Exclusive: Harry Potter Director David Yates

Directing a big franchise blockbuster based on a popular series of books can take a lot out of a filmmaker, which may be why Chris Columbus only directed the first two “Harry Potter” movies and similarly-experienced filmmakers like Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell only took one film each.

When David Yates was announced as the director of the fifth movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, few Americans knew who he was, but in England, he had helmed many hit television shows including the original “State of Play” mini-series. Still, it was a daring move by producers David Heyman and David Barron to go with Yates, but one that’s certainly paid off as Yates is well under the way on shooting his third and fourth movies in the series, a two-part finale based on Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallow.

In the meantime, the sixth movie Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince comes out on Wednesday, and it’s a surprisingly lighter movie than the previous installment, as the Death Eaters causing mayhem in the outside world are mostly being ignored at Hogwarts while Harry, Ron and Hermione get involved in the type of teen relationship woes we all had to deal with at the age of 15 and 16.

We had heard a lot of nice things about Yates from his young cast during a press conference earlier that day, and ComingSoon.net was happy to learn that they were genuinely true when we sat down with the man responsible for bringing the back half of J.K. Rowling’s series to life.

ComingSoon.net: I met producer David Heyman about five years ago and we were talking about the fourth movie–that was before you’d even come on board the fifth–and he was saying that it’s impossible for one director to do back-to-back movies because pre-production and post-production overlap. You somehow have managed to do four in a row. Did you just read the seventh book and realize you had to push to stay on the last movies as well?
David Yates: It developed simply because 5 went really well. We all got on really well and the studio and the Davids really liked the work even before 5 came out, they said that I’d do 6. We had a conversation that went like this. They said, “We think we’d like you to do 6, but can you do comedy?” I was like one of those actors trying to get a job. “Can you ride a horse? Can you do a French accent?” I said, “Of course I can do comedy!” I love comedy so we started on 6 and then about halfway through shooting 6, they just said, “We know it sounds impossible, it’s quite a lot of work, but would you stay for 7? We’ve worked it out very carefully. It means you being in about three places at once…” You’ll have to ask them why they asked me back.

CS: The actors mentioned earlier that every other director aged like 20 years while making their movies, so you didn’t feel after doing your first movie and in the middle of the second that it might have the same effect?
Yates: Yeah, they kind of fragmented. I remember Mike (Newell) looking a bit of a state, and Dan (Radcliffe) was telling me that Alfonso started as this like fresh-faced romantic and then sort of ended a complete mess. It’s physically demanding. Making these bloody films is demanding, but I thrive on it. I really enjoy it, and I think probably my television career has primed me. I was very successful in television and I ended up making something and being asked to do something else and I’d do this mad overlap, so I got used to doing three things at once. That prepared me for this in some way.

CS: I think when I first met Alfonso, someone asked him about doing another “Harry Potter” movie and it was almost like saying “Niagara Falls” in that old Vaudeville act. He went into a state of shock, like “How could I even think of doing another one?”
Yates: Yeah, I know, it’s tough.

CS: And then he went and did “Children of Men” which is probably even tougher.
Yates: Oh, my God, yeah! (chuckles)

CS: How has that been working out? For the seventh movie, are you literally shooting scenes for both halves at the same time or are you shooting one then shooting the other before doing editing on the first?
Yates: We’re trying to finish one and start the other, but simply because of availability of actors, we’re having to shoot a little bit of Part 2 while we’re doing Part 1. I would say we shot about 10% of Part 2 and about 85% of Part 1, so there’s a wee bit of checkerboarding but not much, and it’s going brilliantly. We’ve been shooting for five months. We finish shooting next spring, and it’s quite a long shoot for both movies, but it feels great. It’s looking very different to what we’ve done before and it feels very contemporary and quite edgy, certainly Part 1, and Part 2 I just want it to be epic. I’ve never made a film ever that’s like Part 2. It’s much more of a ride in a sense. It’s got huge set pieces and that’s what I’m really excited to do.

CS: And these are all new sets and locations? Because the first six movies have all been at the same Hogwarts sets just redecorated and dressed differently.
Yates: Yeah, yeah, and this time we’re out on the road and then we come back to Hogwarts, but the difference is we trash it. We blow it up. It turns into Stalingrad, which will be really haunting.

CS: Are you actually going to blow up Leavesden Studios when you’re done there?
Yates: (laughs) I’m not sure they’d be too pleased with us if we did that, but we’ll probably end up blowing up half of Leavesden. I keep saying to the special FX guys (that) these things are going to be big. We have to go out with a bang.

CS: At the very end of the press conference, David Heyman was talking about the PG vs. PG-13 ratings. It’s such a strange thing because you’re obviously not making movies for the MPAA, but in this case, did they just watch it and give it a PG and you didn’t have to change anything?
Yates: No, to my knowledge, they saw the movie and gave it the rating. I think we were all expecting a PG-13 and it surprises me that they let it through like that, because it’s got blood and some of the scenes are quite scary for a younger audience.

CS: I think the MPAA has lightened up because I remember when “Prince Caspian” came out, they allowed quite a bit of violence to slip in, so they might have changed their standards in the last few years.
Yates: I think there’s probably a philosophy which is that this is a huge and popular (series) based on the books, and we need to make it as accessible as possible and just recognizing that a younger audience can probably take that stuff.

CS: I want to talk about the humor, because it was shocking to me. This was the first Potter movie I saw without reading the book and I was surprised by the humor due to where the fifth movie ends, you’d think it would be darker with the Death Eaters around but it’s fairly light. Is this a tone you’re going to try to continue on through the rest of the series?
Yates: I really love the humor. I like humor. I think it leavens the load a little bit, and Dan, Rupert and Emma do it quite well. Even though the next script is quite intense, and Steve’s really great at pairing it with little moments that are quite charming. They’re not gags. They’re just really delicate funny humorous bits. Then I’ll throw in a few things, like the scene with the pies when Rupert sits down. That was just a bit of improvisation. There was just a big plate of pies and I went, “Rupert, I know what we’ll do, let’s try this” and then Steve writes a lot of really funny stuff which I adore, and the guys adore doing. I think we need to keep that. I think audiences enjoy it, it keeps them in the right mood.

CS: I want to ask about the actors because it’s fairly unprecedented for a movie to have the same actors for six movies, completely changing their personalities over the course of the series. I don’t think anyone who saw the first movie could even imagine that Tom Felton could do what he did in this movie, and Bonnie Wright who plays Ginny is just amazing. When you came onto the last movie, knowing that you couldn’t recast anyone, did you have a plan of how you were going to get them to the point where they could do the things needed for this movie? Or did you just figure Steve would write things to their strengths?
Yates: I think it was a process of nurturing and encouraging and supporting, and I did workshops with Bonnie before we started shooting. I got really excited. She has a quality and it goes back… all credit to David Heyman and Chris Columbus who found them in the first place. They found these kids and what was special about them all was that right from film 1, the audience obviously can really empathize and like them a lot. My job has just been to sort of develop them and help them get stronger as actors, rather than just as who they are. It’s a key part of what I do really.

CS: It’s really been quite an amazing thing to see. I’m also happy to hear you’ll be working with Bill Nighy again because you two have done such great things together in the past.
Yates: Yeah, it’s going to be great.

CS: I’ve met him a few times over the years and at least once before, he’s mentioned he’d love to do a “Harry Potter” movie because it was similar to Shakespeare, so I expected that eventually you’d get him on board having worked with him so much.
Yates: I love Bill actually. He’s a really good actor.

CS: One thing that’s very noticeable on this movie is that you have a different cinematographer giving the film a very distinctive look, so are you going to follow that tradition and use different crews for the next two movies?
Yates: No, same crew, same DoP Eduado Serra who is a very gifted DoP, French-Portugese. Bruno (Delbonnel) shot “Half-Blood Prince.” I always wanted to work with Bruno, and he’s great.

CS: Did you know when you read Steve’s script that it would have to have a different look as well as having the humor?
Yates: Well, Part 1 and Part 2 are going to have slightly different looks but the same crew basically and “Half-Blood Prince” we wanted a very expressive painterly feel basically. He’s great, Bruno. Have you seen “Amelie” and “A Very Long Engagement”?

CS: Oh, yeah, I’m a huge fan. You were saying before that the script for 6 came in after you finished 5 but the 7th book then came out around the same time. I was curious how the timing worked, because if you had the script for 6 done and then the 7th book came out, that would probably affect things. Did you try not to read the 7th book?
Yates: No, I read it as soon as it came out. Gosh, I can’t quite remember (the timing) but we had a couple drafts of the 6 script and we read the 7th book straight-away, just to make sure we weren’t doing anything really dumb in the adaptation, and to make sure we were setting up the 7th film correctly. Yeah, as soon as that book came over, we were all (reading it) over the weekend. We kind of knew but we still took things out that I felt were necessary to take out. It’s always hard, the adapting process. It was nice actually to finally know where it was all going to end, and that was the first time.

CS: When does Jo get to see your movies? Does she wait for the premiere?
Yates: No, we always show her before the premiere. This one we showed her about two months ago and she’s a bit like waiting for your papers to be marked by the headmaster. She went in and we’re all very nervous and she came out and she loved it. She said it was her favorite one.

Here’s some more from Mr. Yates from the press conference earlier in the day.

Q: Do you think people will need a primer coming into this movie because there really aren’t any introductions to the characters or backstory?
Yates: It’s really interesting. We have conversations about that all the time basically, about how much exposition do we have ultimately, and I think very early on, we talked about the notion of putting this story in the moment and allowing the audience to just parachute in and go with it. Steve (Kloves) will tell you much more about this than I. They’re really tricky tricky tricky books to adapt, because there’s so much plot and so much detail that Jo weaves into this world, so it’s actually really hard making those decisions about what’s left. They know what’s left out but we’ve gotten to this phase in these movies where I think we all feel it’s a good thing to just get the audience to buckle in and go and not necessarily weigh them down with too much information about what’s gone before. They can always go back to the DVDs, they can always go back to the books, and we are kind of trading a little a bit on what’s been there before, but we hope they forgive some of the leaps we make.

Q: Can you talk about working with Steve Kloves on this movie, since he didn’t write the previous one?
Yates: Personally, I read a lot of scripts… well, when I have time I read a lot of scripts but one of the things Steve does, which I think is a real gift is that I don’t think he writes for the characters, he writes for the actors playing the characters. He knows their strengths. He knows their weaknesses, and I think he even writes for me sometimes. I think he knows what I’m good at, and that’s a very rare quality. I think he’s hugely empathetic. He knows what’s on the table and he’s not just got a great ear for Hermione and Harry, he’s got a good ear for Dan and Emma, and I think that’s a special gift.

Q: Can you talk about getting such great performances out of the young actors for this movie? (Yes, we know he talked about this above, but he said some interesting things earlier, as well.)
Yates: I think it’s an understanding between us that my ambition for them is for them to be just the best they can be, and I want to watch them, so by the end of the series of films and to see what great actors they are. They understand how ambitious I am for them and they’re equally ambitious for themselves in terms of their acting craft. One of the things that’s just naturally happening because they’re getting older is that outside of the film set, in the real world, they’re finding in their lives, enlightenments and bruises and a knowledge of the real world and I encourage them to bring back to the set and it means that their work is getting that bit deeper and that bit more interesting and that bit more intuitive. I’m benefiting from the fact they’re getting older but equally, I push them very hard. And they trust me actually. I also encourage them to be authors of their own work. I want them to participate in the process while they’re on the floor, and they know I’ll listen to their ideas and I’ll tell them when their idea is rubbish but I also tell them and embrace them when I think the idea is great. We have a really good rapport I think that is based on trust and the sheer ambition to just make sure they’re really really good. That’s what we all want.

Q: One of the big changes from the book is that you took out the big battle at the end but then you added a fight at the Burrow. Can you talk about these changes and why you thought they were important?
Yates: First of all, it felt like the middle of the story needed an injection of jeopardy and danger. That doesn’t exist in the book, but when we were developing the script, it felt like there was a lot of comedy and a lot of lightness and as a rhythm, it kind of felt like it continued for too long. Putting some jeopardy right in the middle just felt, it would just remind the audience that the world beyond Hogwarts is still a very dangerous place. Then the end, we all know there’s this huge battle coming in 7, we’re all looking forward to it, we’re designing and planning it at the moment, and we want to keep our powder dry for that really, sort of wait for 7 Part 2.

You can read more about what Yates and others said about Harry Potter’s next and final chapter here.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opens nationwide on Wednesday, July 15 including select IMAX theaters and in IMAX 3D in New York, L.A. and Chicago.

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