By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 2, 2011 at 9:43PM
After eight "Harry Potter" films, producer David Heyman (who discovered J.K. Rowling's unpublished manuscript in 1997) and director David Yates, the highest-grossing British director of all time after directing the last four, aren't throwing in the towel on the franchise just yet. They came into L.A. for Yates to accept the John Schlesinger Britannia Award for Excellence in Directing from BAFTA LA at Wednesday's Brittania Awards. Needless to say the Brits want to see some Oscar gold for this blockbuster series based on J.K. Rowling's bestsellers that has grossed $7.6 billion worldwide, a record for any franchise. Until now they have been largely overlooked by Oscar, earning nine nominations over seven movies, all in technical categories.
The Academy tends to look askance at sequels, unless they've been rewarded from the start, like literary "The Lord of the Rings," which earned its best picture Oscar at the end of the trilogy. "Making "Potter" has been a lovely magical escape from reality, admits Heyman, who now has to do the heavy spade work of putting movies together like everyone else. While there was stress and pressure to deliver great quality on these films, Warner Bros. gave them substantial budgets to back a team of top-flight European craftspeople and talent. "Chris Columbus set the atmosphere," Heyman says. "It was all about the work. If we made a good film, and Jo liked it, the fans would like it. That was the driving force. We made one good film and then each film was better than the last. We were filled with great pride, not ego."
It would be nice, admits the producer, for American screenwriter Steve Kloves (Oscar-nominated once, for "Wonder Boys"), who wrote seven of the eight films, Alan Rickman as Snapes, Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort, composer Alexandre Desplat or production designer Stuart Craig, among others, to get some well-deserved Academy attention. Craig, nominated for three "Harry Potter" films, over the years expanded beyond his elaborate Hogwarts miniature model into the digital realm, especially on the finale.
While the studio left the "Harry Potter" team alone with eventually $200-million-plus budgets, the filmmakers never felt like they had more than enough money, admits Heyman. "Some of our best decisions were made when trying to make something work." One decision--to edit down the films by adopting only Harry's point-of-view throughout--broke down on the finale, when multiple POVs were required. Hence two parts: Kloves insisted that there was no other way to do the lengthy tome justice. And there was no time to do the penultimate Potter in 3-D, says Heyman, only for the finale, which "drew you in, not out. We went with a restrained aesthetic and heard not one criticism of the 3-D."
Yates's gritty take on "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" was a departure from the franchise's earlier installments, and his most recent Potter film (the second half of the seventh book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows") took in $1.3 billion in worldwide receipts and received the best reviews (96% on the Tomatometer) of the entire series. "It was challenging, we were building to the final conflict between Harry and Voldemort, tying up countless loose ends, ending with the long battle," says Heyman. "Yates looks for the truthful moment, in every single cut, like the final sequence, there's always a rhythm, a pause."
And Yates--who before 2006 had done dark, provocative work on the hit BBC miniseries "State of Play," the BAFTA-winning TV drama "Sex Traffic" and the anti-romantic TV movie "The Girl in the Café"-- is trying to calculate his next move. Standing on the curb at L'Ermitage Hotel with a stack of scripts under his arm, Yates admits that he was gobsmacked by the intense fan reaction to the announcement that he was going to develop and direct a "Dr. Who" movie for the BBC. He has no idea who his star will be because he's still trying to pick the right writer--the movie is "way away, three years," he says. As for what he'll direct in the meantime, having left behind an adaptation of Stephen King's "The Stand" which Ben Affleck has taken over, he's considering about four projects, including a comedy. He'll definitely pick one that is "tiny-budget, no green screens, and independent"--and not the oft-rumored "St. Nazaire." "I just have to make a commitment," he says. "I have quite a few choices. I'm not in a rush, finally."
For his part, Heyman has recently released David Hare's thriller "Page Eight," starring Bill Nighy and Rachel Weisz, and is in post-production on 3-D space thriller "Gravity" (November 4, 2012) starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the next film of Alfonso Cuaron (who directed what many consider the best Potter, "The Prisoner of Azkaban"). "It's not really sci-fi," says Heyman. "It's science fact, an immersive emotional adventure in space. It could be now. Alfonso connects visual spectacle with a real emotional center. You feel you are in outer space."
He's also developing the kid-friendly "Paddington Bear" franchise as a live action film with a CG bear, as well as Kloves'adaptation of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time," for Kloves to direct. Animated "Meet the Beetles" will feature new interpretations of ten Beatles songs. He's developing a film version of Vera Brittain's World War I memoir and BBC series "Testament of Youth." And there's a film on the love triangle among Johannes Brahms and his mentors, pianist Clara Schumann and her husband, composer Robert Schumann.
Meanwhile Harry Potter is setting up residence in all sorts of places, from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando, which has lured more than 7 million people, a traveling "Harry Potter" exhibition, and a new permanent "Harry Potter" exhibit featuring the Great Hall and other sets and props at the Warners-owned Leavesden studios where the films were shot. And a new Hollywood theme park is in the works, set to open at Universal Studios Hollywood by 2015.
But even if Heyman is collaborating on other projects with Yates, Kloves or Cuaron, he has still had to say good-bye, with "some melancholy," to his filmmaking family of a decade, which saw the cast grow up with a generation of fans. Clearly, Heyman is hoping to see some of them on Oscar night.
—Jacob Combs contributed to this article.