Meet 'Harry Potter's 'mystery' producer

Unlike, say, "Pirates of the Caribbean," the "Harry Potter" films have gotten better over time. The person who deserves most of the credit (aside from author J. K. Rowling) is someone you've probably never heard of. David Heyman bought the film rights to the "Potter" series in 1997 and has been the principal producer ever since, steering a franchise that's grossed more than $3.5 billion. The fifth, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," opens July 11. The seventh and final book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," lands on July 21. "I love that I've been doing this nonstop for 10 years and I still don't know how this story ends," Heyman, 45, told NEWSWEEK. "I can't wait!"

Seven installments offer a million opportunities to go wrong. Bad casting. Lame special effects. Fame. Greed. Puberty. Heyman has so far managed to avoid it all. (OK, not puberty.) "I wish I could tell you it was all some great master plan," he says. One important step: a promise he has kept for a decade. Heyman was the only serious bidder for the rights to Rowling's book, and though he had little clout at Warner Bros. at the time, "I promised her that I would protect what she had created," he says. "Jo is a wonderful woman, but she's no pansy," says Warner Bros. COO Alan Horn. "She's tough, and she has good antennae. If David Heyman were not an absolutely first-class person, he would not have sustained that relationship with her."

Heyman still marvels at Rowling's mind. A scene in "Phoenix" features a tapestry embroidered with the ancestors of Harry's godfather, Sirius Black. The book mentions a few names, but the filmmakers needed to make the whole thing. "So I e-mailed Jo and asked her if she could give us a few more names," Heyman says. "About 15 minutes later we received a family tree that goes back six generations with names, birthdates, family crests, a motto. It was all in her head."

Hiring a string of surprising directors—Alfonso Cuarón ("Y Tu Mamá También"), Mike Newell ("Four Weddings and a Funeral"), David Yates ("Sex Traffic")—has given the films critical cachet and kept them fresh. "There's continuity, of course, but we've encouraged each director to make a film that is his own," Heyman says. But most important, he helped cast—and guide—the films' three child stars, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson. Now young adults, all have signed on to make the final two films—and not one has been involved in a scandal. How many American child stars can you say that about? Heyman credits the kids' own parents, but he's been careful to keep the atmosphere on set relatively low-key, and to encourage them to pursue other interests. Radcliffe recently made his (fully frontal) stage debut in "Equus." "They don't need the money, so their decisions are about experience and what they want to do with their lives," Heyman says.

And his own life, post-"Potter"? "It's a combination of sadness and excitement, I think—for Jo, and for all of us," he says. "This world has become a huge part of millions and millions of people's lives. We all love it so much, and I think, afterward, there will be a little hole in our lives for a while."