Mention the name of the new "Harry Potter" director and the near-universal response is, "Who?" After creating a $3.5 billion franchise with a string of high-profile filmmakers--Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell--Warner Bros. hired David Yates to take the reins for "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," which will be released next summer. Yates is unknown here, but he's been building an impressive résumé in his native Britain. His movie "Sex Traffic," about women forced into international prostitution, was widely praised. In 2004 he won a British Directors' Guild award for the TV series "State of Play," a political thriller. And his last film, HBO's "The Girl in the Café," is a romance set at the G8 economic summit (yes, really), and earned an Emmy this year. "He's one of the most exciting directors coming out of this country at the moment," says longtime "Potter" producer David Heyman. Fair enough. But what's a guy who makes gritty, hyperreal socially conscious films doing in the "Harry Potter" universe? "Well," Heyman says, "this movie is bit of a revolution."
"Phoenix," the fifth book in author J. K. Rowlings's series, is by far the most ideological, and seems allusive to post-9/11 politics. Harry knows that the evil Lord Voldemort has been reborn and is building an army, but the wizarding government, the Ministry of Magic, refuses to believe him. At Hogwarts, a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, the ministry's Dolores Umbridge, won't teach the students actual defense spells, under the pretense of protecting them. As the world grows more dangerous, and Umbridge restricts more and more of the students' personal freedoms, Harry and his pals form a secret club to teach themselves how to battle Voldemort and his minions. "It's like the French Resistance movement of the 1940s," Heyman says. Which is right up Yates's alley. "There's a really interesting principle at the heart of this story," says Yates, in an exclusive NEWSWEEK interview. "The ministry is this bureaucratic authoritarian regime trying to impose a fundamental doctrine on this liberal wacky school. The ministry isn't very good at accepting the beauty of differences. Everything has to fit in a box, and if it doesn't fit, it must be removed. The wonderful thing this story tells kids is that it's OK to be different."
In person, Yates, 43, seems like anything but a colorful individualist. He's so unassuming that it's hard to find him on set, even when he's only a few feet away. It's only in private conversation, when his knees start knifing up and down and his words start coming faster, that you sense the red blood pumping beneath that beige exterior. "I'm having the time of my life," he says. "It's like being at filmmaking gym. You're working every single muscle as a storyteller. These films are full of comedy, adventure and a bit of thrills. It's terrific." Yates has pushed all the actors, in particular Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Harry, to deepen their performances this time around. "I've stretched Dan quite a bit. He's a very intuitive person, very bright, quite sensitive," he says. "I'm just helping him wake those things up. You can see his determination and ambition, and he can switch things on a sixpence, so I can't wait for people to see what he's achieving." Yates does a lot of rehearsal before he shoots a scene, a rarity on major studio films. "It takes as long as it takes," he says. "The most important thing on screen is the actors. If the performance isn't real, that million-dollar special-effects shot behind the actor doesn't count for anything." And if he pulls off that piece of magic, his days of anonymity are numbered.