David Yates finds a home as 'Potter' director

July 15, 2009 1:59:08 PM PDT
Speak to many 12-year-old fans about the various filmmakers behind the "Harry Potter" films and you're likely to realize that the auteur theory is alive and well.Yes, the belief that a movie is ultimately authored by its director applies even to the billion-dollar franchise spawned by J.K. Rowling's best-sellers. The films have had four directors, and the fingerprints of each are evident to Potter fans, young and old alike.

Despite the turnover, Hogwarts finally has its filmmaking headmaster: David Yates. Just as he helmed the last "Harry Potter" film, he directs the latest, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," which opened in theaters Wednesday.

Yates is also in the midst of shooting the adaptation of Rowling's final book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," which is being divided into two films.

It's an unlikely match for the soft-spoken Yates, whose previous work was almost entirely in British television.

By bringing his own sense of realism - and by incorporating the approaches of the previous three Potter directors: Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell - Yates has settled into the Potter directing chair and brought the franchise its best reviews yet.

"It still is a surprise to me, sometimes," said Yates in a recent interview. "I'm just really glad that I'm doing it. I enjoy it and I'm proud of the work."

Before his entrance to Hogwarts, Yates was known for his acclaimed work for the BBC, most notably in directing the 2003 miniseries "State of Play" (recently adapted a film starring Russell Crowe), the 2004 TV film "Sex Traffic" (which won numerous BAFTAs) and the 2005 Richard Curtis-penned TV film, "The Girl in the Cafe."

Most involved with the Potter films pinpoint the third, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," as the series' turning point.

The first two were directed by Columbus ("Home Alone," "Mrs. Doubtfire"), who cast most of the central roles and created much of the film's universe - elements that successors would largely inherit. They were also essentially kids films. When Cuaron ("Y tu mama tambien," "Children of Men") took the reins, the series got a jolt of realism and a darker tone.

Producer David Heyman, who has been behind the scenes of all the Potter films, said that each director was offered the chance to direct the subsequent installment. From preproduction to publicity, such blockbusters can take years for a filmmaker.

When producers were looking for someone to take the fifth film, they turned to Yates based on his TV work. They were also looking for a British director, said producer David Barron.

"I did the worst pitch," said Yates of his initial meeting with Heyman. "I was literally halfway through it and I said to him, `I'm going to stop this right now. This isn't working, this sounds terrible. Nice to meet you, I'm off.' And I just left."

Yates won out despite his seemingly docile demeanor. Daniel Radcliffe, the 19-year-old actor who plays Harry Potter, joked: "There's nothing about him that screams `I am the creating powerhouse of this movie."'

"He seeks out the truthful moments and the reality of a situation," said Heyman. The producer praised Yates' handle of situational, truthful humor, "as opposed to cakes falling on heads" as in the second film.

Yates is generally credited with helping his young stars mature in their acting. Emma Watson, the 19-year-old who plays Hermione Granger, recalled him negatively critiquing her for "acting" in one scene. After a good, more natural take, though, Watson said Yates will boyishly clap his hands.

"Moving away from the fantasy and more into an emotional reality - that was my strength before I started working on these pictures and that's what I bring to them now," said Yates. "I still love the magical world, but I think I'm trying to pull them more into a more mature, darker, complex grammar."

His excitement for Potter is apparently another reason Yates has become the series' pre-eminent director. Heyman notes that he was the only one to say `yes' to carrying on after one or two movies.

Yates and the cast have already returned to shooting in England. Of part one, which is due out in Nov. 2010, Yates says he's taking an approach "like a documentary." Part two, expected in summer 2011, has a more epic, operatic feel, he says.

Though Yates believes he's left his imprint - like any director would, he says - on Potter, he admits, he's still only a small part in the giant apparatus.

"These films are bigger than anyone - they're bigger than the producer, they're bigger than the writer," says Yates. "And I'm totally cool about that."