‘Gravity’ film producer David Heyman on venturing into the unknown
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In 2009, Alfonso Cuarón handed close friend and collaborator David Heyman, the British producer of the Harry Potter films, a script he had written with his son Jonas, about two astronauts adrift in outer space. The result? Gravity, the blockbuster film starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney that has made $700m worldwide, scooped six Baftas and is up for 10 Academy Awards this weekend.
“When we started, we were really venturing into the unknown. We figured it out and managed to get home in one piece,” says Heyman, reflecting on the film from the high-ceilinged sitting room of his sprawling, central London home. “Alfonso is a masterful director . . . If he wanted to make the Yellow Pages into a film, I’d be there.”
The house could be seen as another of Heyman’s artistic projects, but here his creative collaborator is his wife of seven years, Rose Uniacke, an interior designer with a shop in nearby Pimlico. “In the mad world I’m in, she’s my rock . . . We both enjoy talking about our work. This is her vision . . . she’s the director, but I question and challenge and support and that’s what I do in films,” he says.
Like the rest of the house, this room is striking in its spare design and use of both subtle and rich colours, which highlight the architectural details. “Both Rose and I do like Japanese aesthetics,” says Heyman, 52, who moved into the house with Uniacke in 2008. “One thing I feel about both Alfonso’s film and Rose’s aesthetic is that they reveal more over time.”
The house was built in 1865 by Victorian portrait painter James Rannie Swinton and was later an art school. Refurbishments meant gutting the building and, with the help of architect Vincent Van Duysen, turning it back into a home. “The house had beautiful bones but had not been lived in for many years. It was a daunting project. The details had been drowned in gloss and ’70s sensibilities,” says Heyman. “It’s never finished,” he adds, leading through to the kitchen to show me a new technical hurdle, a tricky cabinet door. “The wood is swelling because of the heat,” he says, pointing beneath a countertop scattered with Gravity-themed place mats from the Bafta dinner.
“The house does give you a chance to have a lot of empty space. There is a monastic element,” says Heyman, though he believes that, despite the dimensions, the house has a very human feel. “When I was making the Harry Potter movies I was living in my sister’s spare room the size of this cushion.”
Heyman grew up in London and both his parents were in the film business. “My mother produced Dangerous Liaisons . . . My father was an agent in the ’60s, for Noël Coward and Elizabeth Taylor [and] he started foreign sales – he used sale-leaseback for film. He was always coming up with creative structures.”
Despite schooling at Westminster and studies at Harvard, where he majored in art history, Heyman says he learnt most from his post-college travels around the world. “It was my first real experience of travelling alone. Going to a world that was truly other with no support but the kindness of strangers.”
In 1996, he returned to London and started his own production company. “I decided to make books the focus. I’m a voracious reader. And books can provide wonderful source material.” His big break came with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. “I read the book before it was published. I said, ‘that’s not a good title’, but I began to read and couldn’t put it down . . . I loved the book but I could never have anticipated the success that it had,” says Heyman, who sent a copy of the book to Warner Brothers. “Jo [JK Rowling] never wrote down to children . . . there are themes of prejudice, of outsiders. Harry Potter is an outsider who discovers the home he never had.”
The tour continues into a large second sitting area that doubles as a screening room, and Heyman points to a thick white fabric coating the walls. “The wall is soundproofed under the canvas,” he says, strolling over to deep-set windows where long drapes are made of the same material. “This is the room where the original owner did his painting. It’s a north light.” Despite its high ceilings, clean lines and black-and-white photographs, the room has a warm, family feel, with toy train tracks set out by Harper, Heyman’s five-year-old son with Uniacke – who has four grown-up children from a previous marriage. “They are all very much a part of my life,” he says.
The space opens into a former gallery. “That’s where the painter exhibited,” he says of an area stripped down to its original brick and now transformed into an indoor garden filled with plants, including an assortment of orchids. He points to the door: “It’s got a fibreglass panel on top which was made by the Harry Potter art department. They took a mould from the wall and painted it so it blended in with the bricks around.”
Heyman takes a seat at a cast-iron table as rain pounds down on the glass roof, a reminder of the swollen Thames nearby. Given the extreme weather conditions that have wreaked havoc around the world in recent weeks and exposed the fragility of our infrastructure, can Gravity be seen as a statement about the failure of technology to keep us safe? In the film, satellite rubble from a catastrophic explosion shreds the space station, leaving Clooney and Bullock stranded.
“Gravity is about extreme adversity,” says Heyman. “It’s about someone [Bullock] who had given up . . . she’s on a journey, a rebirth . . . It’s truly Alfonso’s singular vision.”
The film has been praised for its technical wizardry. “It wasn’t innovation for innovation’s sake,” says Heyman. “Over 1,000 people worked on visual effects,” he says of the mini-mission control assembled. “Chivo [cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki] and Tim [Webber] created a 12-by-10-by-10[ft] box out of light and LED panels which worked in sync with a computer and a camera on the end of a 2.5-ton robot used in car manufacturing. Rather than Sandra [Bullock] spinning, it was the camera and light,” says Heyman of Bullock, who spent gruelling days alone in the box.
Ultimately, Gravity, says Heyman, shares the deep melancholy of his other films. “It’s about aloneness . . . part of melancholy is solitude . . . but I love films about connection, whether to life or to people.” Another of his films, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, is about “the son of a commandant and a Jewish boy in a concentration camp, on the other side of the fence”.
As the rain stops and the pounding on the glass roof falls silent, a brighter sky lights up the potted tropical trees around us. “In [outer] space there’s no sound,” says Heyman, with a wry smile, “it adds to the gravitas.”
“They’re filled with travel photographs,” says Heyman appearing with a stack of leather-bound books that include a red album of photos of the Harry Potter cast. Heyman describes his early “extreme travels” as a “living” education. “I love family but I also like to find time alone,” he adds.
His photographs record trips to remote spots in “Yemen, Pakistan, Burma, Tanzania, Vietnam, Iran . . . Ultimately travel is both humbling and confidence-building,” he says. “Alfonso [Cuarón] said one thing that I love – he looked at earth a lot for Gravity – you see beautiful hues of ochre and blue, but you don’t see any borders.”
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