David Heyman interview: producing Paddington

The producer of the Harry Potter films, David Heyman, chats to us about adapting Paddington for the screen...

This article contains spoilers for Paddington, and is probably best read after watching the film.

Producer David Heyman may have earned his biggest success in overseeing the transition of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter novels from book to screen, yet he’s achieved something rather impressive too with the production of Paddington. Directed by Paul King and based on Michael Bond’s books, it’s a charming film, and one he took some time out to chat to us about. Here’s how it went…

Film making is iterative, and never any less than in the screenwriting phase. Years ago, I read a Hamish MacColl draft of Paddington that was very different. Can you talk to me about some of the different dead ends, if you can, and what you learned from them?

Gosh. It’s almost so long ago that I can’t remember those dead ends. I’ve been living very much in what we were trying to solve more recently. I loved Hamish’s script by the way, I think there’s a lot that was brilliant about it and he is a great writer who has been incredibly supportive of us, and of Paul, and I hope to work with him in the future.

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I think, though, one of the key journeys we went on, one of the challenges was getting the Brown family to work. Whose journey is this, and how do you create a story when Paddington doesn’t have a tremendous arc? What he has is this journey to finding a home. What he comes to realise, I suppose, is that it’s okay to be who you are – a bear called Paddington, he’s always going to be that.

Getting to those themes was one of the struggles and challenges but the family themselves required us to create a journey for them. Particularly Mr. Brown, when we were trying to find opposition to Paddington.

The books, unlike Potter where you have to condense, with these it’s about expansion. So the Brown family in the books are immediately accepting and welcoming but we needed to create more conflict and opposition to Paddington.

One of the dead ends was about the kids. Do we make this their journey? Is it about Mrs. Brown, or Mr. Brown? Who ends up emerging as the primary opposition? It ended up being Mr. Brown, though there was a lot of discussion about that as some people felt that, in a children’s film, does it have to be about the children going on the journey?

In some ways they do. Judy comes to accept Paddington, though Jonathan always does; Jonathan is a little more like his Mum and Judy is more like his her Dad. I guess the children do go on little journeys and the mother, Mrs. Brown, ultimately calls her daughter Judy rather than Sugarpops and Sweetiepops and her funny names, which is a big deal. Jonathan goes from being the person who wants to jump and slide down bannisters to being the one who is a little concerned about his father’s wild side. They do go on journeys, but it’s really Mr. Brown we focused on, as a result of going down various dead ends.

The Hamish MacColl script had a wonderful character; we were working at that point with a Nigella Lawson type, which I loved.

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That’s precisely who I visualised, in fact.

Exactly. But we also wanted to connect [the antagonist] to Paddington having come from Peru, and highlighting, making the story his journey, his being a stranger in a strange land. We didn’t begin with Hamish in that way.

It’s clear to me that Paul King has built on the earlier screenplay. Not to put too fine a point on it, I absolutely love what he’s made here. But one of the things I loved in the MacColl draft was that, in the end, Paddington saved the day by taking off his hat and there was a sandwich under there. That’s his thing, that’s Paddington, he’s not going to get out a sword, he’s not Sherlock Holmes, and the whole point is that Paddington is Paddington.

I knew you were onto a suitably Paddington end when I saw the pigeons… but isn’t there something when Mrs. Bird pops up that…

That undercuts things?

Well, if I’m being blunt, the end of the first Harry Potter film, and indeed book, always dissatisfied me because he was unconscious. He’d gone on the hero’s journey and then he fell asleep, woke up and somebody had fixed things for him.

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That was the book. We couldn’t make those changes. Well, we could have, but… Actually, I love the book, I’m obsessed with the Potter books. There’s a lot of Deus Ex Machina in that, but what I love is that they’re emotional stories. I love at the end the saying goodbye to Hagrid, and the epilogue. For me, that really tied it up.

But that one little beat… I couldn’t help but think of it when Mrs. Bird appeared. But is there another way in which this moment kind of means that Paddington is less culpable of something?

I don’t know if we looked at it like that. In a way, what I like about it is that it’s more comedic. Had we done that scene in a dramatic way, or had Paddington killing someone… it was Paddington trying to kill someone. This is a more comedic way of doing things, and pulls it back from being an action ending, of sorts.

Also, it’s quite Paddingtonian, her action. Paddington is unaware of a lot of the chaos and havoc he causes, he takes things quite literally and things just happen. Sometimes he’s oblivious to the chaos he causes. So we use Mrs. Bird in a very Paddingtonian way, and saves the day. We thought, and Paul thought, that this very true to the Paddington spirit.

And then, in another way, isn’t Paddington saved? That’s what the story is about. About Paddington being saved, by the Brown family. He finds a home, finds a place to belong.

This character Millicent, when we see the mounted heads and tusks…

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Did you notice, by the way, that when you walk through, what you see in her inner sanctum is the backsides of the animals?

Oh yes. In fact, when we first saw a preview of footage a couple of months ago, that was one of the gags that really landed with the audience. But that iconography makes me think of Empire, and what the British have wrought around the globe.

Absolutely. We’ve got that in the explorer going around, and the Geographer’s Guild, who reject the explorer for his modern ways.

So it’s innately a political film, then.

Well, I wouldn’t say we were making a political film. I think we were making a human film, about kindness. You read about Nigel Farage and our film’s anti-UKIP message and that was most certainly not our… we were making a humanist story, a story about humane people being kind to strangers.

I know that when I travel abroad, my view of a country is shaped by the people I meet so I’ll always step out of my way to give people directions, to help people. As a big traveller, I know what it’s like. And I love this city and I want people to love it too.

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And who wouldn’t?

Absolutely. Empathy! Compassion! Home is not where you are, it’s where you make it. Don’t be who they try to make you be, be yourself, be comfortable with who you are. I think those are wonderful things to put out into the world, a pure, human, compassionate view of the world.

And it’s especially nice when these things come into the world in the form of Paddington. Thank you very much, David Heyman.

Paddington is out now.