“Fantastic Beasts” Set Visit Interview: Production Designer Stuart Craig

In the Harry Potter fan community, there are a lot of differing opinions about what the eight-film adaptation of the series got right and got wrong – but decided through countless late-night heated debates with friends, there is one element of the movies that is universally agreed upon to be remarkable: the films’ designs. From the costumes to the sets to the meticulous magical detail that goes into creating each scene, it’s impossible to deny that the wizarding world looks good. Really good. Much of that can be credited to Stuart Craig, who has served as production designer on all eight Harry Potter films and now, the Fantastic Beasts trilogy.

During our tour of the set, Craig took some time to sit down with us and discuss the nuances of bringing us a world we’ve come to love in a way we’ve never seen it before.

Press:
[Did you find yourself having to] reverse engineer here, because Fantastic Beasts is set in an earlier time but also geographically in a different place, and make sure that [the film] fits with what we’ve seen before [even though it takes place] almost a century before?

Stuart Craig:
Yes, only in the broader sense does it have to fit, really. The big part of the excitement was [that] it was a new time, a new venue: New York in 1926. [The settings of both series] were both quite strong periods in terms of architecture, actually. The medieval architecture of Harry Potter and the 20th century architecture of Fantastic Beasts didn’t quite get us into the era of the Empire State and the Chrysler and those really impressive Art Deco buildings. Those didn’t appear well finished until about 1931. And that’s to say – we’re [in 1926], but even so, it was still plenty of meaty stuff to get stuck into for an art department, where [we] could be architects – as you know, we’re plywood architects – so it was good to get to grips with all that.

Press:
What’s your favorite part about working in the 1920s? Mira [Mina] and Eduardo [Lima] are having a heyday with design, and they love it.

Stuart Craig:
The graphics – which is their business – was so modern and vital and interesting. I wish we could all go to their office, their room and see. You would not believe that some of those designs were as early as 1926. They were really, really beautiful. The good thing about this project is that everything in this way is interesting. They’re a real extreme in terms of fantastic beasts or creatures – some are tiny and some are absolutely monumental. There are different sorts of social levels. Jacob [played by Dan Fogler] lives in poverty in the Lower East Side, in a tenement building. And the bank and the Shores office are pretty splendid. So yeah, this movie – it contrasts really… and there’s some evil at work, and there’s a nice sort of double romance, too, threading through it all. Something for everybody, including those designing it and making it.

Press:
Another big difference besides the time period is the setting of a city. And in a lot of ways, the city opposes magic because it’s much harder to keep it a secret when there are so many people around. Also, even though it’s the 1920s, technology is starting to become more advanced, and magic and technology generally don’t mix well. How has that been to navigate?

Stuart Craig:
Well, the essential premise and similarity to Harry Potter is that the magical world is invisible to the Muggle world, and the tension there is very central to this story. The whole thing is about fear of being exposed and so on. So that was a vital positive in the whole thing. So the second part of your question was…

Press:
Just sort of bringing magic into a much more populous [location]. And in a way, even though it is an earlier time period than Harry Potter, things move faster in New York City than they do in an old Scottish Castle, so sort of making magic metropolitan.

Stuart Craig:
Yes, the exciting thing about that [is that] Harry Potter always felt like a period film. Even though the kids were sitting around in T-shirts and jeans and so on, it still felt like a period film. Very late – sometime in the ’50s – it had that old world character, really. And here, as you say, the much older period in the film feels much more contemporary, much more urgent, much less softer in its architecture, and so on. So all of that [was] interesting and contrasts, and I guess having done eight Harry Potter films, that’s a very nice little point to have made – so fresh and so new.

Press:
Can you talk about the magical world versus the No-Maj world, for instance looking at the Blind Pig design? It seems to have this very prohibition-era-underground-jazz-club sort of vibe.

[Editorial Note: The Blind Pig is the wizard speakeasy spotted in a recent Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them trailer. You can read more about it in our Set Visit Report.]

Stuart Craig:
Yes.

Press:
In those comparisons, were there certain stylistic elements that you wanted to infuse? Do they complement each other? Could you talk about that a little bit?

Stuart Craig:
Yes, I think they do complement each other. I think throughout the Harry Potter films – and this film – there’s been a great effort to make everything seem very real – and familiar, even. And out of that familiarity, you look at it, and you think you understand it. And out of that comes the magic. If place is too extraordinary to begin with, then the magic sort of lacks impact in some way. So I think the strangeness of the Blind Pig is not in first glance. It is when you actually get involved in the characters and the conversations and really look at the texture of the wall behind them, which is drippy and filth and grime and so on. So it’s the exposure they’re worried about, and magic working off something seemingly normal, fairly contemporary in New York. They help each other, really.

Press:
The MACUSA entrance does remind me of the Ministry of Magic entrance from the Potter films.

Stuart Craig:
Yeah.

Press:
Did you take one idea [and] sort of move it onto the other?

Stuart Craig:
Well, it’s the Gothic style. In the Harry Potter films, and now in this film, we’ve made the Gothic architectural style synonymous with our magical world, really. It’s their look. It’s, again, it is exactly that. So J.K. Rowling made the decision – she had diligently researched her New York of that period and so on. And she found the Woolworth Building in New York. And the Woolworth Building is the MACUSA headquarters. And it wasn’t apparent from the outside, apart from the Gothic decoration, but once inside it, the headquarters is housed in there. So not only that Gothic style did she immediately recognize and want to use, but also, in the big entrance archway – right at the top, at the apex of the arch – there’s a stone, the carving of a stone owl, part of the decoration there. And I think as soon as she saw that, she must have thought, “Eureka! This is it. This is the one.” So they were her choices, actually.

 

Stuart Craig_Woolworth Building Facade

Facade of the Woolworth Building

 

Press:
We saw the City Hall subway set. That’s such a great location. Can you talk about the challenges of re-creating some of these iconic New York locations? Like the Woolworth Building and all that?

Stuart Craig:
Yes. That City Hall station still exists, but you’re not allowed to go there. Nobody. We applied for permission to go and just take photographs and were not allowed. I imagine there’s some safety reason. Actually, I think that’s a perfectly good explanation. So as always, throughout all these books, novels’ [descriptions are] very, very descriptive. And it helps a designer a lot, and you know exactly where you stand and what in principle you’re aiming at, really.

Press:
So did you have to use photos, then, to re-create that?

Stuart Craig:
We did exactly that. Research is so much easier these days – do an online search. It’s just transformed what we do totally, so it was really pretty easy to research and to come up with architectural drawings, which we did. So we were fairly faithful [in] the production of City Hall. And [for] the Woolworth Building, similarly, we copied the exterior – at least the bottom two, three floors – quite faithfully. And then the inside, of course, is our made-up magical environment. Deep inside [chuckles]… there’s a layer on the outside, which appears to be attorneys’ offices, accountants, all functioning normally. But once you get beyond them, the sort of inner skin is the magical one.

Press:
Were there any details or areas that you obsessed over or that you wanted to be painstakingly historically accurate – it sounds like a lot of them – anything that was especially obsessive for you?

Stuart Craig:
Yeah, the two we’ve mentioned – and the Woolworth Building, particularly. When I first designed it, Jo Rowling visited and was aware about the models that we had made – and if you actually look at the pattern of windows in the exterior, it looks like any modern skyscraper – and she was concerned and voiced her concerns that it was too modern, basically, for this world. And so we made some adjustments. We introduced more Gothic elements [to] the inside.

It wasn’t really that we were obsessing about; it was actually getting the right tone for her. I’m trying to think if there was… they’re just fun things, aren’t they? There are lots of props that we’ve made that… something called a monitor [that] tracks… if you wear this, as our heroine, Tina, does – wear the wristband- it’s a tracking device simply, but the prop makers just have a ball at things like tracking devices. And so then, you become very obsessive about… there’s another big full-sided clock or barometer that measures the level of threat – the threat that MACUSA is feeling inside. It’s a sort of threat-o-meter, and we obsessed over that, too, and even the minute little details.

Press:
Apart from MACUSA, is there a specific location or set that you’re hoping could become as iconic as Diagon Alley, for instance?

Stuart Craig:
Again, I think it has to be MACUSA. There are lots of other supporting sets: There’s extreme poverty in one tenement building, there’s a typical New York brownstone [where] the two women live in an apartment. I mean, each one had its time in terms of our lives and preparing for it – designing it, preparing for it, building it. And as I said, they all have that moment when you care more about that one urgent set more than anything else. But we stand back and look at it all. MACUSA headquarters, and even more than that of course, the fantastic beasts themselves and where they exist concealed inside this little case.

Press:
You have to bring 1920s New York to the UK because you’re primarily filming here. What has that been like, and how do you choose the buildings that you use on locations? When you go to [places like] Liverpool and use their City Hall?

Stuart Craig:
We had to bring it here for practical reasons as well. To find New York – 1926 New York – is… you can find six single buildings or a couple of buildings, but there’s so much modernity to deal with. It wasn’t practical, and also just the idea of… I know filming happens in New York all the time, but to shoot an entire movie on the streets of New York would’ve been prohibitive in logistical terms, in financial terms. So we had to build it.

Press:
And what has that been like? How do you choose your locations, especially when you take the set from Leavesden to go on location. How do you choose the buildings that are most similar?

Stuart Craig:
The reality was, there were very few locations. Actually, there were three, I think, and all of them in Liverpool. And Liverpool – because of the shipping – that was the way they [got] from Europe to America, and New York particularly, in the 20s. Kuehne [+ Nagel] and Wistow – all these famous shipping lines and famous ships [like the] Mauretania and the Aquitania. The influence crossed both ways.

Liverpool was very influenced by New York and was very wealthy because of the shipping and the supporting industries. So Liverpool produced some very big, iconic, strong buildings – strong architecturally – with kind of the confidence and money backing that New York had. So we were able to use something that was in fact the Kuehne office headquarters in Liverpool, and we turned that into a [department] store. And there was a big hall there – St. George’s Hall in Liverpool – a big meeting hall, which we called our City Hall in our version of New York’s City Hall.

But outside of that, everything was built, and that’s been difficult because when we began Harry Potter – first one, two films – we shot quite extensively on location. We couldn’t afford to build the entire world. Well, here we have attempted to build the entire world. It’s been extremely busy, as you might imagine. We think in our busiest period, we were up to 340, 350 construction workers and craftsmen. That’s a big number for a film. Fine, that’s okay for a major building, but…

Press:
Given the richness of the Harry Potter universe and its history, have there been many Easter eggs or references to things that you guys have put in this movie that fans may connect to something that shows up in the Harry Potter movies?

Stuart Craig:
Well, references to people actually is the biggest connection, and there are only very few of those, but Dumbledore is mentioned. It’s the reference to… I don’t think there’s any particular prop that carries forward from one to the other.

Read the rest of our Set Visit coverage here.

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