Few directors will ever be able to say that they’ve helmed both an influential documentary franchise and a James Bond film, but Michael Apted certainly can. He took the reins for the Pierce Brosnan 007 film The World Is Not Enough, and his acclaimed Up documentary series, which began in 1964 with a profile of several seven-year-olds and has checked in with the same “kids” every seven years since then, remains a singular cinematic achievement. Since making his debut over half a century ago, Apted has worked steadily in both television and film, as a documentarian and narrative filmmaker, establishing himself as one of the most prolific, most versatile directors of his era.
Apted is also known for working with celebrated actresses in acclaimed films about famous women, like Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist and Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter — both earned multiple Oscar nominations, and Spacek actually took home the Best Actress trophy. This week, Apted returns to the big screen with Unlocked, a tense spy thriller starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Douglas, Orlando Bloom, and Toni Collette. He spoke with RT about his Five Favorite Films, explained what he finds so fascinating about women’s stories, and talked about how his documentary background informs even his most outrageous films.
The first one is Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. It’s what I saw when I was 15, and it showed me that films could be something more than just entertainment or going and staring at girls in the cinema or whatever, but film could have the kind of weight of a book or something like that. I used to be a big reader, and I loved going to the movies, but I had no sense of taste in the movies.
You know, I grew up in a suburb of London, and I went to school in the middle of London, and that’s when I found myself, one wet afternoon, in an arthouse, and there was Wild Strawberries, and that, for me, was the beginning of it all. It had so many ideas, and it played with dreams, and I thought, “Oh my God. This is quite something.” So it really was a kind of major event in my life.
RT: Had you seen many foreign or arthouse films at that point?
No, never. Never. My life had been entirely that of a middle class suburban lad who went to the movies with his friends for all sorts of reasons. This was the first time I could look at a film as an equal of a book.
Number two is Kes, Ken Loach’s film. I’d already kind of established myself in television, and I loved Italian movies and all that. And then here was a genuine British neo-realist movie, which I thought was an exquisite film. It dealt with incredibly complicated social issues, which I was very much involved in myself, with my Up series, which had already started by that time. But what I thought was so beautiful about it was that he found the metaphor of this boy and this kestrel, and he told the whole tale of the boy’s life — the stress the boy was under, and the unfairness of life — through the relationship with him and a bird, which I thought was just a brilliant filmic notion.
I mean, I’ve always loved his work. He was very influential on my generation — not that he’s much older than us, but I think he was very much our man, and, you know, he has a huge body of work in his lifetime. He never seems to stop. Stop! Right? Otherwise, we’ve all got to keep going, if you keep going. God.
Next is a documentary called Night and Fog by Alain Resnais, which is a story of then and now, of concentration camps. That had a major influence on me, again, for the poetry, if you can call it that, of the documentary, but also the way he used time, the way he used two time zones, two sets of material, to make his point, and to give the film, which obviously had some astounding, alarming images in it, but without a lot of babble, of explanation, by contrasting what it once was and what it is now. It was very moving to me, and I think that was inspirational, again, in the [Up] films I did with these children, which I’m still doing.
But I could see how you could time travel in documentary, and it makes both sets of material more powerful. Of course, the film is incredibly powerful anyway. But nonetheless, he’d found a style of doing it, a way of doing it… It’s just, the power of those images, without endless babble, was, to me, a very strong lesson.
RT: That’s an interesting notion, of time travel through documentary.
Yeah, I’ve used it a lot. I mean, we’ll get to it in a movie in a minute, but that, to me, was very, very striking — not just the material, but the whole structure of it, the whole idea of it.
And then, my fourth one is a comedy, and I was torn between Some Like It Hot, which I love, but my vote went to Spinal Tap, which I thought was more contemporary. It made me feel such an old man, but…
One of the things about Spinal Tap — I was doing a documentary [The Long Way Home] about Russian rock and roll in, I don’t know, the late ’80s or something like that, and it was about a Russian band coming — it was around Glasnost when they came across to America to make the record, and it was about Glasnost, and the co-production, as it were, saw the closing of the gap between East and West, as it were. That’s what it set out to be, but it turned out to be a disaster. Not the film, but the whole object of the enterprise, because it split the band up, and the Russian band never made another record. They were completely disoriented by being in the West and all that. So it was one of those documentaries where what you set out to do, you don’t do, and you do something else, which is usually better than what you were going to do.
The point of the story is that I showed them Spinal Tap. They fell about, and they couldn’t speak a word of English, but they absolutely got it. It was just, again, the power of the humor and the power of the images, and all this kind of stuff. I mean, we were in common ground — they never understood a word of it, but they were just laughing as much I would laugh every time I saw it. That was a kind of interesting experience for me, to see how universal films can be.
RT: So you showed this film to them as you were filming the documentary?
Yeah, yeah. One evening, I brought it with me, because I’ve loved it, and I thought, well, I’ll try it. I’ll show it to them, and they might throw me out, or whatever. [laughs] And I thought, let’s just try it. Let’s see what they thought. And so I put it on, and they just were absolutely gobsmacked by it, and just were crying with laughter. It was a great bonding moment, you know. I mean, the music was the bonding moment that I was doing with them, but it was sweet to see humor as a great bonding thing.
The last one is Pulp Fiction. Me and my, as he was then, I suppose, eight-year-old, nine-year-old son, thought it was great. I just loved, again, the way [Quentin Tarantino] used time, the way he moved backwards and forwards in time, which I thought was sort of groundbreaking, although it may not have been. But I thought it was. And I saw the energy and the vigor of it all, and just the images of it. I just love that film.
I watch it now and again, as it were, and it never palls for me at all, but I just thought he kind of invented a way, or kind of storytelling technique, which is sort of second nature to us all now, but again, that nonlinear business — for me, it was a revelation. I’m sure there have been other films like it, but this seemed to work so well within a very contemporary, very fast-moving, very original piece. To have the courage to play with the structure, and tell things backwards and forwards and all that sort of thing, I thought, was not just cute, or just showmanship. It actually enhanced the drama, trying to figure out where you were and what was going on. I found that a very creative effort, and so did my son, which thrilled me. He wasn’t fazed by it at all.
Ryan Fujitani for Rotten Tomatoes: A lot of your films — and perhaps some of the ones you’re best known for — feature female protagonists, and Unlocked also falls into that category. Can you talk a little bit about why it’s important to you to tell these female-centered stories?
Michael Apted: I’ve always felt that women’s lives were intrinsically more dramatic than men’s, largely because they have the issue of having children, and so at some point in their life, they have to make a decision not to have children, or to have children. And just to compare two of my women’s films, one was Sissy [Spacek] in Coal Miner’s Daughter, when she burdened with having to bring up four children and have a career. And with Gorillas in the Mist, when Dian Fossey decided to abandon all kinds of social life. Although she liked men, and she liked clothes, and all those things, she decided to go live in these godawful mountains for 15, 16 years.
I find that, at the heart of women’s stories, for me, there’s much more drama, much more emotion in it, because of the kind of expectations they have of life, how they’re expected maybe to have children, get married, blah, blah, blah. Even in something like the film I did with [John] Belushi, Continental Divide, which was directly on that motive, that there was this woman who’d gone on up and sit on the top of the mountain to follow birds around — eagles — and there was this kind of grubby newspaperman coming in and wondering what the hell was going on. Although it was a comedy, nonetheless underlying it was the fact that this woman has given up the expectations of her life to do this rather odd job, to try and see how many the eagles were and all this sort of stuff.
And Nell, too. I just found women’s stories more emotional, and that’s what I have to look for in any film I do, is the emotion, whatever it is. It doesn’t have to be between a man and a woman. It can be with an older man, or a younger boy, or whatever, but as long as some emotional center to it, then I can come up with it. And I find that that’s why I’m attracted to stories with women.
Only this one was slightly different, because this one was in place, and Noomi [Rapace] was in place and all that when I came in to do it, but nonetheless… I feel like every film I’ve done, there always seems to be women in it, which is just an instinctive choice on my part.
RT: Going back to Unlocked, in the end, it’s a propulsive spy thriller, and it’s set in a sort of heightened reality, but it sort of sits in this interesting middle ground between truly fantastical stuff — like your James Bond film or the Chronicles of Narnia film that you did — and movies that are strictly based in reality, like the documentaries you make. Does something like Unlocked hit sort of a sweet spot for you as a filmmaker who has made films in both realms?
Apted: It’s dealing with a horrendous issue. It’s slightly over-the-top and slightly unbelievable, but nonetheless it does ask questions about where we’re at or what we are, and it brings intimacy to the kind of dangerous life we’re all living, every time we go down the Underground, every time we get on a bus, or into the car. Without being too squeamish about it and all that, I found that that story took me into something that maybe people don’t think about quite enough. Not that we should all go around terrified of opening the door.
But I thought, again, it was the kind of human way of expressing what is very troubling — not that it should ruin our lives, but we should not be unaware of it. So, yeah, it does… I mean, there’s the stuff that I do, I suppose, that is in the middle ground, if you like. That’s an astute observation on your part. But I think everything I do is basically a documentary. I mean, even things as outrageous as Bond and that.
I remember with the Bond film, it was about getting gas out of the water, out of the Caspian, so I made them all go down there and have a look at it and see what was down there. We got some astonishing images. I shot some of them, in the design of the sets and all that kind stuff. It was this city in the middle of the Caspian sea. It was unbelievable. And had I not sort of said, “Well, look, I’ve got to find out how this really happens…” I find my documentary instinct always, at some point, comes to bear, and if it doesn’t, usually I don’t do a very good job. I like having that as a kind of back stop, if you know what I mean.
I was very upset when I did Gorky Park, because they wouldn’t let us in. We did go in to start, but they threw us out when they realized what we were doing, that we were adapting this book. And they said, “There is no crime in Russia. Get out.” And they threw us out in a rather unceremonious, rather scary way, because this was pre-Gorbachev.
But again, I felt… “God, I didn’t know what they had for breakfast,” and things like that, and how they live and all that. “How am I going to do this if I don’t know this stuff?” You know, I do my best with it, but I always love to have a kind of documentary or reality base to what I do.
Unlocked opens in limited release this Friday, September 1.