The Director's Chair Interviews
Up and Away with Michael Apted
By Pamela Klaffke
MovieMaker, April 1998
It was far from an auspicious debut. The first official press and industry screening of acclaimed British director Michael Apted's latest documentary, Inspirations, at the Toronto International Film Festival was plagued with projection problems. The framing was off, there was sound and then there was none. Some audience members joked that perhaps the hapless projectionist had been ingesting illicit substances when he should have been paying attention to the screen. And although Apted himself was not on hand to witness the unfortunate event, he heard all about it by the time our interview rolls around the following morning.
"You never really get a second chance," he sighs, clearly irked by the situation, "especially if it's a visual film."
Just as clear as his annoyance about the screening is his enthusiasm for the film itself. Two years in the making, Inspirations is a revealing look at the thought process and creative spark that drives seven individual artists in their work and in their lives. From musician David Bowie and the late pop painter Roy Lichtenstein to La La La Human Steps choreographer Edouard Lock and his lead dancer Louise Lecavalier, to glass artist Dale Chihuly, Pueblo sculptor Nora Naranjo-Morse and Japanese architect Tadao Ando, Apted chose his varied subjects deliberately.
"I started out by trying to get two famous people who would give the film commercial viability, so I eventually managed to persuade Roy Lichtenstein and Bowie to be in it. After that it was a matter of putting the jigsaw together. I knew I wanted an architect because I wanted someone who creates art that people live in, a very practical form of art, and I also wanted something very physical-ideally dancing-something that was sexy and sweaty. I was also interested in an artist who took his inspiration from the natural world and an artist who had a craft as well as an art-hence the glass blower."
Apted was adamant about Inspirations not being a typical talking heads biographical film.
"I had two sets of questions-one were particular to the artist and the other very important series of questions were common to them all. I didn't want the film to be biographical, I wanted to get over the biographical thing as quickly as I could [by showing] enough so you knew who the people were and what they did and stood for. I felt the film would only really get going once you started to deal with issues and could counterpoint the various answers that people had."
In putting the puzzle together Apted did extensive research but not extensive pre-interviews, as he wanted to save that for the film. For him, it was more a matter of spending time and hanging out with the subjects, getting to know them and winning their trust, but not necessarily in the context of the film-a process he goes through whether he is working with documentary subjects or actors in a drama.
"It's a trust issue. People have to trust you on whatever psychological level they do because they're putting themselves in your hands. Whether it's Laurence Olivier or some bloke you're doing a documentary piece with, there's that element of trust and that's what the whole process is about. Will they expose themselves for you? Will they reveal themselves for you?"
In listening to Apted speak about the parallels and similarities between documentary and drama features, his eclectic resumé begins to make sense. (His resumé even includes a small acting role in John Landis' Spies Like Us as an "Ace Tomato Agent.") Apted is best known for his ongoing Up series of films, which have documented the lives of a group of British school children from age seven up to age 42-so far. But the director has also carved out a successful career in American feature films (Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, Nell), a rare feat in an industry notorious for defining and stereotyping people and their careers. Yet despite his diverse filmography, Apted still feels categorized by Hollywood.
"You get pegged doing movies. I get pegged if a movie has a documentary slant to it, whether it's Gorillas in the Mist or someone wants a piece of material to have a documentary tone to it like Nell. I don't get pegged in documentaries, but I certainly get pegged in feature films. I don't get offered big-budget science fiction films or action films or comedy films."
But would he want to do those kind of films?
Apted laughs and shakes his head no, offering up another example of the stereotyping. "I occasionally do commercials and that's really annoying because I'd love to do commercials with luscious women rubbing [on] suntan lotion on Caribbean beaches, but I get all the documentary type commercials. You do get pegged, but as long as the pegs don't get too narrow, it's understandable."
Having lived in Hollywood for the past 15 years and buoying back and forth between documentary and drama has given Apted a balance and perspective that few contemporary film directors have.
"I've always had this double interest. I've always been interested in storytelling as well as filming real life. I was able, largely because of the Up films, to keep the two strands going, and I do it as much as I can. There was a period when I would do only the Up films other than fictional films, but then they became so successful all over the world that they opened the doors for me to keep the [other] documentaries going. Now I find I do more and more, maybe because it's harder to find fiction films to respond to. I respond to the documentaries more because they're my statement, they're very personal to me. They're my films, whereas getting caught up in the studio system, sometimes it's hard not to think of yourself as a hired gun."
Indeed, in a day and age when the writer/director reigns supreme in American features, the director-for-hire has fallen somewhat out of favor. But authorship of a film, as Apted points out, is far more complex. As a director, he believes "authorship has more fronts than just writing the script," and emphasizes that "mounting the thing-whether it's putting the right actors in and getting performances or getting the script right or photographing it," all contribute to the collaborative authorship of a film.
The intense collaborative process of moviemaking at once draws Apted in and at the same time repels him.
"It disturbs me because it's a strange way to live your life. It's a fact of life but it disturbs me psychologically, what [filmmaking] does to you and your life outside work because you're used to forming very intimate relationships and then letting go of them and forming new ones. It's painful that you work with people and then finish a film and say good-bye and you know you may never see them again, yet you've really become very close to them and have shared a lot of intimate things. It always saddens me, but that's what the job is, in a way."
Thoughtful and introspective, Apted defies the Hollywood norm by choosing his projects in both an instinctual and logical manner. He's drawn primarily to character-driven stories, while also taking into account the months and years he'll have to spend living with the project.
"It sounds kind of lame, but it has to have some meat on it," he says of the films he chooses. "It's such a difficult and long job that it has to have something that really engages me. I just can't go in and do it just for the money or just for the sake of doing it-there has to be something I can find in it that intrigues me because it's a very long and varied process."
And while Apted sees his work as difficult, grueling, creative and collaborative, he does not consider what he does to be art in the traditional sense. In fact, he compares the "art" of filmmaking to that of architecture, a comparison which drew him to including prize-winning Japanese architect Tadao Ando in Inspirations.
"You have to have a vision. That was why I was so interested in having an architect [in the film]. I felt a real sense of camaraderie with him because I felt both of our jobs are very public jobs, very collaborative, very man-management, very political jobs. It's a form of art, but not what I would call pure art of the blank page, the oil, the clay, the glass or whatever. It is a sort of art, but a wider view of art being a film director than being a composer, poet, painter or sculptor-because there are so many hands on your work."
Perhaps it is the fact that there are not nearly as many hands on his documentary work as his fictional films that prompts Apted to feel closer to them.
"I do feel more fulfilled with a documentary, slightly more at the center of it. With a fiction film there are so many other elements. I feel with a documentary that it's a much more personal statement."
Regardless of whether documentary is where his true passion lies, Michael Apted continues to strike a balance between the two and is currently involved in films of both genres.
"This is my first black film," he chuckles, referring to the film he shot for HBO in South Central Los Angeles last fall, which stars Cicely Tyson and is based on a new Walter Mosley novel.
He also began work on 42 Up this past Christmas and is convinced that the series will continue past this latest installment.
"I'd only stop if I couldn't get enough of them to do it and it became embarrassing," he says. "I don't see any point in stopping it. It doesn't seem to get less interesting as they get older. Clearly it's not as physically interesting as it used to be, but my feeling is that it's much more accessible as they get older."
The Up films may be more accessible to the audience as the subjects age, but, as Apted has found out, it has become increasingly difficult to convince each individual to participate every seven years.
"I enjoy doing [the films], but I don't much like the used-car salesman part of it, which is trying to persuade them to do it-blackmailing them or whatever," Apted laughs at his blackmail joke and then turns serious. "If I mess them about or lie to them then I've had it because I need them to come back again. I have to behave immaculately."
And considering the fact that most of the Up subjects feel less than warm about the films, the filmmaker faces an uphill battle each time around.
"I think they think it's a pretty serious invasion and what's horrible for them about it is that they get stuck with all the historical stuff, the silly things they said when they were seven or 14-they're stuck with that."
But judging from his extensive body of work, Michael Apted is a powerful persuader, inspiring trust in his actors and documentary subjects alike. And although, on certain levels, he finds the filmmaking process somewhat disturbing and strange, he remains upbeat.
"I tend always to look forward. I don't look back because the films all have their place. It's what's ahead that's interesting rather than what's behind me."
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