Unlocking ‘Fantastic Beasts,’ Part Two – The Filmmakers’ Choices: the Narrative

fb21If you’re a fan of Joanne Rowling Murray as I am, whether she’s writing under her J. K. Rowling pseudonym or the Robert Galbraith nom de plume, you were as happy as I was to learn that her first screenplay was to be published as a book. That pretty much guaranteed, I thought, that we’d be getting what Rowling wrote versus what the producer, director, script re-write, and editor chose to put in the film.

The excitement about even the possibility that Beasts would be an actual Rowling product rather than a “story approved by” and fan-servicing debacle a la Cursed Child was sufficient to make me shell out the cash for “The Original Screenplay.”

But, as learned in the first post of this five part series on ‘Interpreting Fantastic Beasts,’ “The Original Screenplay” is not the original draft. the second draft, or even the shooting screenplay from which the film was shot. The book we have is just a transcription of the film as it appears in the theaters.

fb67It is, in effect, not Rowling’s screenplay. It is the screenplay of the film that David Heyman and David Yates decided to release after making their cuts from Rowling’s work. In the third post of this series, we’ll review the six scenes, two of them crucial, that the filmmakers decided the movie didn’t need. Here I want to go over very briefly the narrative Heyman and Yates are giving the press about their being the decisions makers and how Rowling, as screenwriter, works for them and not vice versa.

It’s an interesting story they’ve decided upon, if they struggle to keep to the script. After the jump, David Heyman and David Yates on their successful efforts to get J. K. Rowling to write a decent screenplay.

 To risk repetition with our post on Rowling as a screenwriter, we know from Heyman, Yates, and Rowling there were at least three drafts of the screenplay before they started shooting. Her efforts were kicked back for revisions at least twice by Yates and Heyman.

fb74When you were originally talking with Jo, what was the first draft like versus the final draft?

David Heyman: When I read the first draft initially, it was with a little bit of trepidation because she’s a great novelist but it doesn’t necessarily translate into being a great screenwriter. The very first draft had something. The characters were vivid. The storytelling was wonderful. There were scenes that just leaped from the page that you couldn’t wait to film. But it was quite whimsical. So then working with her on the second draft, pushing in a slightly darker direction, the script came back and it was really dark.

But some of those elements – that whimsy – still remain in the script today, and some elements of that darkness remain in the script today in the film that you see. The challenge was really, she’d be the first to admit – was she was learning on the job. But once she found her tone, then she was off to the races. 

Note the two main points.

(1) He was working with a famous writer who didn’t know how to write a screenplay. Heyman suggests it was his job to help her “find her tone.” Once he’d done that, Rowling was able to show her stuff.

(2) Rowling has a Goldilocks progression in scripts: too light, too dark, just right.

David Yates remembers the first drafts a little differently.

The first draft of “Fantastic Beasts,” Mr. Yates said, was “predominantly dark and intense and fundamentally more serious.” A subsequent version, he said, was “very broad and playful, and that felt quite young,” as if they were “just remaking the earlier films.” Then Ms. Rowling found her groove.

fb71He says “groove” instead of “tone,” but the idea is still the same. Rowling was struggling to find her way as a screenwriter and the filmmakers were there to guide her through it. Who’s the auteur of the film? They are. She isn’t, at least, she isn’t anymore than the actors are who give great performances under their direction.

We get the Goldilocks story again, too. This time, though, the narrative the producer and director have agreed is their story for press and fandom to consume slips. David Heyman says Goldilocks gave them a script that was too light, then too dark, then just right. Yates says the first draft was “predominantly dark and intense” rather than “whimsical” and before we got to “just right” we had to get through a Rowling effort that was “very broad and playful” rather than “really dark.”

People flub their lines all the time, so, no big deal. We do have the suggestion, however, of a script, one they wrote for fandom consumption, which the two were reading from about the ‘Evolution of Jo as Screenwriter’ and their being the men in charge, not Jo.

The producer and director are the filmmakers, so this makes sense. They’re justifiably proud of their craft and perhaps a little annoyed about having The Presence, the screenwriter, overshadowing them, as she certainly does.

There are at least twenty different producers and directors capable of shooting the script and directing the CGI of the movie. There isn’t a screenwriter on the planet who could take J. K. Rowling’s place in the estimation of the reading and cinema viewing public.

That has to hurt a bit to men used to being the big deal on the set and in interviews with the press. It’s perfectly understandable, then, that they make a point of clarifying that they made the movie, not Ms Rowling, and they had to fix her script not only in the drafts but in the cutting room. That is understandable and something it is important for those of us trying to create a text of Rowling’s screenplay to note well.

fb70When you looked at the final cut of the movie, did you want to add anything or subtract? Were there scenes you wanted to add back in to the story?

David Heyman: No, the film found its right length and its right shape. There are a whole number of scenes, in fact more than on Potter that will find their way onto the additional material of the DVD and the likes. There’s an awful lot that we shot that we didn’t use – some scenes I loved, that David [Yates, director] loved…. Those scenes worked well on their own, but when you look at them in the whole, they detracted. And so we took them out. None of the scenes we shot I feel should be in. I think we found our shape.

“None of the scenes we shot I feel should be in” I’m guessing is a Freudian slip for what he meant to say, namely, “None of the scenes we have cut I feel should be in.” A fairly telling error, no?

 This “whole number of scenes, in fact more than on Potter,” “an awful lot that we shot that we didn’t use” will make their way onto the DVDs, Heyman assures us. Our real take-away from his comments, though, is that it is his film, not Rowling’s; she doesn’t make the final decisions, he does.

What was comic, at least to me, about Heyman’s reassuring us about the scenes she wrote and they shot but he cut making it on to the DVD, is his having missed the big difference between his making a film from an adaptation of a Rowling novel and his work from a Rowling script. No one cared that scenes were dropped from the adaptations of the Harry Potter novels for the silver screen — and I mean no one, except I guess for the actors in those scenes — because we had the novels as written by Rowling.

Who worried that the Kloves rewrites of those stories into Three Act Formula was intact or cut up? Not I.

How about this from David Yates on the fixes he had to make to Rowling’s idea of the story flow:

fb64NME: Was there anything in the script that was particularly difficult to shoot?
David Yates: Actually there was. There was a really beautiful scene that [Rowling] wrote where Newt tells Tina about a young African girl that he tried to save, because this young African girl had an Obscurus. 

It’s a really difficult story for Newt to tell. They’re in a department store, chasing the demiguise. Newt shares this story with Tina and, as he shares this story with Tina, the demiguise has a forward vision of multiple futures for Tina and Newt. They start to peel away from each other and then you see these multiple Tinas and Newts having different conversations about their future. 

fb18It’s an absolutely beautiful scene on the page, and I always loved it. When we were developing it in the script, David Heyman kept saying, “That’s a tricky one there, isn’t it? How does that work conceptually? How does that not stop the film from rolling forward?” And I always said, “Look guys, it’s so beautiful” – this idea of future Newts and Tinas. It was very trippy and very fun. But, of course, when I put the movie together it just felt – in the moment – we were gaining so much momentum chasing that demiguise that it felt like it stopped things. 

Rather than deepening Newt and Tina’s relationship, it didn’t quite take us to where we wanted to be with them. And so, we took it out. It’s a testament to Jo’s unique imagination that she comes up with stuff like that all the time. Most of the time, when we shoot it, it works – but in that case it just seemed to stop things a bit.

We’ll take a longer look at this in Part 3 of this series on cut scenes, obviously, but I post it here to note that Yates thinks its important to tell us not just “a difficult scene to shoot” in answer to the question posed, a technical camera angle type of question, but his decision making process with Heyman about what scenes to cut as well. He throws out an “It’s beautiful” followed by the demonstration that he is the auteur of this movie. Rowling works for him.

This is not just John hunting for controversy. This is the heart of filmmaking artistry, who is responsible for the success or failure of the collaborative process of putting together a movie. According to the so calledauteur theory,” the prevalent idea in Hollywood, it is the director.

The auteur theory, which was derived largely from Astruc’s elucidation of the concept of caméra-stylo (“camera-pen”), holds that the director, who oversees all audio and visual elements of the motion picture, is more to be considered the “author” of the movie than is the writer of the screenplay. In other words, such fundamental visual elements as camera placement, blocking, lighting, and scene length, rather than plot line, convey the message of the film. Supporters of the auteur theory further contend that the most cinematically successful films will bear the unmistakable personal stamp of the director.

One more for the road:

There was months of back and forth with the final draft of the Fantastic Beasts screenplay between J.K. Rowling and Yates (with his team), and as the author was new to the world of screenwriting, it was a learning process for her, and one Yates was happy to assist with. Yates commended Rowling for sending over new drafts of the script up to a week after he returned one with new notes, something that is not of the norm, he said.

Generally, Yates stated, a new draft would take months to return after director’s notes, but Rowling would take days as she didn’t “realize that’s how it should work.” Yates was both surprised by her quick turnaround and very pleased. The key thing of the writing process Rowling worked out after months of back-and-forth with the drafts was that “it was about paring down and simplifying, rather than adding absolute new sequences and new ideas all the time.”

Patronizing, a bit? We certainly are clear about who is in charge, who works for and learns from whom.

fb73Here’s a possibility for your consideration.

Heyman and Yates believe that their ideas of the right way to make a movie trump Rowling’s ability to tell a story, newbie screenwriter that she is.

Hence their comic scripted-story for the press about how the Dynamic Duo movie magi coached her through her too light, then too dark, now just right Goldilocks and the Three Bears final screenplay (“comic” only because one of them forgot the sequence of their Guiding Hand supervision fairy tale).

Hence their patronizing explanations that they had to make cuts from the final screenplay after shooting them because they scenes didn’t work, were redundant, “detracted” from the whole, “gummed things up.” Heyman and Yates believe each has a better view of Rowling’s larger picture than she does.

As I said, these are men of no little accomplishment who must find it, if not galling, than at least somewhat unnerving to be reminded daily that, except for Rowling’s involvement and her genius, none of the reporters hanging on their every word would be listening to them. They are, in essence, servants to her story. To the screenwriter, as much as they may admire her, a person several steps below producer and director on the Hollywood food chain. Lower except when they decide to cut and reshape that story so that can claim it as their own, “speaking truth to power.”

If you don’t think Rowling being the focus of the story, the owner of the material, is her view, listen to her enthusiasm about David Yates and David Heyman agreeing to work on the film:

I was thrilled David Yates wanted to do it. He understands the world and material so well. And David Heyman, you know, he was right there from the beginning. I couldn’t really imagine doing it without him. There’s nothing I dislike about that team; that team is amazing! 

fb69All well and good, right? “That team” is one that works on her project. Except no screenwriter in the history of big budget film making has ever been the star of the show and the ultimate decision maker of a movie. And we’ve learned Rowling wasn’t in Fantastic Beasts, either.

Fortunately, we will eventually get to see the scenes that Rowling wrote and the Twin Towers of Tinseltown, the Double Davids, cut out. We will not, however, get to see the film as she wrote the story to be presented nor will we read “The Original Screenplay” as written and filmed. Which is tragic, frankly, if you believe as I do that Rowling is the Dickens of our time.

Part 3 in this series on what we have learned from the interviews will get to the meat of the issue, i.e., the six cut scenes revealed to us and some discussion of how each missing piece affected our experience of Rowling’s story telling artistry.

[Post: If you must lecture me in the comment boxes on the truisms of movie-making versus novel-writing, how the demands of one mean the skills of the other don’t translate across media, go ahead; it’s a free country. I’ll explain in the next posts why I think there is a story form greater than Hollywood’s current template, that Rowling is a proven master of it, and that her success and popularity mean her stories deserve more respect, less contempt, than she is getting in the cutting room. Till then!]

Interpreting Fantastic Beasts: Finding the Text Round Up

Part 5A: So What? The Found Text and Its Meaning

Part 5B: The Shooting Script — A Corrected Text for Serious Readers

Part 5C: Conclusions and Predictions



  1. Kelly Loomis says

    Well, let’s just say that these men are lucky to be working with JK Rowling and their films would not be as successful as they were if it weren’t for her. Which of Yates’ films were considered good these last couple of years? I haven’t seen them and I think it is said they were kind of flops.

    This movie was very good considering it didn’t follow the usual Hollywood formula so why would they think their ideas should mean taking her mark off of it? As you say, if left in, they could have made it much better and the kind of Rowling story we all love.

    The stories have intricate details that are worth seeing even if they move out of the Hollywood mold. Whoever said movies and stories cannot evolve in form or improve themselves? Maybe they’ll “work” better than the current thesis
    If given the chance.

  2. waynestauffer says

    I think both sides know each other well enough to know what’s going on. JKR understands that the story she wants to tell will be different from the one that appears on the big screen. Apparently, she’s willing to live with that and will work through other avenues to get the missing parts told (via additional scenes in the DVD release and the spinoff, overpriced merchandising books that fans buy and her website). The Daves know that they have to put out a film that a writer with JKR’s stature is satisfied with and will continue to work with them on it. They know they can’t digress too far or she’ll call a halt. Having her writing the story in a format that minimizes the effort and time to get it to production has to be beneficial for both sides. Seems that 3 different people have different ideas on how much back story/upcoming story to tell and when to tell it rather than the shifty underhanded film studio suits trying to take advantage of the unsuspecting author/writer. I am willing to believe that the tension amid the changes are there and real, I hesitate to attribute nefarious motives.

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