Wednesday, 9 January 2013

An Interview with Michael Apted (Part II)

MIchael Apted/Martin Parsons/Fohnhouse

56Up, the eighth instalment in the Up series, hit cinemas in the US last week. Offering a snapshot of the life of fourteen people every seven years, the series is widely regarded as the first of its kind, paving the way for shows like Child of Our Time. Invited to Sheffield Doc/Fest this summer to give a talk about his career, most importantly his work on the Up series, director and series co-founder Michael Apted took some time out of his hectic schedule to discuss his career with us. Part I of our interview can be read here.

You have a kind of double life as documentary filmmaker and movie maker. A film some of us at Fohnhouse really love is your 90s medical thriller Extreme Measures

Oh! Good for you!

What are your memories of making it, and how do you feel about it?

Well, it didn’t do very well! It’s very odd, sometimes you really warm to the films that don’t do very well, and the ones that do very well you kind of toss them off. I always have a soft spot for films that I think got poorly treated or didn’t come out at the right time… it wasn’t in the air. I remember Gorky Park came out and no-one was interested, but then a year, two years later we had the Berlin Wall down and Gorbachev and all that. On the other hand I did Coal Miner’s Daughter and at that very moment some country music entered the mainstream and we had Willy Nelson, Dolly Parton… With one I was lucky, the other I was unlucky. With a film like Extreme Measures, people were pretty harsh on it. I think people had a lot against Hugh [Grant, who played the lead] and Elizabeth [Hurley, who produced, and was in a high-profile relationship with Grant]. I think we got caught up in that media spiral.

We like Hugh Grant in the film. Did you particularly try and work against the kind of performance he was known for?

Well, we both did. We knew it had to be real – it still always benefitted from his unique form of wit, but we could never turn it into a kind of Four Weddings turn. I did a film with John Belushi, and asked the audience to treat him as a straight actor and a romantic actor, in Continental Divide. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t – sometimes an audience is disappointed that the actor doesn’t present the usual ‘menu’, sometimes audiences are surprised and delighted by it. It’s a real risk for actors who change course.

Did you spend time making sure things made medical sense?

Sure. That was easy. What was difficult was spending time underground! We shot quite a bit of the film underground. The tunnel stuff was real. We built the emergency room, but the tunnel was real stuff. No fun, I can tell you! Underground with all these rats, oh my God, wondering what you were going to trip over. I don’t find many people who bring that film up, so I’m thrilled!

You also directed Pierce Brosnan’s third Bond film, The World is Not Enough. How was it stepping into something as huge as the Bond franchise?

Well, it was scary at first. Not just stepping into a well-oiled machine, but stepping into a group of people who’d worked together a lot… and also for me it was the biggest physical film I had ever done by a long way. Early on when we were preparing the film, I thought 'I'm never going to do this!' but a little voice in my head said 'pay attention!'. If someone’s here in front of you to do a set that you won’t shoot for six months, pay attention. That was the key – six months later they showed up and I knew what we were doing. The whole scale of it was so intimidating before you started shooting. At the beginning I was petrified by it, but they were very, very nice people. They were gracious and welcoming. They allowed me to bring in some of my own people, and some of their people I very much wanted. It was a very happy marriage.

The World is Not Enough was one of the last 'trad' Bond films. How do you feel about the reinvention of the series from Casino Royale onwards?

Well, the jury is out… The films make more and more money but they also cost more money. It’s interesting to see the range that they can bring to Daniel’s [Craig] Bond. I thought the great thing about Pierce was the range of his acting because he was a genuine matinee idol as well as a good action actor… Connery had those varied abilities and I think that’s the key to it, to make sure that Bond never becomes one-note, that he has to have a variety of skills.

More recently you made The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in 3D. How do you feel about 3D? Was it your choice?

Well, it was the studio – we shot it in 2D. It was the same studio that did Avatar and I had actually almost delivered my cut, in February 2010, before they decided to do it in 3D. It was a tremendous pressure on us because we had 1400, 1500 visual effects shots all planned out and suddenly the whole post-production was compressed because you have to finish the visual effects shots before you can deal with the 3D on them. I thought it was… It was a good business decision, I think the film made more money because of it – the 3D paid for itself – but it wasn’t much fun doing it that way.

Are you still tied to the series? Will they be doing The Magician’s Nephew?

I don’t think so… it’s hard to say. There had historically been a bad atmosphere between the CS Lewis estate and Walden and between Disney and Fox [Disney produced the first two and Fox the third]. I don’t think they can even decide, frankly, which book to do next. They should have been writing the next script when I was doing Dawn Treader, but when you think that I started in 2008 and they still can’t decide which book to do, that doesn’t speak to a very fertile partnership there, but who knows?

Would you have advice for people wanting to get into documentary or movie-making now, and is there any advice you ever received in your life that stuck with you?

I think it’s the same piece of advice, really, which is to do it! It was harder in my time because the technology wasn’t so flexible and so available. I remember meeting a great hero of mine when I was at university, Peter Brook, the stage director [of Mahabharata fame], and asked that question and he said 'just do it, do it on a street corner, direct things, do it'.  In this day and age you do have the technology, you can, at no great expense, write a script and go out and do it with your friends, and a number of people have already come through that door. It’s difficult because the business is contracting, but you can, as a young person, create your own calling card. I think if you have the will and the energy to do it, that’s the thing to do.


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