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Empire Meets The Secret Hero Of Gravity
David Heyman on producing the zero-G hit and breaking into the business

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There's a stereotype of a big-name producer as a movie's shouty, alpha policeman, keeping budgets reined in, problems at bay and in some extreme cases, stars and directors from murdering each other. David Heyman, Gravity's producer, is very much not that man. In fact, it's hard to imagine the softly-spoken Londoner, a youthful 52 years old, raising his voice on set, let going full Don Simpson. But lest anyone should confuse quiet charm with a lack of Hollywood clout, a quick glimpse at his CV should disavow them. With Harry Potter shepherded into box-office history and now the smash-hit Gravity ushered tigerishly to the screen over three or four challenging years, he has the keys to every boardroom in Tinseltown. Empire met him to chat about his space odyssey, as well as an upcoming take on Paddington Bear, his first experience in the movie business and, obviously, Moonraker...

Empire Meets The Secret Hero Of Gravity

You were picked by Entertainment Weekly as the seventh smartest man in Hollywood. That's an intimidating adjunct to this interview.
(Laughs) If anyone believes that they're bonkers.

Let's start in a slightly leftfield place. Having done all the science and crunched all the numbers with Gravity, tell us, could the laser battle at the end of Moonraker really happen?
In real life? It's not even a question. Of course it could (laughs). I love that film, I'm a big fan. It gets a tough rap.

Let's head back to Gravity...
Very similar films. Alfonso was hugely influenced by Moonraker (laughs).

Well, speaking of influences, Alfonso (Cuarón) has mentioned Duel. You saw it as a chase movie?
Yes, and like Duel, it's very lean and follows a single character throughout the story.

That character is obviously played by Sandra Bullock. Can you talk about some of the pressures the film placed on her shoulders?
One of the things I love about the film is that it's invisible – the visual effects don't look like visual effects.
She is remarkable. We always knew she was a good actress but I don't think we had a sense of quite how good she was. She was under physical constraints because of the way we made the film: she had to move in certain ways throughout. For example, if there was a 15-second shot she'd have to look left for second three, look centre for second nine, look up for second 22, look right for 30, and then find her way back to two-thirds of the way across and lean a inch forward for the end of the shot, her hand is doing something different and every mark has to be hit at exactly the right time, moving at a third of the space she'd ordinarily move at because it's space. And the fact that she had to do that and [yet] you're completely unaware of her actually thinking that she has to do that is a real testament to her. She puts all the dancer-types moves aside and what you connect with is her emotional journey.

Also, a huge amount of her performance is conveyed with her eyes, because her eyes are behind a visor. That, for all the film's technical wizardry, the centre of the film is Sandra and her emotional journey, is a real testament to her performance.

She's been touted strongly as an Oscar candidate. James Cameron, who is a big fan of Gravity, had previously criticised the Academy for not being able to see past the tech when it came to evaluating performance-captured acting. Do you think that would be a factor with this film too?
I think they will look at this as a regular performance. If anything, I wish they were more aware of the constraints and challenges that were involved and, frankly, used to give a performance: the pain, the discomfort, the loneliness, the isolation she had to go through when shooting it, she chanelled into the character of Ryan (Stone). But one of the things I love about the film is that it's invisible – the visual effects don't look like visual effects, and while a huge amount of the film is digital, you're unaware of that, and so to with Sandra's performance. You're unaware of the challenges she faced; it's just a performance.

On that note, it's worth namechecking Framestore...
...Framestore, a British company and as good a visual effects house as you'll find, and (VFX supervisor) Tim Webber, a genius.

Empire Meets The Secret Hero Of Gravity
Director Alfonso Cuarón on the set of Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón told us that he's technologically challenged. That people would call him up and ask: "How do I do X? How do I do Y?" and he'd tell them he had no idea.
You know what? He's full of do-do. No, he's not a tech person and when we were doing the third Harry Potter he hadn't had a lot of experience with visual effects, but Alfonso is one of the smartest people I've ever met and anything he has an interest in and doesn't know about, he finds out about. He knows about most aspects of the filmmaking process inside out. He was an AD (assistant director), so he knows how to run a set; he's been a producer, so he knows how to produce; he obviously knows how to direct; camera, editing... he knows inside out. I can't imagine him sitting at a computer and doing what all those brilliant people at Framestore do but he has a great understanding of what they're doing, and he knows what they're doing.

Alfonso is a demanding director: he pushes everyone to the absolute limit and everything to the absolute limit. He's relentless in the pursuit of his vision, but in so doing, he makes everybody better at what they do and everything better than it would be in someone else's hands. It's a privilege. I learnt so much during this film and so much from working with him.

Talking about technological advances, Paddington Bear is your current project. We won't ask where Colin Firth is currently because he's obviously in the Peruvian jungle doing his deep background.
Alfonso is a demanding director: he pushes everyone to the absolute limit and everything to the absolute limit. He's relentless in the pursuit of his vision.
Absolutely, that's where he is right now. Actually, Framestore are doing the bear.

People love the unique look of the '70s animation and will be keen to know how, if at all, you're able to duplicate that.
Well, it's a live-action film with a CG bear. It was very important that our bear could feel like it would exist naturally, in the Peruvian landscape as well as in London. You want to feel that this bear is real, but we consulted with (Paddington creator) Michael Bond and he is absolutely thrilled both with the script and with our designs for Paddington. We're well in shooting and I've seen we saw the first version of the animated bear, it made us all smile.

Paul (King) is a very interesting director. This is a very vivid film: very classic in some ways; very modern in others. It's going to be a very interesting and family film that appeals not just to children, but also their parents and film fans too.

What was it in particular about Paddington that you felt was ripe for reinvention now?
A couple of things. One, Paddington is the story of an outsider - an immigrant – and we're still in a world full of outsiders. I think we all feel like outsiders and immigrants in some ways. Also, it's about a character with a wonderfully optimistic worldview and that's timeless – it's wonderful to put Paddington's view of the world out into the world.

And what you did for Kings Cross with the Hogwarts Express you're going to do for Paddington Station...
I like trains (laughs). They're actually cleaning Paddington up. We got in just in time to spend three nights filming. Those Victorian railways are beautiful.

You have a career that predates Harry Potter, of course. I'm not sure the last time you were asked about Juice but that's a film I really loved, especially when I was going through my faux hip-hop phase.
I went through exactly the same phase. I was a Method producer, going around the set in my hoodie, my Carhartt jacket and my Timberlands. I was a huge fan of hip hop, Public Enemy in particular, and one of the great thrills of doing Juice, besides working with Ernest (R. Dickerson, the director) and Tupac and the great cast, was getting to work with Hank Shocklee of The Bomb Squad. He was the producer for Public Enemy and they did the score, and that was amazing. But the whole thing was incredible – a great first experience and a fantastic time.

Empire Meets The Secret Hero Of Gravity

There's been a question of whether or not Gravity is science-fiction or fact – and how much the science adds up. You had something of a taste of those kinds of criticisms producing I Am Legend. What are your memories of that?
I like grounded science-fiction where there's something you can connect with. I Am Legend was about the last man on Earth but it had a character you can invest in. Just a few months ago the International Space Station had to move a little bit because there was junk going round that was in danger of hitting it. We are leaving a lot of junk up there and it could, at some point, interfere with space exploration because it's dangerous to go up there. Now, that's a reality. This film is a fiction, but one astronaut who'd seen the film told me he wanted to take his family to see it so they could see what the Earth looked like from space and what it sounds like up there, because of course there's no sound.

You must be thrilled with the response at the box office. It had the biggest US October opening ever and has gone from strength to strength. What were your expectations?
I think that's the death of a film, trying to get big numbers. No, make as good a film as you can. That's what we tried to do.
The response has been overwhelming. I don't think in numbers, I really don't, I just love the film. But the response has been beyond our wildest dreams. It's been a big surprise – we were just fixated on making as good a film as we could. I think that's the death of a film, trying to get big numbers. No, make as good a film as you can. That's what we tried to do.

Lastly, and going back to the very beginning, you started working as a runner for David Lean. How did that come about?
When I finished university I travelled and made my way over to India where I got a job working as a runner on Passage To India. I learnt an awful lot watching David Lean and watching the production. I'll never forget arriving there and meeting the producer and the catering trucks had just arrived - we were in Bangalore about three hours from one of the biggest hill stations in India – and in the back was packets of Uncle Ben's Rice and PG Tips. Here we were in India, home of rice, home of tea... (laughs). That was a good lesson: keep your eyes on catering!

Is working as a runner still a good way into the film industry?
It is. It's very easy as a runner to get stuck because you don't know what the next step is, but a piece of advice someone gave me when I was starting out is always go for jobs nobody else wants and distinguish yourself doing them. It's about what makes you different from everybody else. Filmmaking is a collaborative medium and a runner is a hugely important part of the process. The great thing about running is that you do see an awful lot because it connects many different departments. I think it's a great place to start.

Interview by Phil de Semlyen

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