Having directed the back half of the Harry Potter franchise, few filmmakers know the world of J.K. Rowling as well as David Yates, and wisely, he decided to return to that world for Rowling’s latest venture Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
Set in New York in 1926, Fantastic Beasts follows Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, a “magizoologist,” who arrives in the city to help the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) track down a mysterious entity loose on the streets that risks revealing the existence of wizards to the “No-Majs” (i.e the American term for “Muggles”). Newt’s unwitting aid is Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a No-Maj he encounters when some of the creatures in his briefcase escape, and Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a discredited Auror trying to get her job back by helping Newt and Jacob capture all the escaped beasts.
Collider spoke with Yates at the junket for the movie for the following interview, focusing on his working relationship with J.K. Rowling and being able to be on board Fantastic Beasts from the ground floor.
Collider: My first question was going to be what convinced you to return to the Harry Potter universe, but after seeing the movie, it’s kind of obvious: who wouldn’t want to do this because, A, you’re working with Jo (JK Rowling) again, and, B, this time you can be involved from the beginning, whereas with Potter, there have already been four movies. Can you talk about how you first heard about the project?
DAVID YATES: It was in France and David Heyman sent me the script. He said, “Take a look.”
So he had a script even before you came onboard?
YATES: Yes, she’d been working on it for a little bit. She sent it to David. David sent it to me. I was very nervous before I read it. I just thought, “God, what if I don’t like it?” I couldn’t really go back to Hogwarts because we’d already done it. I open the first page: “Newt Scamander gets off a boat, New York, 1926.” It was delightful. It wasn’t anything like Potter, except it had the sensibility of a Potter. That sort of vibe, but new characters, new world, and because we weren’t adapting the books, it was Jo. It was an original screenplay. It was really coming from her, so I got the chance to work closely with Jo on the screenplay development.
So it was a combination of things. I thought the script was really charming and interesting and ambitious. I loved the idea of working with Jo on the scripts rather than with the movies, we were adapting them, so it was a slightly different process. You’re absolutely right. With Potter, the train had already left the station. I got on it halfway along. It had fundamentally been cast, the world had been set. This was my opportunity to come in at the ground floor and build it, which is what I always do as a director. That’s what you do. You cast it. You help define it fundamentally, so I was coming back to work with people I loved on a very fresh chapter of something that felt really exciting and ambitious, and I could get to build it from the ground up, so it was a no-brainer.
When you have a movie based on a book, there’s expectations from the book. When you have a movie, there’s expectations for the next movie. It’s nice as a viewer to go into a movie with no expectations, not really knowing very much, and it was just fantastic. I love Eddie; he’s an awesome actor and a great Newt, and I love Dan Fogler, who is also terrific.
YATES: He’s great, isn’t he?
He’s like the heart and soul of the movie.
YATES: Yeah, he is. He’s got a wonderful gift, Dan. Very clever. Yeah, and the wonderful thing about this is, for me, as a director, the thing about the process was that there was a very proprietorial relationship with the material from anyone who loved that series. They all missed a certain bit of whatever we would cut out, obviously. With this, it’s all being channeled straight into the cinema, all being channeled straight onto that screenplay page, so people don’t know what’s coming. It’s a much fresher experience and you don’t have a preconceived idea of what you might miss or what you might be looking forward to. The first time you get to see it is in that theater, and I think that’s exciting. It’s exciting for me, and I think for the people who loved the world, it should be pretty cool.
When you started working on this movie, did you have any idea that she had a long game to do five movies or did that come out of having fun so much fun working on this one?
YATES: Yeah, she’s never written a screenplay before, so when she was working on the first screenplay, as we developed it, inevitably you go through a lot of revisions and changes, and you explore. It was really about helping Jo find the story that she was most passionate about telling. In that process, about 2/3rds through, she said, “I’m not sure I want to write the next one. This is tough.” Then, towards the end of the process of delivering that first draft, she suddenly got into her stride and she suddenly found the melody that she wanted to present. That’s when she said, “I’m going to write the second one and the third one.” Then in the process of writing the second one, as we’re doing it, the moment Jo’s on her second draft of that has come this energy and this sense of these five stories. In the delivery of scripts one and two, there has grown this ambition for five stories, so yeah, it’s kind of firing her up in a good way.
I’m sure seeing the characters realized on the screen so quickly, like Eddie playing Newt, I’m sure she must go, “Hey, I know what I else I can do with this character.” She gets inspired by the movie, whereas in the books, you were almost always ahead of the movies in some ways.
YATES: Actually, you’re right. There’s a symbiotic process, because she had watched dailies. She’ll watch a cut of the movie, and yeah, it’s a symbiotic process, I guess. What’s lovely for me is that Steve Kloves is involved, so it will be Steve and I working with Jo. She’ll go away. She’ll do a draft, and then she’ll come back and we’ll sit down and work on it together. Look at what’s working, what’s not working and generally get it to the place it needs to be got to. She’s amazingly prolific. She’s very pragmatic. She’s a real worker and she loves to write. She loves that process of creating things. Last week I said to her, “Do this beat sheet–12 pages. Let’s get down to the scaffolding. Let’s look at the infrastructure. Let’s look at the narrative beats and how each character is shifting act to act, just so we can look at the minutiae of it.” She couldn’t help herself. She just gone off on 102 pages. She can’t stop herself being that prolific really. Yes, it’s been a great pleasure so far.
With all the time you spent doing TV work, has that helped you being able to cut through a script and know how to improve on it?
YATES: Yes, I love that process. I love actors and I love writers. I love working with both. For me, I’ve always been hands-on in the script process. To me, what you end up shooting is clearly crucial. It’s a great pleasure to work with someone. I’ve worked with a lot of different writers over the years, and it’s always fun.