Director Michael Apted.
Michael Apted on film, politics, and a man named Bond
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the November 1999 issue of Venice Magazine.
Michael Apted has one of the most diverse filmographies of any director in the history of cinema. Equally adept at directing ground-breaking documentaries (the 7 Up-42 Up series) or slick commercial entertainment (the latest James Bond film, The World is Not Enough), Apted could rightfully be classified as a cinematic sociologist/anthropologist who happens to love making entertaining movies. Born February 10, 1941 in Aylesbury, England, Apted studied law and history at Cambridge, where his classmates included the troupe that would go on to be Monty Python, then went to work for Granada Television in 1963. There Apted directed many series, teleplays and documentaries. He assisted Canadian director Paul Almond on the documentary short 7 Up (1963), a presentation of the lives and aspirations of a group of seven year-old children from a variety of social classes. Apted went on to check on these individuals at ages 14, 21, 28, 35, and last year, at 42, with the documentary 42 Up.
Apted went turned to feature films in the early 70's with Triple Echo in 1973, followed by the sequel to the rock and roll fable That'll Be the Day (1974), entitled Stardust (1975), which chronicled the rise to fame of a hard-edged, blue collar rocker (David Essex), who bared more than a passing resemblance to the late John Lennon. Agatha (1979) was a speculative mystery about author Agatha Chrisite starring Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman that marked Apted's first big commercial success in the States. He followed this with the Oscar-winning blockbuster Coal Miner's Daughter in 1980, the story of country-western superstar Loretta Lynn and her tempestuous relationship with her husband, played by a fresh face named Tommy Lee Jones. Apted followed this with the comedy Continental Divide (1981) starring John Belushi, then the autobiographical gem Kipperbang (1982) about adolescent rites of passage in postwar England. Gorky Park (1983) was the riveting adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith's novel about murder most foul in Communist Russia, and boasts one of the great Lee Marvin's best performances. Firstborn (1984) was an overlooked drama about a teenage boy attempting to protect his mother (Teri Garr, in her best performance) from her loutish boyfriend (equally fine Peter Weller). Apted turned documentarian again for Bring on the Night in 1985, profiling rock legend Sting and his band as they plan their latest tour and cut a new record. Apted received major critical and commercial kudos again for Gorillas in the Mist in 1988, the story of wildlife activist Dian Fossey (Sigourney Weaver). He followed the hit Class Action (1991), a legal drama starring Gene Hackman, with two back-to-back films about Native Americans: the documentary Incident at Oglala which dealt with the alleged framing of Native American activist Leonard Peltier and the superior thriller Thunderheart (Both 1992) starring Val Kilmer as a Native American FBI agent investigating a murder on an Indian reservation. Apted followed this with the thriller Blink, starring Madeline Stowe, and the hit Nell, both 1994, starring Jodie Foster as a woman raised outside civilization. Moving the Mountain (also 1994) was Apted's brilliant documentary about the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China. Next was the feature Extreme Measures (1996), a medical thriller starring Hugh Grant and Gene Hackman.
Apted's latest would seem to be a major departure for him, but isn't if you look closely. The World is Not Enough is the 19th film in the James Bond series, and the third starring Pierce Brosnan as the legendary superspy. More than any other Bond film since 1963's From Russia With Love, The World goes deeper into Bond's character, clearly defining him as a man who thrives on danger and is equally as deadly as the evil men and women whom he tries to bring down. In addition, this Bond goes deeper into the politics of the regions that it deals with, particularly the oil-rich regions of the Middle East. At the same time, the film is one hell of a ride that never stops. Apted's touch is clearly visible, with these qualities in mind. It's one of the best Bonds yet, guaranteed to shake and stir you. Michael Apted sat down recently over coffee in a quiet Brentwood courtyard to reflect on his diverse career.
Is it fair to call you a cinematic sociologist and anthropologist?
Michael Apted: I suppose, yeah. You're speaking to the kind of documentary soul that I have that informs everything that I do. The very first thing I did for the Bond film when I saw that the film was about Caspian oil was to schlep everyone out (to that area) to have a look at it, to see what it was all really like. My instinct is always to start it as a documentarian, whatever it is. It's not just about exotic locations. It's what the locations are about.
How long a shoot was it?
Interminable. (laughs) I shot for 109 days, the second unit shot for 104 days, then the model units, underwater units, helicopter units probably shot for about 70 days between them.
The amazing thing about it was that it never stopped moving, but it was also about people.
Right, that's really what I wanted. I wanted to deliver a Bond film, an action movie, but also wanted to make the characters interesting. That's what Pierce wanted, that's what the (producers) Broccoli's wanted. That's why they hired me, I think. I think they felt that there hadn't been interesting enough characters in the last couple films.
In many ways it reminded me of the first two Bond films (Dr. No (1962) and From Russian With Love (1963)) as those were pretty straightforward spy films with interesting characters. Bond was also a lot more hard-edged in this one.
I'm always curious as to how people will react to that. The studio didn't want us making him that hard-edged. They said "You can't do that." Then when we previewed the film, the comments we got back never mentioned that as an issue. But I took heat from the studio up to the last minute about it.
That's the thing about Ian Fleming's creation: there's a very fine line between Bond and the evil he's trying to destroy.
I think that's right. That's what makes him interesting and morally acceptable. He doesn't live on some different planet from everyone else. He doesn't occupy the moral high ground, which I think is kind of boring.
I also felt that Brosnan had really grown comfortable in the skin of Bond with this film.
I think he got a sense of that. When we first met, he'd ask me to give him things to do, meaning scenes to play, so it would be more than just him shooting at villains and blowing things up. He'd say "We have Judi Dench. Give me things to do with Judi." I mean, Judi is probably the best actress in the world, use her! So it was built around trying to get the most out of the people and their characters.
You really get a sense of Pierce Brosnan's intelligence in this film. There haven't been too many other directors that have utilized the intelligence that he obviously has. There's a lot more to him than just his looks.
He's a very interesting man because he's come to stardom late, which I think is always interesting. I think it makes people much more compassionate, much more workable, much more humane, and I think much better because I don't think actors, like directors, can work in a vacuum. If you're full of yourself and behave like an asshole, I don't see how your work can be good. It's not a medium that people can function in being in isolation. But when you come to stardom later, and you've been through it all, then I think it enables people to handle that sort of thing better, because they can take that power and put it into their work, rather than make it a narcissistic thing. So I think Pierce is an interesting actor for a director to work with because he's so interested in the work. He doesn't see his fame as entitlement, as some kid might who hits it big overnight. He was just very, very keen to make it as good as it gets. I found the same thing working with someone like Dustin. He'd done a lot of things before he became a movie star.
And now Bond really feels like it's his character.
Right. I think one of the keys to the longevity of the series is that you have five actors with five completely different interpretations of the role. That's interesting. Pierce doesn't feel that he has to live up to Connery's Bond or Moore's Bond, because he's grown into the character and made it his own. In many ways, I think his Bond is the nearest to Fleming that has been done so far.
Let's talk about your background.
I grew up in the suburbs of London, but went to school right in the middle of the city, so I was very influenced by the metropolis.
How did you first fall in love with film?
I had a moment. I was at school in the middle of London and went to an art house cinema at the age of 16 and saw Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957). It's a very clear moment in my life. I had been to the movies before, of course, but it had been to chase girls or just to go out, things like that. Suddenly movies became completely different and I fell in love. You have these moments when you fall in love with a person, or a sport or an idea and it changes your life. And that moment remains clear forever.
You then went to Cambridge, where you studied history and law.
Yes, I went to college with John Cleese, among others. He read law. I read history. We were on the same football team. I was in the dramatic society. Cambridge was heaven. It was wonderful to be with the best people of your generation for three years. It was a fishbowl, and by the time I had reached my senior year, I was ready to get out. I knew that this was just another moment, and that there was a world outside that was a lot tougher. The number of people who were there that were contemporaries of mine that went on to become successful in the media is astounding. There were no politicians at all in that group. I don't think there's been one cabinet minister to come out of my generation. And in America, you went from Bush to Clinton. And we went from Thatcher, to John Major, who's a good bit older than me, to Tony Blair. So my generation missed out on politics, but in terms of culture, we were incredibly rich. There was a very strong, professional sense going on in the theater and revue work that was happening. I don't know why our generation, that lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, wasn't more political, but we weren't.
I think your generation put its politics into their creations.
Yes, in the early 60's all over the world it was like that. The politics, of course, didn't come 'til later: Paris in '68, and so forth. The early 60's for young people was really just a sort of wonderful gasping of air. You had Look Back in Anger, and all that kind of wonderful, tough material that was political in a broader sense, but it wasn't about politics. It was about the state of the nation. It was anarchic, very left wing, and expressed in terms of plays, music and film.
That was also the first time, especially in England, where you had the working class, like the Beatles, John Osborne and Joe Orton, getting together with the middle class to create.
It was a democratization of the arts. It was no longer the province of the idle rich. It became available to everybody. There was a wonderful creative energy between the classes. I think we felt disillusioned about politics. There was a feeling too, in America, that everything was money-based and corrupt. There was a great feeling of a society waking up from the 50's.
Then you went to work at Granada Television after graduating Cambridge.
Granada was a very left wing, very active company that specialized in drama. They were one of the commercial companies, as opposed to the BBC, and had only been in business six or seven years when I got there. They survived by sort of poaching people from the BBC, newspapers and the theater. They were trying to create a whole new generation of raw material and took people out of universities to shape raw talent. It was elitist in that time because it was all Oxbridge. That changed as the 60's went on. So we went in, six of us, and just watched and learned and trained on the job. After six months of this, I became a researcher for World in Action. Because it was a small company, I could move around and do a bit of everything. Had I been at the BBC, which is a gigantic organization, I wouldn't have had that sort of freedom. At Granada I did everything from rock and roll concerts to sporting events to soap operas. It was a wonderful way to figure out what you could and couldn't do.
And out of that was born 7 Up.
Right. I was a researcher for World in Action, and it was my job to find the kids that would be interviewed. I worked with a Canadian director named Paul Almond. It was an interesting relationship because I was interested in the class system and he was a filmmaker with a big 'F'. (laughs) There was a friendly kind of tension between us, and out of that the film was born. It's a rather elegantly-made film, not just a piece of social diatribe. We were lucky there that we got a kind of interesting balance out of it.
I think it's one of the most important social documents ever put on film.
I agree, and I can say that because it was never intended to be that. It just happened by chance. It was originally just going to be one film, to look at this sort of fast moving society that was England, this apparent cultural revolution going on. What did it represent politically? Was the social system changing? It wasn't our idea, it was the guy's who was running World in Action, an Australian, who said "Why don't we ask that question to a group of kids, instead of adults?" This was incredibly clever because you got some real horrifying truths about society in a very ingenious way. Since it was so successful, it stayed in people's minds, so we went back to see what had happened to them and we did 14. At that point we could see that there was a very interesting idea at work. It's taken me a year to get distribution for the latest one, 42 Up, and I think I got it largely due to Bond.
You continued working in TV through the 60's, right?
Yeah, and through the 70's, when I went freelance. I was doing television stuff and trying to get film projects going. I did four movies in the 70's, and a bit of theater. Then in '79, I came here to do about Coal Miner's Daughter. And I never went back, really.
Let's talk about Coal Miner's Daughter.
I had an interesting experience making that film. After making Agatha, which was American-financed but shot in England, I really wanted to be in America, which at that time is where all the exciting films were coming from. We shot much of Coal Miner's Daughter in Hazard Country, Kentucky, which is on the West Virginia boarder. The people there are very suspicious of outsiders, but American outsiders. Being English, I sounded more like they did, and in many ways got on better with them than the New York and Hollywood elements did. I also had no baggage about the (locals in Kentucky), while many of the Americans there would call them "white trash" and so on, so that's another reason I got on well with them. So there are times when it's a tremendous advantage to be an outsider.
You also cast a newcomer named Tommy Lee Jones in that film.
I loved him. He was difficult. On day nine he didn't show up because he was under arrest. He'd had a fight with a highway patrolman and we had to go bail him out. He showed up with a big scar on his head and it took about fifteen minutes to cover it with a hairpiece. But he's also a Harvard graduate who's highly intelligent. I just thought that he and Sissy (Spacek) were incredibly inventive together. I'd suggest something and they'd just take off with it. They'd hardly socialize off the set, but when they worked together, it was magic.
Gorky Park was a terrific thriller. What was it like working with Lee Marvin?
Lee was great, but he was always ill. He arrived in Helsinki and had to go straight to hospital. It sounds very "lovey-lovey" to say this, but I really did love him. He loved doing the film because he was given lines to do. He wanted to do dialogue stuff, and was tired of shooting up people in all his films. I just thought he was terrific. It was an interesting shoot because Bill Hurt is a very difficult actor. The English actors who were a majority of the supporting cast had no trunk for this sort of (method) acting style that Bill had. But Lee and Brian Dennehy were great to him, and very protective of him. Lee was just very humane and nurturing with him, no matter how annoying and irritating it might be. Like Steve McQueen, he was one of the legendary, great actors, and he really loved to act. I just wonder why he didn't do more material like that, since I assume he had a good deal of power at one time.
Gorillas in the Mist is an amazing film and must've been difficult to shoot logistically.
Incredibly so! I don't know what I was doing, actually. (laughs) I was trying to build a film about the relationship between a Hollywood movie star and wild animals. I had this script that had all these scenes between Dian and the gorillas that were meaningless. Not that they didn't work, but I just didn't know how they we were going to shoot them. It was made very clear to me early on, which is why I got the job, there was none of this Greystoke stuff with actors in ape suits or animatronics. This was going to have to be based on wildlife material. When you think about it now, but I didn't at the time, I can come up with nothing! So we spent eight weeks shooting Sigourney with wild animals, then without her. We weren't allowed to do anything to these animals, like prod them, or manipulate them in any way. If they decided to attack us, they attacked us, you know. Sometimes we never even found them! We just had to chance to luck. If we got some key shots, then we built the scenes around those shots. We also had two actors in suits that we used for the more difficult shots. But for most of it, I was flying blind. I never saw anything I shot for the eight weeks we were in Rawanda. The footage had to be sent back to London to be processed, then back to me in the field. Once we did all our wildlife shots, then we went to Kenya, where we did all the animatronics and started tidying things up. I shot the rest of the film incredibly quickly. But it was a pure act of faith that we got the shots of her with these frighteningly huge animals and could then assemble them into a story that would be coherent. I often do classes on the film, where I talk about how I use my documentary experience in features. One of the reasons it all worked was Sigourney. She was just terrific.
Let's talk about Incident at Oglala and Thunderheart.
I was doing Oglala when the script for Thunderheart arrived from Mike Medavoy, then at TriStar. I read it and said, 'My God, I've just done a documentary about this!' Both Redford and Oliver Stone had the rights to the book In The Spirit of Crazy Horse by Peter Matthiessen, which was the source material for everything, and neither had done anything with it. Redford asked if I would do a documentary about the incident, and that's how that started. Then John Fusco, who knew a lot about Native American culture, had written this script that Robert de Niro had bought, Medavoy got the script to me, and then the documentary wound up working its way into the film. It all worked out rather beautifully.
Oglala must've been a tough shoot. There seemed to be several times when you had to have felt in danger.
There were. There were some very ugly incidents during the shoot. It was very tricky. It was difficult having a crew there. You can't go in surrounded by security, because you have to gain people's trust. They were very distrustful of me for a long, long time. When I finally showed them the documentary at the time I was making the film, they began to trust me. It was amazing to me when I was making the film, how few Americans knew the history of the country's treatment of Native Americans. Oddly enough, like Coalminer's, it leveled the playing field because I didn't feel like I was having to constantly catch up on stuff.
Any advice for first-time directors?
Get the best people around you and listen to them. Don't pretend that you know how to do it. Know what you want out of the material, but listen. Have a vision of what you want to do, then the hardest thing in the world to do is collaborate with people, and then not let them run off with it. I think the mistake that first-time directors make is thinking they can do it all. Even the most experienced directors can't do it all. Keep a central vision of what you want, then listen to what people have to say.