Continuing J.K. Rowling’s magic
‘BEASTS’ » PAGE 2
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a fresh chapter in J.K. Rowling’s magical world.
J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel, which was published in 1997, had an initial print run of 2,500 copies, but by the time the last of the eight Potter films was released in 2011 the series was a worldwide phenomenon.
And there was still an enormous appetite for more.
So Friday’s release of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” — a fresh chapter in Rowling’s magical world that takes place before Harry’s adventures — would seem like a time of celebration for wizards and Muggles alike.
Yet an air of mystery surrounds the estimated $180 million Warner Bros film. Unlike the Potter films, which were based on Rowling’s novels and already had a huge fan base by the time they hit the screen, “Beasts” is from an original script by the acclaimed author. So there is some anticipation about how the film and its announced sequels will be received.
“Beasts” centers on the character of Newt Scamander, played by Oscar-winning actor Eddie Redmayne. The eccentric English wizard is first mentioned in the initial Potter novel as the author of a textbook about magical creatures written in the 1920s called “Fantastic Beasts.” As part of a charity effort in 2001, Rowling, using the name Newt Scamander, published a small book with that title, which described the creatures.
The film, though, is an entirely different beast, a full-fledged dive into a familiar yet different magical world of another era.
“Newt is an unusual hero,” says Redmayne. “He is incredibly awkward in having relationships with human beings, and yet he is entirely content in his own skin.”
“(Eddie Redmayne) is great at playing characters who are outsiders, someone who can be a little bit naughty and awkward and yet he can make them entirely relatable, engaging and sympathetic.” — ‘Fantastic Beasts’ producer Davide Heyman
Getting Redmayne was crucial for the project, says producer David Heyman.
“We had one and only choice for Newt and that was Eddie,” he says. “He is great at playing characters who are outsiders, someone who can be a little bit naughty and awkward and yet he can make them entirely relatable, engaging and sympathetic.”
One reason Heyman and director David Yates wanted Redmayne was because they saw him as quintessentially British.
“That was important,” says the producer. “You feel like he can exist in any time; so he fits in very comfortably in 1926.”
Redmayne won his Oscar for playing physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” which was set mostly in the 1960s and ‘70s. The following year the 34-year-old actor received a second nomination for his work in the role of Lili Elbe, one of the first-known recipients of sex-reassignment surgery, in “The Danish Girl,” which took place in the early part of the 20th century.
Redmayne just laughs when asked about all the period pieces he’s been in. He mentions reading a quote attributed to Daniel Radcliffe, who, when asked about “Fantastic Beasts,” reportedly complained that all he ever got to wear was a hoodie and jeans in the Potter films while Redmayne gets to wear some great coats and outfits.
“I thought, ‘I dream about getting a role where I only get to wear a hoodie and jeans in a film,’ “he says with a laugh.
“Fantastic Beasts” not only introduces Newt but also the friends he makes once he arrives in New York City. (The sequel, already in the works, is set in Paris, making Newt more of a world traveler than Harry.)
They include Katherine Waterston as Tina and Alison Sudol as Queenie, two magical sisters. Tony-award winner Dan Fogler plays Jacob — a No-Mag, someone without magical powers — who stumbles into the world of wizards.
Unlike the “Potter” stories, “Beasts” involves adults instead of children. Redmayne says his brother, who is six years younger, got him into Harry’s world when the books first came out.
“I was quite intoxicated by that world,” says the actor who became a first-time father in June. “When the films started coming out, I just found the most incredibly warm and comforting place to return to every year or so.”
What Redmayne loved about Rowling’s “Beasts” script was that it was only when Newt “meets the other members of the quartet — who are all outsiders in their own way — that he and the others could reveal themselves.”
Rowling says “Fantastic Beasts” was “partly informed” by the rise of fearstoked populism around the world. This was long before the recent U.S. election.
“I think when you look at Jo’s, work you see themes of intolerance, a world divided, which is as relevant in 1926 as it is today,” Heyman says.
When Newt arrives in New York, it’s a city between the two World Wars with the Depression on the horizon and struggling with economic inequality and xenophobia. There is also a power struggle within the wizard community, which feels under siege from a group spouting anti-magic rhetoric that is reminiscent of the Red Scare tactics of the 1950s.
While Rowling wrote what she describes as a “really dark” version of the script, ultimately she and the filmmakers opted for a tone that is more in keeping with the “Potter” films, a serious underside but filled with enchantment.
Heyman says Rowling felt free to try things out in her drafts and push the envelope because Yates and Steve Klovis, the scriptwriter for the “Potter” films who came on as a producer for “Beasts,” “gave her the space and support she needed.”
Yates observes that once Rowling got into the world of “Beasts,” her imagination started running wild. “This was supposed to be a trilogy. Now she announced it would be five films.”
Rowling is a producer on “Beasts” and so has more of a hands-on role than she did for the “Potter” movies. She still defers to Yates, who helmed the last four of the franchise, on filmmaking decisions.
Before casting the others in the quartet, Yates narrowed down a group of finalists for the roles and flew Redmayne to New York City to read with them all.
“It was interesting for me that I was cast in the film without an audition,” the actor says. “I knew at some point I was going to have to show my cards to David and Jo [Rowling]. So I was pretty nervous myself during those auditions.”
A week or so before shooting began, Redmayne sat down with Rowling to discuss where Newt had come from in her imagination.
“It was a great insight and a galvanizing way to start the film for me. What is amazing about Jo is that these characters just jumped off the page,” the actor says. “But what was lovely was how she allowed us — as did David Yates — a freedom to play within the script so you could come up with ideas on your own. That was liberating.”
While his chemistry with the other actors was important, much of what Redmayne does in the film is interact with his menagerie of magical creatures.
Most of the film was shot in Warner Bros.’ Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire. The filmmakers had considered the possibly of filming in New York City but felt too much of the city had changed since the 1920s.
A variety of devices were used for Redmayne’s Newt to react to when dealing with the beasts. For the erumpent — a giant rhinolike beast — a giant puppet was built to replicate its size and shape. A team of three puppeteers who had brought the title character of “War Horse” to life on the stage operated the contraption.
Since the erumpent was in heat, Newt had to do a mating dance with it to lure it back to his magical suitcase, which the actor has called a bit humiliating.
“What was riveting about making the film for me was that many of those things — whether it was the green screen or with puppets — is about opening your imagination,” says Redmayne, “So a lot of it was about regressing to your inner 10-year-old.”
Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander in Warner Bros. Pictures’ fantasy adventure “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.”