David Yates Makes $200 Million Debut With Potter's

Love finds Harry Potter--tyrannical in-school bureaucracy does, too--when he returns to Hogwarts for a fifth year of magical thinking in Warner Bros.' Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which arrives July 13 to a world already $3.5 billion deep in Potter-fare.

The director engineering Harry's latest adventure is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken Brit of 43, David Yates, and he is--take note, Messrs. Ripley and Guinness--making his $200 million feature-film debut. Talk about pressure!

"In all honesty, not," Yates demurs brightly and lightly, "because I had some tremendous resources to tell the story, and I had longer than I've ever had before to do that. Normally, I'm used to working in television where the schedules are very tight, and you really do have to work quickly. There's much more pressure in those circumstances than here.

"Also, I had very supportive producers who, from the first day of principal photography, were very kind and positive and knew exactly what they were doing. They basically let me go with it, so I didn't really feel any pressure. I enjoyed every minute of it, in fact."

Said producers--David Heyman, David Barron, Chris Columbus, Lionel Wigram and Tanya Seghatchian--have been "looking outside the box" for directors since Columbus relinquished his directorial reins after the second installment. They went with helmsmen of sleeper hits--Alfonso Cuarón of Y Tu Mamá También and Mike Newell of Four Weddings and a Funeral--for the third and fourth episodes. When Newell chose not to go back for seconds and Mira Nair of Monsoon Wedding also nixed number five, the producers set their sights on the small screen where, lo and behold, they found Yates raking in BAFTA after BAFTA (for The Way We Live Now and
Sex Traffic
, Best Drama Series of 2001 and 2004) as well as a Directors Guild of Great Britain prize (for State of Play in 2003). His latest, maybe last TV film--HBO's The Girl in the Café--collected an Emmy earlier this year.

"I've been getting movie scripts all along, but they were not particularly good," Yates admits, "and I didn't want to go off and just make a movie because it was a movie. I had to be moved and intrigued by the script. I'm driven by the quality of the writing, often. And the writers in television I was working with--Paul Abbott, Richard Curtis, Andrew Davies--did scripts where the writing was so much better than the film scripts I was sent."

Somehow, Yates suspects Sex Traffic, a 180-minute fiction which writer Abi Morgan "based on lots of research about the trafficking of East European women into enforced prostitution in Europe and in America," was his ticket into Hogwarts. "I think that's the thing that finally swung them into offering me Potter. It was just a matter of time, I guess, before the right film came along, but I didn't want to do a movie unless the script was really perfect. When the Harry Potter offer came along, it was difficult to turn down."

At that particular time, Yates had not read a single
Potter book. "I read the fifth book first, then I went back and read the others, and it was really interesting. I fell in love quite quickly because the characters are great and education is a universal experience."

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was "filmed in seven or eight months--yeah, it was a juggernaut!--but, in total, it has taken about two and a half years from the day I initially sat down with Michael Goldenberg in L.A. to look at the first draft of the script. There were numerous revisions and storyboarding and prepping before The Delivery."

Goldenberg stepped up to the plate when series scripter Steve Kloves decided to take an installment off. "I'm not absolutely sure how that all worked out, because Michael was contracted before I started," says Yates. "But I certainly had a great time working with him because he's a hugely collaborative and sensitive writer. He was a good choice for this assignment. He'd written a version of Peter Pan. He'd worked on Contact. He's a very emotional writer, and I think, because this is quite an emotional story, that's why David and the studio invited him along. Some have compared this to the earlier Potters."

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the series' longest book (896 pages, 38 chapters, 255,000 words) and shortest film (138 minutes). "I was keen it didn't overstay its welcome," Yates admits. "I have a theory that most Hollywood movies--certainly the big summer blockbusters--are just too long. You come out of them feeling a bit beleaguered because they try so hard to stuff everything in. I wanted this to be the shortest Harry Potter. First and foremost, it needs to be the length it needs to be to tell the story. That's the important thing. I wanted people to come out feeling they'd had just the right amount of story. There's a sweet spot for that, and I think--I hope--that I've achieved it.

"The book did eventually collapse down into quite a streamlined narrative for us. The thing that was so obvious and right to every single one of us on the creative team was what we felt we wanted to keep in and what we wanted to move out. My big priority in working through the adaptation was to make sure that our story felt complete and organically whole and that we let it have its feeling of a beginning, middle and end."

The plotline pursued in this new adventure resembles a schoolboy's version of McCarthy witch-hunters meeting the French Resistance: Returning for his fifth fall at Hogwarts, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) finds his credibility and integrity seriously compromised when the wizard community believes he's lying that the evil Lord Voldemont (Ralph Fiennes) has returned. To realign him as a straight-shooter, a bureaucratic authoritarian--the duplicitous Prof. Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton, a.k.a. the Oscar-nominated Vera Drake)--gets a hammerlock on Hogwarts. This forces Harry, at the urging of best buds Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), to form a student underground-self-dubbed "Dumbledore's Army," after Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon)--and teach them how to defend themselves against the gathering Dark Arts.

Given the labyrinthine detours which J.K. Rowling takes in creating her best-selling tales, Yates and Goldenberg should be congratulated on keeping their eyes on the road and not straying from the straight and narrow path (much, anyway). "It was heartbreaking," the director-in-the-driver's-seat concedes. "When you adapt these stories, you realize that they can tend toward the episodic simply because you have all these lovely chapters that are very character-driven and you end up serving a lot of different stories. Michael wanted to feel we had one complete, unified, emotional story. That was our ambition."

The business about Ron Weasley becoming a Quidditch king was the hardest escapade to cut, he thought. (It didn't sit well, either, with Rupert Grint, who would have executed it.)

"Inevitably, something like the Quidditch story in the fifth book is, by its very nature, an episode in the book--and it doesn't necessarily feed the broad narrative of the story. So we were fairly ruthless in that sense, wanting to make sure that our story--this adaptation, this film that the audience will experience--had the least amount of episodic turns, that it felt like a single narrative working its way through. It's difficult to achieve that, and I'm not sure that it has been completely fixed, but it all feels quite organic now, I believe."

The plot does pause at one point long enough to permit Harry his first screen kiss. The recipient is Cho Chang (Katie Leung), who entered Hogwarts last film and is now a "Dumbledore's Army" member in this one. "It's a delicate, tender, flowering experience with her," says Yates, "but things conspire to get in the way of anything really developing from that point on. The wonderful experience of a first kiss is snatched away from them."

Otherwise, females are the deadlier of the species in Phoenix--especially the two new ones that Yates recruited. First: Helena Bonham Carter replaced Helen McCrory as Voldemort acolyte Bellatrix Lestrange, who brings about the demise of one of the series' main characters. "Helena doesn't occupy much screen time in the movie, but the time that she's on screen I think she's incredibly vivid, strange and scary. She's this very crazy, slightly schizophrenic and psychopathic woman who comes on like a force of nature."

More insidiously omnipresent is Imelda Staunton as the unctuous Ms. Umbridge, newly appointed by the Ministry of Magic to be Hogwarts' new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher-a post she dispatches with repressive zeal, particularly when it comes to putting the screws to poor Harry Potter. "Dolores is actually quite a complicated character," Yates proffers. "She's a woman who's desperate to be liked and loved by everybody, yet she's also a control freak and a really ambitious bureaucrat. Underneath, she has this slightly religious fervor. She wants Harry to be cleansed because she believes that Harry's lying and that she needs to cleanse him from these lies and denials that he's putting forth.

"Imelda is an astute, gifted, witty actress, so I tried to hit lots of different levels of her. The character is quite heightened and big, and yet you want her to be true. Imelda can square that circle. She can give you a vibrant, vital character and someone who's real as well."

Eight days after Phoenix starts rising on the box-office charts, the seventh and emphatically final Harry Potter adventure reaches bookstores. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the Boy Wizard will either hang up his wand forever or get it driven in his heart (to kill off any chance of rip-offs or bogus spin-offs from the famous franchise).

Regardless of that outcome, Yates is keeping the lad alive via flick six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. "I've been getting the next one ready for three months now while I'm finishing up Phoenix. I'm doing a Chris Columbus. He did the first two films back-to-back, and he had this crazy schedule where he was dubbing One while he was prepping Two. I've been doing the same with Five and Six. We start shooting in September."

Read Film Journal International's review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix here.