“Fantastic Beasts” Set Visit Interview: Director David Yates

Chris Columbus. Alfonso Cuarón. Mike Newell – all of these directors made their mark on the Harry Potter film universe, but none more so than David Yates, who directed the last four movies. Now, along with J.K. Rowling and David Heyman, he’s returned to the wizarding world with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

During a busy day on set, Yates found a few moments to sit down and speak to us about what that return has been like. It’s a chilly December day, and as Yates walks in from the cold, windbreaker still on, we’re lucky to have the chance to talk to him while he’s practically right in the middle of directing a scene. Perspective can’t get much fresher than that!

Press:
Hi, David. What made you come back to the wizarding world?

David Yates:
Well, they sent me the script, and I wasn’t certain because I’d spent six years here on those four Potter films. And they sent me the script, and I was really nervous because I had to really fall in love with it to come back. And I didn’t know if I could come back. And then, it was just the most delightful read. It was charming, moving, tender. It felt fresh, and it was with a bunch of people [whom] I really love working with, so it was a bit of a no-brainer.

Press:
It’s so exciting for you because [none of the books] really touch[es] upon this aspect of the wizarding world. It’s [both] America [and a] period piece, so was that exciting for you to get to explore something that was so fresh even though it is part of this larger world [that Rowling created]?

David Yates:
What was lovely for me is with Potter, the train had already left the station when I jumped on it. It was halfway along the tracks, and I got to do my thing with it, but all the pieces were already on the table. Whereas with this movie, I built it from the ground up, effectively. So for a filmmaker and storyteller, that is always the most exciting thing – to sort of cast it, to create it, to build it. I loved Jo’s concept of just dropping it into New York in 1926. Taking her universe but putting it through that paradigm was really exciting. And works.

Press:
Having the freedom to do that – to build from the ground up – what’s it been like not having the pressure from a book series where something is already revealed and you have fans and critics who have their own idea of what it should be like?

David Yates:
It’s liberating… it’s incredibly liberating. And also, with the books, everybody had their own idea of what certain characters should be like, how the story should evolve. You’re always working in the context of people’s expectations, which is fine and great and wonderful, as it should be actually because they are wonderful books. But what’s marvelous about this series is, nobody has ever read them. [laughs] They feel really fresh, and we’re not limited by page 1 to page 465 of something that pre-exists. The only limit is Jo’s imagination, which is boundless. She’s taking us all on quite an extraordinary journey with this story. And this is the first chapter, in a way, and so it’s lovely not to have the book. But the books and the movies of the Potters – they coexisted in a way, I feel. But it’s very exciting not to have people’s own versions of the film in their head. They’ve never met Newt Scamander before in book form, and then, well, they haven’t obviously in that little book; but there’s something really marvelous about introducing them to all those characters and this new world.

Press:
How did you hit upon the aesthetics of the film? Because you want it to feel [like] part of the same universe as the Potter films but also [feel like] its own thing.

David Yates:
Ultimately, it’s a film that’s quite witty, but I’m just using it in a very simple, classical way, which is really, hopefully, quite elegant and fun. And it’s really creating that period detail in a sort of magic world that exists within Newt Scamander’s case. We did a lot of R&D, both in terms of the creatures and the beasts and in terms of the environments, and we obviously went back to the period. 1926 is a great period, and it’s not often brought to the screen, and that’s what’s really fun; [the] period’s under-utilized as a sort of go-to environment for a story. So we went to lots of references and the team – Stuart Craig is such a wonderful production designer, Philippe Rousselot is a wonderful [director of photography] – and we’re sort of making it feel like it exists within the period, but it’ll have a very magical feel, I think.

Press:
Correct me if I’m wrong, but there seems to be a higher element of social, political, and even racial themes going on. Stuart [Craig] was talking about [how] there was a difference between the poor and the rich in the sets here and even in the wizards hiding from the Muggles. Can you talk about that?

David Yates:
In our world, New York at that time was like a champagne bottle about to sort of shake up and explode. It’s a world of great extremes. Newt is this wonderful character who has chosen to spend most of his time with his extraordinary creatures in his case because he’s not good at really talking to people or identifying. [During] his journey in this movie, he learns that it’s actually all right to spend time with [laughs] regular people… and to sort of express your humanity through relationships rather than through your hobbies. So there are lots of lovely, interesting ideas bubbling away under the surface of this story and the script and the film. But it’s ultimately in this big entertaining package. Jo has written a really entertaining script that cycles through drama, comedy; it’s got a really lovely, rich feel to it.

Press:
I think one of things I’m most excited about from this is that the film is building on to the Harry Potter canon. So I’m wondering if you could talk about working with Rowling and her script and creating the story for this movie and potentially building it out and planning?

David Yates:
Yeah, I first read the script… gosh, it would’ve been the May of 2014. And it was in its early stages. Jo is an extraordinary writer. She hasn’t written a screenplay before, so for her, this was a new experience. If you work with a traditional screenwriter, you’ll give the screenwriter notes on a draft; you’ll spend three days, five days going through the script, and you’ll give lots of notes in that, and the writer will go away and spend three months or six months rewriting. With Jo, it’s a sort of extraordinary process because she doesn’t realize that’s how it should work. So you give Jo notes, and then a week later you’ll get a script. And I’ll be like, whoa! Jo has just delivered a script – after a week.

And what she’ll do is she’ll riff off notes, and she’ll create a whole new series of things within that screenplay, which take us off [on] all sorts of different tangents. So she’s a sort of volcano of ideas. The process was really paring down, tuning, finding ultimately the form that would best become a movie. [Jo] is a really quick learner, so pretty much after several months of that process, she got the form really, really quickly. She realized that it was about paring down and simplifying, rather than adding absolute new sequences and new ideas all the time. And there were things that were created in this process that will be used next time for the next movie or maybe the movie beyond that.

But I think in the process of writing it, she’s already sort of working out what’s coming next. She’s already sort of planning what’s coming next, some of which she shared with us this week, in fact. She told us what the first act is for the next movie, effectively. And so she has things bubbling away in her head. But I don’t think it’s completely formed all the way through the arc. Where it may well be, she hasn’t [shown] that. But she has certain things that are well established in her head that she’s shared with us and some things I’m sure she’s still figuring out.

Press:
On your IMDb page, you’ve been quoted saying that you like to create an atmosphere where actors feel safe enough to take risks. How have you been able to do that with the cast that you have for Fantastic Beasts?

David Yates:
Well, you just let them play as much as possible. You encourage them, and you make them feel safe. You guide them if you don’t think it’s strong enough. And I think the most important thing is honesty. So you’re completely transparent with them about what you feel works and what you feel doesn’t work. We often do a thing here whereby if they don’t feel like they’ve got it, and I think they have, we always go again because I want them to offer the journey that they’re on. And I’m there to guide it.

The other thing I do is I do multiple takes sometimes whereby we don’t cut. It’s something I did with the kids when I was making the Potter films. Because the younger cast… often you want to just let them feel free. What happens is when you’re shooting a scene, often you’ll just cut. And when you cut, then the make-up go in, the costume go in, the script person goes in, and you stop for ten minutes before you can do another take. So I learned very quickly with the younger cast that it’s much better not to do that because you lose the moment. And you just literally go again. You don’t let anybody get anywhere near them. You just reset the camera, reset the actors, and you go again.

I started doing that with the grown-up actors I work with now. If I throw a note in, I’ll throw it in really quickly, so they don’t have to process it too much. Because often if you give too many notes, the actor’s trying to process the note – “I’ve got to do that, and let me think about that” – and so the second take is all about processing rather than being. So I try [to] be as conducive as possible to giving them as much freedom as possible within the space of doing a take to find authenticity. And to find moments that feel truthful for their characters. I try [to] set an atmosphere on set that’s very positive, that’s very open, everyone feels good about coming to work.

It’s as least political as possible. So it’s about just building a safe, positive, good environment in which actors… because sometimes, on some film sets, there’s a bit of tension because there’s a bit of politics going on. And I think that can impact actors because they’re very sensitive. So we try [to] keep it fun. Fun and open and positive.

Read the rest of our Set Visit coverage here.

This interview has been edited for clarity. Additional formatting provided by Catherine Lai.