David Yates joined the Harry Potter franchise on the fifth instalment and is now seeing it through to the bittersweet end with Deathly Hallows Parts I and II. It’s been an extraordinary journey – one he now shares with Total Film...
If you’ve ever walked up a mountain, you know you don’t look at the top, you only look at each step it takes to get to the top. Although we have a massive schedule on Deathly Hallows, I refuse to count the days. I’m just enjoying each one – if I thought too much about the number of months we’re filming, my knees would buckle.
It’s surprisingly calm on set but also exciting. We all know this is our last opportunity to play in this world. There’s a real sense of closure approaching, which adds an interesting atmosphere. We all want the final two films to be special.
It’s funny now to look back at the beginning. When I was first approached about directing the fifth film, I was a wee bit arrogant. My first response was, “Why would I want to do that? Somebody has already created that world.” One of the most exciting things on everything I’ve done is coming in at the ground floor. It’s like designing a house: you get to put everything where it should be. But my agent said, “You’d be nutty to walk away from this.” So I read the first book and I just fell in love with this glorious world.
The pitching process wasn’t blatant. I was developing another film for Warner Bros and I’d have the odd script meeting with them. I realised over that period that they were sizing me up discreetly for other things. They liked my work: they’d seen Sex Traffic and State Of Play. I met [producer] David Heyman twice before an actual offer came. He raised Harry Potter as a world and how much fun it was to work in. Then I had an afternoon where he said, “Come and talk to me about the fifth book, come and pitch it to me.”
I turned up at his office and did the worst pitch in history. About halfway through, I said, “This isn’t really working.” I got into the taxi to leave and thought, “I blew that one!” On the way to the station, my phone rang and it was David. He said, “Listen mate, don’t worry about it.” I was about to meet the Warner Bros execs and he said, “Just be yourself.” I knew there were other directors in the frame, I knew they were meeting Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who I adore. But somehow it all fell into place. So even though I delivered the worst pitch in history they still gave me the job!
I first met Dan on the set of Goblet Of Fire. He was on a broom at the time and he came down off it to say hello. They’re all such a nice bunch of people. We all clicked. There’s a great sensibility here, which is very healthy. It’s about respecting and encouraging people; it’s about the quality of the work. It’s as far removed from that machismo world of über filmmaking as you can get, which is also very healthy. Everything I’ve made has been run along this same ideology: to inspire work out of people rather than shout it out of them.
I came along when the franchise was just starting to grow up a bit and we’re growing it up more and more on each film. There’s a bipolarity to what I do. I love truth, I love reality. But equally I’m comfortable with expressive and expressionistic approaches to storytelling. I think Warner Bros have responded to the fact that I’ve brought a certain Britishness to the franchise.
They like what I’ve done with the actors too. On Deathly Hallows, I’ve been getting some terrific emails from the studio saying how impressed they are with what we’re doing. But I’ve hit a point in the stories where they’re getting more nuanced and I’m benefiting from it. To a certain extent in Half-Blood Prince, but even more so in Deathly Hallows, we’re doing some dark, interesting stuff that feels very adult.
Deathly Hallows is a powerful spiritual journey for Harry, who realises what his ultimate destiny is. I’m trying to give both parts a slightly different swing. Part One is dynamic, adrenalised, visceral and takes place on the road – we never go anywhere near Hogwarts. It’s a refugee story about these three kids cut off from everything they know and everybody they love, being pursued relentlessly by people who want to murder them. It’s a gritty road movie within this magical universe.
Part Two is more elegiac and operatic. It’s where the heart and soul of the story comes home to roost. They’re as different as Order Of The Phoenix is to Half-Blood Prince, which is quite European in flavour. The world is rich enough to allow you to go exploring in how you present it.
When they asked me back for Deathly Hallows, there were about 30 seconds where I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it. But you just go for it, because how many directors get the opportunity to a) conclude a franchise like this, and b) direct half of it? When I get tired, I just remember that these movies don’t come along every day. Equally, when you’re in the middle of a 14-month shoot, the truth is the end is like a lifeboat and you go, “We’ve not far to swim now!”
It is tough pacing yourself on these productions. I’m rubbish at looking after myself. I’m like a teenager with a car: my body is the car and I drive it too hard and then wonder why I feel loopy. But it’s the hardest thing to switch off when you have this world in your head. You can’t stop thinking about it – it’s too intoxicating, too addictive. Sometimes it wakes me up in the middle of the night, but it’s not anxiety, it’s over-excitement. It’s thinking, “Tomorrow we’re shooting the scene in the Room of Requirement where Harry, Ron and Hermione are being chased by Fiendfyre and it’s a very cool scene.”
It’s not just making them either, it’s the responsibility of bringing them into the world and knowing that there’s a global audience waiting to go, “We’re glad you left that in, but why did you leave that out?” There’s a subliminal pressure all of the time. But as tough as it’s been, there will be so many happy memories of the people I’ve worked with. Rupert Grint’s corpsing [cracking up during a take] will stay with me for the rest of my life. He’s a terrible corpser and he always tries to hide it. I was doing a shot today where he walks towards Emma – he started to go before he was within seven feet of her and then tried to hide behind her so we couldn’t see. It’s so sweet. We’re looking into how to achieve ageing up Dan, Emma and Rupert for the final epilogue in a really interesting way – seeing Dan with a bit of a paunch will be great!
It will be a poignant moment when we call that last take and I say, “Check the gate” for the last time on this extraordinary run of films. I’m certainly going to miss it when it’s over. There are people involved in these movies, like David Heyman and some of the creative team, who have been on them with Dan, Rupert and Emma from the get-go. For them it’s going to be difficult to say goodbye. In the years these movies have been made, children have been born, people have died, people have got married – the whole run of human life has flown through this studio and suddenly it’s all going to stop. It will be very strange.
After it’s all over, I’m going to take six months off and do some travelling. I need to get out into the real world and just connect again. As a storyteller, you need to experience life. After that, I’ve got a few projects that I’m developing. My plan is to chequerboard work where I do a low-budget film and then follow it with a big blockbuster. I find it exhilarating making films on an industrial scale but I can’t wait to work on a small-scale film where I go out and shoot with a crew of five. My career ambition will be to switch from one to the other. I want to shake it up.