From Sun Hill to Hogwarts: David Yates talks 'Harry Potter'

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When the 'Harry Potter' series ends next summer, David Yates will have directed four of the eight movies. Tom Huddleston speaks to him on the eve of 'Deathly Hallows: Part One'

It’s a long road from Sun Hill police station to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, but director David Yates has walked it. When it was first announced in 2005 that a first-time feature filmmaker, albeit one with an illustrious career in British TV, would be directing the fifth film in the world-dominating Harry Potter series, eyebrows were raised. What could the director of gritty urban dramas like ‘The Bill’, ‘State of Play’ and ‘Sex Traffic’ bring to JK Rowling’s giddy world of fantasy and magic?

‘It was a real surprise,’ admits 47-year-old Yates. ‘But the fifth book was quite dark and complex, so I think the producers saw some kind of fit with what I was doing.’ But why, aside from the obvious financial rewards, would a director of adult drama want to get sucked into a franchise aimed squarely at the pre-adolescent market? ‘Well, it’s rare that you get to make something which has a massive, guaranteed audience, so that had a huge appeal,’ the director enthuses.

‘And I was interested in exploring this notion of what it’s like for a teenager as you pass through into adulthood. I wanted to get more authentic with the emotions and the relationships but still enjoy the fantasy, all the things that naturally come with that world. And the books had started to get into deeper, darker territory, so it felt very comfortable.

‘My biggest fear was that my take on the material would be a turn-off for the fans,’ Yates continues. ‘I know some people struggle with the sorts of gritty things I like. For me, the ideal concoction is a movie that gives a sense of escape, but its emotional roots are firmly grounded. There’s nothing more exciting and dramatic than the life that whirls around us every day. And I think if you can just get an ounce of that reality into the movie it makes the fantastic that much more compelling.’

This idea of balancing emotional realism with explosive action carried through into the majestic but mournful sixth episode, ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince’, a film many critics found problematic. ‘It was a challenging film to make because nothing much happens,’ Yates says frankly. ‘It’s all about plate spinning and texture and tone and character, and sometimes people just long for narrative drive. But hopefully the new movie will win those doubters back.’

To be honest, Yates’s optimism might be misplaced: the new film is sadder and bleaker than anything the series has offered so far, an ominous and unsettling prelude to the big set-piece showdown in Part 2. ‘The first film is essentially a very dark, very intense road movie through the English counties, as the kids try to avoid being captured or killed,’ Yates explains. But he insists there’s light at the end of the tunnel. ‘In the second part we return to the series’s fantastical roots. It’s bigger and brighter, full of dragons and goblins and spiders!’

Yates was something of a special effects novice when he began work on ‘Order of the Phoenix’, but he seems to have made his peace with the world of digital dragons and computer-generated castles. In fact, his biggest problem seems to be stopping himself from taking everything too far. ‘Ultimately, for a director, you get a bit spoilt on a big movie like this. It’s potentially a recipe for self-indulgence. The worst thing a director can have is complete carte blanche. But I’ve got two very good producers who always ask the right questions: “Why do you want to do that? Is that really necessary?” You need to have your ideas tested, to be sure that you believe in them.’

David Yates

To make matters more difficult, this episode was originally intended to be in 3D, a process which broke down when the studio realised they risked missing their release date. ‘It was a very complex conversion process and we started to run out of time,’ Yates says. ‘3D requires a lot of authorship to make it work. It’s like music, it ebbs and flows, but it can’t interfere with the telling of the story. I started to realise we weren’t going to have time to refine it like we refine everything else. We did 15 or 20 drafts of the script, 47 cuts of the movie and dozens and dozens of special-effects tests, and I was only going to have one or two goes at an overall 3D conversion. It’s like building a Rolls Royce and slapping on a pair of duff tyres.’

So how will Yates feel when his work on the series – which has consumed six years of his life – finally comes to an end? ‘On one level I’ll be relieved, its been very intense. But the people I’ve worked with have been great, and it’s changed my life in a big way, it’s given me so much experience. I just love making films, it’s fun and I want to keep a momentum if I can.’

Does he share the same misgivings as Daniel Radcliffe, who declared this week that he’d be wary of returning to the role of Harry, even if JK Rowling decided to bring back the character? ‘I think, honestly, it would be wonderful for another director to have a go,’ says Yates with admirable diplomacy. ‘You’d need a different sensibility and a different aesthetic. But I’d be first in the queue to watch those movies!’

Read our review of 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One' here

Author: Tom Huddleston



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