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The Crossover Conundrun

By Kathleen Fairweather

Michael Apted would be the first to admit that his career trajectory is somewhat enigmatic. While most filmmakers can easily become pigeonholed in the entertainment world, Apted has managed to build a career out of many genres, including television, documentary, features and music films. He has won a British Academy Award and even a Grammy. Yet despite his massive filmography, he seems to be best known to the public for the UP series.

This groundbreaking series documents the lives of 14 British school children beginning at age seven in 1963, and adds a new installment every seven years. It includes 7+7, 28 Up, 35 Up and the most recent segment, 42 Up. It has spawned a whole world of reality-based imitators including the American Family series of the ’70s which treated viewers to an evening of real-life family dysfunction, and the recent PBS series An American Love Story, which focuses on the everyday trials faced by an interracial married couple. Other spin-offs run the gamut from MTV’s Real World, to the current UK docusoap trend, and have even mutated into an Internet sub-genre: the trendy Web-camera phenomenon.

While Apted calls the Up series, “The most important thing I’ll ever do in my life,” he would also like to be known to the public for his other projects. Apted, who is currently in the United Kingdom directing The World Is Not Enough, the latest installment of the James Bond pictures, comments on this vexing predicament.

“I took the Bond picture with that issue in mind,” he explains. “I’m hoping Bond will change the public’s narrow view of me. I’ve never been interested in belonging to the cult of the celebrity director and, as a result, have not actively courted publicity. Perhaps my pigeons have come home to roost,” he says with a sigh. “Maybe it’s time for a press agent. At any rate, I am thankful that people do have such a high regard for the Up series.”

From television to documentaries and features, Apted crosses smoothly between these worlds and it seems that each influences the other in obvious and subtle ways. Apted mixes and matches the sensibilities and styles of each genre in his films. For example, in his 1994 award-winning feature documentary Moving the Mountain, Apted utilizes a unique blend of interviews, newsreel footage and dramatic re-enactments that result in a searing, feature film-like portrait of the historical events at Tiananmen Square.

Apted also brings documentary sensibilities to his feature work, which can be seen in the 1980 Oscar-winning film Coal Miners Daughter, starring Sissy Spacek as country singer Loretta Lynn. Reality also dominates in the 1988 feature Gorillas in the Mist, starring Sigourney Weaver as doomed conservationist Dian Fossey. Actuality also factors heavily in the 1994 film Nell, starring Jodie Foster.

The fiction/nonfiction lines commingled and completely blurred when Apted journeyed to a South Dakota reservation in the1970s to document Leonard Peltier, a convicted Native-American activist. This resulted in two extraordinary films: the documentary Incident at Oglala and the feature release Thunderheart, starring Val Kilmer and Sam Shepard.

How does Apted achieve all of his filmmaking goals? “I have a good team behind me,” he reveals. “I rely heavily on very talented people including my editors: Suzanne Rostock, who edits all of my docs—except the Up series, Kim Horton does those. Suzanne was editing my latest documentary, Me & Isaac Newton, while I was working on the Bond picture. I also work with brilliant cinematographers like Maryse Alberti, who has shot almost all of my documentaries—save the Up series, which were lensed by George Turner. These people keep things going for me on the documentary side when I’m tied up on a feature.”

Other than producing a diverse body of work, Apted acknowledges that there is an economic imperative to crossing over. “One pays the rent,” he says matter-of-factly. “The studio films are all bottom-line driven. There is more financial and emotional pressure. Decisions are based on marketability, and it is much harder to find good material—especially material that doesn’t end up dumbed-down. There are a lot more fingers in the pie with a studio picture. I have much more creativity on the documentary front. There’s more control, less pressure, more freedom and more power to create my own views.”

What draws Apted to a particular project? “Dramatic sensibilities. I like to convey the emotion in any story, and make the characters accessible in a dramatic fashion—be it docs or features. My favorite projects were the Up series, and Coal Miners Daughter. Gorillas in the Mist changed my life. I saw a whole new world. I love films where I get to travel to new places and experience different things.”

Looking back over his career, Apted notes the irony of the longevity and popularity of the Up series. “It was never intended to go beyond the original first episode,” he explains. “I have no regrets, however. I do hope to increase my profile in the industry with a big, blockbuster film like Bond. If that doesn’t happen, it’s okay. I still prefer good work to glittering prizes and fame.”


Kathleen Fairweather is editor of Documentary magazine.