Like a proud father, David Heyman, the producer of the "Harry Potter" films, reached for a box of photographs when a visitor asked him about the young stars of the history-making franchise.
"They are not my own children, obviously, but they are like nephews and nieces or perhaps godchildren, and I feel really protective of them," Heyman said as he sat in his office at the converted aviation factory here that serves as the movie set for the "Potter" series. "Here, look at this one -- this is a photo taken the day the boys met. No one's really seen this before. They were taking a little walk together to get know one another . . . ."
The black-and-white snapshot showed "Potter" stars Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint as chubby-cheeked adolescents strolling side by side, their eyes cast down to their shadows. Heyman took the photo in 2000. Much has happened since then. Those meek boys are now world-famous young men, and their sixth film together, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," has, since its Wednesday opening, racked up more than $400 million worldwide. For those keeping track, that means the saga of the Hogwarts school is closing in on a staggering $5 billion in lifetime box office.
At the very center of the franchise is the erudite Heyman, the 47-year-old London native who has been the architect of the franchise from Day One. On the set in Watford, outside London, Heyman has been the steady steward for a massive franchise that has employed four different directors but chugged along with a remarkable lack of friction or frenzy, as least by all outward appearances.
That's not to say the going has been entirely smooth. Heyman, who prides himself on his affinity for "Potter" fans, found himself with a muggle revolt last year when Warner Bros. abruptly postponed "Half-Blood Prince" for eight months to better position the film in the marketplace. He agreed with the logic and praises Warners as a partner but added: "I won't kid you. My heart sank when they came to me with the idea."
Heyman and company have also struggled mightily to keep the large cast intact and their paydays manageable in a franchise that makes a mountain of money but also fills entire valleys with the fortune spent on salaries, effects and marketing.
Over two interviews -- one last year on the movie set and one last week in Santa Monica -- the producer explained that his success has been keyed by keeping the veteran "Potter" crew largely intact and somewhat sequestered on the Watford set, which, he says "remains a place of pride but no ego, more like an academy, which it plays on screen."
He also enjoyed the kind of luck that makes you believe in magic.
Heyman had studied art history at Harvard, and after stints in L.A. and New York he was back in London with a plan: "I wanted to make films based on books. I'm passionate about books, and you need passion in this business because it can be brutal."
In late 1997, a copy of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" (its title would be tweaked for its U.S. release) came through the office and was quickly banished to the shelf for low-priority prospects. A secretary happened to pluck it from the pile and took it home for a weekend. Her favorable review got Heyman to look past "the rubbish title." He fell in love with the book and snatched up the rights.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2000. J.K. Rowling's books were a sensation and Heyman was seven months into his increasingly anxious search for a lead actor.
"One night, looking for a break, I went to the theater with Steve Kloves, the screenwriter who has written five of the six films. There sitting behind me was this boy with these big blue eyes. It was Dan Radcliffe. I remember my first impressions: He was curious and funny and so energetic. There was real generosity too, and sweetness. But at the same time he was really voracious and with hunger for knowledge of whatever kind."
He coaxed the youngster's parents into bringing him by for an audition. "I watched that audition tape recently -- we'll be putting it on one of the DVD releases -- and I barely recognized him."
The casting of Radcliffe as Harry, Grint as Ron Weasley and Emma Watson as Hermione Granger is especially impressive in hindsight. The trio's selection was arguably one of the best show-business decisions over the past decade, considering the instant risks and eventual rewards. Critics are praising their acting in this latest film as a leap forward for each of them, and, more than that, they have shown admirable grace and steadiness in the face of teen superstardom. In other words, there wasn't a Britney in the bunch.
"I know they all will have great success in whatever they choose to do," Heyman said at his Watford office, putting away his photo collection. "Emma is astonishingly bright. She is radiant and relaxed. Dan is extremely focused on his acting, and I have the fortune too to read his poetry and short stories, and there are some major poets who have written the most glowing, supportive things about his work. And Rupert -- Rupert is the most natural comedian of the bunch. I think that he is like an old person in a young person's body. He is a wonderful eccentric, a distinct original."
This week, the "Potter" crew will hit Day 100 of the planned 250-day shoot for "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," the series finale that will be released as two films.
Heyman said it's too soon to contemplate the end of it all, especially considering the afterlife of franchises of this magnitude. Outside his office were blueprints of the "Harry Potter" theme park, which is scheduled to open in Orlando next year and has Heyman and "Potter" production designer Stuart Craig on board. There's also a museum tour of props and costumes planned and years' worth of home-video repackaging projects to consider, he noted with a chuckle.
Yet Heyman is also looking beyond Hogwarts. He's excited to adapt British novelist Mark Haddon's quirky "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," with Kloves on board to script and direct. Heyman is also developing the film future of Paddington Bear, who last year celebrated his 50th anniversary as a gentle institution of the British bookshelf.
The "Potter" franchise will be a hard act to follow. Heyman said he measures his life by the franchise; he got married while filming the fourth, for instance, and his son was born during the making of the sixth. But like an academy, seasons pass and graduations come.
"This place is like going off to school," he said of the Watford site, which houses high-tech movie gear in a somewhat moldering old fortress. "It even smells like school. There's concrete stairs; it smells a little bit bad, like a dormitory. The school is falling apart a bit; three people have been hired full time to patch the roof. The set may fall apart the day we're done with it, and maybe that's the way it should be."