Entertainment Movies

David Heyman: ‘Fantastic Beasts’ and ‘Potter’ ties will deepen as series continues

By Bruce Kirkland, Special to Postmedia Network

Nearly 20 years ago, the galleys of a still unpublished novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, arrived by request at the London offices of British film producer David Heyman, but the manuscript was quickly dumped into “the low-priority pile” on a bottom shelf.

What has happened since is nothing short of astonishing: J.K. Rowling’s novel became part one of the bestselling series in publishing history; and Heyman’s Harry Potter film series is now the second-biggest box office success for a franchise in movie history.

Meanwhile, Heyman and Rowling are now setting off on a new venture, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, due in theatres around the world this week. It is a prequel series that begins in New York City in 1926. Heyman produced it; Rowling is making her screenwriting debut. She is conjuring a future five-film franchise out of a minor Potter reference — one of Harry Potter’s textbooks, written by the eccentric wizard Newt Scamander.

“I do appreciate how bloody lucky I am!” the soft-spoken, 55-year-old Heyman tells Postmedia Network on a quick visit to Canada.

He knows how his film, and his life, could have been so different. Credit goes to one of his then-employees, a young woman named Nisha Parti, who still numbers among Heyman’s friends. She was the one who grabbed the Harry Potter book off that bottom shelf and took it home one weekend to vet it. At Heyman’s production house, Heyday Films, staff readers report on Mondays about their weekend reading sessions.

“Yeah,” Parti told Heyman and his colleagues that fateful Monday, “I read this book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”

“That’s not a very good title,” Heyman recalls saying. “What’s it about?”

Parti enthused about the unknown Rowling’s literary debut, and its film possibilities. Heyman was intrigued. “I read it and loved it! But I had no idea that it would take me on the journey that it did. I thought it might be a modest-sized British film, although I knew it wasn’t going to be a low-budget film because there were certain fantastical and extraordinary realms in it.

“But I had never made anything like that before. I had no sense of what might be involved — or the cost. And I certainly had no sense that the book would capture the imagination of so many. But I loved it! Ultimately, that’s all I know – what I like.”

Now Heyman is waiting with nervous energy about the fate of the first Fantastic Beasts, which was filmed in large part at Leavesden Studios, the home of the Potter films in England.

“I hope this is something that people will love, but I have no idea to what extent.” Unlike with the Potter franchise, there are no beloved novels for fans to grab onto before this first Beasts debuts. The textbook that Harry owned at Hogwarts is a non-narrative book written by Scamander after the events we will witness in the new film. We actually meet Eddie Redmayne’s Scamander as a young wizard-zoologist who seeks to protect the beasts that so terrify others.

“What I like,” Heyman says, “is that you can come to this film without having seen a Harry Potter film, or have read a Harry Potter book, and enjoy it on its own terms. But, if you know Harry Potter, what went before, you have a slightly different and maybe a nostalgic experience. So I hope this appeals to Potter and non-Potter fans alike.”

Heyman also loves my suggestion of calling the first Beasts film “a companion piece” to the Potter franchise. “I think it’s a really good way of looking at it, especially with this first film.” In part, he says, that is because there are only small things connecting the wizarding world in Beasts with the wizarding world that Harry, Hermione, Ron and company lived in during the Potter novels and films.

“As the series continues, however, that will change,” Heyman explains. “The connective tissues between the two worlds — the Beasts world and the Potter world — will become more explicit. Right now, we hint about it with the mention of a couple of characters — and with the surprise ending. But we’re just teasing it, in a way.”

One earlier tease — a possible scene of Scamander with Albus Dumbledore that supposedly would show up in the first Beasts — never materialized, although Dumbledore’s name is brought up along with with the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald. Heyman is still cagey about it all, especially Dumbledore.

“Hmmmmm … there was conversation … there may be something … but not in this film. But clearly, in the next film, Grindelwald (who is played by Johnny Deppp) will feature!”

Twitter: @Bruce_Kirkland

BKirkland@postmedia.com