How Christopher Heard became a biographer to some of Hollywood’s elite

by Matt Bone
Author Christopher Heard

Sitting in a downtown Toronto hotel’s health club, dressed in a casual blue top, jeans and flip flops, Christopher Heard looks every bit as comfortable in this surroundings as he would in his own house. This should come as no surprise, as he has recently spent 2 years living in The Royal York hotel as a “Writer in Residence” while completing his latest book The Suite Life – The Magic and Mystery of Hotel Living.

Having written biographies for some of the biggest names in Hollywood, including Johnny Depp, Mickey Rourke and James Cameron, Heard remains a humble and genuine man who is as passionate about his work now as he was when he started out.

It all began when he was working as a movie reviewer for the CBC show On The Arts, when he was sent to New York to interview Canadian born director James Cameron…

Heard: “We had this wonderful conversation in New York, Cameron and I. When I got back to Toronto, I checked my stuff and the tapes for the interview weren’t there. The tapes of the other people were there, Katherine Bigelow and all these other people but Cameron’s wasn’t there. So I panicked, as that was the main person I was there to interview. So I called New York and said, ‘Jeez you forgot to put the tape in,’ and it turned out that Cameron had enjoyed the chat so much, he had kept the tapes aside to make a copy so he could use that tape in his corporate video for his company Lightstorm Entertainment. So when the show aired, Random House Doubleday publishers called me and said ‘nobody has written a book about James Cameron, would you consider that?’ I’d always wanted to be an author but I had grown up such a painfully shy and introverted kid, that’s not something you think would be possible. I signed the contract to do the Cameron book, and as it was released at the same time as the film Titanic, the success of Titanic sort of dragged the book up with it, and Random House said “whatever you want to do with your next book, you can have it’.”

In his next foray into biographical writing, Heard chose an icon of Hong Kong cinema and someone who he was deeply interested in writing about, John Woo. Ten Thousand Bullets: The Cinematic Journey of John Woo, was an insight into the world of a man who was raised in the slums of Hong Kong, charting his rise to prominence in Asia and his collaborations with Chow Yun-Fat.

The book was met with great success and Heard, who by now was garnering notability as a biographer to the film industry, was given the option of a third book. The publishers wanted to have something that was commercially viable and Heard wanted to write about the enigmatic and colourful characters of Hollywood. The third book could have been very different if an agreement hadn’t been made by the publishers and Heard.

Heard: “It’s a market driven thing. I’ll chose who interests me, and after my book on John Woo, was one on Johnny Depp, way before Captain Jack [Depp’s Character in Pirates of the Caribbean]. As both books before were successful, they said, ‘well he seems to know how to pick interesting people, so let’s hear what his ideas are.’ The book was originally not going to be just about Johnny Depp, but to be about actors accused of being rebel-type bad boys, I was going to include Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen and Robert Downey Jr. The Publishers said that they were very different people but Depp was an interesting guy, and as I had just spent time with Depp in LA, I decided to just write the book on him.”

As we sit discussing his life and work, Heard has a request. He has been asked to be photographed in the health club pool fully clothed. So being every bit a rock star as the people he writes about, he slides into the pool and as I snap away a few pictures for him. There is something inspiring about a man who can pose in a swimming pool, fully clothed and have pictures taken, while a mother and her toddler stand in the children’s pool and look out onto the Toronto cityscape, completely at ease with the photo shoot taking place.

Having met so many famous and diverse people, the one question everyone always asks him is this: Just what has been your favourite moment? In reality the answer is just as humble and as down to earth as the man himself, meeting someone he grew up watching on the silver screen.

Heard: “When I got to sit across from Al Pacino, I thought, wow, there you are. That became a favourite moment just because it was a realised thing. This guy that I grew up idolising on screen, here I am sitting with him. A you do that over the years, you can demystify that, you realise these are real people. So then your favourites become the ones you meet over and over again. In my case, two of them right now that I think stand out are Johnny Depp, as I spent so much time with him doing the books. He is exactly the guy you think he is, laid back and a very cool guy. The second is Brad Pitt, who is a remarkable guy. I first met him long before Angie and before he was the big money film guy and we would sit in a room and he would say ‘This is a lottery ticket I won, I’m no better than anyone else. My number came up, so I’m going to ride this out as long as I can, until its somebody else’s number coming out.’ As he got bigger and bigger and I’d see him at film festival and hotels, he never changed, he was always that guy. So Pitt is one of those guys, that what people think they know about him is vastly different to the actual guy you sit across from.”

No matter who you are if someone asks you what you would call your life story, your own biography, 90% of people would already have a good idea of what it would be called. Some go for the simple ‘My Story,’ others have a more poignant meaning and some are just plain self indulgent. However Heard’s choice is one that has a clever mixture of word play and nuance that sums up his life in TV and as an author very aptly.

Heard: “A really quirky title came to mind the last time I was asked, which was ‘Scene and Heard.’ That would be a pretty good title I thought to myself. Also I would really like someone to write it who really wanted to do it, maybe someone who had never written one before, this could be their first book. I would much rather that than someone who would peel back the layers to see what they can dirty up on you.”

One distinction that can be clearly identified during our conversation is that being a writer and simply writing are two worlds apart. Picking up a pen and scribbling down some thoughts on the latest film release or typing on a blog, does not make you a writer or a film critic. It just means you can write down words and form an opinion. Heard’s exact theory on the subject is very simple: “A Writer is something you are, not something you do”

Our current location, The Fairmont Royal York Hotel’s health club, has been an integral part of Heard’s writing process. It has almost become his personal Xanadu.

Heard: “Throughout my years at the Royal York, I was literally in the club every single day–sometimes a couple times per day–I would always head down when I needed a bright place to write notes, the suites tend to be a bit dark even when not covered by scaffolding! So yes, the health club is where I felt/feel most comfortable outside of the suite.”

The book was a passion project for Heard, who felt that the book could only be written in, is truest and purest form, by living in the hotel on a permanent basis. This became a methodical way of working. By immersing himself in hotel culture and living, Heard could then subjectively write about his experiences and thoughts into the book. Heard would utilise conversations he was party to, and small sound bites he overheard, to paint a picture of a thriving and ever changing scene that was a constant source of fascination.

One such part of this process has been to use the health club’s very own staff members to bounce ideas off of. Josh Stone had become a sounding board for Heard’s work on The Suite Life, and has been mentioned several times within the books pages. Stone’s contributions to the book were not just limited to being a second opinion but also as an information source about the hotel and it’s daily workings. Several of the anecdotes in the book have come from Heard sitting poolside and observing the very people who walk through the doors.

It is this ability to extract personality rich stories and moments in time, that make Heard such a sought after author. With talk of another book on the horizon, we can only wait to find out which celebrity or which hotel will be given the Christopher Heard touch.

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