March 29, 2020

“Harry Potter” Producer David Heyman’s Jewish Connection

As the final chapter in the boy wizard franchise “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II” hits theatres July 15, producer David Heyman – who last spoke to me about his 2008 Holocaust film, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas—will be closing a 12-year chapter of his life.

And what a chapter it has been.

First, convincing author J.K. Rowling to sell the movie rights to her bestselling novels, with the promise that he would remain faithful to her story and characters.  Then discovering Daniel Radcliffe, after auditioning hundreds of prospective Harrys, while they were both attending a play, of all places.  Hiring unexpected directors such as Alfonso Cuarón and David Yates to keep things fresh.  And keeping the young cast together through eight films without anyone having a Britney Spears-type meltdown.

When I interviewed Heyman about “Pajamas” several years ago, he was giving his infant son a bath at their London home:  “I do believe you’re the cutest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said at the time.  (Now the boy is 3, and, reportedly, a Potter fan.)

While bathing his son, Heyman told me about the humble beginnings of what has become the most successful franchise in cinematic history:  He had moved back to England in 1996 after some inauspicious years in Los Angeles and set up a modest office, Heyday Films, above a music shop in London.  He had hoped to focus on adapting books for the silver screen, with projects that eschewed what he called “a ubiquitous Hollywood sensibility.”

It was at Heyday that a colleague chanced to read a review about a not-yet-published novel, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (its British title) and asked for a free copy in 1997. It was promptly tossed on the “low priority” shelf at the bottom of a bookcase.

“Then my secretary, who was fed up with the rubbish she had to read, remembered the good review, took the book home, and brought it up at a staff meeting. I said, ‘Bad title. What’s it about?’ And she said, ‘It’s about an 11-year-old who goes to wizard school.’ I thought that was a great idea, so I read it and fell in love.”

“I hadn’t a clue that the Potter books would become an international phenomenon,” Heyman continued, “but I loved the author’s voice, that the book didn’t talk down to kids and that it made me laugh. I also liked it because I had gone to a school that reminded me of Hogwarts. We’ve all had friends like Harry’s [hyper-studious] friend, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley, the good-time pal. The book talked about loyalty and friendship and courage and trust, which I most certainly related to. And it was the story of an outsider, an orphan, Harry, who must overcome adversity.

“I’ve felt myself to be an outsider as a British producer in Hollywood—and for personal reasons I won’t expose,” he added with a laugh.

“People who fight adversity and struggle to overcome difficult situations fascinate me,” he said of both Potter and the Jewish boy at the center of “Striped Pajamas.”

The producer’s own Jewish grandfather, Heinz Heyman (the original spelling may have been Heymann), was an economist, newspaperman and broadcaster based in Leipzig—one of the last announcers to speak out against Hitler in early 1933.

Heyman was 6 when his grandfather died—at his typewriter—after completing an article that ran two days after his death as the lead story in The Financial Times.

The producer—who often visited Israel as a child—is continuing his family’s literary tradition with his knack for book adaptations.  Post-Potter, he’s optioned Mark Haddon’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and assigned Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves to adapt and direct it.

Also in the works is an animated movie starring a dung beatle and a ladybug, set to Beatles songs. 

But this past week, Heyman has been busy saying goodbye to “Harry Potter” and the series’ young stars, Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, as well to the older thespians such as Ralph Fiennes (the evil Lord Voldemort), Alan Rickman (Severus Snape) and Helena Bonham Carter (Bellatrix Lestrange).

“Working on ‘Harry Potter’ has been the most incredible odyssey,” Heyman told Parade magazine.  “It’s been the gift of all gifts. That being said, I’m very excited about having the time to face new challenges.”