The eight Harry Potter movies made more money than all of the 24 official Bond films put together – so it is little surprise that despite running out of books to adapt, author J K Rowling and Warner Bros have come up with a way to extend and expand the cinematic world of wizards and magic.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is inspired by the fictional encyclopaedia of the same name, which is required reading for new students at Hogwarts. Written by the previously unseen character Newt Scamander, it was first mentioned in the first Harry Potter book, 1997's The Philosopher's Stone.
In 2001, to help raise money for British charity Comic Relief, Rowling wrote a real version of the textbook, listing some of the magical beasts that are part of Potter’s world.
The film adaptation – the first of five planned movies – takes place in New York in 1926, which was recreated at Leavesden Studios in North London, the same place where Harry Potter films were shot.
"It's really spectacular," Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything, The Danish Girl), who stars as Scamander, tells me when I visit the set.
“We were shooting a scene on the steps going up to the bank and they had bought all these cars from America, so when you looked out onto the street, it felt immersive.”
Wandering around the set it certainly feels like being magically transported back to prohibition-era New York, a time when the tallest building in Manhattan was the Woolworth Building. Steam bellowed out of manholes on the cobbled streets and the rundown tenement buildings looked like they were about to fall apart – the attention to detail is quite incredible.
Redmayne says he is fulfilling a dream by acting in a JK Rowling film – and making up for an earlier disappointment. The actor, who won an Oscar last year for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, unsuccessfully auditioned for the role of Tom Riddle in the original franchise.
This time, director David Yates says: “Eddie was the only candidate for the role.”
Redmayne immediately fell in love with the character.
“One of the things that I love about Newt is that he’s more comfortable in the field,” he says. “He has a facility with animals that is pretty unique and one of his arcs in the film is to learn to be open enough and communicate with people.”
Scamander arrives at Ellis Island with a Tardis-like leather suitcase filled with magical beasts. When they escape, he enlists the help of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), an enforcement officer at the Magical Congress of the United States of America), her mind-reading sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), and war veteran Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), to find the loveable magical creatures before they are obliterated by dark forces.
“What I love about this film is that it’s absolutely this quartet and J K Rowling has written such defined and wonderful characters, who compliment each other in such wonderful ways,” says Redmayne.
Sudol also loves the dynamics of the group.
“We are thrown together like an unlikely gang,” she says. “My sister brings Newt home – she is essentially a dreamer and loves an adventure and in comes Newt, who is clearly on the run. Then there is Jacob who is a no-maj.”
No-maj is the American equivalent of “muggle”, the word used in the Harry Potter books for a person with no magical abilities.
Folger says Jacob has other useful talents, demonstrating the importance of humans, even in a world of magic.
“He’s been in the First World War, so he’s got the mentality to be in these chaotic situations, and he’s very reliable and helpful.”
Waterston adds: “I loved the period and the music, and tuning into that stuff in the little bits of free time. My character is very serious but she has a wonderful spirit, so I’ve been doing the Charleston in my trailer, which makes the whole thing shake.”
This film has a darker, more adult tone than the Harry Potter films, as Rowling – who wrote the screenplay, her first – has built a world filled with love and hate.
“It’s got interesting themes,” says Yates. “What happens when someone is mistreated, abused, unheard, beaten, and what that creates in terms of dark energy. So the themes are rich and deep and quite European on one level, but the package in which it comes, it’s really fun and entertaining.”
Yates, who also directed the final four Potter films, clearly has an affinity with Rowling and is full of praise for the Scottish author’s storytelling skills. “She’s the Dickens of our time,” he says. “She has extraordinary character.”