Interview: 'Fantastic Beasts' Producer David Heyman On Newt, Grindelwald, And Working With J.K. Rowling

David Heyman has been with the Harry Potter film franchise since its very beginning, producing all eight films released from 2001 through 2011. Now he's back for the spinoff, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is slated to run for a total of five films. In an interview with /Film, Heyman discussed how the project got going, working with J.K. Rowling, the unusual new hero, and the scary appeal of Grindelwald. Plus, a minor update on his Willy Wonka movie. Read our Fantastic Beasts David Heyman interview below.

When and how was the decision made to come back to the Harry Potter franchise and to start that up again?

When Harry Potter finished, there were some mixed feelings. It was very sad, because we'd become a family sort of, and we all went our separate ways. But that was exciting also, new challenges, new films, new projects. So I went off and made a couple films. I did Gravity and I made a film called Paddington. Then halfway through the beginning of my work on Paddington, Potter began knocking in my head. I was with [producer] Lionel Wigram and we were trying to figure out how could we come back to this world? And Lionel had the idea of doing a documentary about Newt Scamander, a faux documentary where we go with him to see as he's looking for his magical beasts. Pitched that idea to Jo, she said, you know, it's funny, I've been thinking about Newt Scamander myself, and I have this whole story about him, and what do you think of it? She told us and we went, uh-huh.

And she says, so yeah, and I'd like to write the screenplay. And [we had] mixed feelings about that, because she's a novelist, she's never written a screenplay before. So when the screenplay arrived — she handed it to me. And I read it. And as soon as I opened it, I felt [dramatic sigh] relief. Because while it was very rough, it's a first draft from a person who had written their first screenplay, the characters were so vivid. The scenes were thrilling. It's a bit whimsical, a bit light, didn't have the gravitas that one would have liked, that one associates with Potter. And then the second — we hired David Yates, brought David Yates on, Steve Kloves and myself and Lionel and David. And then Jo did a second draft. And that draft was really dark. Really, really dark.

What made it so dark?

It was just quite violent, it was quite ugly. The abuse of Credence was probably featured much more strongly, much more overtly, the suggestion of it was much more explicit. We saw things happening to characters. So we pulled back from that. The big thing was Jo finding her tone. Once she found the tone the rest fell into place quite quickly. She's amazing. She's a writer. She's voracious. She writes and writes and writes and writes and it just pours out of her, ideas. It's an amazing thing. This, we're working on the second script with David and she'd written a first draft, and David asked her to do a treatment, some structural treatment, and two days later, a 102-page scriptment — half script, half treatment — arrived. How does anybody do that? She just locks herself away, she'll go to a cafe or something and just write. It just pours out, which is amazing.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM: David Heyman interview

Part of the appeal of the Harry Potter movies is it's about watching this little kid grow up and I know a lot of the fanbase is really young. Is that something you were concerned about at all about when you decided to launch a spinoff with adult characters and an adult cast?

No way, you don't think of it that way. You just tell a story that feels organic. So making the films, and writing the films I imagine, it's about being true to what you create. If we thought about the audience, if we made the film with the audience as our main directive, we would be paralyzed. We couldn't do a thing. The pressure, the expectation, it would be too great. We wouldn't be able to do a thing. Ultimately, we are the harshest critics. Myself and David and the film, Jo with the script, Steve, Lionel, we are really tough on ourselves. We have to tell the story that we can respond to.

And actually, Harry's grown up now. He's 18 years old. So what would we be telling? Going back and telling a story of Newt and Tina and Queenie and Jacob, who are outsiders like Harry, Ron, and Hermione, who are awkward, who create their own family, not a family they're born into, a family they create, who are dealing with issues of being outsiders, like Harry, Ron, and Hermione, who in themes of being outsiders, being ostracized, about being stigmatized, about tolerance and intolerance, about a world divided, about the dangers of repression, those are things that are all through Harry Potter, that darkness, those rich themes, and that's very much at play here in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. So no, we didn't think about that. We just wanted to tell a story about characters. And the way Tina, Queenie, and Newt are also, they are like child adults. They have an innocence, a purity about them. So no, it wasn't really a concern at all.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM: David Heyman interview

Yeah, Newt strikes me as a really unusual kind of character. Most movies you see about a hero of his own franchise, they're not like Newt. He's a lot more awkward. He almost read to me like someone that's on the spectrum. Was that something you thought about?

Absolutely. You may be in love, you may have a boyfriend or a husband or a girlfriend, you maybe have really close friends, but you still feel alone at times. You may be comfortable in some situations but there are some situations where you feel really uncomfortable socially. That's Newt. Newt's alone. There's a sadness about him. I think we all have that sadness in us. I think Newt is someone who communicates better with his beasts than with people. I know at dinner parties, I like to go and do the washing, because that way I can go and hide and be on my own. That's Newt. He would go be with his animals.

Yeah, he's really unusually introverted for an action hero kind of guy.

But he's not an action hero, that's the thing about him. I mean, he's a hero. But he's us. He's you. He's me. He's not a superhero. I love some of those superhero movies. But I know I won't be able to fly. I know I won't be able to do things that Iron Man can do, or Superman can do, or Batman can do. I just won't. I know I can love animals. I may not be able to use a wand. But I think that Newt is a very accessible and relatable hero.

Do you have any plans to bring any explicitly gay characters into the Harry Potter franchise?

We haven't talked about it. We haven't talked about that specifically. Not yet.

Is it something that you think could happen, that you want to see happen?

I have no idea. Possibly. I mean, clearly, Jo did talk about Dumbledore being gay. But we haven't talked about that being the driving force behind casting or any of the characters. That hasn't been discussed yet.

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM: David Heyman interview

I know you have plans to make — I guess now it's going to be five films total, right?

Hopefully.

And the next one is going to go to Paris. So you've started out in Europe, you're going to America now, do you also have plans to visit some of the other continents, like South America or Asia?

We haven't really talked about it. I suspect with the specter of World War II looming large in the not-too-distant future, it wouldn't surprise me if Europe is quite central to this series. But I have no idea.

Who do you think is a bigger threat, Grindelwald or Voldemort? Who do you think is more evil?

I think both are evil. I think the thing that Grindelwald has that maybe Voldemort doesn't is, Voldemort was pure — he was just a brute, a bully. The thing about Grindelwald is, I understand what he's saying. When Grindelwald talks about living in the shadows and why should we live in the shadows, I understand that. Why? Why should wizards have to live underground? That's not right. I don't agree with his attitude toward people who are different to him. But I understand. He makes sense. So he has the ability to persuade, to seduce, to make you come on the side of what he is thinking. That is scary.

As the franchise continues to move forward, are we going to see the storyline in Fantastic Beasts start to converge with real history at all?

I think if you look at all of her works, there's a connection. The themes are connected to real history, both of the time and of today. And clearly, the time that it's set, which is between the wars, 1926 and carrying on, where fascism is on the rise and World War II is around the corner, I know that there must be a reason. Whether Newt goes to war, I have no idea.

Okay. I want to switch gears real quick and ask about a different project you're working on. I know you've been working on Willy Wonka, so what exactly is it? It sounds like it's not a remake. Is it an origin story?

Yeah, it's not a remake. They've done two films, quite different. But it's possibly an origin story. We're just in the early stages of it, working with a writer called Simon Rich, which is wonderful. I'm a huge Roald Dahl fan. I've been trying to work on Dahl material for quite some time but they're all tied up. So when this was suggested, I didn't take a moment to pause and want to jump right in. It's challenging because you don't have Dahl, you don't have a Dahl book, and yet you have a Dahl character. But I think there's a lot in his character that suggests who he is and also where he might come from or what his childhood or his middle age might have been like. So we're exploring that. We're discussing it. We're in the very early stages and very excited about what lies ahead.

So you're basically still developing the screenplay.

Yeah, very early on.

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is in theaters now.