How Fantastic Beasts brought 1920s New York back to life... in Watford

Tom Butler
·Senior Editor
Eddie Redmayne on the huge Leavesden set of 'Fantastic Beasts' - Credit: Warner Bros.
Eddie Redmayne on the huge Leavesden set of ‘Fantastic Beasts’ – Credit: Warner Bros.

You’d be forgiven for assuming ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them’ had been shot entirely on location in New York.

It’s something we had to keep reminding ourselves when we visited the film’s set in December last year. Standing on the meticulously recreated cobbled streets of 1920s New York City, with 3-story brownstone tenements stretching off into the distance and working Model T Fords pootling along the road, it was easy to forget we were stood on the Warner Bros. lot in Leavesden, just a stone’s throw from the Harry Potter Studio Tour, and we weren’t the only ones dazzled by this piece of old-school movie magic.

“There’s moments when you’re standing up on the bank on the back lot,” Eddie Redmayne told Yahoo Movies. “On the top of these steps with cars going everywhere, and smoke coming up the funnels, with extras as far as you can see it’s all immersive, and it feels like a film from a different era.”

For the 1920s-set ‘Harry Potter’ prequel, shooting in the modern New York simply wasn’t an option as Stuart Craig, production designer on ‘Beasts’ and all eight ‘Potter’ movie, explained.

Newt Scamander scales the steps - Credit: Warner Bros.
Newt Scamander scales the steps – Credit: Warner Bros.

“It would have been great to have used some of the iconic art deco buildings in New York – the Chrysler building, for example, and the Empire State building,” Craig said. “But they were not there in 1926. Both buildings came along in 1931 so this really is a period piece in a way that Hogwarts wasn’t.”

Craig and his team recreated several blocks of New York streets for ‘Fantastic Beasts’ inspired by photographs and architectural plans from the period and several scouting trips to the Big Apple, where his researcher Phil Clark took thousands of photographs.

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The set isn’t geographically accurate though, with blocks from Tribeca running perpendicular to blocks from Lower East Side, and huge glitzy shops from 5th Avenue nestled alongside neighbourhood delis and bakeries.

At the end of each street hangs a huge green screen curtain that enables the VFX department to digitally extend the streets as far as the eye can see.

Katherine Waterston and Eddie Redmayne in 'Fantastic Beasts' - Credit: Warner Bros.
Katherine Waterston and Eddie Redmayne in ‘Fantastic Beasts’ – Credit: Warner Bros.

One of the film’s main locations though came courtesy of the grand high priestess of the Wizarding World herself, JK Rowling.

The author decided the MACUSA building, the home of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (America’s Ministry of Magic), should be set within the walls of the real-life Woolworth Building after stumbling across the world’s tallest building (1913-1930) during one of her many scouting trips to the city.

“The Woolworth Building is decorated externally with a very gothic design, and this gothic style has become synonymous with the magical world in Harry Potter,” Craig explained. “Rather miraculously in the big entrance archway right at the top there was a stone owl, and it must have been [Jo Rowlings’] eureka moment when she saw that owl. In the film the owl animates and flies through the revolving door which goes faster and faster and faster, and draws in would-be magicians, wizards, witches, visitors into this magical space.”

Credit: Warner Bros.
Inside the cavernous cathedral-like MACUSA building – Credit: Warner Bros.

Eddie Redmayne, who plays the lead hero of ‘Fantastic Beasts’ says this immersive old-school approach to set building helps him enormously as an actor.

“I don’t have a very good imagination,” he admits. “And I’ve done a green screen film before, in which a lot was on green screen, and you’re trying to picture the environment you’re in. I found that really complicated. What’s been wonderful about this is that they have built such stunning designs to work in.”

Having built this city block, Stuart Craig will have the unenviable task of tearing it all down and starting over again for the sequels – of which there will be at least four – but which global city they’ll recreate next remains to be seen.

One of the Fantastic Beasts flaps through New York - Credit: Warner Bros.
One of the Fantastic Beasts flaps through New York – Credit: Warner Bros.

Recent rumours have suggested it could be Paris, but director David Yates remained tight-lipped when pressed.

“In terms of where the story moves forward, I know it’s not necessarily all set in America,” Yates told us. “It will develop into other parts of the world. But this one’s very much firmly set in the States.”

‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them’ is coming to cinemas on 18 November. Watch a trailer below.

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