Asked by both Quentin Tarantino and Noah Baumbach to produce their latest features, David Heyman has two contenders in the race for best picture. The A-list producer talks to Screen about offers he couldn’t refuse.
As the producer of two of this year’s strongest awards contenders, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, David Heyman has reason to feel cheerful. This year the UK producer has earned an Oscar best picture nomination apiece for the duo, as well as a Bafta best film nod for Hollywood. These are his first best picture nominations since Gravity in 2014.
While the Tarantino and Baumbach features are both Heyday Films productions, they count among Heyman’s many forays over the years into producing scripts not developed under the aegis of his own production banner, which he founded in 1996 shortly before he received a copy of the first of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (Antonia Bird’s Ravenous was the company’s launch production).
As well as the huge amounts of cash the Potter franchise and its Fantastic Beasts offspring have delivered to Warner Bros ($7.7bn and $1.5bn global box office respectively), their success has also given Heyman a significant level of independence from his studio “home”, and on the film front he has also helped create the Paddington franchise for Studiocanal and produced for Miramax, Lionsgate and Disney.
But his latest ventures on Tarantino’s ninth feature – backed by Sony following the filmmaker’s conscious uncoupling from the Weinsteins in the wake of #MeToo and after the studio won the rights in a high-profile auction, beating Warner Bros among others – and Baumbach’s second production for Netflix seem to indicate a new phase in the producer’s illustrious career.
They also could not be more different as projects, the former (reportedly budgeted at $95m) that is both celebrating and representative of an older Hollywood, the latter (budgeted at $19m) backed by the streaming giant that has dramatically changed the industry’s status quo.
How did working with Quentin Tarantino come about?
He called me up, simple as that. He asked if I’d join him on The Hateful Eight; I couldn’t do it. When I got the call about this one, I didn’t think he’d come back [a third time]. So I leapt at the opportunity.
Did you know Tarantino before he approached you for The Hateful Eight?
No, we had people who we’d both worked with. He joked that he had seen an interview I’d given for Gravity about Alfonso [Cuaron] and liked that. I asked what he wanted from me, and he wanted someone with whom he didn’t have history, who he knew would be supportive but also very direct with him. He’s a master filmmaker who commands respect by being who he is, but he also has no issue with taking on a good idea. And he doesn’t mind if you come back a second or a third time with that idea.
When was this process most focused for you? During script stage, casting or production?
All the way through. When we first met, I flew to California and he took me to a room at the back of his house where he gave me the script. It’s nerve-racking to read a script in someone’s house, knowing that you’ve got to talk to them about it as soon as you come out. But he’s a brilliant writer and I absolutely loved it. There were some robust discussions about certain things, about characters and where one’s sympathies lie. He embraced that because he has incredible confidence as a filmmaker.
What was it like to work on a Tarantino set?
When I got the job, his agent said, “Quentin wants you to have such a good time on his film that when you go on to another, it’s really disappointing.” And I understand what he’s talking about, because Quentin loves making movies and he wants everybody who works on his film to love that experience. That’s not to say he’s not demanding, and he doesn’t suffer fools.
You were involved before the auction took place that landed the film at Sony, and before Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and the cast were finalised. How influential was your role in the journey?
We were a team, and we’d have discussions about place and what the advantages of each were with his agent Mike Simpson [at William Morris Endeavor] and his lawyer Carlos Goodman. Quentin has very strong opinions and he doesn’t always go the conventional route — he is comfortable breaking the mould.
But his instincts are spot-on. He has an understanding of business and he also has an understanding of a certain correctness. I found him to be really honourable.
What was the timeline in terms of working on the two feature film projects?
They weren’t shooting at the same time [Marriage Story shot January to April 2018, whereas Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood shot from June to November 2018]. Each director has different needs and demands, and I was there for both when I was needed. I’ve known Noah for longer. I first met Noah with Wes Anderson out at Gipsy House, which is where Roald Dahl lived [in Buckinghamshire, England], when Noah and Wes were writing Fantastic Mr Fox. I knew Felicity Dahl, Roald Dahl’s widow, and we had dinner together. When Noah was in London for The Meyerowitz Stories, we reconnected and he asked me to become involved with Marriage Story.
You have always produced outside of the Harry Potter franchise, but these two projects seem to mark a new phase in your career. Do you see it that way?
I’ve had the gift of working on big films like the Harry Potter franchise. I loved every moment of it, and I want to work on other such series. But I’ve always admired, since I was a child, the importance of filmmakers. To have had the opportunity to work with Alfonso Cuaran and Paul King, Quentin Tarantino and Noah Baumbach, Derek Cianfrance, that’s what makes my heart beat faster. When masters like Quentin and Noah and Alfonso come-a-knocking, that’s the dream. Each of them has made me a better producer.
What did you learn from working with Tarantino?
Quentin is an unbelievable leader. The way the crew is so devoted to him; the way he makes the whole experience so pleasurable and fun. Most films have a wrap party but he has a party before you start filming, to bring the crew together. It’s a great idea. I’ve never done that before; as a producer, I want to do that again. He has dailies every Friday — the movie stars go but also the runners, the grips, anybody who wants. He treats everybody the same — with respect.
Did you feel going in that both projects were extremely personal to their makers?
They are but I’d say the same about Alfonso with Gravity. He may not be Sandra Bullock stuck out in space, but in some ways that film is every bit as personal as ROMA. Once Upon A Time… is looking back on a period that was seminal in Quentin’s life. Late-1969 LA is something he remembers vividly. When Brad is driving home, some of the shots are from the back of the car low down, looking up at the signs. That was Quentin’s view when he was a child. Marriage Story is personal but Noah interviewed a lot of lawyers and judges. It’s not his story, it’s a story of the system. I think it’s a story of our time, about how the system encourages division and that an individual can cross the line. It’s an incredibly moving, affecting film that is about us all. We’ve all had a break-up.
Was it challenging managing your own slate while spending so much time in the US on these two projects? Does Warner Bros mind you working for other studios and streamers?
I have a small team at Heyday who I trust completely, but I try to be over everything. We have a deal with Warner Bros and one with NBCUniversal International for TV. Warner have been very supportive, they’ve been my home for 23 years and hopefully for many more. I respect hugely [chairman] Toby Emmerich and the teams there. Sometimes things come their way and sometimes they don’t, but we’ve made it work. I’m doing the third Fantastic Beasts for them next, and there’ll be other things I’m doing with them and for them.