Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
David Heyman’s found the magical ingredients for cinematic success after waving a magic wand – or rather, writing his name with a pen – signing on to produce the HARRY POTTER series. He even parlayed that monetary victory into another incredibly awesome franchise: PADDINGTON. This year, audiences have been lucky enough to have somewhat of a delightful bookend, having started with PADDINGTON 2 and now almost closing on his latest character-driven, visual effects extravaganza, FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD. This darker chapter in the on-going saga of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has our hero battling against the threat of world domination by the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp).
At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, the affable producer spoke with us about everything from why being given carte blanche isn’t always a blessing, to the commonalities between the projects he chooses. Yes, there’s even a connection between PADDINGTON 2 and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.
First off, I have to thank you for investing your time and money into the PADDINGTON franchise. PADDINGTON 2 made me feel like I could be a better person.
I think there’s a certain amount of reflection at this age, or this time. I don’t know if you’ve seen ROMA yet, but it’s very much a reflection of Alfonso’s film is very much a reflection of his childhood. I’m working with Quentin Tarantino on his film and that’s very much his most personal film. It’s about looking back on his influences in his life. It’s a love letter to things that he’s interested in.
I’ve started to do that in my films. The choices one makes is intuitive. Nobody knows what’s going to work. Anybody who says they know, forget it. The PADDINGTON experience is some of my favorite experiences I’ve had on the film’s I’ve done. Partly because of the generosity of spirit about the character. The theme of PADDINGTON 2 is look for the good in people and if you do, you’ll find it and actually bring it out in people. Also, in the first film, the theme of how people are different was actually a theme for Jo [J.K. Rowling] too: in embracing outsiders you will enrich your own life.
I love that it’s so quietly subversive about that.
Yes. It’s so funny. We didn’t set out to make a political film. [PADDINGTON]’s really a human story – it’s human values. Jo’s film [also] is so much about the choices you make. It’s about taking sides, and even if sacrifices are involved, it’s about doing the right thing for you.
In regard to PADDINGTON, the themes and the pleasure of working, which I have with this, with a great director. Paul King is a very special person. We’re doing three films together. I may come aboard another film he’s doing now – just finishing up the deal now.
I think he’s a genius.
Very special – like David Yates. He cuts to the heart of the matter. It’s easy to underestimate David. This is the sixth film, we’re about to start our seventh together. His ability to bring out the best in the actors – the performances are super strong in this one – looking for the nuance and embracing the complexity which I know is challenging. But he allows the characters to have the moments to feel their pain and struggle. They’re us in different forms and different shades. Even someone like Grindelwald, who I think is a more interesting baddie than Voldemort. Voldemort never experienced love. He was pure hatred. Grindelwald makes sense. I can understand why people would follow. That’s what I love about these characters.
What I love about these films are the definitive ties to the current political climate, but it’s covered in allegory and metaphor. Is there a trick to modulating how much of the real world you want to evoke in a fantasy film?
It’s funny. Just like PADDINGTON 2, you’ve got to invest in the characters and you care for them as individuals and not as archetypes. They are rounded characters. Jo’s written that and the actors play that and David’s drawn it out. I think the themes in this film will resonate beyond today. Yes, they’re germane and relevant. It’s set in the 1920’s so it was relevant then and it’s relevant in the 40’s. These are issues sometimes on a grand political stage and sometimes not, where it’s two people sitting in a room having a conversation.
I sat there at the end awe-struck and dumb-founded by how your work must’ve been a bit like conducting an orchestra. Making sure all the visual effects departments assigned to each of the sequences were on time.
Yes. But the gift of a film, one of the key roles of a producer – and really director – is hiring the right people. We have brilliant visual effects producers and visual effects supervisors. I’ve worked with Olly [Young] and Nicky [Coates], who are the visual effects producers, and with Tim Burke, who’s the visual effects supervisor, on seven films. I’ve worked with Christian Manz, this is his second film. So there’s an ease of communication. It’s always a challenge, but you trust the people you work with. Ultimately, that’s what leadership is. Give them the space to do what they do best. Fortunately we have brilliant people doing that.
These films make billions, but that doesn’t necessarily you get a billion dollars to make these films. Are you given carte blanche when your last film does so well? Or are the limits still in place?
There’s no hard and fast rule. Warners have been unbelievably supportive. This is a significant part of the business for them. They believe in the people who are involved. They believe in the world that Jo’s created. That said, they don’t say, “Spend whatever you want.” It’s not a blank checkbook. Actually some of the best choices are born out of limitations. Some of our most creative ideas come from that. You’ve got to be careful with success to not become indulgent. The best work well with limitations and make an asset of that. The key really is a great script and finding the beating heart. I think David is really brilliant at finding the beating heart.
I love how the relationships deepen in this second chapter and things are darker. Was it a challenge to finding those tones?
It was fairly organic. At this stage it was important to make the choices we did. It’s funny. This is a big franchise, but it’s not approached like that. I’ll reiterate what Callum [Turner] says: “It’s like making an independent film with a few more toys.” But the spirit of it is quite intimate and cozy. It comes from the creator. I’m really excited for the third film. I feel like it’s going to be the best of the bunch. Again, it’s Jo going, “You’ve gone this way. You think you know where you’re going and oh wow.”
When you get her scripts, it’s probably like popping open a brand-new best-seller.
Exactly! It’s such a gift.
Let’s end on a silly question: What’s your favorite fantastic beast and would you want to have as a pet?
I like the ones that are the most character-forward. So I’m particularly fond of the Niffler and Pickett. I don’t think I would want a Niffler. I think it would probably cause too much chaos – even though I love Paddington and the chaos he ensued. I don’t think I would be ready for the chaos the Niffler would bring. I like him not because of the money, but because of the mischief.
FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD opens on November 16.