Thursday 13th Oct 2016
The Pottermore Correspondent speaks with production designer Stuart Craig about Fantastic Beasts and how J.K. Rowling's fantasy is a 'fantastic gift.'
Stuart Craig is one of the most admired production designers in the film industry. People rarely speak his name at normal volume; mostly, they whisper it. Even designers who worked closely with him on all eight Harry Potter films lower their voices, as if in reverence. I tell him this when we meet one day on the set of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Does he know that people whisper about him?
‘Well, that’s one of the only nice things about getting old, isn’t it?’ he says, with a chuckle. ‘People treat you differently.’
At 74, Stuart has earned the awe he receives. His illustrious career includes working as production designer on The Elephant Man, Dangerous Liaisons, The English Patient and Gandhi. But for the last 16 years, his focus has been on the world of Harry Potter.
‘Since 2000, it’s been Harry Potter,’ he says. 'We did eight movies in ten years... It’s been the most wonderful period of my life.’
Stuart was decorating a bedroom in preparation for his grandson’s birth when he got the call asking him to fly to America and meet Chris Columbus, director of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. By the time Stuart wrapped on those films, his grandson was 11 years old and they saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows together.
Since 2010, Stuart has been heavily involved in the design work at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London and Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the U.S.
When we meet, Stuart’s standing on the set of J.K. Rowling’s next film and first screenplay. ‘Here I am again! I was delighted to come back,’ he says, a broad smile gently creasing his cheeks.
‘For this film, you start on essentially the same premise as the Potters: the magical world hidden from the Muggle world; invisible, one from the other. It is the same premise but wonderfully different. For a student of architecture, which I am, it’s just fantastic to build a section of New York in this slightly romantic, exaggerated way.’
Architecture has been a lifelong devotion for Stuart. He started his professional life as an architectural draughtsman, working on sketches for buildings for 12 years before he landed work on a film set. He’s never given up that technique; to this day Stuart designs sets, rooms, buildings and locations with a rough sketch in pencil followed by detailed and meticulous architectural drawings. After that, he hands the designs over to artists to embellish, before they’re made for the film.
‘The key these days is that all films have concept illustrators. In our case, the fact that we are working with some very fine artists is really significant. I mean, some of these guys draw like Leonardo, or Raphael. They are superbly gifted illustrators and that’s the key to achieving the detail and the scale, from a tiny creature to a soaring piece of architecture. We were very fortunate to recruit them and it’s paid off, as you can see from the pictures behind you,’ Stuart says, with a grand sweep of his arm.
Behind me, every inch of wallpaper is covered in designs from the film. On one wall, there’s the exterior and the basement of the MACUSA building, the interior of The Blind Pig speakeasy and the outside of New York apartment blocks. On another, there are mugshots of every beast that appears in the film.
This is all within Stuart’s territory as production designer; the grand and the miniscule, the inanimate and the living. It’s extraordinary, even humbling, to look at work like this. It’s like peeking into J.K. Rowling’s imagination with a very experienced tour guide.
‘The thing that surprises and delights me is the variety. I never, ever feel trapped. There’s always something fresh and new and challenging. It’s certainly kept me professionally content... Well, not content exactly – I was worried a lot of the time, staring at a blank sheet of paper thinking, "What the hell am I going to do with this?" That sort of fear never leaves you. But it has been very sustaining. J.K. Rowling’s constant achievement has been to make each new book significantly different. Underwater, or whatever it was, she certainly kept us challenged.’
When Stuart says underwater, he’s speaking about the second challenge of the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. He designed the great soaring structures for students and teachers to stand on during the challenge, as well as the creatures below the surface of the Great Lake. In comparison, the task of recreating New York City in the middle of Hertfordshire should be easy, surely?
‘On a certain level the difference is not very significant. Design is design,’ Stuart tells me. ‘No matter what you’re working on, it’s about making good pictures. It doesn’t matter whether it’s science fiction, fantasy or costume drama, you're still just looking for good imagery. The architectural variety of my career has been nice, but I don’t feel a significant change of gear coming from The English Patient to Harry Potter or Fantastic Beasts.
'What I do like about a fantasy film is that you get to build more [in a studio] and shoot on location less because of the fantastic element. I like to build; I like the control it gives you when everything is of your choosing. On a location film, that isn’t so. Locations are full of stuff you really would rather wasn’t there. So, in that sense, J.K. Rowling’s fantasy is a gift. A fantastic gift.’