INTERVIEW: Michael Apted Goes from "7 Up" to 007
by Anthony Kaufman
British documentary and James Bond: besides sharing the same nation and a lasting tradition, you’d think the two to be as different as chalk and cheese. But director Michael Apted bridges the seemingly vast gap between the two, having directed “42 Up,” the latest edition of the acclaimed “7 Up” series, and “The World is Not Enough,” the 19th installment in the adventures of the world’s greatest superspy — as Apted notes, the two “longest-running franchises in the history of their genres.”
Both films are opening in New York this week. In last Sunday’s New York Times, Apted wrote about the strange simultaneous release of his two films: the 35th year of the documentary “that has followed the lives of 14 British people every seven years from age 7 to the present day” and the story of “007 (Pierce Brosnan) as he wrestles with the world’s most feared terrorist (Robert Carlyle) for control of Caspian Sea oil.” “Any similarities pretty much end there,” wrote Apted, “as ‘The World Is Not Enough’ (opening Friday) cost 240 times more to make than ’42 Up’ (opening Wednesday at the Film Forum).”
Yet when one looks back at Apted’s eclectic career, the culmination of this week’s two disparate releases doesn’t seem that surprising. Though he started as a researcher on “7 Up” back in 1962 and continued to make other documentaries (“Bring on the Night,” “Incident at Oglala,” “Moving the Mountain,” and most recently “Inspirations” and “Me and Isaac Newton,” which are both still looking for distribution), his movie-making in Hollywood is as impressive as it is diverse (“Coalminer’s Daughter,” “Gorky Park,” “Gorillas in the Mist,” “Thunderheart,” “Nell,” just to name a few). So it was with great anticipation that indieWIRE sat down with the 58-year-old Apted in the offices of First Run Features — who are distributing “42 Up” — to discuss his ability to work both independently and in the mainstream, as well as making films for the last 35 years.
indieWIRE: So the burning question is how did you come to direct the latest James Bond movie?
Michael Apted: I just got a call from my agent, saying, “Would I be interested in it?” and I thought they were joking. They were seeing other directors — they didn’t have this flash and say “Apted has to do Bond.” So I went to see them about it, and it became clear why they wanted a drama director — as opposed to an action director — to beef up the characters and the story. Once I could figure out why they wanted me, I knew I wouldn’t just be hanging on, trying to catch up. For me, it became a terrific, fun challenge — a whole new area of filmmaking.
iW: You have worked on Hollywood productions before. . .
Apted: But nothing of this scale. It’s still the same job, the same anxieties, but it did feel a lot different, that kind of budget, that schedule, and frankly, the slowness of it all, and also having a lot of other units working.
iW: Did you feel that you could get a handle on so much going on?
Apted: Eventually. It took a bit of time. I was swamped in pre-production, because it’s a 6-month shoot, and you have to be making decisions in November about what you were going to shoot next June. It was a bit bizarre — I found that overwhelming.
iW: It’s always so interesting to me when I meet a director who’s able to traverse both the Hollywood and low-budget independent worlds. How is it for you?
Apted: The more I think about it, I love doing it. Because I love doing documentaries, and I love the whole different challenges of doing “42 Up” with 8 people, and Bond with 1,300 people. But also, it determines the documentaries I do. Because I don’t have time to do these kinds of behaviorist films, where you follow someone out like “American Movie” which takes two years. So I do tend to do documentaries where I can move in and out of them. All the last ones, “42 Up,” “Inspirations,” and “Me and Isaac Newton,” are all definitely interview-driven and idea-driven, rather than behavior-driven. I also have people who I have a lot of trust in. For example, I was cutting “Me and Isaac Newton” while I was preparing Bond. So I have a relationship with the editor that allows me to go off and leave her to it — federal express me 10 minutes and I give notes. Even when I’m there with the editor, she never really liked me around, so it doesn’t make much difference. Anyway, I love the fact that I can keep it going for all sorts of reasons. For my own soul, and also, that it does give me an unusual place in the community, which is always a good idea to have a certain individuality about what you do.
iW: You have said that the “7 Up” series is the most important work you’ve ever done.
Apted: I think it will be. When I pack it all in, I think that will be my signature piece. Whenever I take a movie on the road, the “Up” films will always come up, because it is so unusual and unique and I am so far ahead of everybody else with it. I think it will be the thing I am remembered for most.
iW: It seems obvious that you’d have more personal connection with this project than anything else.
Apted: One of the reasons to do documentaries is that. There’s more sense of creating something, more sense of my own soul in the documentaries than in movies, because I don’t write the movies I do. I interpret other people’s original inspirations, to a greater or lesser extent. . . And I get final cut on the documentaries, so I enjoy the fact that there’s much less at stake, therefore there’s much less pressure and much less interference. I find that it fulfills a creative need in me to do documentaries.
iW: And Bond, and the bigger films, what is the need there?
Apted: The need that really got me into the business and brought me to America in the first place. Which is the need to communicate. I like the idea of trying to do decent work and having it seen by a lot of people. What’s frustrating about doing documentaries — not so much the “Up” films, because they have a huge following on television and on video. But doing other documentaries, it’s terribly frustrating; I’ve never much been interested in doing films that no one gets to see. That’s what I would have done if I stayed in England, worked in independent films and Channel 4, but I always liked the attraction of doing decent work on a huge marketplace. That’s always been an instinct of mine from the very beginning.
iW: Was the release plan of the two films really sheer coincidence?
Apted: I had been trying to get a release of “42 Up” for over a year. I had finished the film in May of last year and it was broadcast in England in July of last year. This was before Bond was even in my radar. Before I finished it, I was trying to get distribution because it’s so hard for documentaries and I didn’t get it until July of this year. Since it took so long, it became a cute marketing idea to put them out both together.
iW: Has the BBC TV aesthetic informed your filmmaking? I know that you’ve made many documentaries that were not like that, but did it influence you?
Apted: I don’t know, I suppose it must have, because it’s what I was brought up in. But the “Up” films seem a peculiar piece of work — I don’t know why I wised up so early, but I realized that the most powerful thing about it would have to be the face. That it wasn’t a good idea to dissipate that with a lot of ‘filmmaking,’ per se. Because as you can imagine, as I’m getting more and more generations of it, the fact that most of the material is in sync and on the face, is incredibly invaluable, because that’s clearly the most powerful images — these faces changing over the decades.
iW: How have the actual technological developments in filmmaking over these last 35 years effected the making of these films from “7 Up” on?
Apted: Not very much, to be honest. Maybe, it will now. If the whole tape to film transfer becomes more sophisticated. Now that I can edit the whole thing on AVID and edit the whole thing on tape, maybe I will do the next digitally, because maybe the quality will become less obvious between tape and film. The AVID was made for the “Up” series, as you can imagine