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‘Harry Potter’ countdown: A late-night call from David Yates reveals magical secrets

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It was about 3:20 a.m. yesterday when my phone rang: It was David Yates, the soft-spoken British director whose second ‘Harry Potter’ film, ‘Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,’ arrives in theaters across America on July 15. He sounded apologetic: ‘It’s quite early there isn’t it? Thanks for doing this, mate.’

Despite the hour, it was my pleasure to take the call -- Yates is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet and, after visiting him outside London last year on the set of ‘Half-Blood Prince,’ it was a treat to catch up, even if his schedule required the pre-dawn appointment. Right now, Yates is in the midst of filming the final boy-wizard adventure, ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,’ which will be split into two films.

‘We’re here in the forest, we’ve just finished the scene where Harry, Hermione and Ron are captured by the Snatchers after being chased through the woods. The Snatchers are brutal and scary but they aren’t the most intelligent of creatures.They’re trying to figure out exactly who it is they’ve caught.’

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I told Yates about my new theory: That the single best decision made in show business over the last decade was the casting of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint in the lead roles of Harry, Hermione and Ron. I could almost hear him smile on the other side of the Atlantic.

‘Absolutely, I think you’re correct. It was an extraordinary bit of judgment, bringing those three in. They have been so stable and level-headed and in working with them I continue to be impressed by how keen they are to challenge themselves and to try new things to bring out the characters that they portray. They have become these engaging ambassadors for the films and the story. They have been endlessly enthusiastic. They want to see how good they can be in these roles. They haven’t had their heads turned, either, by the fame and attention or any of it, which is wonderful for everyone to see.’

There’s never been a film franchise that has delivered this many movies on this scale and in this sort of time. The Hollywood history books will look back on this as the Hogwarts Decade. The first ‘Potter’ film was released in November 2001, and the eighth will close out the saga in summer of 2011. Yates says there is a sense on the set that something very special is unfolding.

‘I think with each film the audience is surprised by how much [the lead actors] have grown up,’ he said. ‘I think it’s unique in the history of film, really, given the popularity of the series and the way these young actors have grown up in front of us. It will be interesting in the years to come to see how they themselves look back on this experience.’

‘Half-Blood Prince’ was supposed to be in theaters last November, but that plan changed when Warner Bros. abruptly pushed the film back. The reason? Money. The studio execs reasoned that young fans would be more likely to see the film multiple times if it was released outside the school year. And because Warner Bros. was fresh from last summer’s massive success with ‘The Dark Knight,’ putting some space between the two blockbusters made good business sense. Many ‘Potter’ fans, of course, were terribly distressed by the postponement and, it turns out, so was Yates.

‘It was not something I warmed to initially. At the time, I was so adrenalized, I was so caught up in the process of getting the film in on deadline and making the movie on a certain schedule, and then the decision to delay was a huge anticlimax. There was a huge sense of disappointment, I must say. We finished the film a year ago, so it’s very strange to go all this time without seeing it with an audience, which is what you make it for. But the studio made their case for the move and I came to understand and appreciate their reasons and they are very good at delivering these movies and understanding the process of making a film successful and I think it wise to defer to their judgment.’

I asked Yates about the downsides of the delay for him as a filmmaker and he chuckled. ‘You find yourself fiddling with it much more in post-production, naturally. There’s a good and bad to that. You could keep adjusting things for the rest of your life if you allowed yourself to do that. That can be unhealthy and at some point you have to say, ‘Here is the cut-off date.’ I know fans are eager to see it and it’s been interesting for us to come back to it now, even as we are busy filming the next installments.’

There are only seven ‘Potter’ books on the J.K. Rowling shelf, of course, but the producers and Yates are breaking the final novel into a two-part film. They cite the jam-packed tale of the final book and the difficulty of whittling it down to a single film. Plenty of skeptics, of course, are saying money is the true reason for the tacked-on Warner Bros. release, but Yates was more interested in a different fiscal consideration. ‘I will get the benefit of two budgets, the running time of two films and all the resources that brings with it to tell this huge adventure; more time, more money, more special effects. There are always things that are lost when you adapt a book to a film. With two films, much less will be lost.’

I asked Yates if he had decided on the splitting point -- the juncture at which the seventh film will stop.

‘Yes, I think we have,’ he said. ‘Things can change when you edit, of course, but the idea now is that it will be not long after the sequence that we are filming here today. That’s what we’re experimenting with. We’ve had three or four different ideas about where to cut off the seventh film. Traditionally, the movies have ended with a death or a bereavement, some sort of passage or arrival. This time we think we will end with more a cliffhanger. Again, though, that’s the thought as of this moment.’

In the background, I could hear a voice calling Yates back to the set. The gentlemanly filmmaker apologized again. ‘I’m sorry I wish I could talk longer. It will be lovely to catch up when you’re back here next time. We’re very excited for everyone to see ‘Half-Blood Prince’ and talking about it only makes me more excited. Okay, get some sleep, mate. Cheers.’

-- Geoff Boucher

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UPDATED: There was incorrect caption information on the photograph. Doby sorry.


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