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6 Filmmaking Tips From David Yates

By  · Published on November 16th, 2016

The Harry Potter director has some fantastic advice.

At film school, David Yates was told by an instructor that he was too nice to be in the industry. But this is all the British-born director has ever wanted to do, and he says it’s all he could do, so he kept up his passion and determination to make it happen. Eventually, he took the helm of one of the biggest and most successful franchises in cinema history, and now he’s back in the Harry Potter universe for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, possibly staying on through the long haul of five installments.

You could say he’s committed, but that might be an understatement. He likes to finish things he starts, or in the case of Potter things he joins, and when he’s on board, a project gets his complete focus. It’s his life, while his crew is his family, and there’s no switching off at five o’clock, he told DGA Quarterly in 2010. You need a strong work ethic. He told students at Trinity College Dublin recently (as quoted by Trinity News), “For those who want to become a director, if you don’t like early mornings, don’t do it!”

He’s also given more substantial advice over the years, and we’ve compiled some to share with you below.

Get On and Do It

Yates is one of the many filmmakers who went to film school but admits it’s not necessary. Before and after, he learned and honed a lot of his skills just making stuff. He told Film London in 2007, as his first Harry Potter movie arrived in theaters:

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.

In the below clip from a 2013 appearance at the London Screenwriters’ Festival, he talks about how early in his career he was told a script of his would never work and then he went and turned it into an award-winning short film on his own.

Rejection Can Motivate

The title of the above clip is “How to Turn Rejection Into Success,” and in the full, hour-long conversation, Yates continues to discuss the idea, jumping off that career point. Transcribed from the video that follows:

It was an incentive to actually make the film that was running in my head. Looking back on my career, it’s normally when your back’s against the wall and you haven’t got the answer that you particularly want, that’s when you come out fighting, when you do your best work. If it’s all plain sailing, and this industry never is, no matter where you are in your career, no matter how successful or where you are on that food chain, there’ll always be people to knock you back. And what you have to do is just use that as fuel to keep you propelling forward.

Motivate, Don’t Control

As for motivating his cast and crew, Yates isn’t so mean. He inspires them more positively, which is one way he proves his old teacher wrong about being too nice for the movie business. From a 2007 Guardian interview:

I like to create an atmosphere where actors feel safe enough to take risks. I certainly don’t believe in being a macho bully; I’m not interested in frightening good work out of people. It’s bollocks.

Here’s something similar he says in the DGA Quarterly interview:

For me, being a director is about bringing the best out of people – it’s about nurturing and developing relationships, to make someone better than they would be if you weren’t working with them.

And here’s a quote from a Q&A at the 2014 Into Film Festival, which you can watch below:

The key is you’re there to motivate and inspire. The directors who I’ve seen who hope to succeed but don’t generally try and control or micro-manage too much. They try to be too prescriptive.

Checks and Balances

For someone who promotes doing your own thing even when everyone says it won’t work, Yates does understand the importance of having someone above you on a production, keeping you in check. From a 2010 Time Out London interview:

Ultimately, for a director, you get a bit spoilt on a big movie like this. It’s potentially a recipe for self-indulgence. The worst thing a director can have is complete carte blanche. But I’ve got two very good producers who always ask the right questions: “Why do you want to do that? Is that really necessary?” You need to have your ideas tested, to be sure that you believe in them.

Here he is again from the London Screenwriters’ Festival appearance on the creative compromise of working with the studios:

Go Big and Small

“In an ideal world, I’d bounce between big projects and no-budget TV dramas with fantastic scripts,” he says in the Guardian interview.

For the past decade, Yates has mostly been working on blockbuster movies, including his other 2016 release, The Legend of Tarzan. But he did manage to find time to direct the pilot episode of the FX drama Tyrant. His background is more in television, and he’s often said he’d like to keep his career mixed between big and small screen projects. From the Film London interview:

People who work in television often don’t think they can trust filmmakers 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 favors what so ever, and if we had more filmmakers 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.

Serve the Form, Not the Fans

When you spend as much time making movies based on properties with lots of fans, as Yates does—and The Legend of Tarzan counts, just not as much as the obvious – you have to have an attitude and advice about dealing with those fanbases and the fact that you’ll never satisfy all of them all of the time. From the DGA Quarterly interview, discussing his Harry Potter adaptations:

Look, I’d put everything in if I had the time and the money, but I don’t. I have to serve the form I’m working in – a two or two-and-a-half-hour film. You have to serve that shape, that rhythm, that pace. You want to retain the tonality of what’s in the book; that’s incredibly important because that’s why these stories are so popular. But at the end of the day, you can’t second-guess what everyone else wants. You’d drive yourself mad. So I find things that I respond to in the material and pursue that. In Order of the Phoenix it was Harry’s isolation and anger. I stripped out all those lovely subplots down to a clear through line; you could follow his story and feel for him. In Half-Blood I adored the sexual and emotional politics. But it’s obviously a job where you’re going to get kicked. I can deal with that.

And here he speaks to Vanity Fair on juggling appeasing fans (including himself) and the general audience, who may just be there for the movie at hand, equally:

Well, you just do your very best. I’m a Harry Potter fan. Everyone who is working on this screenplay and the films is. I’m surrounded by Harry Potter fans every day. So we try our best to realize the spirit of the world. At the end of the day, I have to please that Potter audience but I’ve also got to balance that with people who may have never read one of these books. It’s a very difficult juggling act but you just do your very best to make the film as in-the-moment as possible and you have to make certain choices, which are difficult at times, which just make that adaptation fit more into that cinematic experience in the theater.

What We Learned

Yates is a nice guy, and that’s helped him more than might be expected, particularly with regards to not being a tyrant (reference to the show he worked on not intended). He’s a favorite of actors who work with him, which is one of the reasons he got the Potter gig and definitely a big reason why he was asked back over and over and onward. He lets those below him have a good deal of freedom, and he also allows those above him to keep him from having too much freedom.

He doesn’t have a big head, and he doesn’t need to be a big player or only work on big things. Still, he’s against being told he can’t do something entirely, and for the wrong reasons, be they financiers or fans or anyone. Follow his lead, take his advice, and you may be the next filmmaker to have a steady gig directing nine movies in a single franchise.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.