Michael Apted talks to Australian directors

Michael Apted was the ASDA Conference’s Sunday keynote speaker. As it turned out, Michael was unable to fly out to Sydney from LA for the session, but through the use of some amazing technology, he was able to be with us through the ether.

Apted spoke to us via a broadband link and some sophisticated equipment that allowed him to see his audience and respond to questions from the floor. We could see him on the big screen, and it really did seem as though he was actually in the room. He frequently called for examples of his work to be shown during the talk, and each time the right clip played back flawlessly.

This was a knock-out session, dazzling in its technical prowess. And of course Michael Apted is a director as brilliant as he is humble.

Apted told us at the outset that his soul is based in documentary, even though he has directed scores of features during his long career. Well known for his depth of directorial experience in the UK as well as Hollywood, and in documentary as well as feature film, he is the director of the famous 7 Up series, as well as a number of acclaimed feature films including Gorky Park, Gorillas In The Mist and Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Michael’s documentary approach was revisited numerous times during his talk. When asked to direct the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, Michael promptly suggested they take a crew to the oilfields where the story is based. He received blank looks at this suggestion, he said, but went ahead and found some spectacular landscapes that were included in the film.

As others indicated over the duration of the Conference, casting is crucial, and Apted described how he goes about finding characters for his documentaries, such as Married in America. He researched hundreds of prospective couples via videotape before speaking to 40 and eventually settling on three. “What I was looking for was a rapport, whether we got on,” he explained. “I wanted to make sure they were in for the long haul, and talked to them about the facts of their marriage only, never going into emotional territory until the camera was rolling.

“Too many times before people have said the most amazing things to me as we’ve chatted, and then when I’ve asked them to repeat it for the camera it just isn’t as vivid,” he told us. “This makes the on-camera interview ‘a walk in the dark, an adventure,” Apted added. “It’s that freshness that I want to capture on film.”

Apted regaled the audience with the story of making Gorillas In The Mist. He ventured to the location to check out the mountain gorillas who were ‘farting and chewing’ in the undergrowth. “I couldn’t even see them, they were hidden in the trees and foliage and I though how on earth am I going to make this work?” he told us.

Then Sigourney Weaver arrived on set and everything changed. “The film was completely driven by Sigourney. She was determined to make the film, and had the courage to approach the gorillas. To our astonishment the animals were comfortable with her presence, coming up to her and making contact, and I suddenly realised that the film was possible after all.”

Apted described at length the process of working with children, showing a scene where a child is sitting in the back of a vehicle that Jennifer Lopez is driving as her husband’s friend is trying to run it off the road. Apted had to encourage a performance from the child actor Tess Allen, who was only four at the time, to get her to be believably petrified. “You have to create an atmosphere on set which is fun for the child actor,” Apted said, “but you also need to get across that we’re doing a job as well.” With the film Enough, Apted relied on Jennifer Lopez striking up a relationship with the child actor that he could call upon during takes.

He touched upon the role of rehearsal, which he feels is indispensable. “I don’t know how you could work without rehearsals,” he said. “There are always minefields with every project, and during rehearsal time you get the chance to discover some of those minefields at least and deal with them.” The rehearsal process also allows you to develop a rapport with the actors, which you can draw upon when the director is under pressure on the set.

Michael did refer to the performances of Oliver Reed, however, an actor who arrived on set ‘not knowing what day it was, let alone what scene he was playing.” Reed took nine or ten takes to get a performance, while his opposite number Glenda Jackson had it nailed on the first. “That made it incredibly difficult on the set, but there was something alive and fresh about Oliver’s work that made the process worthwhile.”

The success of the live cross was itself exciting in opening up a world of new possibilities. Future Conferences will be able to access anyone in the world – virtually. In a truly surreal moment at the session’s end the audience spontaneously waved farewell to Michael 10,000 kilometres away, and with a wry smile, Michael waved back.

Michael Apted – ASDA Keynote
by: Mark Poole

Screen Hub
Monday 6 September, 2004

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