the level of success it would reach, but I knew that it touched me, I knew that I was moved by it, I knew that it made me laugh. It’s mythic."
Heyman is a Londoner who studied History and Art at Harvard, before going off to India to find himself or something like that. He was not the first Briton to catch a bug in an exotic, far-off land, but in Heyman’s case it was the film-making bug. While backpacking on the sub-continent, he got a job as a runner on David Lean’s A Passage to India and decided his future lay in movies.
Heyman worked in Hollywood for ten years, as an executive with Warner Brothers and United Artists, and as producer of several obscure, low-budget, independent films, including the black urban drama Juice and the family road movie The Daytrippers. Returning to London, he set up Heyday Films at the end of 1996, with the intention of concentrating on adaptations of books.
Heyman had returned to England with a "first-look deal" with Warner, meaning they would pay the bills for Denmark Street in exchange for the chance to invest in any films he wanted to make. It was his head of development Tanya Seghatchian who spotted an item in the press about Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in June 1997.
Can I have a free copy of Harry Potter, please?
Seghatchian was worried she was spending too much on books - not that she was spending too much buying the rights to books, but simply spending too much buying copies of books. "I rang up the agent and thought I’ll introduce myself to the agent and maybe he will give me a free copy... and sure enough he gave me a copy," she tells me.
That initial copy was given to Nisha Parti to read and assess. "She read it over the weekend," says Heyman. "I was the next person to read it," he adds proprietorially. Heyman was enthralled by the story of the orphaned boy, rescued from a life of suburban drudgery with his uncle and aunt by a gentle giant called Hagrid, who takes him off to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. "I read a page and fell madly in love with it, couldn’t stop," says Heyman. "I read it that Monday night and it was out to Warner Brothers that week."
He was the first producer to register an interest with Rowling and her agent. "Before the hype" he says. Strange as it may now seem, not everyone shared his belief in the book, either at Warner or in the wider Hollywood community. He had one big supporter at Warner, another English executive, Lionel Wigram, but others were less sure. "I think they took a punt because they believed in my passion," says Heyman.
"Negotiations took quite some time and in the course of that negotiation other people came to the table," he adds, "but that was after the book had gained some recognition." Heyman’s early enthusiasm and his promise of fidelity to the printed word were vital in Rowling agreeing to a deal with Warner at the end of 1997, giving them the rights to the first four books and options on the final three in a projected series of seven.
At this stage only one book had appeared, but copies were beginning to fly off book-shop shelves like magic broomsticks. Rowling was able to secure a deal described as "fair" by Heyman and reported as approaching $1 million (1m dollars) elsewhere - loose change for Hollywood, but a phenomenal sum for a first-time British novelist.
Unlike most authors, new or established, she also secured a continuing say in the shape of the film. Heyman maintains he does not know her exact contractual postion. "The fact is she’s got a veto," he says, "in that we run everything by her and take account of what she says." Premiere magazine reported that "to hear cast and crew tell it, only the Delphic oracle gets consulted with more reverence."
Rowling, who worked out the storyline for the entire series of books in advance, did not want to write the script herself, but would comment on every draft in turn. Many leading Hollywood writers turned the assignment down. Some were wary of Rowling’s continuing involvement; others simply did not get it.
Finally, the remit to write an "incredibly faithful" adaptation was accepted by Steve Kloves, who wrote and directed the wistful romantic comedy The Fabulous Baker Boys - memorable for Michelle Pfeiffer’s slinky songstress sprawled over a piano, and scripted the under-rated Michael Douglas drama Wonder Boys.
How Steve Kloves broke the ice with Rowlings
Rowling still seemed reluctant to let another writer touch her work, even though she would be standing over him every step of the way. "I was really ready to hate this Steve Kloves," she says. "The first time I met him, he said to me, ‘You know who my favourite character is?’" Rowling was sure he would try to prove his coolness by preferring the happy-go-lucky Ron to Harry. "I thought, ‘You’re gonna say Ron, I know you’re gonna say Ron.’" But Kloves wrong-footed her and opted for the studious Hermione, a character who bears some similarity to Rowling herself. "I found her hysterically funny, frustrating, annoying and brillaint," says Kloves. "I just kind of melted," says Rowling.
Spielberg off list of potential directors
Within two years of initial publication, Harry Potter was a huge seller in the US too and contemporary cinema’s most successful exponent Steven Spielberg entered the frame. Spielberg had a series of discussions with Rowling, Heyman and Warner executives.
He suggested the film should become a co-production with his DreamWorks company, and Haley Joel Osment, the young American star of The Sixth Sense, should play Harry. Then the rumours really took off: there was talk of relocating the story in the United States or alternatively that the film could be made as a computer-animated movie, like Toy Story. Computer effects were always going to play a vital role in the film, particularly in the realisation of Quidditch, a fast and furious team game played on flying broomsticks. Why not just go the whole way and dispense with the actors?
Warner was keen to get Spielberg on board, but his ideas were met with indifference and hostility by Heyman and Rowling, who not only wanted to shoot in England, but wanted an all-British cast. "There were things he said that I didn’t agree with, there were things he said that I did agree with," says Rowling. When push came to shove, it was the Oscar-winning director who dropped out, not the single mum from Edinburgh, who famously wrote in a local cafe, because a cup of coffee was cheaper than heating her flat.
With Spielberg out of the picture, other leading directors were mooted, including Robert Zemeckis and Rob Reiner, though the final short leet consisted of Terry Gilliam (from Monty Python), Ivan Reitman (director of Ghostbusters), Brad Silberling (Casper)and Chris Columbus, who had young children and had proved he could work with juveniles when directing Home Alone and Mrs Doubtfire.
The candidates were invited to an interview panel, a normal procedure for most jobs, but not something to which top Hollywood directors normally subject themselves. What finally swung it for Columbus was not his relationship with kids, but his relationship with the paying public, who have flocked to his movies, which impressed the Warner brass, and his pledge to remain faithful to the books, which impressed Rowling - rather more than the suggestion from another director that the film might benefit from the introduction of a few cheerleaders.
The soft option?
Columbus was a controversial choice with fans who saw little in his fluffy comedies to reassure them he could handle the darker elements of the stories. Columbus was well aware he had something to prove. "Over the years, people, particularly the media, have implied that I’ve gone soft, because I’ve directed some sentimental films... Once I got those stories out of my system, I wanted to go back to where I was when I started out as a writer, which is a much darker place... This was the film that I was destined to do, that I had spent all those years directing and writing and preparing for."
Columbus, whose earlier work includes the script of Gremlins, insists he was particularly influenced by British films. "I’ve always been a big fan of British cinema, everything from David Lean pictures, comedies like Kind Hearts and Coronets, emotional dramas like A Man for All Seasons, and particularly the Hammer horror films, which I adored. I found them very atmospheric and evocative. I grew up watching these films and they influence my early writing."
Rowling supposedly favoured Gilliam, but later said: "Let’s just put it this way: I am very happy with the director we’ve got." It was an unusual relationship for a director and author, with Rowling proposing actors and Columbus endorsing her choices. "A lot of these same actors came into my head while reading the book," he says.
Big Robbie on board
Columbus’s appointment was announced in March last year, but with no cast confirmed the anticipated summer start date was looking less and less likely. Rowling suggested Robbie Coltrane, the burly Scottish star of television’s Cracker, as Hagrid, Heyman considered Coltrane "perfect" and he was the first actor cast in an adult role. "There was no question of me not doing it," says Coltrane. "My son would have killed me."
He too considered Rowling’s continuing involvement invaluable when he was finding it difficult getting to grips with his character. "She said ‘Well, think of him as one of those really big Hell’s Angels that gets off a motorbike and then starts talking about how his garden is coming.’" Coltrane was joined at Hogwarts by a distinguished line-up of British acting talent including Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, John Cleese and Ian Hart.
Who will be Harry?
For the principal roles of Harry and his friends, the film-makers wanted a young cast who could reprise their roles in the later films. More than 40,000 boys applied to be Harry, but few had the qualities for which the film-makers were looking and Jamie Bell, the charismatic star of Billy Elliot, was, after careful consideration, ruled out as too old.
It was late August, just a month before the start of principal photography, before 11-year-old Daniel Radcliffe was introduced to the world’s press in the round spectacles of the world’s most famous apprentice wizard. Heyman and Kloves spotted him during a visit to the theatre - not on stage, but in the audience. Heyman knew his father. And he knew the son from his appearance in the title role in a BBC adaptation of David Copperfield. Heyman had previously been attracted by Radcliffe’s "Everyboy" quality. He had told his casting director he wanted to meet him, only to be informed the family were not interested. Now Heyman had the chance to make a personal approach.
Heyman was working up to 20 hours a day in the final run-up to production, but believes it will all be worthwhile. Heyday Films may have scrounged the initial copy of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for free, but Heyman subsequently forked out for several hundred to send to film people, beginning with the writers who showed so little enthusiasm for the project.
They now have a Harry Potter first edition. By the time the film went into production it was more valuable than first editions of Burns and Stevenson, with a set of all four novels fetching £23,500.(23,500 pounds) "And you know what?" says Heyman. "I don’t have one." But he is getting a film instead. And it should be worth a lot more.
"Ravenous was the worst experience of my career and this has been the best... Every day I come to work with a smile on my face," he adds. With further episodes stretching away into a golden future, Heyman has good reason to smile.