Q&A with David Yates, director of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Warner Bros. is set to release Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, their spin-off series to the epic Harry Potter saga, on November 18th. Ahead of the release we have a Q&A with the film’s director, David Yates.
The year is 1926, and Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has just completed a global excursion to find and document an extraordinary array of magical creatures. Arriving in New York for a brief stopover, he might have come and gone without incident, were it not for a No-Maj (American for Muggle) named Jacob, a misplaced magical case, and the escape of some of Newt’s fantastic beasts, which could spell trouble for both the wizarding and No-Maj worlds.
Director David Yates helmed the last four of the blockbuster Harry Potterfilms: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2, which brought the record-breaking franchise to an epic conclusion.
He more recently directed the action adventure The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Waltz.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them also features Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, and our own Colin Farrell.
QUESTION: After making four Harry Potter films, how did it feel for you to step back into J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them?
DAVID YATES: It was like coming home, to be stepping back into a place where I’d spent so many years – six years, in fact, in total. There was something wonderfully fresh, interesting and relevant about the characters and the storytelling, in J.K. [Rowling]’s script – and its time and place resonated with what we seem to be experiencing in our own world now.
So, I came back, and brought back the best of the people I’d worked with in the past, like Stuart Craig, who designed all of the Harry Potter films and The Legend of Tarzan, and now Fantastic Beasts; and Mark Day, who’s been my editor for 15 years – we’re like a married couple [laughs]. And then I introduced some new people into the group that I was excited to work with – Philippe Rousselot as D.O.P. [director of photography], whose work is just magical; and Colleen Atwood, an extraordinary costume designer I’ve admired for many, many years.
QUESTION: This film marks J.K. Rowling’s screenwriting debut, and I’m wondering if there was character or a theme that resonated with you personally when you read it for the first time?
DAVID YATES: I loved Newt Scamander. I identified with his social awkwardness. As a kid growing up in the north of England, I was shy and had a really difficult time basically figuring out where I was in the world, and I turned to filmmaking, storytelling and music as a way to express myself. Those of us who feel a little bit awkward and are trying to figure out who we are and how we integrate, and trying to find our confidence, often invest in something creative. Newt Scamander is entirely focused on protecting and nurturing wild, magical animals, so Newt, to me, was a kindred spirit.
And I loved Jacob Kowalski. He’s an everyman; he’s got a big heart; he’s open; he believes in the best of everybody; and what I love about Jacob is that he accepts people for who they really are. And he’s one of us. He’s a Muggle – or No-Maj in America – in the sense that he’s not a wizard, yet he drops into the wizarding world and accepts the joy of that world for all its differences and its idiosyncrasies. There’s something really wonderful about that. So, those are the two characters I related to most.
QUESTION: What do you think it is about the way that J.K. Rowling writes characters that speaks to us so directly?
DAVID YATES: Jo’s gift for character is immense. She’s able to craft characters who feel, in many ways, part of us. They’re tolerant. They’re outsiders in some ways, or they’re figuring out their place in the world. They’re good people, but they’re struggling a little bit. There’s something really endearing and beautiful about that because everybody, at some point in their life, feels a little adrift, and is trying to figure out who they are and how they belong.
I think the reason lots of people love Jo’s characters is because they’re not perfect, because nobody’s perfect. She breaks that myth of ‘we all have to be perfect.’ All her characters are a little bit flawed in some way. These are lovely, normal things, and she celebrates them.
QUESTION: Can you talk about what drew you to Eddie Redmayne for the role of Newt Scamander, and then to Dan Fogler, Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol as Jacob Kowalski, Tina Goldstein and her sister, Queenie, respectively, who complete the film’s band of unlikely heroes?
DAVID YATES: I started, very quickly, with Eddie Redmayne. There were two or three actors we were thinking about for Newt, but Eddie kept coming back to one’s thoughts. Eddie is a soulful actor. He was a natural fit for Newt Scamander. Then it was a bit like putting a band together [laughs]. Who can we put with Eddie who complements his wonderful sensibility and tonalities? And we got very lucky.
Eddie was very generous. He had just won his Oscar for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and he came to New York and allowed us to bring in lots of different actors to work with him. So, for this very intense three- or four-day process, he’s doing the same scene over and over and over again, but with different actors. And we saw some very gifted actors, but there was only one who was perfect for each character and who we felt worked with Eddie. So, Eddie was really the center of our little Fantastic Beasts universe [laughs], and he led us to Katherine, Alison and Dan.
For example, he was doing a scene in the movie with Tina opposite four of five different actresses reading for that role, but Katherine just had such an interesting range. She’s a bit like Eddie in that she’s a powerful actor and a natural at physical comedy, which is a rare combination to find. She can be quite intense but also very, very funny, and I loved that.
Queenie is a Legilimens – she can read minds – and she’s this glamorous, beautiful, exotic woman. There is, first of all, a purity and an innocence about Alison, and what she did with the role was clever and, again, soulful. She was just exceptional, and she and Katherine felt very natural together as sisters.
And Dan was really the standout for Jacob. We had actors who would do a really straight version of the character, and then he came in and inverted everything. He was sad when you expected him to be funny, and funny when you expected him to be sad. It was just fireworks. And a real find.
QUESTION: Can you talk about some of the other members of the cast, like Colin Farrell as Percival Graves and Ezra Miler as Credence Barebone?
DAVID YATES: Colin Farrell is an amazingly generous actor who came into the process and contributed to the whole development of the character of Graves. Colin was a lovely man to have on board, not just as an artist but as someone who brought a spirit that embodies the whole J.K. Rowling phenomenon, really. He’s curious; he’s provocative; he’s generous; he’s kind. So, we had the benefit of working with Colin with all those generous things he brought to the table, as he was interpreting this slightly devious character, Percival Graves.
Ezra Miller is, not dissimilarly, an amazing, interesting young man. He has that same level of curiosity and ambition; loved all the Potter books and the Potter movies; and chased this role intensely. He really wanted to play Credence. I’m so grateful that they’re both in the movie because they’re terrific in it, but, more than that, they brought such a wonderful spirit to the project.
QUESTION: Along with joy and magic, there are darker elements in the film that threaten not only these characters but the larger wizarding world of 1926 New York. Can you speak a bit about that?
DAVID YATES: The wizarding world in America has decided, in effect, to retreat from the world and hide itself because its history is one of being persecuted by non-wizards, or No-Majs. So, it has decided that the best way to exist alongside non-wizards is to operate clandestinely, to avoid confrontation, and to avoid revealing how special they ultimately are.
But that policy and that approach to coexistence is challenged in our story by some wizards, one of whom is called Grindelwald. He’s been operating out of Europe, so he’s not there, but he’s an ever-present threat that definitely affects this world. Ultimately, it’s the values he represents; his outlook is one of intolerance. He feels very strongly that wizards, perhaps, have a superiority over the non-magical world. Rather than coexistence, he believes that wizards should dominate.
Grindelwald represents the darker side of human history, if you like, in that he believes communities cannot coexist. He believes communities will always be – in some way, shape or form – in opposition to each other.
QUESTION: Is this atmosphere informed by any of the other enigmatic characters we will meet in this film, such as the ‘Second Salemers,’ who are seeking to root out the wizards and witches they suspect live among them?
DAVID YATES: Yes, and I love how Jo writes about these characters and that segment of society that feels threatened by otherness. Ultimately, I think it’s a reaction to the incredible pace of globalization. The world churns at such a pace; things eddy and shift – day to day, week to week, month to month – and when problems arise in other parts of the world, there are ways of dealing with situations by retreating to stereotypes. Yet there is a more sophisticated, imaginative way of understanding how complex the world is and how we need to understand differences.
QUESTION: With this film, a new era of the wizarding world is being brought to life for the first time on the big screen, not adapting a pre-existing book. Did that change your approach at all as a director, in terms of seeing the world in a new way or having more freedom to create?
DAVID YATES: What was very exciting was being able to develop the screenplay directly with Jo Rowling. With the Potter movies, we always had the book as the source material – and it was an amazing resource. But developing a screenplay for a movie based on a book means that, inevitably, you’re editing and shaping, refining and distilling, and, over the course of this process, you let lots of things go that you loved in the book but which wouldn’t fit in the timeframe of a movie.
With Fantastic Beasts, you go through the process of developing the material, but Jo Rowling is writing the movie. You’re right at the source, so everything that gets put into the movie you’re fashioning directly with its amazing creator, and the material just flows out of her. That is a very exciting process. It’s not an adaptation; it’s not an abridgement; it’s not an interpretation, as the Potter movies always were. It’s an expression directly from J.K. Rowling’s imagination. Obviously, we refine and shape it, but always working closely with Jo.
Jo has this kinetic imagination, but she’s also a real pragmatist. She’s a great creative partner. She understands the filmmaking process. She understands the family that works within it.
QUESTION: When we spoke with members of the cast, they described the set as a truly collaborative environment and were thrilled to find that J.K. Rowling was open to their input on their characters. What are your thoughts on that?
DAVID YATES: You know what? I think it’s the true mark of confidence in the work. You always instinctively know what you want and where you want to take things, but to then to be open to the best of what people can bring – even if you don’t always accept what they’re offering – is, I think, a very important part of the creative process. There’s this ideology or philosophy that when you cast the whole experience the right way – get the right actors and the right creative crew, all of whom bring something very particular to the process – it’s safe to be able to encourage them to offer up ideas.
Jo’s very much like that. She trusts me and encourages me. And, likewise, I share that way of working with many of the people I work with. I’ve hired them because I think they’re very special and clever, so it’s about bringing out the best that they have to offer.
QUESTION: Another big part of the film are the Fantastic Beasts themselves. What was the process like for you to first shape their looks and personalities with the design and visual effects team, and then to direct these amazing creatures alongside the actors?
DAVID YATES: We start with concepts, first of all. We had hundreds and hundreds of concepts for different kinds of beasts, and, over a process of weeks and months, we whittled those down to work out the most dynamic shortlist we could find. My big note to everyone on the team was that the Beasts have to be fantastic but they can’t be fantasies. They can’t feel like they belong to another universe; each of them needed a sort of organic, anthropological, natural vibe about them.
In terms of skin textures and tones, we would often go to the natural world as an inspiration, frankly. You find lots of fantastic things in the natural world; it’s full of wonders, and beautiful and amazing animals. Then, to develop the creatures further, I worked with [visual effects supervisors] Tim Burke – my VFX partner for many years – and a wonderful new colleague called Christian Manz. And then, our lovely lead animator, Pablo Grillo, brought the Niffler and the Erumpent to life.
Inevitably, you develop these creatures over many months, from concept to basic animation, through to completion, giving notes every day and every week. Even today, weeks away from release of the movie, I’m looking at, for example, the Occamy that we meet in the attic and giving lighting notes about it. There is a three-dimensional quality to the Occamy that we’re still noodling with – and we’ll be noodling until the film is literally ripped out of our hands. So, it’s a constant process.
QUESTION: Do you have a favorite Beast?
DAVID YATES: You know what? I love the Demiguise because he’s so sweet… and charming. And the Niffler, because he’s quite cheeky.
QUESTION: What do you hope audiences take away from when they experience Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in the cinema?
DAVID YATES: I hope the movie entertains, and moves you, but I also hope it makes you think. We wanted to make a movie that was generous and emotional, and that extended Jo’s world in a way that was properly satisfying – that didn’t feel like a retread of something people have seen before – and I think we’ve done that. There’s something very important about not feeling that it’s the same thing – that it’s not Hogwarts again – and I don’t think it is. I do feel it’s a fresh, vibrant extension of her world in a way that feels meaningful and relevant.