Early in his career, Yates directed various short films and became a prolific television director with credits including the six-part political thriller State of Play (2003), for which he won the Directors Guild of Great Britain Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement, the adult two-part documentary drama Sex Traffic (2004), and the Primetime Emmy Award-winning production The Girl in the Café (2005).
Yates is a founding member of Directors UK. He has had a close partnership with Warner Bros. as a director and producer.
David Yates was born in 1963 in Lancashire, England. His parents died when he was young. Raised in the village of Rainhill, Yates was inspired to pursue a career in filmmaking after watching Steven Spielberg's 1975 movie Jaws. Before her death, Yates' mother bought him a Super 8mm camera. He used this to shoot various films in which his friends and family featured. One such film, The Ghost Ship, was shot on board the vessel where his uncle worked as a cook. He attended St Helens College where he completed the courses of sociology, politics, and literature before moving on to the University of Essex. Yates said that he "used to skive off college all the time" and never expected to join university before being surprised by his A-Level exam results. While at the University of Essex, Yates formed the Film and Video Production Society. He graduated with a BA Government in 1987.
In 1988, Yates made his first film When I Was a Girl in Swindon. The film entered the festival circuit where it was named Best Short Film at the San Francisco International Film Festival, in addition to obtaining other awards. It contributed to Yates' acceptance into the National Film and Television School in 1989 and led to the BBC hiring him to direct Oranges and Lemons, a short drama film in 1991. Before completing film school, he began to direct, produce and write the screenplay to the dramatic short The Weaver's Wife. He also made his fourth short film Good Looks, which was presented at the Chicago International Film Festival. After graduating in 1992, Yates directed an episode of the film studies programme Moving Pictures.
From 1994 to 1995, Yates directed several episodes of the ITV police procedural The Bill before directing and producing three episodes of the television documentary Tale of Three Seaside Towns alongside producer Alistair Clarke. The programme followed media personalities Russell Grant, Honor Blackman and Pam Ayres visiting and exploring the South Coast towns of Brighton, Eastbourne and Weymouth. Yates directed his fifth short film Punch before making his feature film debut in 1998 with the release of the independent historical-drama film The Tichborne Claimant. The film, which was shown at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, was written by Joe Fisher and based on the true events of the Tichborne Case. It starred Stephen Fry and Robert Hardy and was shot on location in Merseyside and on the Isle of Man.
Yates returned to television in 2000 to direct the episodes of Greed, Envy and Lust for the BBC miniseries The Sins, starring Pete Postlethwaite, as well as The Way We Live Now, the acclaimed four-part television adaptation of the novel of the same name by Anthony Trollope. Among the actors which Yates directed were David Suchet, Cillian Murphy and Miranda Otto in their roles as Augustus Melmotte, Paul Montague and Mrs. Hurtle respectively. Yates shared the British Academy Television Award for Best Drama Serial with screenwriter Andrew Davies and producer Nigel Stafford-Clark at the 2002 BAFTA Awards.
One year later, Yates attended the 56th BAFTA Awards with a British Academy Film Award nomination for Best Short Film for the fourteen-minute production, Rank, which expressed the social elements of racism, friendship and adolescence through the story of a street gang that cross Glasgow to witness the arrival of a group of Somali refugees. Yates said that even though The Way We Live Now was "a very big production" and "enormous fun to do", Rank was an opportunity to "shake all that off" and "get back to [his] roots." Of the casting, Yates said that he "wanted to use non-actors to tell the story, to create a reality ... the kids we cast in Glasgow had never done a film before." The film was noted for its gritty style and cinematography, with a review from Eye For Film stating that "such intelligent use of camera and cast lifts Yates out of the pool of promising young directors into the front line of genuine hopefuls. This work demands respect."
The 2003 six-part thriller State of Play was Yates' next achievement. He directed a mix of acclaimed actors such as David Morrissey, John Simm and James McAvoy in the main roles of the BBC serial, created by Paul Abbott. It was a major turning point for Yates' career; he collected the TV Spielfilm Award at the Cologne Conference in Germany and won the Directors Guild of Great Britain Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement. The serial was recognised by various award ceremonies, notably receiving the Peabody Award for Broadcasting Excellence and being presented with two British Academy Television Craft Awards. The quality of the serial sparked Hollywood film bosses to consider adapting it into a film, with producer Andrew Hauptman declaring that "it's a blistering political thriller and we want to make an equally blistering movie." State of Play is regarded by critics from The Guardian and The Times as one of the best British television dramas of the 2000s.
Yates then moved on to helm more high-profile projects such as the television adaptation of nine-year-old Daisy Ashford's novel The Young Visiters, starring Jim Broadbent alongside Hugh Laurie. Broadbent gained an acting nomination at the BAFTA Awards under Yates' direction, which was a different approach in comparison to his immediate previous work. According to a review by Variety magazine for BBC America, Yates and his team yielded "a warm and surprisingly unsentimental production that has 'evergreen' written all over it". The Young Visiters tells the story of Alfred (Broadbent) who seeks the help of an aristocrat (Laurie) in order to win the favour of an upper class lady.
In 2004, Yates' two-part drama Sex Traffic was broadcast on Channel 4. It won eight BAFTA Awards including Best Editing for Mark Day, who regularly worked with Yates on many of his television projects and short films. Day commented on his collaboration with Yates saying that "we are very good friends because we have spent so much time together." He also said, "David shoots in a similar style from piece to piece, although this wasn’t quite as frantic as State of Play." Yates was nominated for another Directors Guild of Great Britain Award for his direction of Sex Traffic and won his second BAFTA for Best Drama Serial at the British Academy Television Awards. Being a British-Canadian production, Sex Traffic gained four wins at Canada's annual television award ceremony, the Gemini Awards, including Best Dramatic Mini-Series. Spanning across two parts, the three-hour-long drama reveals how the trafficking of young women into slavery is a big business which operates throughout Europe; both parts were acclaimed for their "shocking" portrayal of such a sensitive topic.
Also in 2004, Yates was involved in plans for a film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited for Warner Independent Pictures. He was set to work with Paul Bettany, Jude Law and Jennifer Connelly on the project, but pulled out in the later stages due to constant budget issues affecting the film's production.
Yates then directed Richard Curtis' script to The Girl in the Café, a television film starring Bill Nighy and Kelly Macdonald. In June 2005, the film was aired on the BBC in Britain and was also broadcast in the United States on the premium cable television network Home Box Office. The Girl in the Café achieved three wins at the Emmy Awards, most notably the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Made for Television Movie, and gained a total of four nominations including Outstanding Directing for Yates. The film coincided with the BBC's Africa Lives season of programming and with the global Make Poverty History campaign. The message of the film is conveyed through the character-driven story of Lawrence (Nighy) and Gina (Macdonald) dealing with their feelings for one another while challenging political concerns at the G8 Summit in Reykjavík.
During the period of working on plans for Brideshead Revisited, Yates was told by his agent that he had made the director shortlist for the fifth film in the Harry Potter film series, which is based on the book series by J. K. Rowling. He was then confirmed to direct Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by Warner Bros. Pictures, with production scheduled to begin in early 2006. When asked how Yates got the job, producer David Heyman ("a big fan" of Yates's television work) said that "actors in David's television projects give their best performance, often of their career. It's important to keep pushing the actors, particularly the young ones on each Potter film. This is a political film, not with a capital P, but it's about teen rebellion and the abuse of power. David has made films in the U.K. about politics without being heavy handed."
Before production began, Yates invited Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire director Mike Newell to a pub and "picked his brains about what it was going to be like to step into someone's shoes on a movie of this scale." The first scene Yates shot featured a giant interacting with human characters. The scene was the very first high-scale visual effects piece Yates filmed in his career. After the film's post-production material was well received by the studio, Yates was chosen to direct the sixth film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which according to Yates was going to be "a cross between the chills of Prisoner of Azkaban [the third film in the series] and the fantastical adventure of Goblet of Fire".
In 2007, Order of the Phoenix opened to positive reviews and achieved commercial success. Yates won the title of Best Director at the Empire Awards and collected the People's Choice Award from the European Film Academy. However, the film was criticised by fans of the series for having the shortest running time out of the five released instalments; Yates said that the original director's cut was "probably over three hours", resulting in much footage being cut, condensed and edited to fit within the studio's preferred time frame.
During production on Half-Blood Prince, Warner Bros. executive Alan F. Horn announced that the seventh and final novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was to be split into two cinematic parts with Yates, once again, as the director. Yates spoke of the decision to appoint him as the director of the final films, remarking that "they wanted to do a Harry Potter that felt ... more grown up. What's smart about the studio and the producers is they have always wanted to push it a bit. Chris Columbus did a wonderful job of casting and making this world incredibly popular. But rather than do more of the same, they said, 'Let's bring in Alfonso Cuarón and let him run with it. Then later, let's bring in David Yates, who's done all this hard-hitting stuff on TV.' It's a testament to their ambition to try to keep the franchise fresh. The bizarre thing is, I did one [film] and they asked me to stay for three more, so obviously they liked something."
Half-Blood Prince was released in 2009 and became the only film in the series to gain an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography. Yates worked alongside French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel on, what Yates called, extensively colour grading the "incredibly rich" picture by making it look "very European" and drawing influences from the Dutch painter Rembrandt. The film garnered a mix of accolades and was acclaimed for its stylised character-driven approach, but some fans complained about the script's deviation from the novel and the film's slight romantic comedy nature. In response to this criticism, renowned BAFTA member and film critic Mark Kermode praised Yates' directing and ranked the film "second best" in the series, behind Prisoner of Azkaban.
Yates began to film Deathly Hallows – Part 1 and Deathly Hallows – Part 2 back-to-back in early 2009 and finished reshoots in late 2010. He stated that he had shot the two parts of the final adaptation differently, with Part 1 being a "road movie" and "quite real", "almost like a vérité documentary", while Part 2 is "more operatic, colourful and fantasy-oriented", a "big opera with huge battles." Yates reshot the final scene of the Harry Potter series at Leavesden Studios after the original version, filmed at London King's Cross railway station, did not meet his expectations. In the film, the scene takes place at the magical Platform 9¾.
Part 1 was released worldwide in November 2010 to commercial success along with generally positive reviews, some of which reflected on Yates' directing style. The Dallas Morning News affirmed that "David Yates' fluid, fast-paced direction sends up the crackling tension of a thriller" and The New York Times analysed Yates' approach to J. K. Rowling's character development by saying that he has "demonstrated a thorough, uncondescending sympathy for her characters, in particular the central trio of Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger and Harry Potter himself." The film was praised for its "dark" atmosphere and its loyalty to the source material, but it was criticised for its slow middle act, the handling of exposition, and the somewhat disjointed pacing.
Part 2 was screened in July 2011 and became an instant record-breaking success with universal acclaim. The Daily Telegraph described Part 2 as "monumental cinema awash with gorgeous tones" and Total Film wrote that Yates combines "spectacle and emotion into a thrilling final chapter." Author J. K. Rowling remarked that "everyone who watches Deathly Hallows – Part 2 is going to see that he's steered us home magnificently. It's incredible." Part 2 is the only Harry Potter film to pass the $1 billion mark during its original theatrical run; it became the highest-grossing film in the series and the highest-grossing film of 2011, making Yates the director of the highest-grossing non-James Cameron film of all time in August 2011. Amongst other accolades, Yates won his second Empire Award for Best Director and joined the principal creative team of Harry Potter in receiving the 2012 ADG Award for Outstanding Contribution to Cinematic Imagery for their work on Deathly Hallows – Part 2 and the series in general.
Yates attended the 64th British Academy Film Awards in February 2011, where he was joined by J. K. Rowling, David Heyman, Mike Newell, Alfonso Cuarón, David Barron, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson in collecting the Michael Balcon Award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema on behalf of the Harry Potter films. Daniel Radcliffe, who played the films' titular character, commented on working with Yates, saying that he "added his own sense of grit and realism [to the series] that perhaps wasn’t there so much before. I think we all had a fantastic time working with David. I know we did."
By 2012, Yates was working on a few Warner Bros. projects, including a Tarzan feature film and an Al Capone biopic called Cicero. He also controversially said that he was working with BBC Worldwide on plans to develop a Doctor Who film, although this was denied by the showrunner, Steven Moffat, in July 2012. Because of production delays, Yates began to explore other projects including television work.
In 2013, he returned to television by signing on to direct the television pilot of Tyrant, an American drama production set against the US–Middle East conflict. The following year, Yates began shooting The Legend of Tarzan, starring Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz, and Samuel L. Jackson. The film, released in 2016, opened to mixed reviews and a worldwide total of $356.7 million.
In 2014, Yates was confirmed to direct at least the first film in a series of five instalments based on J. K. Rowling's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a book which is set in the world of Harry Potter. The first three films were given release dates in 2016, 2018, and 2020. David Heyman and Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves joined Yates and J. K. Rowling in developing the screenplay. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, released in November 2016, received generally positive reviews and stars Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, and Johnny Depp.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Yates said he was open to directing all the films in the Fantastic Beasts series.
Yates grew up with his younger brother, Andrew, and elder sister, Beverley, in North West England. Yates's partner is Yvonne Walcott, who is the aunt of Arsenal football player Theo Walcott.
Emma Watson said that David Yates liked to push his cast and crew to physical and emotional extremes, with Gary Oldman confirming Yates' preference for working slowly by shooting numerous takes to get the best performances from his cast. Yates has been influenced by such directors as Steven Spielberg, David Lean, and Ken Loach. Yates' style of work includes social and political themes, character-driven narratives, realism, and atmospheric drama.
People who work in television often don’t think they can trust filmmakers because they are supposed 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 whatsoever, 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, whatever medium you work in, it is about storytelling 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.
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. In an ideal world, I'd bounce between big projects and no-budget TV dramas with fantastic scripts. A lot of Hollywood films tend to be bloated, bombastic, loud. At the same time, I do like the infrastructure of making a blockbuster; it's like having a big train set.
I am very strategic about getting coverage (the amount of shots it takes to tell the story within a scene). Some directors believe in shooting everything from every conceivable angle, and then working the material in the cutting room. I believe where you put the camera for a scene, how you move the camera, what lens you use, and what is or isn't in the frame with the actor, defines the story in that moment. Therefore for me, there is only one optimum place to ever put the camera if you are to achieve maximum impact for the story.
Critical, public and commercial reception to films Yates has directed as of July 4, 2017.