Five Favorite Films

Michael Apted's Five Favorite Films

The director of The World Is Not Enough, the Up documentary series, and this week's Unlocked on the universal language of laughter, time travel, and female-centered stories.

by | August 31, 2017 | Comments

(Photo by First Run Features courtesy Everett Collection)

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.


Wild Strawberries (1957) 94%

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.

Kes (1969) 100%

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.

Nuit et brouillard (1955) 100%

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.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984) 95%

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.

Pulp Fiction (1994) 92%

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.

Tag Cloud

feel good anthology cartoon cults ABC Family supernatural dramedy Fall TV San Diego Comic-Con comics Adult Swim Logo criterion monster movies Sneak Peek scorecard The CW joker YouTube parents The Walking Dead chucky Mary Poppins Returns Horror Anna Paquin YouTube Premium biopic Thanksgiving godzilla Amazon Amazon Prime Video toronto Certified Fresh IFC latino Television Academy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Trophy Talk FOX Trailer Universal Best and Worst Arrowverse Broadway CW Seed television Musical Cartoon Network DirecTV 90s breaking bad basketball HBO Go football spider-man rt archives streaming Warner Bros. Podcast scene in color Black History Month Avengers cops 2021 slasher historical drama facebook batman X-Men President SDCC laika sag awards superman kong TV movies E! psycho Animation ABC Signature witnail Rock cancelled television telelvision Mary Tyler Moore Cosplay Binge Guide sports archives streaming movies Nickelodeon VICE Disney Channel Pop TV cooking binge black comedy news superhero Toys Biopics 21st Century Fox Marvel Studios werewolf Legendary BAFTA Paramount dexter GIFs nfl spanish spanish language Awards Tour LGBTQ Family a nightmare on elm street teaser comic books Comic-Con@Home 2021 PaleyFest canceled TV shows crime drama doctor who crossover Countdown Winners talk show comiccon Hear Us Out marvel cinematic universe Superheroe james bond Disney streaming service DGA GLAAD ViacomCBS Mystery 2019 young adult Endgame sequels TCM docudrama nature Travel Channel zombies Tubi Year in Review independent Classic Film screen actors guild DC Universe comic book movie Lucasfilm Universal Pictures comedies TCA Awards TruTV Spike science fiction Elton John adaptation japanese Turner Classic Movies universal monsters USA Cannes mob live event Infographic award winner mutant Film Exclusive Video french olympics suspense Pride Month RT History Pop Polls and Games spider-verse BBC One Teen ratings Tarantino screenings documentary Freeform 2015 007 Box Office 2017 popular TV venice Red Carpet directors Ghostbusters Video Games Mudbound Lifetime Music green book obituary Spring TV cancelled TV shows best new york PlayStation Ellie Kemper OneApp know your critic theme song action-comedy comic book movies Women's History Month trophy Academy Awards CMT CBS All Access Marvel VOD Nominations Creative Arts Emmys posters razzies critics free movies wonder woman NBC Grammys indie 2018 TCA Winter 2020 Reality MCU discovery emmy awards 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Comedy Central slashers Image Comics space stoner Baby Yoda Comic Book critic resources Marvel Television 24 frames based on movie aliens ghosts political drama justice league Action prank mockumentary FX Amazon Prime diversity LGBT what to watch scary TBS Awards RT21 franchise BET Awards Britbox MTV Lionsgate toy story remakes Comics on TV new zealand war hollywood Reality Competition spain Quiz vs. Mary poppins Wes Anderson all-time dogs lord of the rings hist ABC Heroines sopranos legend BET MSNBC Hallmark crime thriller zero dark thirty IFC Films Netflix Christmas movies Netflix name the review Apple TV+ Chilling Adventures of Sabrina classics Comedy tv talk TCA 2017 Calendar VH1 book adaptation BBC America Extras Crackle 72 Emmy Awards finale Martial Arts dc Emmy Nominations Star Trek TNT die hard new star wars movies movie Hulu Stephen King Acorn TV festivals Sony Pictures Country Vudu animated quibi Food Network blockbusters Discovery Channel pirates of the caribbean composers medical drama Paramount Network New York Comic Con richard e. Grant saw CBS serial killer nbcuniversal Shondaland 93rd Oscars YouTube Red twilight Spectrum Originals game show reviews rt labs A24 YA Fargo The Witch rotten 4/20 The Academy kids USA Network Rocky APB high school Brie Larson indiana jones book boxing cancelled TV series festival Instagram Live hispanic heritage month Apple TV Plus anime Oscars Superheroes renewed TV shows Disney Plus Ovation stop motion Amazon Studios Marathons revenge First Look Summer Nat Geo fresh natural history cats FXX 73rd Emmy Awards international children's TV PBS AMC italian spinoff asian-american reboot The Arrangement Turner dceu cinemax series NBA Television Critics Association period drama robots sitcom Funimation Premiere Dates politics Tokyo Olympics child's play Walt Disney Pictures Sci-Fi dreamworks women 20th Century Fox Chernobyl Super Bowl Neflix art house police drama marvel comics deadpool crime Showtime versus video on demand Lifetime Christmas movies Kids & Family The Walt Disney Company biography DC streaming service strong female leads blockbuster Apple IMDb TV movies 45 foreign Sundance TV Epix hidden camera Mindy Kaling OWN films Shudder First Reviews SXSW Fox News Valentine's Day 2016 WarnerMedia comic social media Holidays Christmas TCA rotten movies we love Hallmark Christmas movies Interview rt labs critics edition scary movies Election unscripted TV One Crunchyroll worst movies ID heist movie mission: impossible gangster adenture Musicals See It Skip It 1990s FX on Hulu stand-up comedy TV Land TIFF Pet Sematary Syfy golden globe awards 99% canceled blaxploitation docuseries DC Comics casting AMC Plus 2020 debate zombie Schedule christmas movies Disney SundanceTV Masterpiece Watching Series psychological thriller australia Disney+ Disney Plus miniseries Peacock romance HBO Writers Guild of America spy thriller GoT dark E3 travel Rom-Com Pirates concert jamie lee curtis king arthur TLC WGN El Rey Winter TV Columbia Pictures Tumblr Trivia Dark Horse Comics Starz rom-coms jurassic park south america video cancelled Opinion Emmys Bravo singing competition Song of Ice and Fire worst Photos Black Mirror target transformers adventure HBO Max thriller Rocketman Drama kaiju halloween tv Set visit History golden globes National Geographic BBC Esquire technology A&E black sequel romantic comedy Pacific Islander documentaries king kong vampires TV renewals japan trailers Pixar mcc elevated horror Fox Searchlight Paramount Plus leaderboard aapi hispanic Alien The Purge ESPN dragons ITV halloween CNN 71st Emmy Awards satire Sundance Star Wars live action Tomatazos boxoffice game of thrones NYCC fast and furious American Society of Cinematographers cars Character Guide Sundance Now Fantasy true crime royal family Holiday disaster Captain marvel harry potter genre Western Film Festival