IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Producer David Heyman Talks 'Gravity' and 'Fables'

Friday, 04 October 2013 15:36 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Producer David Heyman Talks 'Gravity' and 'Fables'

Producer David Heyman is best known as the man who helped bring author J.K. Rowling’s epic Harry Potter series of books to the big screen, so it only makes sense that he would be the right choice to produce visionary director Alfonso Cuaron’s (Children of Men) new space odyssey - Gravity, which opens in theaters on October 4th.

Heyman produced all eight Harry Potter films including Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (which was also directed by Cuaron), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2. In addition, he has also produced such popular films as I Am Legend, Yes Man, and most recently, We’re the Millers. Next up, he is set to adapt two more popular works of literature for the cinema with Paddington Bear, based on the beloved children’s novels, and Fables, which is based on author Bill Willingham’s fan-favorite Vertigo comic book series. 

However, his latest film - Gravity, is a 3D extravaganza that stars Academy Award-winners Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side), and George Clooney (Syriana). In the film, a medical engineer (Bullock) and an astronaut (Clooney) work together to survive after an accident leaves them stranded in space. Gravity was co-written by Alfonso Cuaron, and his son Jonas Cuaron

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with David Heyman about his work on Gravity, as well as the status of Fables. The accomplished producer discussed his new movie, the challenges of making the film, reuniting with director Alfonso Cuaron, the project’s unique music and sound, NASA’s involvement, casting Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, 3D, Fables, when the script will be ready, and if it will feature the Big Bad Wolf.

Here is what David Heyman had to say about Gravity, and Fables:

IAR: To begin with, the scope of Gravity is huge since almost all of it takes place in outer space. As a producer, can you talk about the film’s production design and working with director Alfonso Cuaron to make the look of the movie seem so real?

David Heyman: One of the great challenges of the film was creating the illusion of zero gravity. We had to do a lot of research and development for that, which was great, but it was a lengthy process as we were figuring out methodologies. There were various methodologies with which to create it. So as a producer you’re venturing into the unknown because you don’t know the answers and there’s a lot of experimentation required to come up with the techniques to realize how to form Alfonso’s specific vision. He was very keen on having these long, extended shots without cuts and the feeling that it’s much more immersive like the footage you see on space missions. One of the issues of that from a conceptual point is that there’s no horizon line or checking out where the horizon line is, which is very funny when you’re doing storyboards and things like that. There were only two real sets in the entire movie and those are the two pods, and the rest is digital. A huge part of the process was incredibly technical and not particularly human. There’s one actor for an hour of the movie, she was on her own for around fifty of the fifty-five days. It’s very technical and restrictive, and tough on Sandra (Bullock) physically and psychologically. One of my roles was to keep spirits up. One of the things I love about Alfonso is he really pushes the envelope in every which way. He never settles, and he’s always pushing. In so doing he needs to feel safe. I think as a producer it is important to put a team around him who support him and will go to the end of the world with him. He did that, he found the team, but I wanted to be there with him and have his back. But the process is a world away from Harry Potter with that film’s sets and children. We did have a frog, but other than that there were no animals, no children, no sets, and only one actor. It was a great experience and what you want for the film is to be able to contribute, but also to be able to learn and be part of something that is pushing the envelope. I really believe that Alfonso is that sort of director who everything he does is very brave. He doesn’t have a safe place. He’s forever challenging himself and others. He’s pushing others to their very limit, but not pushing them any harder than he pushes himself. He’s a remarkable talent. For me I just feel privileged to have worked with him twice now. He is I believe one of the greats.

In regards to reuniting with Alfonso Curaron after making Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with him, was it helpful to have worked with him previously so that you had some kind of shorthand language with him while collaborating on Gravity

Heyman: Certainly there’s a language of communication and there’s an ease of communication. We both can say whatever we want to each other and it’s not about ego. It’s just very direct and very easy in that way. We can be painfully direct with each other, which is great and we trust each other. That’s a big thing when you go into an event like this. I just believe in him. He has a very special and unique talent. It was interesting because on Potter Alfonso had had limited experience with effects. But as with everything, by the end of it he was an expert. With this he brought that wealth of knowledge to the visual effects. His knowledge of every aspect of filmmaking from lighting, to co-writing the film, and producing the film helped. He also knows about music. His knowledge of music is encyclopedic and he worked very closely with Steve Price to create the sound and the music for the film. So really what you get with Alfonso is someone who is involved with every past date of the filmmaking process.

To that point, I thought the music and the sound in the film was particularly incredible. Can you talk about working on that aspect of the project?

Heyman: There’s no sound in space so what we had to do was build a soundscape out of the use of music and environmental sounds. We used music to create the sounds. I think that’s incredible. It’s a very detailed soundscape.  

How involved was NASA in the project? Can you talk about the technical advisors that you used to make every detail of the movie feel authentic?

Heyman: We consulted a lot of physicists in the beginning of the film and we looked at a lot of NASA footage. We had a NASA astronaut who we talked about things with. Sandra was in communication with an astronaut, who was on the International Space Station when we were in production, which I think really helped her create her character. The film is a fiction so we most certainly took some liberties, but we did a lot of research and I think there is a lot of similarity with the design and such.    

As you mentioned you only have two actors in the film, and for a lot of the movie Sandra Bullock is on screen by herself. So it must have been pivotal to cast the right actors for those roles. Can you talk about casting Sandra Bullock, as well as George Clooney for the film?

Heyman: When you work with actors of that caliber it’s a gift. Also actors who are as lovely as they are. They’re just really decent, grounded people. With George, you really believed that he is an astronaut. You can believe that he has been out in space, and that this is his last mission. He brought his sense of experience, and also his wit. I think he just has a lot of strength about him, and he was incredibly supportive throughout the process with Alfonso, with all of us, and with Sandy. Sandra Bullock, I don’t know what to say about her. I mean I can’t say enough about her. She really is phenomenal. But it’s a gift. We always knew that she was a really good actress, but what she brought to this film was extraordinary. You have to realize that for huge portions of the film the only way she has to convey emotion is through her eyes because she’s all covered in a large oversized spacesuit. She couldn’t shrug her shoulders to show that she’s tired or sad. It’s all done with her eyes. Those eyes are behind a visor and yet the performance shines through. This while she was doing some of the most technical work imaginable because every shot was connected to the shot before it and the shot after it, so the movements were very precise. They were defined before we started shooting with the actors through the previs. Sandy had to work within certain limitations so two seconds into the shot she had to be 45 degrees to the left. Then nine seconds later she had to look straight out front and her right arm had to be up left. Then her left arm had to be out left, and her right arm had to be down right. 18 seconds later she had to be looking back at 45 degrees. Everything was rhythmic and had to be defined. She was doing all of that while performing, and thinking about it, and bringing a truth in spite of these limitations. Often times she was in this what we call a lightbox, which is one of the methodologies we used to make the film. It was this large 9x9 box made out of LED panels with a track leading out from it and then a two-ton robot with a camera on the end of it. That robot would race towards and stop within a couple inches of her face with these lights shining at her. She never flinched. It never altered her performance or the truth of her performance. She’d be on a wire rig sitting on a bicycle seat leaning back trying to not strain her muscles because you don’t strain your muscles in zero gravity. The effort that went into the performance from a technical point of view is invisible in the film. What’s visible is the truth of it. One of the central themes is about dealing with adversity and how through adversity you can achieve a rebirth and a reborn to start afresh. This is really about a woman who from the beginning of the film has given up. She’s had a great loss and she could easily drift off into the void, but through this adversity and through her experience in space she learns to see a possibility of life. To embrace that possibility, fight for it, fight for life and fight to return to Earth. That’s really a fantastic journey. Sandy is someone who’s clearly lived her life and is experienced. As successful as she is, she has unquestionably experienced difficult times personally, professionally too I’m sure, but most certainly personally and have come through it. She brought all of that to the table. I think she gives the most remarkable performance and also was such a team leader. She was really lovely to everybody, an enthusiast, and never let the hardship of the filmmaking process get in the way. It wasn’t like working in a set with other actors. It was a very specific experience and she used that in her performance.

The movie’s use of 3D was really well done and looks quite amazing. Can you talk about how you wanted to incorporate that technology and really use it as a storytelling devise for this film?

Heyman: When I read the script the title of it was Gravity: A Space Adventure in 3D. Alfonso perceived the film in 3D from the very beginning and I think that is one of the reasons why the 3D works so well. Shots would be altered to make the 3D more viable. One of the difficulties of 3D is that if you cut too quickly back and forth, each time it takes the eye in the mind a moment to adjust to the different depth field and that was never an issue for us. Also because the film was 90% real FX, it meant that it was much easier to do it in post. It made sense to do it in post rather than shoot in 3D. I think the big thing was the entire film was conceived with 3D in mind and I think that in part defined the shooting.        

Finally, are you still working on the feature film adaption of author Bill Willingham’s fan-favorite comic book series Fables?

Heyman: I am and I’m really excited. 

It has had over 133 issues and is still going, so there is a lot of story to narrow down into one movie. How do you decide what to focus on? Are you going to just concentrate on the Big Bad Wolf’s storyline, or will it feature other popular characters like Jack Horner?

Heyman: I think we want to bring in most certainly elements of many different characters that make up this world because it really is about a community of sorts. I’m sure Bigby will feature. We’re working with a really brilliant director in Nikolaj Arcel (A Royal Affair).

Are you still in the script stage?

Heyman: Yes, we’re in the script stage. We’re waiting for a first draft now.      

Gravity opens in theaters on October 4th. 

To read our interview with Sandra Bullock about Gravity, please click here.

Fables is currently in development. 

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