How Patrick Walters turned ‘Heartstopper’ into a showstopper

Kit Connor and Joe Locke.

When it was announced in April last year that Kit Connor and newcomer Joe Locke would star opposite each other in See-Saw Films’ coming-of-age Netflix series Heartstopper, executive producer Patrick Walters said it felt like they were creating “something very special”.

Fourteen months later and its clear audiences are in agreement, with the queer teenage love story embraced both critically and commercially since its release on April 22.

Created and written by Alice Oseman from her literary series of the same name, the series follows the relationship of Charlie and Nick who, after meeting at an all-boys school, become friends, and quickly discover a romance is blossoming between them.

Along the way they realise there is a strong community of allies and friends around them, helping them to access their authentic selves, but also teaching them there is no ‘right way’ to come out.

Not only did Heartstopper reach Netflix’s top ten list in 54 countries, but it also achieved a 100 per cent critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes and sparked a 1,700 per cent increase in US weekly sales of the books.

For Walters, the global reaction has mirrored his personal feelings during the development of the project.

“It really inspired me in me that sort of passion that we’re seeing now in the reception that it’s had all over the world,” he said.

“So I definitely hoped that it could connect in that way but first and foremost, I was just trying to protect the adaptation and make it as rich and emotional and satisfying as the graphic novels are to read.

“That was essentially what I was worried about the most and then you just cross fingers and hope for the best. “

Walters joined See-Saw Films in 2014 and worked as a development executive on Top of The Lake: China Girl and a script executive on The New Legends of Monkey, before being promoted to head of TV development in 2018.

His credits since have included being co-producer on Samantha Strauss’ The End for Foxtel, Sky Atlantic and Showtime, while also continuing to develop dramas such as Andrew Haigh’s The North Water’ for BBC Two, Nick Hornby’s State of the Union, and Slow Horses for Apple TV+.

Heartstopper is not the literary adaptation Walters has executive produced for release this year, having held the role for The Essex Serpent, a six-part period drama based on Sarah Perry’s novel of the same name that is directed by Clio Barnard and stars Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston.

Patrick Walters.

Reflecting on his approach with the different streaming platforms, he said it was about being specific about where a development can be put out into the world.

“For something like Heartstopper, we really wanted to target Netflix because we felt that it was a direct link into the screens of the Gen Z demographic that we wanted to speak to, and because Netflix is in so many territories, it goes out all over the world all at once,” he said.

“We just thought it would be the perfect place for it, so we were really targeted in how we approached them and they were very positive about it.

“When you’re developing something like The Essex Serpent, which is a very evocative literary period novel, it’s about who understands it, and who wants to protect what it is and really gets it.

“Apple TV has a brilliant executive called Jay Hunt, who was so passionate about the novel, and she sought us out having found out that See-Saw had the option on it and so it’s sometimes it’s that link with who gets it and understands what it is.”

While the subsequent seasons of Heartstopper will be his focus for the immediate future, Walters aims to continue shining a light on different types of queer stories, including working with writer/director Harry Lighton, who is known for short films such as Wren Boys and Sunday Morning Coming Down.

He said identifying with the creative voice of a writer or director was a key part of identifying new projects to work on.

“You want to feel like you’ve got a creative compatibility with someone and that you’re really excited by how they view the world specifically,” he said.

“So that’s what I look for first and foremost, and then you get into ‘Well, what makes you tick and how can we deliver that in a TV series?’

“You also need to pitch something that makes you passionate and that you really get a personal joy from. Once you start manipulating an idea to fit what you think a producer, commissioner or the market wants, it just dilutes it. I think the more different and specific something, the better it is.”