The LRM Interview with Fantastic Beasts Director David Yates

– by Edward Douglas

Our final interview for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is with the film’s director, David Yates, who took a brief break from the Potterverse to direct The Legend of Tarzan over the summer, but has returned to work with JK Rowling on her latest venture.

The movie introduces Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, a “magizoologist” who comes to New York in 1926 with a briefcase full of rare and magical creatures. When he meets Dan Fogler’s “No-Maj” (American for “Muggle”) Jacob, some of the creatures in his briefcase are let loose, so the two of them have to search New York trying to retrieve them before the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) finds and destroys them.

LRM spoke with director David Yates at the New York junket, but before getting into Fantastic Beasts, we allowed him a quick victory lap for the success of his Tarzan movie.

LRM:  First of all, congratulations on “Tarzan.” It actually did way better than I'd have thought. I usually can predict the box office, but I completely blew that one. 

David Yates: Oh, what did we get? 356 [million], something like that? Anyway, it was fine. Yeah, we did all right. I tell you what, the time before it came out, that Friday, when people were predicting a dire box office, the reviews were not great, I just lay in bed and I was thinking, "God, it's a shame they didn't get it. They didn't get it." I'm really proud of the film, actually.

LRM: You work so hard on these movies. That must be tough. If I ever made a movie, I would literally lock myself in a room for months after it came out, so I didn't have to deal with any of that. No internet, nothing.  Let's talk about casting “Fantastic Beasts,” and finding these characters that will presumably be returning later like Dan Fogler as Jake and Alison Sobel as Queenie, who I think everyone is going to love.

Yates: Yes, fantastic. I saw Dan really early on in Los Angeles. He left a big impression on me because he's amazingly unpredictable, Dan, as an actor, in a good way. We had Jacobs, a lovable, warm character with a big heart. He's a Muggle. We've got all these actors coming in who are doing a very straight version of him. It was fine. Then Dan came in and he just turned it on its head. He's a gifted comedian, but he's also a very interesting actor in his own right. I saw him at the very beginning and never quite got him out of my head. These other actors would do screen tests with all these other actors. We brought all these Jacob possible actors to New York to work with Eddie. I never brought Dan. I thought, no, I'm not sure about Dan. He's really interesting, but is he quite right? Actually, Yvonne, my wife, kept saying, "What about Dan Fogler? What about Dan Fogler? He's amazing." I said, "You're right, but is he Jacob? Is he Jacob? He's amazing. I've got to cast him in something, but is he Jacob?" I just couldn't find the right guy. Then I brought Dan to London and gave him another shot, and I love him actually.

Alison similarly. We saw so many Queenies. For Jacob and for Queenie, I saw tons of people because they're both interesting archetypes. There's something very vivid and broad about each of them potentially, so you needed a performer who brought something extra and interesting and soulful, and both of those guys do. I saw so many actresses who sexualized it, because on paper, she's supposed to be gorgeous and hypnotic, and Alison was the first actress who really brought something other. She had a sense of other-ness about her, and the camera loved her. She hasn't really done very much prior to this.

One of the great things about casting this movie is there was zero pressure from the studio to go for names.

LRM: They learned their lesson after the “Potter” movies did so well.

Yates: Yes, exactly. There was never anyone saying, "Do you want to go for blah-blah or blah-blah?" It was a completely open canvas. Because we have JK, it was her Wizarding World, I could just go for what I used to do in television. I just cast the actors that I felt were right for the roles, which is how you always traditionally do it. In the movie making process now, you always have to go for a name and you hope they're going to fit.

LRM: People are getting away from that. I think they realize that by bringing in a name, it includes all this baggage, as well. Maybe not baggage, but more pressure to perform.

Yates: You also bring a certain relationship with a name, and the delightful thing about just doing it the old-fashioned way is you just cast someone who is right and who brings something really special. You're giving the audience a fresh experience.

LRM: I love the fact that Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch are the leading men people are now looking at for their movies, which his great.

Yates: It's interesting, isn't it? Yes.  I love Benedict. I think he's great.

LRM: Going back to Jacob and Queenie, you’re going to have to put them in every movie because people are going to love them.

Yates: They are in every movie. Don't worry.

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LRM: Let's talk about the actual “beasts,” because that has to be one of the more fun aspects of the movie, getting these descriptions from Jo about the beasts and then creating them.  There's so many really fun creatures in this.

Yates: Yes, they're really sweet. We have concept artists who create hundreds of these things. Gradually, I whittle them down to a dozen that fit. My big note to the guys as we started developing them was look to the real world. If you look at the real world, it's amazing what's out there. Originally, they were doing all these concepts, which were very dragon-y or looked like they were from a video game. There's a vernacular to the fantasy film that I always thought I was seeing things I'd seen in every other movie or that looked like they belonged in a fantasy movie. I wanted to get away from that. I wanted to get creatures that felt a little bit more grounded and felt like they belonged to this planet, but were still extraordinary in their own way.

The Erumpant has savanna-like qualities, but that horn and that globulous thing on its horn that glows in the dark. I didn't want it to be too fantasy. I think the strength of what Jo does is it's always rooted in the real world. It's always anchored. Yes, it was fun working with the beasts. I had a great animation coordinator called Pablo Grillo. It's like working with an actor with Pablo. He's a really fabulous chap. He was the lead animator and he helped with the Niffler and the Erumpant. We worked very closely with Pablo.

LRM: You talk about the real world and one of the other things I liked was that this was set in New York during the '20s, so let's talk about researching that era and how much to build and whether there were locations you could use, or was that impossible?

Yates: We came to New York and we had a good scout ‘round. We looked at some of those old tenement buildings. It just proved easier to build it, because when you build it, you control it completely. So (production designer) Stuart Craig, who I work with, came up with a complete road map. We built the posh part of New York, we built a poor part of New York, some interesting alleyways. It was basically a big composite set that then we could extend in visual effects. It gave me more flexibility. It meant if I shot on the set and I wanted to go back and pick something up, I could easily do it two weeks later or four weeks later or eight weeks later. Coming back to New York would always be a bit challenging. Also, New York at that period was very specific and we found bits that we liked. The odd corner, the odd street, but by building the whole thing, we had much more control.

LRM: I know that the subway station under City Hall is abandoned, but I’ve actually been there and got a tour once. Were you able to shoot down there?

Yates: Well, we used it as an inspiration, obviously. It was beautiful actually, the original. It’s an amazing space, but we built everything, really. Stuart's amazing to work with. We're building Paris at the moment in Watford. We're building an amazing, Parisian set on the footprint of where we had New York.

LRM: I know with the "Potter" movies you had certain sets that you kept active in some respect, so you can reuse them. In the case with this movie, you’re changing locations for the next movie, so you literally have to create a whole new backlot now for the new location. Obviously you’ll keep parts of New York to use again if you ever need to or something.

Yates: We're not. We're losing New York to make way for Paris, and it would make sense to keep some of it, to just store it. The beginning of the next movie has a big chase out of New York, but it's kind of like, Paris, we're going to start building it in February basically.  Most of that stuff's archived. They have a huge… It's a bit like that warehouse in Indiana Jones. You walk in and you go, "Oh!" They store it in all sorts of big containers and stuff.

LRM: It must be nice to have some element of surprise when you get a new script. I’m not sure how far in advance Jo is working or if she's just really focused on that second movie right now. With the books at least, you could at least read ahead. When you started on the fifth movie, was the book series already done or was there one more to go?

Yates: On the fifth Potter? Yes, Half Blood Prince was already out, I think. No, it was coming out. I was in process and they sent me a copy. She was ahead of us clearly writing the books. In this case, she delivered the first draft of the second movie about four months ago and the second draft about two weeks ago. We're going to start shooting in July, and it's evolving and shaping as we go.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens in theaters on Friday, November 18.  You can also read what Yates had to say about departing from the Fables movie here.

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