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David Yates on Harry Potter

Date posted: 23.12.2007

Film-maker David Yates is set to direct the fifth Harry Potter movie - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. He previously received funding through a Film London production scheme. He tells us about the experience of directing short film Rank, his current big budget project and what he has planned for the future…

Do you have any formal film qualifications?
I trained at the National Film and Television School, but for a number of years before starting at the school I’d been making films and videos in my spare time – in fact I started when I was 14 years old with a little super 8mm camera that my mum bought me. It was around that time I saw Jaws in the cinema and that completely inspired me to want to direct. I grew up in St.Helens on Merseyside, had no idea how you became a director, but just got on and did my own thing, hauling in friends and family to star in the little films I made. And I just kept at it. And as important as film school was as I developed as a filmmaker, there is no better way than just getting on and doing it – even if what you are doing might be no budget films and videos, you are still having a go at developing your craft.

Did you always want to be a director?
Yes, from pretty early on. Everyone thought I was a bit mad, quite rightly, but I just couldn’t get that ambition out of my head. 

Who is your favourite director?
I’ve got a few. In terms of heroes, Martin Scorsese, and I love the big films of David Lean – but I’m also a huge admirer of other British directors like Ken Loach, who has always been incredibly honest with his work. 

What is your favourite film?
Too many to mention!

How did you break into the media industries?
I made a short film, for a few thousand pounds, with grants from Southern Arts and the BBC bought it, because it won various awards at Film Festivals. On the back of that I got offered my first professional directing gig, doing a short called Oranges and Lemons, again for the BBC.

How do you feel film and TV differ in regards to production? 
For me, we should focus on what is similar rather than different. People who work in television often don’t think they can trust film makers because they are suppose to be a bit more arty and self indulgent, and people in film might think anyone who works in television is a hack. The fact is that we don’t need this divide, it does our collective industry no favours what so ever, and if we had more film makers working in television, and more television writers and directors working in film, we’d have a much healthier and more vital industry. At the end of the day, what ever medium you work in, it is about story telling and holding your audience. There are big differences of course, between film and television. In my television work I’ve had to move a lot faster than in the film work I’ve done, which is no bad thing. But the attention to craft, to acting, to telling the story as vitally and as interestingly and surprisingly as possible, is the same. And there are some stories that are better suited for television, because of the complexity or the need to spread them over a number of weeks, for example. To me, at the end of the day, however, whether it is a short film, a piece of television or a movie, I approach it in the same way. How do I take the audience with me, in the most compelling way possible.

You worked with the London Production Fund on a short film called Rank, how was that experience? Did it change anything for you? 
I had a great time making Rank. We made it for very little money in Glasgow.  The Production Fund was fantastic, because it allowed us to make something that it would have been incredibly difficult to finance in any other way, because I wanted to use non actors to tell the story, to create a reality. It was also a big break for our writer, Robbie – because it was essentially his first film, and for all the kids we cast in it in Glasgow who had never done a film before. I’d just finished a period drama called The Way We Live Now, which had taken me a year, and which was a very big production, enormous fun to do and with a great cast, but fairly formal in many ways as a piece of work – for all the right reasons, and this was an opportunity to just shake all of that off and get back to my roots.  

Did the experience of working with street kids and using improvisation techniques influence the way you work today? 
It’s one of the things I like to do. Improvisation has always been a part of the work I do. Even with very tightly scripted material, you always find an opportunity with an actor to spin in an idea and try something in addition to what you already have. I think it’s a healthy approach to the work. But attempting to try and reach a sense of truth is what intrigues me – even when you have pretty heightened and larger than life characters. 

Working with friends has always been important to you, are these relationships likely to continue with your new found feature film fame?
Yes, for sure. I’m planning to take a couple of key people with me onto Potter, because they are super talented and I couldn’t have done the work I’ve done without there help, and I see Potter as a continuation of much of the work we’ve been doing together.

Were you surprised to be asked to direct the latest Harry Potter installment? 
I was really thrilled, and excited by the prospect. It’s the kind of scale of film I’ve wanted to make since I was 14. Since The Way We live Now I’d been getting film offers coming through, but none of them were that interesting, though I had done a lot of work getting a film version of Brideshead Revisited ready – though we just fell short of our budget.

How do you feel about this project?
I’m really looking forward to it, and am working my way through all of the books, and starting to get a bit addicted to the world which is fantastic and wonderfully realised. 

The whole of the UK was gripped with Harry Potter fever when the books were first released, did you rush to the bookshops with the masses?
I hadn’t read a Potter book until earlier this year, because I was so busy making stuff or reading other scripts, so it has been a real pleasure to catch up with everyone else over the past weeks and months. 

Do you have any other future projects in the pipeline?
A movie version of Sex Traffic, a biopic of a 50’s comedian called Frank Randle, and lots of other interesting stuff which I’m hoping will still be around when I come off Potter in about two years time!

What is your biggest film ambition? 
To stay true to the best stories I can find. And to make big movies next to much smaller more intimate films – but to give both everything I’ve got.

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