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Up and Away with Michael Apted

Up and Away with Michael Apted

Articles - Directing

Michael Apted on the set of Nell (1994).

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.

John Belushi and Blaire Brown in Continental
Divide
(1981).

"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.

Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist (1988).

"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 pl ace. It’s what’s ahead
that’s interesting rather than what’s behind me." MM

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