Behind the Magic of Fantastic Beasts With David Yates and David Heyman

Although unseen forces operating in the Wizarding World can be quite malevolent, the behind-the-scenes duo of director David Yates and producer David Heyman have been dedicated to faithfully translating the magic of "Harry Potter" to a new time and place for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”

Both filmmakers were key contributors to the original saga – Heyman produced all eight of the “Harry Potter” films, while Yates helmed the final four installments – and now they’re dedicated to bringing to life a new extension of that beloved mythology, this time set in 1920 America, with a screenplay by a first-time screenwriter, "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling herself.

Did J.K. Rowling come to you, or did you work with her on how to make that transition from writing a novel to writing a screenplay, writing something specifically for the screen?

David Yates: Jo admitted it was her first screenplay, so she said, “I’m going to go on a steep learning curve.” She entrusted us with guiding her, ultimately. But she’s an amazingly quick learner. So the biggest challenge to begin with was that, tonally, we had to kind of figure out what kind of movie it was going to be. And Jo is so eclectic, and imaginative, and passionate, and story pours out of her. So it was actually figuring out the emotional compass of the piece.

And Jo’s first screenplay was very whimsical, it was really delightful, and much of that still exists in the movie that we’ve got. And then eventually, over the process of the third or fourth draft, she kind of hit a melody that balanced the light with the dark, and which was eventually the movie that we’ve ended up with, effectively. And then when she hit that sort of tonal balance, she was away and we couldn’t stop her. It was a struggle to keep up with her, because she’s prolific, and she loves to write. She loves to be in that place where things pour out. So she was learning, but she got it really quickly.

Really interestingly, the first draft of the second movie didn’t have any of the sort of exploration of “Should it be this, or …?” She knew exactly what she needed to do. She got it. She had got the form, and she was flying, effectively. So yeah, it was a learning curve.

David Heyman: I think the environment that David creates around a film is one where people feel safe. You talk about trust. I think Jo felt incredibly safe with him, and it allowed her to make those big swings, so she can go to a really dark place, knowing that she was in safe hands. It’s important for any artist to be able to express themselves and not to feel hamstrung. And to do that, they need to feel safe, and David provides that for the actors, for the crew, for Jo, so that she can try things out. They may not all be right, but explore, go down dead ends, because that will reveal things in itself. Even the first draft you saw there was a remarkable writer.

When I read the first draft, the script arrived. Of course, there’s some trepidation. I was nervous because what a bummer it would be if the script was lousy. Jo, as you said, she’s a novelist. There’s a big different between a novelist and a screenwriter. It’s a different form. But boy, it was very clear. Even though it wasn’t right yet. It was a strong first draft, and you could tell that she was a formidable writer.

Director David Yates with actress Alison Sudol

How was making this movie without the limited hours that child actors necessitate?

Heyman: It’s fantastic. David always says, “We’re going to shoot quicker this time. We’re going to do a much shorter schedule.” And we didn’t have the limitation this time of nine-and-a-half-hour days, or three hours for education, an hour for lunch, and 15-minute breaks every hour. No. That’s what working with kids is like. No. It wasn’t an issue on this one.

Yates: We still shot six months! It was crazy. We had a week of reshoots. These big movies are so complicated. Inevitably, you want to pick a couple of things up. And yeah, we picked a couple of things up. We added a couple of scenes. That was a real surprise for Jo. When I phoned her up, she was on holiday, and I said, “Jo, you know what would be really great is if we just had an extra scene between these guys. Would you mind having a go?” So she said she wouldn’t take a holiday next time when we were on post production, so she’d be ready for it.

Were you surprised that the emotional weight here in the movie is basically with the two supporting characters, Jacob and Queenie, rather than our perceived leads?

Yates: I think that speaks to how wonderful the characters are that Jo creates, right throughout her universe. Jacob and Queenie are delightful, absolutely delightful. Also, I think there’s something to be said … there’s a conformity to certain screenplays. There’s a well-written screenplay. It conforms to certain norms and rules. And I think with Jo, obviously we wanted to work within the screenplay form, but there’s something really beautiful about retaining the uniqueness of her vision, which can sometimes challenge what that convention should be. So it wasn’t a surprise. We love Jacob and Queenie.

Heyman: I would disagree a little bit – agree and disagree. One, I think Jacob is us. We’re No-Majes, so I think there’s an immediate connection there. The sense of wonder, and also what it would mean to have that world taken away when you’ve been exposed to it. I think it’s a very relatable thing. I also think Credence’s story has a real emotional heft. The notion of a character who’s been denied the possibility of being who he is. That’s a theme that runs through a lot of Jo’s work. The dangers, or the consequences, of when you don’t allow people to be who they are.

What I love about Jo is there are so many characters involved in this story, and each of them has their place, and each of them, you feel for in one way or another.

Alison Sudol as Queenie and Dan Fogler as Jacob

In “Fantastic Beasts” MACUSA is very similar, yet also quite different, from the Ministry of Magic in the “Harry Potter” world. Which do you both think is more of a strict environment? Is it the 1926 MACUSA, or is it the “Harry Potter” Wizarding World and its Ministry of Magic?

Yates: That’s a good question. I think there’s something quite strict about the Ministry of Magic – quite bureaucratic, actually. In the second movie, we go back there, very briefly at the beginning of the story. Either organization is very bureaucratic, and it’s weighed down by the proper way of doing things. I think that’s a theme or an idea of governmental, administrative business that Jo really likes, and we warmed to. Yeah, they’re both sort of big controlling, top-heavy administrations. There’s a weary workaday quality to both places as well. If you’re at the bottom of the food chain, there’s a weary workaday quality about the whole thing that’s always very charming and very funny.

Several of the actors talked about the family feel and how it was very warm and people were able to bond very early. Obviously that was important to you. Were there things in terms of rehearsal, or down time, or the mood on the set, to help make that happen?

Yates: When you’re making a huge movie that involves hundreds and hundreds of people, it can get a little impersonal if you’re not careful, and quite vertical as well. We believe in a philosophy of just making everybody feel included. Everybody is contributing to our story.

What I love about movie-making is you’re bringing all these talented people together, actors, technicians, painters, decorators, designers, composers, producers, directors, and you’re all coming together in common purpose to create something that you all have your fingerprints on in one way or another. And there’s something really beautiful about that concept. So then if you translate that concept into a social experience, it means valuing everybody that you work with. It can be the bloke who’s painting the scenery, it can be the person who brings you your sandwich and your coffee in the morning, it doesn’t matter who they are. They’re all there making this thing possible.

And so it's about respect and valuing everybody who contributes. David feels that strongly, Jo feels that strongly, I feel that strongly. So therefore if it comes from the top, and then you cast actors who happen to be not just gifted actors but genuinely nice people, then you start to get this vibe which is a million miles away from a director who screams at everybody. You take fear out of the process, because fear in my experience makes people contract. It makes people afraid to take risks. What you want to do is you want to encourage people to take risks, and be bold, and do things that they would not otherwise do.

And one of the nicest things that people say is they say, “Look, this is like working on an indie film. An indie film where everyone’s doing it for love rather than money.” And that for me, that makes my heart sing because I think, that’s brilliant. We’re making a big Hollywood film, with thousands of people, ultimately, if you include all the people in post production, the visual effects teams, and it feels like an indie film. I’m proud of that. Actually, I’m proud of that more than anything else, because it speaks to the values that we feel, and the values within the movie. That’s what I feel.

Ezra Miller as Credence Barebone

Heyman: We feel so lucky to be doing what we’re doing. David comes to set each morning, it’s so funny: You can see him skipping onto set. He’s like a child.

Yates: That’s because I drink too much coffee.

Heyman: And I pinch myself, that we get to do what we do is a privilege. I think in the way you cast your crew, too – not just your actors, but your crew, and you want that level of enthusiasm, and that sense that we’re privileged to tell stories in this way. And to work on a Jo Rowling screenplay, with incredible talent in front of and behind the camera, is a privilege. Because you approach it with that excitement.

Yates: I said to Ezra [Miller] -- he was working on a DC film, he was working on our film ...

Heyman: He was doing The Flash for “Suicide Squad.”

Yates: Yeah, he was working on three movies, more of less, always committed across three movies. And I said to Ezra, I said, “You’re going to need a holiday, aren’t you, after this?" And he said to me, “Man, every day is a holiday.” I thought, that’s lovely.

As you guys have been entrenched in the Hogwarts that we know for so long, what are some of the changes and some of the things that were different about transporting the story to 1926 New York?

Heyman: It’s funny. I think one of the things that’s very important for David in the way that he’s approached these films, and Stuart Craig in the way he’s designed them, is that they’re all grounded in a reality. This isn’t a fantasy world. Yes, in this film, we may spend more time in a real world, as it were, as opposed to at Hogwarts. But even at Hogwarts, the environments were, how Stuart approached it, they were grounded. They were grounded, but they were a little bit like that. It felt accessible, so there was a familiarity. It wasn’t fantasy. It was reality.

And David’s approach to the creatures, the beasts in this film, for example, was grounding them. Nature is the most extraordinary magical thing, and you can look at that as your foundation, and you can build from that. So you’re not dealing with this, I think there’s a language of fantasy characters in fantasy films, which is fine, great. But it’s not what we wanted. We wanted to ground our world, ground our story. It’s again, what the pleasure for me of this film – I mean, yeah, it’s fantastic magic, and fantasy, and wands and fantastic beasts, but it’s actually the characters, and it’s finding the connection, the points of connection, that makes this whole world feel accessible and possible.

Yates: I didn’t think of it as a period movie, in a weird way. I know that’s crazy. I just found the ideas in it very contemporary and interesting, especially politically. I love the texture and the world and the cars, and all of that’s fun. But it felt to me resonant of now, in a weird way. It felt timeless, is what I’m saying.

What are you looking forward to most about doing a sequel – and hopefully more?

Yates: The next one’s very different to the first one. Tonally, it feels like a dream. A weirdly beautiful, evocative dream.

Heyman: Literally, we sit down, and what we’re going to do at the end of this, once we finish all this, the publicity, we’re going to beat ourselves up. So we’re going to sit down with each other and the head departments, and we’re going to say what we think we did well, and what we think we could do better. And we’re going to question, we’re going to stress test every scene, and every set, and every visual effect in the movie in order to make sure to learn, so that we can make the next one better.

Starring Eddie Redmayne, Newt Scamander, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo and Colin Farrell,  "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" opens today nationwide.

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