Fantastic Beasts: David Yates Talks JK Rowling Relationship, Lingering Ghosts of 1926 in 2016

We discuss with Fantastic Beasts' David Yates the rebuilding of 1926 New York, and how that city's demons still linger today.

When sitting across the table from David Yates, the director of Fantastic Beasts, one is immediately struck by his decidedly thoughtful demeanor. Here is a man who gives measured and precise consideration to every word he uses, and one who treats each interview as a cordial, soft-spoken exchange. This is all to say, he appears a rarity for a filmmaker who’s been charged with helming some of the biggest blockbusters of our times, including the final four Harry Potter movies and The Legend of Tarzan.

Perhaps then it’s fitting that when we sat down to chat about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, it was on the eve before the U.S. presidential election, and the sun was on its last, foreboding gasp before vanishing beneath the silhouetted Manhattan skyline. The sense of change permeated the day, much as it does Yates’ film, an ostensible Harry Potter prequel with no Potters in sight. Rather, Fantastic Beasts takes place in New York on the eve of another upheaval, albeit one of a much starker variety circa 1926.

Yates, who is no stranger to world building (or period pieces), seems perfectly suited to bring the Wizarding World back in time, particularly with J.K. Rowling as his screenwriter and partner in the endeavor. And yet, the filmmaker often reminded me during our conversation about the parallels between ’26 and now, which makes a peek into Fantastic Beasts’ future films all the more intriguing. It is well known at this point that Johnny Depp is playing Gellert Grindelwald for an ominous cameo in this weekend’s movie event. But given the anxieties that Yates and Rowling seem to share about the present and the past, what that could mean for the next several films set in the Wizarding World is a strange and haunting thing.

We discuss that, plus the likelihood that we might get some ‘30s era tap dancing escapism when the next few Fantastic Beasts films are unleashed!

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I know you were excited when you heard there was a screenplay by J.K. Rowling, but was there any trepidation about stepping foot back in this world?

There was a nervousness only because, one, we couldn’t repeat what we’d done before. But you didn’t want to say no either to people that you had worked with and had a good relationship with. But what was great is when I read that script is that it felt very different from anything. I was just saying earlier, and Steve [Kloves, producer] reminded me last week, when it was first announced that there was going to be a Fantastic Beasts movie two years ago, I saw a few a reports in the press of “oh, here we go. They’re going to coin it in; they’re just sort of retreading.” And the one person who doesn’t need to coin it in is Jo Rowling. She’s doing it because she wants to extend her universe, and for her it’s all a creative endeavor.

And it was so obvious when I read the script that this was nothing like just a return to Hogwarts. It was very fresh, and Steve reminded me last week that those reports just disappeared. That pulled us all back, because we felt we are on a new path and a new road with people we really adored and a world that we really enjoyed, but this is a new chapter. So there was trepidation to begin with, but the minute I read, literally it took three pages, I thought, ‘Yep! I got it; it’s not like what it was before.”

And the second thing about the temptation of coming back, I mentioned earlier, it was just the opportunity to work directly with Jo. Who would pass that up? Storyteller of our generation, and you’re working with her across the desk.

Thirdly, ultimately, I get to set up the train set. I’m the one who gets to make it from scratch; it’s my opportunity to lay the table and set the world. I didn’t really have that opportunity on Potter. I grew the world up, I made it a little bit more intense, but on Beasts, I was able to frame it from the beginning.

Obviously you do love world-building, and I thought as much as any spell the real magic of this movie was in the 1920s New York setting. Could you talk about both the challenge and also the thrill of getting to explore this era within the Wizarding World?

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A fabulous period in American history. New York in that period was like a champagne bottle being shaken up full of extremes of rich and poor. Highest murder rate ever, it was also a terrifying time to be in New York [Laughs], and just on the precipice of the Great Depression. It’s really intriguing Jo picked this period, because in some ways, I think it has parallels with what we’re going through now. You could argue, ex the murder rate which is a bit more contained, thank God, but there are these extremes between rich and poor, and there is this extraordinary frothiness, and sort of fiscal engineering that keeps everything weirdly afloat.

And there are, as there are then, these extremes starting to emerge. So there’s a reason she picked 1926, and the world in 1926 to set this story. Because it’s not a million miles away from some of the things we might be experiencing right now. Stuart Craig, my production designer, and I came to New York, and we had a good scout, and we thought where would we film. We went to Central Park and had a good two or three weeks here just looking at everything.

Ultimately, we decided to take it back to England to build. We built a huge set that we then extended in the digital domain. It’s a great period; the cars are great, the clothes are great, there’s not much not to love about that period. And there’s not that many movies set in that period, bizarrely.

Yeah, it’s just you and Woody Allen.

 Yeah [Laughs].

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What I thought was interesting is that while there is some of that Jazz Age and even the noir element, I thought Ms. Rowling was really exploring the darker sides of American history from that era with almost a segregation platform between the muggles and the wizards, and also as Ezra [Miller] was telling me, his character is based on real eugenics societies that paved the way for fascism.

Yeah, fundamentally. I think there are, again, frightening parallels, ultimately, and the notion that how you identify a community and in some way label it is a really interesting idea in the movie, and something Jo was very keen to explore. The eugenics movement was really frightening, and so I think inevitably Jo reflects what’s happening around her in the real world, and that sort of somewhat imbues itself on the script. And she’s quite intrigued by the rise of the right, or the rise of extreme voices in a world where I’ve grown up, and she has, in a fairly liberal—there’s been a liberal consensus about how the world sort of works.

And now that’s being challenged, and establishment should always be challenged, it’s important and healthy to do so. It just seems to me, there’s these extremes popping up everywhere, and it’s a little scary in a way. And ultimately, that just reflects on some of this writing. But the movie is ultimately an entertainment. It’s there to beguile and take us on a journey, and to sort of invest in these characters. But we can’t help but reflect what we’re seeing.

I think there might be room to explore that further down the road, because obviously the Depression could become a subject in other sequels, but also I thought Johnny Depp looked quite Aryan. He had a bit of a blond mustache there. Is that something you’d like to explore in later movies?

Yes, Grindelwald comes back in the second movie and is quite compelling, actually. He’s a really seductive, beguiling chap who seems to have a very reasonable—so he’s quite scary. He’s making a case for wizard kind. Wizard kind in these stories, they’re a minority of the population. They’re a tiny minority, and in America in particular, they stay hidden, because of the special powers and because they’ve been persecuted in the past. At the Salem Witch Trials, they were persecuted and killed. So their response to that is they’ve segregated themselves in a way, because they’re afraid of being persecuted again.

But ironically, they have these extraordinary powers that Grindelwald would argue would allow them to sort of take a rightful place on the world stage.

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Was there any frustration with Johnny Depp’s casting? I think it’s a shame since in the context of the cameo, it’s obviously surprising, but he’s also very good in his scene.

Yes, you know it’s difficult to stop these things. They happen, and I’m amazed that it didn’t get leaked earlier, because we shot it a long time ago. I think we shot it in January or something, and the fact that it’s been quiet this long is amazing! [Laughs]

I’m thrilled he’s in our movie, and he’s going to be in the subsequent movie. I think he’s such an interesting, special talent, and I think he’s going to do a brilliant job of bringing Grindelwald to life.

I know there’s an obvious influence of ‘20s cinema in this movie with Clara Bow and Charlie Chaplin. If you’re going to Paris, maybe even the ‘30s, do you have any influences from ‘30s cinema or French cinema?

Well you know what, I might be diving into that just to see. The ultimate inspiration is always what Jo writes. That’s fundamental. Someone asked me before what’s the references, and I go, “You know what, there really isn’t a reference.” I’ve got a brilliant picture researcher who looks at the real world in New York in 1926 or Paris in ’27, and that’s inspiring. But really it’s about what’s on the page, and how we illuminate it and bring it to life. That’s the real inspiration.

Thank you so much, great seeing you again.

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Thank you.