Wizard Behind 'Potter'

As The Director Of The Final Four Movies, Little-known David Yates Gets To Shape The Popular Series' Legacy

April 30, 2009|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

On paper, everything about this summer is big. It's filled with mammoth sequels such as Transformers 2 and Angels & Demons, mega-series reboots such as Terminator Salvation and Star Trek , and superstar (and super-director) vehicles such as the piquantly misspelled Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino guiding Brad Pitt).

The culture hero to beat is still a bespectacled British schoolboy. His last outing, in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, grossed more than $900 million worldwide and was often called the best of its kind. Fans hungry for more Quidditch cried foul when the producing studio, Warner Bros., moved the release date of the next one, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, from Nov. 21 to July 15, precisely to capitalize on the warm-weather audience that helped make Phoenix such a smash.

But Potter mavens have begun to realize that Prince may offer another enthralling fantasy adventure and a glimpse into the future of the franchise. Not only has Phoenix director David Yates returned for Prince: While putting the finishing touches on it, he was also editing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I and shooting Deathly Hallows Part II.

Yates' guidance of four Potter movies, twice as many as Chris Columbus (who started the movie series), makes him the person to exert the greatest influence over the series' legacy than anyone except J.K. Rowling - although Yates, like every other Potter director, deflects all praise back to Rowling. Even when international names such as Alfonso Cuaron (Children of God) and Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco) make Harry Potter movies (Cuaron with The Prisoner of Azkaban and Newell with The Goblet of Fire), Rowling's reputation as the series' original author overshadows them. Two years after Ph oenix opened, Yates is still better known for directing the BBC miniseries that became the Russell Crowe-Ben Affleck thriller State of Play.

Although few have given him credit for creating the most broadly successful debut film of all time (not even George Lucas, Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson came close with their first features), Yates says his anonymity suits him. Over his cell phone from England, he chalks up his success to "the wonderful franchise bounce." He says, "I was thrilled we did so well; we weren't expecting to do quite so well. You're always thinking, a string of movies like these could just peter out at the box office, but they show no sign of doing that. It's a remarkable thing."

The Potter movies are such enormous undertakings that Yates had no time to reflect on what he was getting into in 2005. "There was a steep learning curve; I just jumped in and got on with it." And precisely because the series has been so commercially successful, "on the studio side people are reasonably confident about the whole enterprise." That made his transition from TV to film "a lot easier. Everyone knows these movies must be directed. Also, I used to shoot TV as if I were making movies." He always believed in conveying the emotional and poetic qualities of stories through staging and image-making, rather than merely committing plots to video or film. He says the scale of the Potter movies "demands you to juggle, but I enjoyed it thoroughly once I got the hang of it."

Judging from Phoenix and some of the casting choices on Deathly Hallows and Half-Blood Prince, Yates is bringing the films more acerbic British flavor and a denser fantasy reality than some of his predecessors - including Yates' fellow Brit, Newell, who confessed to Yates that he'd thought of Goblet of Fire as a "Bollywood" extravaganza. The splashiest new character in Prince is Horace Slughorn, a name-dropping potions professor at Hogwarts. Yates cast Jim Broadbent in the role.

"I've worked with Jim before, and that's where you most see my British sensibility," says Yates. "Jim as an actor is a real touchstone of the British sensibility. He understands the people in the British middle-class, and their need for social advancement, and their need to be recognized that they have achieved social advancement. He's built a career on understanding those characteristics. He has great pathos but he's also very funny."

Kindness, decency and patience are the personal qualities that draw the loyalty of Yates' collaborators. Screenwriter Steve Kloves, a distinguished director himself (The Fabulous Baker Boys), has been working with Yates back-to-back-to-back on Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows I and II. He says Yates' "vast resources of patience" are good to have on Potter films, "since the books are difficult to wrestle to the screen."

But "there is something else that separates David Yates," says Kloves. "He is willing to do the heavy lifting, to make the difficult decision when necessary - something which many directors are not willing to do."

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