FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM
“It was very important that Jo Rowling wrote the script”
David Yates wants you to imagine that you’re in your favourite restaurant.
“You go to this place because it’s familiar,” he says, “and the people who look after you there are lovely. You have a really nice time and a beautiful view; you look out the window and there’s this great lake with these beautiful trees. You like coming back here. But one day they bring you this food you’ve never eaten before. And so the actual sensual experience of what you consume is completely fresh and new, but in a comfortable environment that feels like coming home.”
This magical restaurant, in case you’re not following, is the director’s analogy for the new, expanded universe of Harry Potter – known as “JK Rowling’s Wizarding World”. It’s a relatively new concept; a way of telling stories beyond the original novels and films; which began in July with stage sequel Harry Potter
And The Cursed Child, still ongoing in London. Yet the play, if we’re sticking to this metaphor, was just the starter. The main course will be served as cinema: a new and exciting dish called Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, the first film in a brand new trilogy. An idea, according to both Yates and producer David Heyman, that was cooked up not out of franchise‑minded cynicism, but by a pull that neither they, nor JK Rowling, could ignore.
“I don’t think Fantastic Beasts… was a business mandate,” says Heyman, “because [Rowling] doesn’t need the money. It’s both an affection for her audience and an affection for this world… And Jo has a whole wealth of material in her mind. We would talk amongst ourselves about ‘what could we do?’ One of the producers, Lionel Wigram, had the idea of making a documentary out of [Rowling’s 2001 Comic Relief book] Fantastic Beasts…, where Newt Scamander would be off looking for magical creatures. And when that idea was put to Jo she said, ‘It’s funny, I’ve been thinking about this myself and I have a completely different story set in America in 1926’. And of course, it was so much better than anything Lionel or I would ever have come up with.”
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is only mentioned once in the Harry Potter books, in
…Philosopher’s Stone, as a name on an old, magical creatures textbook. In 2001, Rowling brought that textbook to life for charity. And now she’s fleshed out Scamander himself: a British magizoologist who, after travelling into American wizarding society, inadvertently lets loose a load of magical creatures in prohibition‑era New York. Unlike previous
Potter films, which were mostly adapted by Steve Kloves, it’s an idea both conceived and scripted by Rowling; a whole new challenge for the novelist.
“She was a fast learner!” laughs Yates. “And she has quirks and qualities that seasoned screenwriters do not have; novelistic tendencies that we embraced slightly sometimes, because they were pure Jo.”
“It was very important that Jo wrote the script because it’s her voice that’s at the heart of it,” adds Heyman. “On …Cursed Child, even though Jack Thorne wrote it, she was very much part of creating the world, characters and story. And so too with this. The pleasure of that imagination in the smallest of details is a wonderful thing.”
STRANGE NEW WORLD
Much like Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts And
Where To Find Them is essentially a fish‑out‑ of‑water story, this time with a bumbling Brit in a country he doesn’t understand. For much like the Muggle worlds, wizarding America is a familiar, yet alien place. On a basic level, this means differences like referring to Muggles as “No‑Majs” and having a Magical Congress (MACUSA) instead of a Ministry. Yet it also goes deeper than that. For it’s a society built from another history, from the hard‑forgotten fact that No‑Majs used to burn witches and wizards alive.
“They were persecuted significantly by No‑Majs during the Salem witch trial era,” explains Yates, “so they’ve decided to live their lives secretly underground. It’s much more segregated in America than it is in Europe, in a sense that it’s a community of wizards who have not quite made peace. And Newt, this Brit, lands in the middle of that and finds it offensive that, for example, they can’t marry non‑wizards. It’s lovely dropping a Brit in America in 1926; with his suitcase full of things that, if they get out, will compromise the security of that community.”
And that, of course, is exactly what happens, thanks to the franchise’s first non‑magical main character Jacob (Dan Fogler), a happy‑go‑lucky Muggle who opens Newt’s suitcase by mistake. This, as you can imagine, sets off a dramatic chain of events, with Newt, having lost his creatures, now trying desperately to get them back. Luckily, he’s assisted by Jacob, MACUSA employee Porpentina (Katherine Waterston), and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). Unluckily, they’re also being pursued by an antagonistic Auror, played by Colin Farrell. And the stakes, as you can imagine, are high; with the fiasco threatening to destroy the peace between wizard and No‑Maj.
As with the Harry Potter stories, which explored eugenics and racism, the themes of prejudice and division are clear to see. But
Fantastic Beasts… is not a “message film” according to Heyman; nor is it too attached to the real‑life issues of its time, or now.
“The story is very much of the moment,” he says, “but the themes resonate because alas, they are timeless… Stigmatisation, openness
It’s whimsical, funny and melancholic in places
to the ‘other’; repression; division… We wanted to make a film that was emotionally truthful and fun with an underpinning of gravitas and meaning.”
For both Heyman and Yates, working on Fantastic Beasts… was a “fresh, but nostalgic” experience, with Yates having directed the final four Harry Potter films, and Heyman having produced every Potter film to date.
“Not working in a school context was fun to play with,” says Heyman, “and working with adults as opposed to children too. You can shoot longer hours! Because when you work with kids you can only shoot with them for a certain amount of time.”
“[Working with adults] was a key difference,” continues Yates. “The movie feels as grown up as the latter Potter films. It has a lot of different colours too. It’s whimsical, funny and melancholic in places. Going back to that restaurant analogy, it’s a whole meal; you get your starter and – I should be a chef, shouldn’t I?”
The connective tissue between Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts… doesn’t stop behind the camera, however. For despite being set 65 years before the events of …Philosopher’s Stone, there are certain characters – wise, ancient, familiar characters – for fans to look forward to; even if they may have to wait a while to actually see them.
“The worlds are connected,” says Yates, “and there are characters that exist in both. [We hear of ] Dumbledore in this film, and we see him in the next part of the trilogy. He teaches at Hogwarts… The scenes that Jo has written are lovely. The younger Dumbledore is delightful. He’s very mischievous and enormous fun and a bit of a political animal. I’m yet to cast him. I’ve got a couple of ideas, though…”
Yates is getting ahead of himself. But it says a lot, really, that we’re talking about the future of
Fantastic Beasts… before it has even begun. For as the first film in a trilogy – the first film in an exciting new era – it’s loaded with potential; with the question, “how far can JK Rowling’s Wizarding World go?” After all, Harry Potter is not the Marvel Cinematic Universe or modern
Star Wars. It’s a franchise defined by a single creative vision, and there is a limit to how much one woman can do.
“It feels like the beginning of something exciting,” says Yates, “but in terms of where it goes from here, the second script which Jo has written is a really interesting departure from the first. It’s very beautiful and operates slightly differently to this one. Jo certainly has a trilogy in her head, but I don’t know if it will go any further than that. It depends.”
“I think that Jo will continue to write as long as she feels an urgency,” adds Heyman. “I can’t imagine her ever saying to another writer, ‘why don’t you do this’, like the way they do with all those Ian Fleming James Bond books written by other people. That’s not going to happen. I can’t imagine that happening. It’s Jo; the reason it works is Jo.”
“And then you turn left at the Co‑op, straight past the lights…”
Director David Yates returns to the Potter‑verse.
Shooting an Englishman in New York.
Stop! Tiny magical thief! Doesn’t he know smoking’s bad for you?
Welcome to the wizarding world. We have odd taste in hats.
This can probably be explained away easily. One day, Hagrid will own one of these, we’re sure.
Ezra Miller and Colin Farrell play Credence Barebone and Auror Percival Graves.