As far as feature films went, David Yates had made just one, a virtually unseen low-budget pic, when David Heyman asked him to direct “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Four films and $4.2 billion box office later, Yates is now the highest-grossing British director of all time.
Of course, he wasn’t really a rookie when the call came. After his false start in features with the $2.5 million period curio “The Tichborne Claimant,” he reinvented himself as the BAFTA-winning helmer of acclaimed TV series such as “The Way We Live Now,” “State of Play” and “Sex Traffic.”
Nonetheless, he admits he was surprised to be handed the fifth installment of the biggest franchise in movie history.
“I had just made this bleak, intense drama about sex trafficking, so it seemed like a very odd juxtaposition,” he recalls. “When I went to see David, it seemed better not to ask why. He said he was a big fan of my work, so I thought let’s just leave it there and talk about the material.”
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Explains Heyman: “He had a real sensitivity for the material. He had done ‘State of Play,’ which dealt in politics in a really entertaining and accessible way. By the fifth film, the Harry Potter world was becoming more political, and we were really interested in someone who could set the magical world off against the real world.”
Yates was under no illusion about the scale of the task, although he never dreamed it would take over his life for the next seven years.
“It was a huge challenge for any director coming in,” he says. “I know Alfonso Cuaron and Mike Newell found it hugely challenging, because they told me so!”
But he immediately felt empowered by the producers and the studio to forge his own path.
“Every day, from the first draft of the script through 20, 30 drafts, you’re influencing, shaping,” he says. “There wasn’t a day when I didn’t feel I was doing my thing. I wanted to grow the world up, to make it feel more intense, darker, scarier. I wanted to take it from a kids film to a film that adults would probably enjoy more than kids.”
The producers and the studio were evidently delighted with the result, signing him up again for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” and the two climactic installments of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.”
“What I love about David is not only that he’s a great storyteller, but he’s a humanist — he’s always looking for the emotional truth of a character,” Heyman says.
“Potter” has transformed Yates from a well-regarded British TV director into a Hollywood A-lister with the world at his feet. This month, he was tapped to direct the bigscreen version of “Doctor Who.”
“It’s as though I’ve gone through some portal and come out the other side,” Yates says. “I’ve got so many scripts piled up, waiting to be read. It’s a very exciting time, and I feel right now that I’m ready to start again.
“But I feel, oddly, that I’ve got a lot to prove as a filmmaker. Potter is Potter, there were three other directors who worked on those films, and it’s really Jo Rowling’s world. I poured my heart and soul into them, I’m really proud of them and they are my films, but now I’m looking forward to showing what I can really do.”
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