David Heyman interview: Paddington 2

Harry Potter and Paddington 2 producer chats to us about the films, about cinema, and about Ravenous...

Producer David Heyman has another hit franchise on his hands. Notwithstanding his huge success with the Harry Potter movies, he’s also now on the verge of releasing Paddington 2 into cinemas. Which seemed like a good excuse for a nice chat…

When you were in the midst of the first Paddington, did you imagine you’d be so successful that you’d not only be making a sequel, but also the second most successful non-US family film of all time?

I think it’s the most successful non-studio family film of all time.

I apologise. Clearly my sources are a little off.

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Don’t worry. I’m just correcting a fact, but ultimately I think it’s all a bit of a con, really, because sometime in the not too distant future we’ll be the second, and the third, and the fourth. Others come along and out do us. We’re in a time where statistics are much prized, but anyway.

It’s all a little ignorant of inflation anyway, I suppose.

Exactly. Cinema ticket prices go up, and costs go up.

Anyway, I had no idea at all. We were making a film that we really cared about, but had no idea that four or five years on I’d be having a conversation with you on the verge of releasing the second one. Happily in this position, but could never have imagined it.

The script was developed at Warner Brothers, and then they put it in turnaround, and everybody passed on it, except for Studio Canal, the French company. So it wasn’t like, when we were making it, we knew we were on to something that was going to be successful at all. But Paul King is such a wonderful talent, and Michael Bond’s glorious creation – it’s generosity of spirit, it’s beating heart – seems to have connected in a really special way.

To be honest with you, no matter what the film – I think when making the first Harry Potter, or the second, or the third even – I don’t think there was any presumption that one was going to be making a [successful movie]. Presumably you must have some consciousness of the commerciality of the project?  

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Definitely. Without meaning to sound silly, you seem to have the ability to pick things that are successful, inherently. What is it that draws you to something and makes you think, ‘yes, that’s something I want to make’?

Let me answer that in various ways. One, anybody who thinks that they know exactly what the public wants, you should run a hundred miles from it if you’re a financier, because nobody knows. What I know is what I like, and that really is the primary driver of my pursuit of films. Then of course there’s both the market, but also my own sense of responsibility in terms of the level one pitches the film at.

There are some that are pitched higher budget, and there are some that are pitched smaller, but what they have is a common thread, which is my finding something in those stories, and particularly in those filmmakers – in the stories that I want to tell, and the filmmakers that I want to support – because really a film is only as good as first, the script, but then, of course the director. You need a director.

I’ve been really fortunate, whether it be Alfonso Cuaron, or Paul King, or David Yates, I’ve worked with remarkable, generous directors, who have a very strong point of view. Who are open to collaboration, but ultimately whose point of view I support. I’m not a director, it would be wrong for me to impose what I want. I most certainly engage in the conversation, and will fight for what I believe, but ultimately having an environment which is free of ego, and which is supporting the talent and giving them the space to make the films they make. Paul King is an extraordinary director, I think we have a treasure, a real, British treasure here. I hope I can be a part of and regardless look forward to seeing the films that he makes in the future. I think they’re going to be very special.

So what do I look for? Things that I connect with. That’s different in each film, but I suppose the thread that runs throughout, and that’s something that one should begin to pay attention to as I build a body of work, as I look back a little bit – I try to live in the moment, but as one looks back, with questions such as yours – I think all of my films in some way are about outsiders, because I feel like I’m an outsider, I’m sure you’re a bit of an outsider, we all are, everyone is, in some way or another. I think that’s really relatable to.

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With Paddington, it’s in a sense that Paddington is a character that we all, in some ways, wish we were more like, and wish we knew more people who had his generosity, his kindness, his correctness, his decency. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if it were filled with Paddingtons? So what drew me to that is a story about outsiders, and also this wonderful generosity of spirit. I’ve been working on Paddington for 14 years, but particularly today, in these dark and difficult times, where there’s so much bad news, it’s rather lovely to put out something about community, about small acts of kindness, about seeing the good in people, and about love with a generous spirit.

Do you think that there is a political nature to releasing any film, and particularly something like Paddington, at the moment, in that it is so happy and joyous?

I think that Paddingtonian spirit was there before, has been pursuing it even during more optimistic times. I think it’s lovely to put something out into the world regardless, with that spirit, but it seems particularly necessary and I’m particularly proud that it’s going out now, because we’re really in need of that. And in terms of political, I think a lot of the films I make – or some of the films – have a political underbelly to them. I don’t think it’s political with a capital ‘P’, I think it would be very presumptuous to say I’m making films that are going to change the world, but to explore things that are going on in the world with entertainment, is something I think we can do with film.

But films that are political with a capital ‘P’, I think it’s harder to reach an audience, and most often, I think you’re preaching to the converted, but when you’re working in science fiction, and particularly family films, to tell stories which have strong values, a sense of possibility and optimism – which Paddington is full of – Potter and Paddington are about about not judging a book by its cover. It feels timely, but for better or worse, it’s timeless. It’s forever relevant.

I’m going to get back to a lot of this in a second, but there’s one thing I’d like to address, which you touched on, which is writer/director Paul King.

He’s very special.

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Obviously when you brought him onto the first Paddington film, he’d come off of Bunny And The Bull. I’m one of the six people in the fan club.

I’m one of the others.

But I am curious, because this is a commercial business, and presumably at some point you have to justify your choice of director to the financiers, and I imagine justifying a man whose film was spectacular, but not entirely successful, might have been difficult.

I think that if you meet Paul, his great intelligence is undeniable, and his humour is undeniable. He knew more about Paddington, when I met him, than anybody – he knew more than I did – if you look in Bunny And The Bull, there are those line drawings in one of the scenes, which echo and were inspired by those in the Paddington TV series. His Bunny And The Bull had visual flare, his humour in The Mighty Boosh was subversive, and it was very important to me that the humour appealed to adults and not just children.

And when you are with Paul, he is hysterically funny, in a very generous way. Not mean, although he’s not averse to the odd barb, and with a real warmth about him. He’s a very kind, open, generous spirit – a little bit Paddington himself. So it felt very clear that he was the right choice. It was a leap, of course it was a leap, every time it’s a leap, even with an experienced director – you have great directors who have made bad films – it’s always an element of a leap into the unknown. I suppose more of an unknown with a younger director, but it’s exciting, really exciting.

David Yates had directed wonderful television, but bringing him on to direct the fifth, and then subsequent Potters, at the time, people may have viewed that as very risky. It didn’t feel so – a good storyteller is a good storyteller – Paul is a good storyteller, he also had a great sense of humour and a big heart, it felt right. Alfonso Cuaron had just come off of Y Tu Mama Tambien before I fought for him – because it wasn’t, again, a straightforward choice – on the third Harry Potter, so I suppose, in terms of Studio Canal financing the film, they did have faith in that I’d had a little bit of success with family films, and also with unexpected director choices.

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And when you meet Paul, you get a sense that he’s quite special. Also we had a bit of luck, and we had a great team around him. When you have Framestore doing the visual effects, that brings an air of some confidence – Pablo Grillo, our animation director [on the first Paddington movie] is brilliant. But Paul bought so much. Paul is a very, very special director. I knew he was special, I would be kidding if I said I knew how special, it’s such a pleasure to work with him, I’m discovering new things about him all the time. And I’m learning as I work with him, too. He’s the real deal.

Moving slightly on, obviously a lot of what you’ve done, in addition to being director-led, has been led by pre-existing IP.

I would argue against that. Obviously I’m best known for Potter, but Gravity was hardly – there was no IP there.

True. And indeed, Ravenous.

That’s really is my – that’s what I want on my gravestone.

I loved Ravenous.

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You’re very generous.

I watch it frequently.

I don’t know what that says about you. Maybe at Halloween.

Terrible, terrible things, I imagine.

I love books, it’s true. I’m only playing. I do understand, it’s most definitely part, but not alone. To be clear, I like original stories, and I like voices. That’s what really is important.

Does the fact that something exists as a pre-existing property allow you to be more ambitious in the scale with which you make a film. Because it feels like you’re in the higher echelons of ambition when it comes to British producers, and is that a result of adapting pre-existing IP?

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I think it’s both a blessing and a burden. With Potter, because there was such adoration of every single moment in the books, there was a limit to the flexibility one had to change things. Paddington, the first film had some touchstones from the books, in terms of arriving at Paddington station, the tea room scene, etc, etc. This one doesn’t have quite the same, so we’re less bound by that. But sometimes I think it does, especially in budget scale. I got involved with Potter in 1997, before it was published, so at the time, I didn’t have a clue. I thought it was going to be a nice, modest-sized British film. No doubt, it’s success meant it became a bigger venture, and we had more resources with which to pay for the film. Gravity was a reasonably expensive film, but it had Sandra Bullock, which helped. Actually, to give Warners credit, they were supporting it at a significant budget without Sandra Bullock, because they believed in Alfonso and his vision.

With Potter, as I said, I thought it was going to be a modestly sized film, but the success of it as a book allowed us to have greater resources with which to finance the film. Then Paddington, the first film was pretty modest – given that we had a digital character at its centre, it’s very modest – and Studio Canal largely covered the costs with pre-sales. But not entirely. They were brave, but they had faith we could make it work. In part, because in that area I’d had some success, and they really are incredibly supportive of producers, but actually we got the budget we did, partly because of that, and partly because we got pre-sales to a certain point. So it depends on the project. Most certainly today, with the major financiers, to get the budget it’s pre-existing IP, alas. Because so many of the great films of times past are originals. I’ve worked a lot with books and IP, but I’m hugely proud – one of the projects I’m most proud of – is Gravity, and that had no IP, it had a genius director.

What is it, do you imagine, that caused Gravity to pull in audiences?

It was an experience. It was a completely immersive experience. It was wholly original. It’s the very thing that people, that financiers are scared of, originality. It was a wholly original, immersive take. It was an experience, you went to Gravity and you felt like you were in space. And it was an experience that couldn’t be duplicated in any other way, you could never go to space, you can’t experience it on a small screen. It was a cinematic experience, and it was original in its presentation.

Do you see the industry moving that way, towards experiential cinema?

I think you look at, the two things governing the superhero films are one, prior brand recognition – we’re now into secondary and tertiary characters in some of these films – but what they also offer is a scale and a presentation that may not be so easily duplicable on a small screen. You have to go to a cinema to be able to see it. So I think if people are going to go out to the cinema – I think it’s harder and harder, even though it’s the reason I got into cinema – for a drama to get finance today. It’s just really, really hard. That’s why television – some of the best drama today, where you have some of the best voices, and some of the best drama is on television.

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Which I suppose gives it more room to expand and tell the story anyway.

Absolutely. Where you can explore moral ambiguity, or even amorality at times. The reason I’m getting into TV a little bit is that I was a huge fan of the American films of the 60s and 70s, and it’s almost impossible to get them made on the big screen, but you can get them made on the small screen.

David Heyman, thank you very much.

Paddington 2 is in UK cinemas from November 10th.