Five years after the Potter circus closed its doors with Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows – Part 2, the old gang is back with a new film about magical creature conservationist Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne.
The first of five planned pictures set against the the backdrop of dark wizard Gellart Grindelwald’s rise to power, a sequel to Fantastic Beasts has already been written by JK Rowling. It’s reported to take place in Paris and will feature a young Albus Dumbledore alongside Johnny Depp in the role of Grindelwald.
Ahead of the film’s European premiere, we chatted to director David Yates, who also directed the final four entries in the original Potter series. Recognised for political television dramas State Of Play and Sex Traffic before he boarded the Hogwarts Express, it seemed fitting to start with Yates’ take on Fantastic Beasts’ political themes…
Fantastic Beasts started life as a fund-raising project for Comic Relief so had a sort of socially conscious identity before it became a film, which you might say has been continued in the film’s political message. How would you characterise that?
It’s a message of tolerance, understanding, a desire to sort of take fear out of relationships and to celebrate Otherness and not to be afraid of the Other.
You’re right though, it’s a wonderful comparison to make. I think the book was hugely successful for Comic Relief when it came out?
It raised lots of galleons and knuts.
[Laughs] Yeah, exactly!
Personally, I love the idea that we’re making these big movies that are essentially entertainment, they’re there for a global audience, but they have a fairly positive message buried within them, especially for kids who are growing up now.
I had this chat with a journalist from The New York Times the other day and something resonated when he said to me—he’d seen the movie and he’d liked it very much—he said “I can’t wait to take my twelve year old daughter, it’ll make her feel like the world is safe again.” And I thought, crikey, we must be doing something right? [Laughs]
Pre-Potter, you were known for politically themed TV series. How much do you believe in the power of popular drama to transform thinking?
There are so many things that have such a profound influence in holding what’s important to us together. Football, the arts, culture, politics. We need to respect our politicians a lot more for the work that they do, the whole fabric of our democracy… we take it for granted. Being good neighbours, getting involved in the community, all these things that make us appreciate each other and do things for each other, we need to really start taking stock of that stuff.
Now, where does drama fit into all of that? Well, drama’s a reflection of our lives in some shape or form. When Jo [Rowling] was writing the script, she was writing it in a world that’s changing around us, so that resonates within the material. We reflect that as storytellers and as filmmakers, so I think it’s part of the conversation.
Can it shift the needle? It’s part of many things that could shift the needle. I think it’s quite powerful, but there are other things that are equally, if not more important.
I suppose making that one twelve-year-old feel the world is safer…
That’s not a bad thing! And actually, I think that’s the beauty of a movie like this. You don’t want it to be polemical or political overtly, but if you’re a twelve-year-old kid and you see something that celebrates a certain value set then that’s probably helpful to the bigger conversation.
The Potter books always had a political thread—even the introduction to [Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them] this is a pretty sharp satire of modern identity politics, with centaurs reclaiming the previously derogatory word ‘beasts’ and so on—but arguably, you’re the director who brought those conversations into the films.
I think it was already inherent in the material. They asked me to come in because they knew that kind of stuff I was doing anyway. But yes, I feel like the director who grew Harry Potter up and I feel now the director who’s telling a story for grown-up Potter fans in Fantastic Beasts. We’ve worked through the troubled adolescent phase and we’re now in our mid-twenties maybe, or a bit older, and I think that’s good.
Kids still like the movie. We showed it to a younger audience and they really love being scared and the darker edges of the story, they find it fascinating I think.
But this is the first Potter universe film not to have children in lead roles. Would you say that young audiences don’t need to see children on screen to identify with the characters?
I don’t think they do. When I was a kid watching Doctor Who, for me it was the Doctor and his assistant that I loved, you don’t need kids to take you through these stories. It was brilliant in the books and those early movies but I think this is a new set of stories, a new set of characters and I don’t think it’s essential for kids to have to identify with kids.
On the subject of identification then, what sort of conversations did you have about diversity in the cast and supporting cast for this? It’s set in 1920s New York…
We were always very sensitive to that. We could have probably gone further quite honestly.
I mean, I loved the idea of Madame Picquery being a black woman because it’s a parallel universe and she’s leading the wizarding world and it’s a contentious environment where everyone’s disagreeing about whether or not wizards should be hidden or out in the open. I love the idea of Carmen [Ejogo, Madame Picquery actor] being this strong leader who’s tough on everybody.
In terms of the casting right down the spectrum, you can always go further. Actually, I was reminded the other day by a good friend in New York who’s Egyptian-American, and he said to me ‘David, you need to get more colours on that screen man, you need to make it a little bit…’
We were consciously trying but we can go much further. I think we can go much further. Equally, you don’t want to do it in a way that’s self-conscious or that tries too hard, but I’m sensitive to the fact that you want to reflect a wider world, for sure.
And with fantasy, you’ve obviously got free rein to do that. There’s no…
You mentioned safety earlier, let’s talk about danger in this universe. Fantastic Beasts is pre-Voldemort. Without such an—and we can actually use this over-used word about him—‘iconic’ villain, how did you go about establishing a sense of danger in this film?
In this movie, we’ve just hinted at that very first part of the story Jo’s narrative will continue over these five movies. We’ve introduced Grindelwald, and whereas Voldemort tried to rule by fear, what’s really scary about Grindelwald is he tries to ultimately rule by winning hearts and minds. He’s a much more sophisticated player than Voldemort. He has exactly the same ends, ultimately, he wants to dominate and control the non-magical world, he wants the wizarding world to reign supreme, but his route is a more sophisticated one than Voldemort’s, and therefore he’s arguably more threatening because he’s going to do it with guile and he’s going to carry people with him. So that’s a slightly more ambitious thing to present dramatically, because it’s not the archetypal [raises hands with an imaginary wand] ‘I’m so evil I’m going to kill you and I’m going to kill everyone unless you all bow down to me!’ kind of thing. Grindelwald is a man who’s actually utterly charming and frighteningly convincing in the arguments he presents to his fellow wizards.
You could argue the less-obvious villain is much more dangerous than the one you see coming all the way on the horizon. It’s a slightly more ambitious way of exploring the nature of evil and its subtleties and almost banalities in some ways. Except with Johnny Depp it will be far from banal! Because Johnny Depp will be amazing, and is amazing as an actor! But the idea that evil isn’t all-singing, all-dancing, all-shouting, all-screaming, all-hysterics, there’s something much more insidious and surprising and unseen about it, if you’re not careful.
It feels as though we could probably spend the rest of this chat talking about parallels there with the US election…
Oh my God, yes!
But let’s not.
It does seem that your story’s going to have an awful lot of relevance to world events.
I think possibly. Hmm.
You’ve spoken in the past about the opportunity of making these films as being like having a massive trainset. I’m interested in the rules you have to set yourself for not getting carried away with flights of fancy and keeping things anchored around story and not just…
We have a good Stuff-ometer between us, so if I start to get too…
Frankly, the reality is often when I see a big Hollywood film—not always by the way, I think there are so many good movies out there, big, blockbuster movies that are really well-engineered and well-structured and well-made—but there are also big, Hollywood movies that I see and I just get slightly bored. I get bored by the Stuff. Because it isn’t rooted in character or story, it’s just Stuff.
It’s like a principle of ‘make it bigger, make it better, make it louder, give them yards of it!’ action sequences, or whatever and I’m not really interested in all that [laughs]. I get bored and I get frustrated and I feel it’s repetitive and ultimately, counter-productive in terms of giving you a real experience, because it numbs you.
So to me, it’s always about character and emotion, but that’s not to say we shouldn’t want to, and I think we do want to, especially with the next film, really push those sequences that involve action or spectacle and really make sure we’re engineering them in the best way possible. I think audiences do enjoy set pieces, especially when you’re going into a so-called event movie, you want some spectacle and some whizz-bang, but for me it always needs to be fairly proportionate to the story and the characters.
I’m always pulling things out that just feels like Stuff. But equally, I’m also conscious I just want to push it a bit more. If we can find a way of pushing it in a way that really supports story and character.
There were moments in Fantastic Beast where I felt as though I was at the circus.
There was something flying around up here, a magical typewriter typing away over there, some origami dinosaurs and magical dung beetles trundling around down there… How do you approach designing a shot like that? How do you know when it’s full?
You judge everything as you’re doing it, before you lock the film. How do you know when it’s full? You just make a judgement call on it and if it feels right, it feels right. Do you get it right all the time? Hopefully.
Having said that, when I watched the film at the New York premiere the other day I thought ‘I want to change that, I want to revise that, I wish we’d…’ I’m never satisfied with what I do, ever. I always feel ‘I wouldn’t mind another couple of weeks in the edit’.
That said, didn’t I read you once saying that you had too long to tinker with The Legend Of Tarzan? That it would have been ready for a Christmas 2015 release but understandably, nobody wanted to release against Star Wars, so it hung around until summer 2016.
I probably did. Tarzan was a funny one because they always wanted it out in July 2016 but we shot it the whole year before, so I had a cut ready ages and ages ago. I was making Beasts and still editing Tarzan.
I think there’s a point where it starts to eat itself. There’s a real balance. There’s never enough time and sometimes there’s too much! It’s always… anyway, the best thing to do is make the film, get it out, move on. Make the film, get it out, move on… and then look back in twenty years and go ‘okay, that worked, that didn’t’.
What sort of influence did 20s slapstick comedy have on Fantastic Beasts? There is a sort of Laurel and Hardy vibe with Newt and Jacob’s aesthetic.
There is. There is. Yeah. Well, in the 1920s, you just can’t resist that stuff. I love physical comedy and I love Chaplin and Keaton. Dan Fogler [Jacob Kowalski] has a Chaplin-esque vibe in the way he moves and Eddie’s got a gorgeous shape, so I encouraged them to explore that side of the performance. There were physical performances as well as cerebral and soulful ones. I love all that.
You’re known for being quite meticulous as a director, doing multiple takes until you get precisely what you’re after. The Harry and Cho kiss in Order Of The Phoenix, if I remember rightly, was something like thirty takes?
Oh my God!
Is that a normal number for you?
Not necessarily. It could be anywhere between one and fifty, I guess. What I love to do is let the actors do something and then go straight again, so you never cut. Because the minute you cut, you start to compartmentalise something and you start to make people self-aware about the process, whereas if you just run the scene and then quickly re-set the camera without a cut and say ‘go again’, and you might throw in a note for the second take, and then ‘go again’ and then… so the actors have no space between each take, no moment for reflection, only an opportunity to be instinctive, to just go for it, basically. And out of that process, you get some interesting stuff.
What took fifty takes in Fantastic Beasts?
Maybe we didn’t go as far as fifty in Beasts… Katherine Waterston [Porpentina Goldstein] running up some steps. I know that sounds bonkers but we were so obsessed with the rhythm of her footsteps, tap-tap-tap-tap-tap, because the rhythm of her footsteps sort of told you a story about her state of mind. So we were trying to figure out what would be the best rhythm, she’d run up the steps tap-tap-tap, no that doesn’t quite do it, let’s try tap-a-tap-a-tap, no that’s not right either, and so that took a few takes!
I’ll tell you a good one. Eddie, on that Keaton-esque physical comedy thing, doing a left-hand turn in the bank following the Niffler and he had to go along and pretend he wasn’t turning because people were watching him, so he had this comedic walk and I was obsessed with this weirdly funny John Cleese-like turn of a walk. Once we started that, we couldn’t stop and Eddie couldn’t stop. And I think we got it and then Eddie said ‘No, I need to do it again!’ so we did it and we did it and we did it and we did it so many times and then I cut it out of the movie! So it was never in the movie!
As the first non-adaptation in the Potter world though, one of the joys making this must have been not having to lose too many bits. Not having to trim the story down and discard too much.
Yeah, that was a wonderful thing. With the books, you always took things out that people loved in the books, that we loved in the books. What was great about this is they’re original stories, written for the screen, nobody knows what’s coming, which I like, so they don’t complain if we cut something out and they don’t have a proprietorial sense of it.
There’s no backlash?
There’s no backlash. And by the way, that’s cool, because anyone who’s ever adapted anything will experience some sense of backlash from people who love the material, I understand that, I get it, but in this case, Jo’s imagination is being completely funnelled into that screen.
There is though, even in this 26 pages of source material, an inconsistency I realised on the train here…
Oh my God! Okay, go for it!
It says in this book that Newt graduated from Hogwarts. [In the film, we’re told he was expelled.]
Oh my God, well-spotted!
You might get stick for that.
We might get some stick. Well, you know, it wouldn’t be filmmaking if we didn’t get some stick!
Finally then, as well as the younger actors you worked with in Potter and this, you’ve directed veteran actors Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman… You once described them as sometimes being as vulnerable and in need of support as newer actors. That felt surprising, because someone like Rickman always looked on screen so untouchable in terms of his talent.
Alan was probably… certainly one of the finest actors I’ve ever worked with, but it’s amazing how these people who have such a skill set and seem so formidable can still be somewhat nervous about what they’re doing. And that’s what makes them great, because if it was effortless and if they could just do it and it didn’t cost them anything, they wouldn’t be great. I always felt that Alan was an amazing, amazing actor, but he still needed to feel confident and loved, I think. I think it’s a credit to him that he was still searching for things. He was formidable.
I remember doing Order Of The Phoenix when he came on in his first scene and sitting with a recruit audience and the power of his delivery and those pauses, the atmosphere in the cinema shifted the minute he came on screen and it was palpable. He was a great, great, great actor.
I think every artist, if they’re really doing their job properly, is taking certain risks and has a vulnerability and that vulnerability in part contributes to their greatness.
David Yates, thank you very much!
Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is in cinemas now.