When David Yates was hired to direct Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, fans took one look at his TV-heavy resume and panicked that he wouldn’t be able to bring the same scale to the franchise that previous directors Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral), Alfonso Cuaron (A Little Princess) and Chris Columbus (Home Alone) had managed with aplomb.
If the resulting feature didn’t settle those minds — and it largely did — then Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince most certainly will. Yates is only the second director to return to Potter, and while Chris Columbus struggled to find a unique voice to bring to his second Potter, Chamber of Secrets, Yates doesn’t seem to have had any such problem with Half-Blood Prince. On its day of release the film is one of the best reviewed of the year, and certainly the best-reviewed Potter film. RT sat down with David Yates on set to learn more.
David Yates: It’s great fun, actually, and I enjoyed it so much last time which is why I came back. We had some guests on set about two weeks ago and the first thing they said after they’d had a tour around the studio was that they couldn’t believe that it was a film set and everyone seemed to be smiling all the time. There’s a really positive atmosphere here, so it’s a great working environment; everyone feels very committed to their particular craft and what they’re doing. There’s a terrific vibe and while you’re creating, and working and trying to deliver story, that atmosphere really helps.
I’m having probably even more fun on this one than I had on the last one. The last one was quite intense because of the scale of it; these are big films to make, and they just inevitably require you to multitask a bit, and I think I’ve gotten used to that multitasking approach to directing. Which is now, for me, quite an adrenaline rush; I think I really enjoy having two or three sets going at any one time.
I’ve got a terrific second unit director called Stephen Woolfenden who I worked with on Order of the Phoenix and we have a very close working relationship. We’re like twins, really. Traditionally second unit directors go off and do their own thing, but Stephen and I work really closely together and that’s terrific.
I’ve also brought a new D.O.P. called Bruno Delbonnel who shot Amelie and A Very Long Engagement. He’s French and he’s got a really good sense of humour. So we’re having a good time so far!
DY: It’ll be warmer than the last film. Order of the Phoenix was dealing with teenage angst and it was dealing with that period in life where you start to rebel a wee bit and you’re struggling against authority and all of that, while this film is much warmer and much more romantic. It’ll have a much richer and more romantic feel to it than Order of the Phoenix which was a bit darker and bit more intense.
DY: There is. The sixth book essentially deals with the politics of romance. We’re tuning into the spirit of all of that and because the characters are all getting a little bit older and the actors are all getting a little bit older, there are more nuances, I think, in the relationships. There’s a lot more character development in this one.
With Daniel Radcliffe and Bonnie Wright.
DY: Yes. In the sixth book Jo talks about the Death Eaters attacking, kidnapping and striking terror into communities and she plays that idea backstage in the book. You read about it but you don’t experience it. We wanted to bring that experience to the fore for the audience so they kind-of felt what it was like and they could actually see what the Death Eaters were doing. We’ve introduced two moments in the film where we see the Death Eaters do what Jo actually described them doing, but off the page as it were.
In the book Jo describes the collapse of a Muggle bridge. We never see it but she relays it. I just thought it’d be really cool to see that, again just to make the audience feel what the Death Eaters are doing to the Muggle world. It’s such a cool thing to experience and it’s quite frightening. So again we just took it straight from the book, the notion of it, and we’ve just put it into our story at the beginning. None of our principal characters will be involved.
The other scene is at the beginning at the railway station; traditionally these films have always opened at the Dursleys’ and there’s a pattern, the audience is used to that. Steve came up with this notion of breaking it. You sit down, you see the WB sign, you hear the tinkly-tinkly stuff and then, oh, it’s the Dursleys. It’s that comic Dursley bit at the beginning and then we’ll get on with the story. Steve came up with this notion that after Order of the Phoenix Harry’s in this quite intense, dark place and he’s riding the trains to free his brain a wee bit and he meets this really attractive waitress who he really likes. You immediately set up the notion that suddenly these characters are a bit more sexualised if you like, they’re aware of the opposite sex. Their hormones are kicking off and I thought it was a really charming, lovely idea.
DY: Scrimgeour isn’t in this particular film, no. We struggled to keep him in. It’s great scene in the book where he goes to see the Prime Minister. We loved that and it was in and it was out and it was in and it was out again.
We have brought Quidditch back, because I love Quidditch. I wanted to get Quidditch in the last film but we were so overstuffed with things that it was really hard. There’s a moment where you’re making a film where you want to go, “We want to do this, this, this and this,” and fiscal reality and schedule reality kicks in and so we were determined to get Quidditch back this time. And it’s a really fun Quidditch sequence. Kind-of comedy Quidditch!
DY: [laughs] Dan’s not particularly pleased with Quidditch [being back] because he has to sit on this broom for five hours a day! If you’ve ever sat on one of these brooms, and I’ve never, it just looks incredibly uncomfortable. They’re not the most seat-friendly contraptions.
Continue on to page 2 as Yates talks about character development, franchise energy and how to bring things to an end.
DY: All of them in a sense. Hermione is suddenly discovering that her feelings for Ron are developing rapidly and she can’t quite express them coherently and she struggles with those feelings because Ron isn’t the most ideal partner in many ways. He’s not particularly bright! But she just has a real soft-spot for him. It’s a wonderful place to put that character to realise that she’s growing up and she’s becoming much more sexually aware. Because she’s so cerebral, expressing that emotional side is a real struggle. There’s a real tension in that character that we’re developing which I think is really tender and funny and true.
Ron as a character is really developing enormously. He becomes the Quidditch goalkeeper and he’s sort-of slightly arrogant, there’s a sort-of middle-aged quality that develops in the character which is incredibly frustrating and irritating but very charming at the same time. He, too, is suddenly realising that he has this deep-seated attraction to Hermione and he’s a little slower at recognising it than Hermione is.
With Dan, what’s interesting about his development with Harry is that you’re seeing someone who’s learning to play by grown-up’s rules. He’s learning to manipulate and manoeuvre and flatter and do things which, in a way, you could argue are quite cynical. He’s been charged by Dumbledore to get information from Slughorn and he’s employing all these quite interesting tactics which we’ve never seen him do before. In a way he’s not been an innocent but he hasn’t quite operated at this level before. Harry does a few things in this story, and Dan’s doing a few things, which show you a very strategic side of this character that we’ve never seen before, which is quite interesting.
There’s a good line in the book and in the film which is that, “if the monster was there it was hidden deep within,” and this notion that Harry’s learning these skills and developing these abilities at an interpersonal level, a human level, the way you deal with people which could be used for good or bad, it’s interesting to see that in Harry who’s always just been Harry.
DY: There are a few connections that we’ve got. I think Deathly Hallows is such a stonking book, actually, it’s incredibly great fun. The big thing is Dumbledore’s wand and we’ve kind-of altered our story really to make sure we don’t tread on the toes of what comes in Deathly Hallows. The whole Hermione and Ron relationship, we had a kiss planned for this movie which we’ve sort of saved because we think it’s better to maintain that sexual tension. There are a lot of things we’ve given a nod to so we make sure we don’t tread on the toes of Deathly Hallows.
On the Great Hall set.
DY: Very much. I think it starts with Jo Rowling on the book side because for someone who is so successful and so famous she’s actually incredibly down to earth and self-effacing. She’s just a normal human being. And David Heyman who started this whole thing by optioning the books, he’s got a great spirit and he’s just a lovely man with very positive values. For a Hollywood picture you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone here at the studio at the upper levels who doesn’t want to bring anything but a good vibe to work. There is a very positive atmosphere around which I’ve encouraged since I started because it’s always been my experience making any film that you get so much more out of people by empowering and inspiring rather than shouting or cajoling so I encourage all of that and I think it’s a wonderful thing.
I like happy sets. Happy sets are good, and I think people feel comfortable on them. When fear arrives in any context it’s just boring and it closes people down. If people feel inadequate or if they feel bullied… It might work for some people but I think, as a rule, it just takes any joy out of the creative process. We have a very happy, positive set and people feel they can take risks and try things. It’s a much nicer place to come to work as a result.
DY: I hope so. Even though we’ve got this big machine I think that ultimately what I’m interested in, and I think what the audience are interested in, is the delicacy. You get all the bells and whistles, that’s a given, but it’s the little, nuanced character moments. I love these characters. We’re filming a scene today with Emma and Rupert and the nuance of that relationship is this kind-of stopping and starting, stopping and starting thing. It’s the delicacy of that relationship that you’re interested in and you want the personal stuff. I think it’s more valuable than the biggest CGI set piece ever.
DY: It’s really tricky and we’ve struggled with it a lot. I think ultimately it will feel like part of a bigger journey. I think that’s inevitable. I think audiences are invested in the series now, so rather than fight it I think my job is to make sure that it’s as tremendous a ride as possible but that the audience’s commitment to this journey will continue beyond this and that you feel that there are things that aren’t quite resolved. That’s an acceptable experience for the audience now, they can acknowledge and accept and embrace that notion that we’re part way through. We’re still trying to make the journey as complete as possible in many ways but I like the idea that this is an involving story and I like the idea that you can sit in a movie theatre for two and a half hours and still come out and go, “Wow, I want to go back and see what comes next.”
I think it will be satisfying and fulfilling. I feel confident that it will be an enjoyable two-and-a-half hours. But I think there’s more to come and I think rather than fight that it’s better to embrace it and I think audiences have done over the course of the movies to date.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is out now.