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‘Harry Potter’ Producer Talks About His Feline Fantasy Film With Alibaba

Variety logo Variety 11/22/2016 Patrick Frater
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David Heyman, the London-based producer of “Harry Potter,” “Gravity,” and “Paddington,” among others, had a big weekend in Beijing.

On Saturday, he mingled with fans ahead of the China release of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” On Sunday, he was unveiled as the producer of “Warriors,” a film project that is one of the first major pieces of foreign intellectual property that China’s Alibaba Pictures Group will develop and produce from scratch. The film will be based on a series of books, written by a collective of authors under the pseudonym Erin Hunter, about clans of forest-dwelling cats.

Heyman spoke with Variety of commonalities between J.K. Rowling’s books and “Warriors” — particularly the recurring theme of characters as outsiders — as he sets about trying to adapt the complex series of novels.

Variety: How was your experience meeting the Chinese public for “Fantastic Beasts”?

David Heyman: It was amazing seeing fans dressed up, putting on blue eyes, gays, clearly feeling like outsiders, clearly being stigmatized, and yet seeing the literal connection. It is very powerful. It is a big part of what [Rowling] writes about.

Just seeing these people and what it means to them, it is a real responsibility when one is bringing something so beloved to the screen.

How close are you to engaging screenwriters for “Warriors”?

It is very early days. This is the first time I’ve seen [Alibaba Pictures Group president] Zhang Wei since we agreed on our deal. We’ve had conversations about lists of writers. We are just starting to engage with that process.

Are the four “Warriors” authors who collectively use the pen name Erin Hunter going to be involved?

With “Harry Potter” and “Paddington,” in neither of those cases were [the novelists] involved on a daily basis. But I’m an inclusive producer. Same with “The Light Between Oceans” or “The Yes Man.” I’ve done a lot of adaptations, and it is important that there be a separation between the book and the film. Because it is not a translation; it is an adaptation. But I always like sharing it with authors so they can prepare for the fact that it is different medium. But I’ve been lucky that the authors have understood that – Michael Bond, Jo [Rowling], and John Boyne [author of “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”] have been generous and understanding. But it is a little nerve-wracking when you show them the script. I generally don’t show then the first draft. I usually want it a little further along.

There are 36 books in the “Warriors” series, plus special editions. How many books have been acquired?

Everything in the world. “Potter” was the same. Warner acquired the first one, and then there were trigger points for subsequent books.

What I don’t know is how many [films] there will be. With “Potter,” we did one book, one film, until the end, and then we did two films with the last book.

With this, we don’t yet know if we will be working across multiple books. I imagine that we will use more than the first book in the first film. It is like a really excellent melodrama. It could be a wonderful long-running TV show as well, because of its complexity and the amount of narrative within. What is important is that you try and give it a unity and it doesn’t just feel like a series of episodes.

What is the timetable for the film?

None has been set. We have to find a good writer first. It is much better to work this way. I hate working to release schedules. I have and I do. But I always prefer to have the luxury of making something as good as it can be.

“Paddington” was a good example of that. One of the challenges, after Warner Bros. put it into turnaround, was actually slowing down the process because I didn’t feel it was ready. One of the many gifts that “Potter” has given me is the ability to say: “Let’s not rush. I don’t need to make this. And if I’m going to make it, it needs to be good.” So the project took seven or eight years. I’m hoping “Warriors” won’t take so long.

Was it the money that attracted you to working with Alibaba? 

I first went to meet with Alibaba because it is blue-chip. But I am involved with them on this project because of the people.

What we realized is that we are trying to tell stories that move people, not just looking at product. No question, Alibaba has great infrastructure and the ability to reach people, in China especially. But as the best of the Chinese companies, they have a long view that is not about immediate gratification. That is about quality.

What are the budget parameters?

They haven’t been discussed. With “Paddington” we had a budget from the studio that was 50% higher than the budget we ended up making.

“Warriors” will not be a low-budget film. You can’t do something that is digital animation that cheaply. It shouldn’t be a $200 million film. And it’s not a $10 million budget film either.

Will you shoot in China?

I don’t know. It can all be done in computers these days. Part of that decision will be budget-determined. Part will just be practicalities.

You’ve called this film an origins story, so what are the steps to turning it into a franchise?

In my mind I’ve never worked on a franchise. I’ve never made a franchise film, because that’s looking outside-in. Rather, it is really about finding what you connect with in a story and making the best film you can. If we don’t make a good first film, there is no franchise. If we don’t make a good second film, there is no franchise.

Somebody asked about if there will be video games. That would be great, but first let’s make a good film. A film has the opportunity to build awareness that leads to all the other things.

What qualities are you going to be looking for in a director?

A humanist. And someone who knows how to work with animation. Or maybe we partner the director with a very strong animation director. I want someone who connects with the story and characters in the same way that I do. Someone who has a visual side but is also comfortable with the depth of the emotion and the breadth of tone that this has. Because it is funny, it is sad, it is thrilling, and there is a lot of high drama. One of the challenges is getting that emotion across with animals — with cats.

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