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Having displayed a fondness for both documentaries and feature films, versatile director Michael Apted struck a creative balance between both worlds that was matched by very few of his contemporaries. After establishing himself in his native England with the documentary series "7 Up," as well as numerous episodes of various television shows, Apted journeyed to America, where he garnered instant credibility with "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980), widely considered to be one of the best musical biopics ever made. He stumbled a bit with the understated comedy "Continental Divide" (1981) before achieving box office success with the dense crime thriller, "Gorky Park" (1983). Apted directed Sigourney Weaver as a fervent Dian Fossey in "Gorillas in the Mist" (1988), which he followed with the compelling courtroom drama "Class Action" (1991). While continuing the "7 Up" documentaries throughout the decades, the director struggled to retain his footing in the feature world, even as he took the reigns of the James Bond franchise with "The World Is Not Enough" (1999), a rather tepid affair that featured listless action and one of the most bemoaned Bond girl of all time. Though he found his stride directing...
Having displayed a fondness for both documentaries and feature films, versatile director Michael Apted struck a creative balance between both worlds that was matched by very few of his contemporaries. After establishing himself in his native England with the documentary series "7 Up," as well as numerous episodes of various television shows, Apted journeyed to America, where he garnered instant credibility with "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980), widely considered to be one of the best musical biopics ever made. He stumbled a bit with the understated comedy "Continental Divide" (1981) before achieving box office success with the dense crime thriller, "Gorky Park" (1983). Apted directed Sigourney Weaver as a fervent Dian Fossey in "Gorillas in the Mist" (1988), which he followed with the compelling courtroom drama "Class Action" (1991). While continuing the "7 Up" documentaries throughout the decades, the director struggled to retain his footing in the feature world, even as he took the reigns of the James Bond franchise with "The World Is Not Enough" (1999), a rather tepid affair that featured listless action and one of the most bemoaned Bond girl of all time. Though he found his stride directing episodic television - particularly on the acclaimed HBO series, "Rome" (2005-07) - Apted still remained a bit of a box office mystery, despite his long and venerable career.
Born on Feb. 10, 1941 in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England, Apted began his career with England's Granada Television - first as a researcher, where he first encountered fellow future British director Mike Newell; then as a director, most notably on the long-running soap "Coronation Street" (ITV, 1960- ). After serving as the assistant to director Paul Almond on "7 Up" (Granada TV, 1963), Apted directed and produced some 50-odd episodes of plays, serials and television series. In 1970, he helmed "7 Plus Seven," a documentary update of Almond's "7 Up." Apted soon ventured into feature films, making his debut with "Triple Echo" (1973), an off-beat wartime romance in which Oliver Reed falls for an AWOL soldier (Brian Deacon) disguised as a woman. The director displayed his enthusiasm for the music scene with his follow-up, "Stardust" (1974), which chronicled the rise and fall of a Beatles-like pop group. Continuing to show eclectic taste, as well as a talent for action sequences, Apted made the gritty British crime thriller, "The Squeeze" (1977), starring Stacy Keach as a burnt-out, alcoholic ex-cop offered a chance at redemption when called upon to rescue his former spouse from kidnappers.
Apted's last British effort before crossing the pond to work in Hollywood, "Agatha" (1979), was an intriguing speculation on the 11-day disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926, which starred Vanessa Redgrave as the famous mystery writer and Dustin Hoffman as the smooth Yankee reporter who tracks her down. Making his American film debut, Apted gained instant credibility with "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980), widely considered to be one of the finest musical bios ever made. The rags-to-riches story of country star Loretta Lynn earned star Sissy Spacek - who also sang Lynn's songs pitch-perfect - a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar and featured equally outstanding work from Tommy Lee Jones, Beverly D'Angelo and Levon Helm in supporting parts. He stumbled with his next outing, "Continental Divide" (1981), despite the presence of potent collaborators like screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, executive producer Steven Spielberg and star John Belushi, whom viewers had a hard time accepting in a romantic leading man role. Apted returned to England for the middling adolescent comedy "Kipperbang" (1982), which was made for British television, but released theatrically in the United States, before finally scoring at the box office with "Gorky Park" (1983). Adapted from Martin Cruz Smith's best-selling crime novel, "Gorky Park" was an absorbing, but rather complex examination of a corrupt Soviet state hindering a murder investigation headed by a dogged police inspector (William Hurt).
Following a very bad Richard Pryor vehicle, "Critical Condition" (1986), Apted recovered his bearings with "Gorillas in the Mist" (1988), an intriguing blend of documentary and career-woman melodrama starring Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey, the real-life ferocious and antisocial recluse whose zealous protection of Rwandan gorillas led to her unsolved murder. His success in features not withstanding, Apted was also an accomplished documentarian, particularly after his assistant stint on Paul Almond's "7 Up," which attempted to document the effects of social and economic disparities among English schoolchildren of radically different backgrounds. Once Apted came into his own as a director, he took over the project and made it his own, directing follow-up portraits of the same group of subjects at seven-year intervals in the sequels "7 Plus Seven," "21 Up" (1977), "28 Up" (1984), "35 Up" (1991) and "42 Up" (1998). The popularity of the series led to an American spin-off, "Age Seven in America" (CBS, 1992) and its later installment "14 Up in America" (Showtime, 1998); both directed by Phil Joanou with Apted serving behind the scenes as producer and executive producer, respectively. The series crossed over into other countries, with Russia, South Africa, Japan and Germany producing their own series.
Although there was a time when the "Up" films were his only break from fiction, Apted increasingly expanded his scope as a nonfiction filmmaker. "Bring on the Night" (1985), his look into the formation of Sting's rock/jazz band culminating in their first concert performance, earned a Grammy for Best Music Video, Long Form. He similarly profiled Russian rock star Boris Grebenshikov in "The Long Way Home" (Granada TV, 1989). After soliciting crackling performances from Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as father and daughter lawyers on opposite sides in "Class Action" (1991), Apted journeyed to Sioux country for the incisive documentary "Incident at Oglala" (1992) and its related feature "Thunderheart" (1992), a drama based loosely on those events of the 1970s which occurred at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota which led to the framing of Indian activist Leonard Peltier. The engrossing thriller starred Val Kilmer as an FBI man who discovers his own Indian roots while investigating murder on the reservation. Apted next traveled to China for "Moving the Mountain" (1994), a documentary look inside the origins of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and what subsequently happened to the lives of the movement's leaders.
Apted's penchant for dramas revolving around female protagonists continued with "Blink" (1994), which starred Madeline Stowe as a blind woman who regains her sight after 20 years, only to witnesses a murder, which she then doubts she has seen. For "Nell" (1994), Apted incorporated a documentary tone to tell the story of a young woman (Jodie Foster) raised in isolation who becomes the center of controversy when a kindly doctor (Liam Neeson) and an ambitious psychologist (Natasha Richardson) take opposing views on whether she should be integrated into society. Following "Extreme Measures" (1996), a rather predictable conspiracy thriller set in the medical world, Apted embarked on back-to-back documentaries: "Inspirations" (1997), which detailed the creative process of celebrated artists like David Bowie and Roy Lichtenstein, and "Me and Isaac Newton" (1999), which examined individuals who find solace in the answers provided by science. His reputation for helming character-driven projects prompted producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli to invite him to take on James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) in "The World Is Not Enough" (1999). Apted tried to concentrate on strong characterization and storytelling amidst the usual gadgets and action sequence, while elevating the Bond girls above their usual sexual ornamentation. But instead, he created a lifeless and confusing addition to the franchise, while also introducing Dr. Christmas Jones (Denise Richards), widely considered to be one of the worst Bond girls of all time.
Staying within espionage territory, Apted directed the talky and nostalgic spy film, "Enigma" (2001), which starred Kate Winslet as a plucky member of the British team trying to crack the Nazi's Enigma machine ciphers, while helping a brilliant, but broken-down mathematician (Dougray Scott) trying to find his missing former love (Saffron Burrows). After helming the dismal Jennifer Lopez revenge vehicle "Enough" (2002), he embarked on a documentary series on marriage called "Married in America" (A&E, 2002). Using the same format as his seminal "7 Up" series, nine couple's lives were documented over the course of a decade. A second installment, "Married in America 2" (A&E, 2006), caught up with the same couples five years later. Meanwhile, Apted returned to episodic television, directing episodes of the short-lived procedural "Blind Justice" (ABC, 2004-05) and the first three episodes of the lurid and violent historical drama, "Rome" (HBO, 2005-07). While serving as President of the Directors Guild of America from 2003-09, Apted directed "Saving Grace" (2007), a historical drama chronicling the efforts of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) to eliminate the slave trade in 19th century England. Returning to large-scale filmmaking, Apted directed "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" (2010), the third installment to the popular film franchise based on the novels of C.S. Lewis.
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"I've always had this double interest. 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 around 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 resond 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." --Michael Apted quoted in Moviemaker, April 1998.
"And another interesting thing is, 'How important is the scene?' Because I'm also of the belief, that not all scenes are as important as others. In terms of--how much time am I going to spend on this scene? I'm very careful about that, when I do my schedule, I think that's part of the job to be able to make those value judgments about where you want to spend your time.
"When I've produced stuff, and I've produced first-time directors, it's something I try to instill in them but it's very hard to get because they want everything to be good. But I say to them, 'Don't waste a lot of time on this scene. It's going to be in the movie but it's not that important. Don't cover that scene from here to Christmas. Just move on.' And that's a hard thing to grasp. The more experience you get, the more comfortable you are with that." --Apted, in DGA Magazine, December 1997-January 1998.
On joining the James Bond franchise for "The World Is Not Enough": "At first I was surprised they wanted to make any change to the formula. But their appetite for something new coincided with my views and when I saw what was in the back of their minds, all doubts were removed about my involvement. They knew the action would be in good hands with regulars like second unit director Vic Armstrong and stunt co-ordinator Simon Crane. They've got it down pat, so the action would take care of itself. It was a daunting prospect, I won't deny it. There's a lot of expectation that comes with a Bond film which can be intimidating. But going in, my one major worry was could I handle such a scale of movie on a tough 110-day schedule.
"Looking back ... the biggest surprise is I'm not tired or worn out from it all. I've still got all my marbles. I've learned such bad habits, though. How can I go back to an ordinary 50-day shoot." --quoted in Cinemafantastique, December 1999.
"Americans want to be in show business ... Whereas it's a nightmare for me to persuade these good [English] souls to do it every seven years. Doing it in America, it's fighting them off. America is much more celebrity-conscious than England. We will see whether the subjects of the American one can have a kind of serious life, or get swallowed up. I doubt it. In England they're celebrities for about six weeks after it's broadcast, but it doesn't really affect their lives in the celebrity sense." --Apted quoted in Daily News, November 16, 1999.
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