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The Enigma of Michael Apted

Director Michael Apted

There are some directors who find a genre they're particularly comfortable with or adept at and make an entire career out of it. Think Wes Craven with horror movies or the Farrelly brothers in comedy. Michael Apted is not one of these directors. Apted is a jumper, having tackled everything from courtroom dramas to comedy to rock and roll. When you look at his filmography, the phrase you are most likely to repeat over and over is, "He directed THAT, too?"

Apted began his career as a researcher and director for British television. In the 1970's, he crossed over to theatrical films with movies like Stardust, a terrific, criminally underrated movie that traces the rise and fall of a rock group (note to the studios: Stardust NEEDS to be released on DVD and the sooner the better). His major American breakthrough came in 1980 with Coal Miner's Daughter, for which Sissy Spacek won the Oscar as Best Actress. Since that time, Apted has worked with some of the best actors in recent memory, including Sigourney Weaver (also Oscar nominated for her work in Apted's Gorillas in the Mist), Jodie Foster (Nell), Val Kilmer (Thunderheart), and Gene Hackman (Class Action and Extreme Measures). Oh yeah, he also helmed one of the most recent adventures of some guy named James Bond (The World is Not Enough).

However, Apted's most significant contribution to cinema may well be in the realm of documentary filmmaking. Apted has been the driving force behind the 7 Up series of documentaries. Every seven years since 1970, Apted catches up with a group of fourteen Britons, men and women. The resulting films, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up and the most recent, 42 Up, are absolutely extraordinary. The series is one of the most striking film experiments in the history of the medium and, like most good British ideas, has spawned an American companion, which began in 1991 with 7 Up in America, directed by Phil Joanou. Among Apted's other documentaries, all worth checking out on DVD, are Incident at Oglala (a non-fiction companion to Thunderheart), Moving the Mountain (about the Tiananmen Square uprising), and Inspirations (which focuses on seven diverse artists, including David Bowie and Roy Lichtenstein, and basically asks each the one question artists dread most: where do you get your ideas).

Apted's two most recent films well illustrate his diversity. Enigma is a thoughtful World War II espionage thriller, starring Dougray Scott, Kate Winslet, and Jeremy Northam, about the British efforts to crack Nazi code. Enough, on the other hand, is a domestic abuse revenge story starring Jennifer Lopez as an abused woman on the run from her psychotic husband (Billy Campbell), sort of a Sleeping with the Enemy with kickboxing. With both films due to make their DVD debut, Apted took the time to chat briefly with me about Enigma, Enough and other films that don't start with the letters "E" and "N".

Adam Jahnke (The Digital Bits): How did you get involved with Enigma?

Michael Apted: My agent sent me the script and I really loved, not so much the script at that point but the whole idea of it. I'd always been looking to do a film about the Second World War because it was, I thought, just a great period in English history. But I didn't want to go down the well-trodden battlefield/trench part. I was always interested in seeing if there was some other way of telling heroic stories about that war. And then I read this script and thought, well, this is it. And then I just went after it. I had to go and meet with (producer) Mick Jagger in Toronto, I remember, and try and persuade him that I was the man for the job. And eventually, they gave me the job.

Adam Jahnke: Was that the original Tom Stoppard script at that point?

Michael Apted: Yes... yes.

Adam Jahnke: The script is based on a novel, right?

Michael Apted: Yes, it is. Right.

Adam Jahnke: How much research did you have to do? I mean, how much of the film is still rooted in fact and how much is fiction?

Michael Apted: Well, a lot of it. Half of it is in fact. All the stuff about Bletchley Park... you know, the way Bletchley Park conducted itself, all the stuff about the codebreaking, all the stuff about the North Atlantic and the U-boats, all the stuff about the Poles, that's all historical truth. What isn't true are the main characters. You know, Dougray Scott's character, Tom Jericho, and the women and Jeremy Northam's character. All those characters are fictional. They're drawn off people who were working there at the time because Robert Harris, who wrote the novel, is a journalist and did a huge amount of research before he wrote the book. So, a lot of it is derived off his perception of people that he met. But those characters, that situation is fictional.

Adam Jahnke: When you're working on a film like this, which is so based in history, are there any skills or techniques that you as a documentary filmmaker are able to bring to that?

Michael Apted: Well, it's quite difficult territory, that. It happened to me once... I did two films once, one a documentary, one a movie, about the same subject. I did two things about Native Americans in the 1970's, Thunderheart and Incident at Oglala. The problem is you know so much as a documentary filmmaker that sometimes you can be a prisoner to the truth and maybe not take the liberties with the truth that sometimes you have to take to tell the story. And so you always worry whether, because you know so much, because the real stuff of Enigma was so complicated, whether the movie becomes too complicated. But then again, the movie has to be complicated because that's what it's about. You know, the movie is a puzzle. You can't do a kind of straightforward A-to-Z linear narrative when the film is called Enigma and is about code breaking. I think you sort of expect it to deliver something that, in some ways the surface of the film reflects what the film is about. But it can be treacherous and also, when you're dealing with truths and not-truths, you know, where do you draw the line and how does an audience know what it's really watching? And you can only hope that... I mean, all I can think is that you don't feed an audience misinformation. That you don't deliberately set out to mislead them. I felt that as much that could be truthful about Enigma should be truthful and the rest, which was all an invention either of Robert Harris or Tom Stoppard, should honor the basic truthfulness of the history. And that the drawing of characters was an area for the imagination, since there was no question that these were real people, you know, they weren't based on anybody that had existed.

Adam Jahnke: I imagine that today it's particularly tricky, since a lot of the historical films that come out are being shown to high school classes as documentary films of the period, when really they're not.

Michael Apted: Yeah, it's true. And honestly, it's a case-by-case basis and it's to do with the ethics or the integrity or the hard work of the filmmaker to try and make it as accurate as you can. And you get into very tricky territory. You do that when you're making a bio-pic, which I did with Coal Miner's Daughter and Gorillas in the Mist. Because you have to take enormous liberties when you're condensing people's lives into two hours. So that's very tricky. You know, what do you do? And all you can do I think is be as honorable as you can and honor the spirit of the story or the spirit of the people, if it's a film about a character. But it's very, very tricky, I think.

Adam Jahnke: Just briefly, speaking of Coal Miner's Daughter, I should mention that is one of my wife's favorite movies of all time.

Michael Apted: Well, what's amazing to me is, since we're discussing DVD, it's not on DVD. And I'm trying to and I think I may succeed in persuading Universal to do a Special Edition of it. God knows it's a film that's much loved and it seems ridiculous that it isn't out. When you think of the garbage that is on DVD, that a film like that isn't. So get your wife to get to her local Blockbuster and say, "Why the hell isn't this on DVD?" And hope it gets back to Universal. Anyway, thank you for the compliment from her.

Director Michael Apted
Adam Jahnke: Absolutely. Back to Enigma for a second, I think it's fair to say that you had a fairly eclectic group of producers on that movie.

Michael Apted: I did, I did.

Adam Jahnke: Besides Mick Jagger, as you mentioned, Lorne Michaels?

Michael Apted: Yeah.

Adam Jahnke: Were they particularly hands-on in the filmmaking process?

Michael Apted: Not particularly, no. They had been involved from the very beginning, so they were very interested in it. They'd bought the book. They were competing with each other for the book and then decided to go into business together. They had been in from the very beginning, long before I was aboard. They kept a watchful eye on it all but they weren't hands-on. Both of them have day jobs so, you know, they only had a limited availability. But we sent them all the stuff we shot and they were interested before that in the script and the casting, then the cutting and the distribution. So both of them were kind of smart to make their interventions effective. Especially with Mick, who hadn't... this was the first film he'd produced. He'd been around sets a lot because he'd acted a lot but he didn't get himself involved in stuff he didn't know much about. He's too smart for that.

Adam Jahnke: In preparing for this interview, I looked up your filmography on the Internet Movie Database and was struck at the diversity of the genres you've worked in.

Michael Apted: Yeah, I'm a moving target is what I like to say.

Adam Jahnke: Is there anything in particular you'd like to do that you haven't done yet?

Michael Apted: Well, in terms of material, I would love, for example, to do a film about sport, which is important to me and I've never been able to find a way to do it. So in terms of subject matter... but in terms of genre? I think I've dealt with a lot of genre, I mean I keep the whole documentary life going as much as I can. And I've been more successful with some things than others. I haven't had much luck with comedy, so I think we'll let that go. But in terms of other kinds of genre, I've done my blockbuster and I enjoyed that and I'd do that again if that was appropriate. So it's good to try different things, because then you can figure out what you can handle and what you can't.

Adam Jahnke: With the sports idea, would that be a feature or a documentary?

Michael Apted: Well, either, really. I mean the problem with it always is that apart from a few sports that I can think of, boxing and maybe pool, I would rather watch Monday Night Football than I would a film about it with a load of actors pretending to be footballers or whatever. I'd like to find a way of telling a story where somehow the game is a metaphor and not right in the middle of the film. Otherwise, it becomes embarrassing.

Adam Jahnke: It seems as though you could do a documentary along the lines of Inspirations.

Michael Apted: You could and I've been trying to do that, but it's a very difficult world. It's a world that's incredibly sewn up. There's a lot of money around it and it's very much sewn up with managers and agents and stuff like that. It's a very defensive world and it's very hard to get access to people without having to pay millions of dollars to them just to speak to them. It's a very overexposed world in that sense. I mean, when you look at cable television and you see how many sports shows are on there. So it's a very difficult world to penetrate.

Director Michael Apted Adam Jahnke: I would imagine so. The other recent film of yours that's coming out on DVD is Enough, the Jennifer Lopez movie. How did you get involved with that particular film?

Michael Apted: Well, again, my agent sent me the script and I knew (screenwriter) Nick Kazan a bit and so I pursued that. I went into the studio and told them my take on it and what I thought was good with it and what we should do to make it better and they went along with that. Jennifer wasn't attached to it at that point but then she became interested in it and I had to meet with her. We got on well and so then, as it were, all sails aflutter and greenlit and off we went and made the film. All systems go. So again, I had to go in and make a case for it.

Adam Jahnke: How did you find working with Jennifer Lopez?

Michael Apted: Actually, it was really good. Maybe one of the reasons is I had absolutely no expectations because I was warned she would be very difficult. You know, that she had a reputation for being a bit of a diva and being troublesome and all that. So I suppose I went in fearing the worst. But in the end, it worked out very well. I had no trouble and she was very interested and professional. We got on well and she did the job and she did it well and everybody was happy. So it was a very good experience. But again, preface that by saying that I didn't expect anything and I was really on my guard that it was going to be a nightmare and then it turned out not to be. It's interesting because Enigma did turn out to be a nightmare. Not because of anybody, but just because of the conditions and lack of money and the weather and all sorts of things. That I thought was going to be fun to do and then... whatever. But then I thought Enough would be horrible to do and it turned out to be fun to do. So you never can tell.

Adam Jahnke: If my math is correct, your next movie in the 7 Up series should be 49 Up and out in 2005?

Michael Apted: Very good, yeah. I'll start shooting at the end of 2004. Deliver it about halfway through 2005.

Adam Jahnke: When you're working on those, between films, do you completely have no contact with the people you're interviewing?

Michael Apted: It depends. I mean it's a sort of extended family because I've known them for so long. Forty years, now. So it differs. Some I'm in close touch with, others I have no contact with at all. So, there's no pattern for it. And I gave up trying to be objective. The beady-eyed documentarian who comes every seven years. If they want to talk, if they want a relationship, if they need something from me, even if they're just visiting where I live and want to come say hello, then... it is an extended family, so I'm very involved in their lives and they are in mine and that's how I function it.

Adam Jahnke: So what's your next project?

Michael Apted: I just finished shooting a documentary with the Rolling Stones about their new world tour, which I just finished in Boston as they opened their tour. I'm editing that at the moment.

Adam Jahnke: That should be very good. Along the lines of Bring on the Night (the Sting documentary/concert film Apted directed in 1985)?

Michael Apted: That's right, yes. Very much so.


Our thanks to Michael Apted for taking the time to chat with us. Both Enigma and Enough are being released on DVD by Columbia TriStar Home Video. Enigma will be out September 24, with Enough following a few weeks later on October 8.

Adam Jahnke

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