When Warner Bros. officially announced that it would be continuing the Harry Potter universe with the 1920s-set Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, everyone was abuzz about who might be stepping in to direct this brand new installment in the wizarding world universe. After all, the Potter franchise had a knack for finding interesting filmmakers, and this would give WB the opportunity to start fresh with an American setting. In the end, the studio went with a familiar face: David Yates. Coming into the Potter universe, Yates was mostly known for helming the U.K. miniseries State of Play, but he subsequently proved to be a thoughtful filmmaker on the politically charged Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and he brought different flavors to Half-Blood Prince and both Deathly Hallows films.
Given that Yates is the filmmaker with the most experience in the Potter world, one certainly wonders how he plans to change things up for Fantastic Beasts. That was the question at the forefront of my mind when I was able to visit the London set of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them last year. During our trip, we got to chat with Yates about what convinced him to step back into the wizarding world, working with J.K. Rowling as a screenwriter, his visual approach to Fantastic Beasts, and the experience of not having the pressure of adapting a beloved book series.
DAVID YATES: Well, they sent me the script and I wasn’t certain ’cause I’d spent six years here on those four Potter films, and they sent me the script and I was really nervous ’cause I had to really fall in love with it to come back. And I didn’t know if I could come back. And then, it was just the most delightful read. It was charming, moving, tender. It felt fresh and it was with a bunch of people that I really love working with so, it was a bit of a no-brainer.
It’s so exciting for you because you know, nothing really touches upon this American aspect of the wizarding world, much less a period piece. Was that exciting for you that you were going to get to explore something that was so sort of fresh even though it is part of this larger world?
YATES: Do you know what was lovely for me, is with Potter the train had already left the station when I jumped on it. You know it was half way along the tracks and I got to do my thing with it but all the pieces were already on the table. Whereas, with this movie I built it from the ground up effectively. So, for a filmmaker and the storyteller that is always the most exciting thing—to sort of cast it, to create it, to build it. I loved Jo’s concept of just dropping it into New York in 1926.. Taking her universe but putting it through that paradigm was really exciting. And works.
Having the freedom to do that, to build from the ground up… What’s it been like not having the pressure from a book series where something is already revealed and you have fans and critics who have their own idea of what it should be like?
YATES: It’s liberating… it’s incredibly liberating. And also, you know with the books, everybody had their own their own idea of what certain characters should be like, how the story should evolve. You’re always working in the context of people’s expectations which is fine and great and wonderful, as it should be actually ’cause they are wonderful books. But what’s marvelous about this series is nobody has ever read them. (laughs) And they feel really fresh and we’re not limited by page one to page four hundred and sixty five of something that pre-exists. The only limit is Jo’s imagination, which is boundless. And she’s taking us all on quite an extraordinary journey with this story. And this is the first chapter, in a way, and so, it’s lovely not to have the book. But you know, the books and the movies of the Potters, they kind of coexisted in a way I feel. But it’s very exciting not to have people’s own, sort of, versions of the film in their head. They’ve never met Newt Scamander before, in book form and then, well, they haven’t obviously in that little book, but, there’s something really marvelous about introducing them to all those characters and this new world.
How did you hit upon the aesthetics of the film, because on the one hand you want it feel in a part of the same universe as the Potter films but also its own thing?
YATES: I mean ultimately it’s a film that’s quite witty but I’m just using it in a very simple, classical way which is really, hopefully quite elegant and fun. And it’s really creating that period detail in a sort of magic world that exists within Newt’s Scamander’s case. We did a lot of R&D, both in terms of the creatures and the beasts and in terms of the environments and we obviously went back to the period. 1926 is a great period, and it’s not often brought to the screen and that’s what’s really fun is that period’s under-utilized as a sort of go to sort of environment for a story. So, we went to lots of references and the team—you know, Stuart Craig’s such a wonderful production designer. Philippe Rousselot is a wonderful D.O.P. And we’re sort of, making it feel like it exists within the period but it’ll have a very magical feel, I think.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but there seems to be a higher element of social, political and even racial sort of themes going on… You know Stuart was talking about, you know, there was a difference between the poor and the rich in the sets here and even like the wizards hiding from the muggles… can you talk about that?
YATES: In our world and New York at that time was like a champagne bottle about to sort of shake up and explode. It’s a world of great extremes. And Newt is this wonderful character who has chosen to spend most of his time with his extraordinary creatures in his case ’cause he’s not good at really talking to people or identifying. And his journey in this movie as he learns that it’s actually all right to spend time with (laughing) regular people… And to sort of express your humanity through relationships rather than through your hobbies. And so, there are lots of lovely, interesting ideas bubbling away under the surface of this story and the script and the film. But it’s ultimately in this big entertaining package. Jo’s written a really entertaining script that cycles through drama, comedy, it’s got a really lovely, rich, sort of feel to it.
I think one of things I’m most excited about from this is that the film is building on to the Harry Potter canon. So, I’m wondering if you could talk about working with Rowling and her script, and creating the story for this movie and potentially building it out and planning?
YATES: Yeah, I first read the script—gosh, it would’ve been the May 2014. And it was in its early stages—Jo’s an extraordinary writer, she hasn’t written a screenplay before so, for her this was a new experience. If you work with a traditional screenwriter you’ll give the screenwriter notes on a draft, you’ll spend three days, five days going through the script and you’ll give lots of notes in that and the writer will go away and spend three months or six months re-writing. With Jo it’s a sort of extraordinary process because she doesn’t realize that’s how it should work. So, you give Jo notes and then a week later you’ll get a script. And I’ll be like, whoa! Jo’s just delivered a script—after a week. And what she’ll do is she’ll kind of riff off notes and she’ll create a whole new series of things within that screenplay, which take us off in all sorts of different tangents.
So, she’s like a sort of volcano of ideas. And the process was really paring down, tuning, finding ultimately the form that would best become a movie. And she’s a really quick learner so, pretty much after several months of that process she kind of got the form really, really quickly. And realized that it was about paring down and simplifying, rather than adding absolute new sequences and new ideas all the time. And there were things that were created in this process that will be used next time for the next movie or maybe the movie beyond that. But I think in the process of writing it, she’s already sort of working out what’s coming next. She’s already sort of planning what’s coming next. Some of which she shared with us this week, in fact. She told us what the first act is for the next movie effectively. And so, she has things bubbling away in her head. But I don’t think it’s completely formed all the way through the arc. Where it may well be, she hasn’t showed that. But she has certain things that are well established in her head that she’s shared with us and some things, which I’m sure she’s still figuring out.
You’ve been quoted saying that you like to create an atmosphere where actors feel safe enough to take risks. How have you been able to do that with the cast that you have for Fantastic Beasts?
YATES: Well, you just let them play as much as possible. And you encourage them and you make them feel safe. You guide them if you don’t think it’s strong enough. And I think the most important thing is honesty. So, you’re completely transparent with them about what you feel works and what you feel doesn’t work. We often do a thing here where by if they don’t feel like they’ve got it and I think they have, we always go again ’cause I want them to offer the journey that they’re on. And I’m there to guide it. The other thing I do is, I do multiple takes sometimes whereby we don’t cut. It’s something I did with the kids when I was making the Potter films. ‘Cause, you know, the younger cast, often you wanna just let them feel free. And what happens is when you’re shooting a scene, often you’ll just cut. And when you cut, then the make-up go in, the costume go in, the script person goes in, and you stop for ten minutes before you can do another take. And so, I learnt very quickly with the younger cast that it’s much better not to do that because you lose the moment, and you just literally go again. And you don’t let anybody get anywhere near them. You just reset the camera, reset the actors and you go again. I started doing that with the grown up actors I work with now. If I throw a note in, I’ll throw it in really quickly so they don’t have to process it too much. Because often if you give too many notes, the actor’s trying to process the note—I’ve got to do that and let me think about that. And so, the second take is all about processing rather than being.
So, I try and be as conducive as possible to giving them as much freedom as possible within the space of doing a take to find authenticity. And to find moments that feel truthful for their characters. I try and set an atmosphere on set that’s very positive, that’s very open, everyone feels good about coming to work. It’s as least political as possible, you know. So, it’s about just building a safe, positive, good environment in which actors—’cause sometimes, on some film sets there’s a bit of tension ’cause there’s a bit of politics going on. And I think that can impact actors ’cause they’re very sensitive. So, we try and keep it fun. Fun and open and positive.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens in theaters on November 18th.