By Iain Blair
Acclaimed British director Michael Apted is that rarity in today’s cinema — an extraordinarily versatile filmmaker who is comfortable in any genre and equally at home making big-budget tent poles or micro-budget documentaries.
His movies range from Oscar- and Golden Globe-winning dramas (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist) to films dealing with medical ethics (Extreme Measures), corporate whistleblowers (Class Action) and matters of faith (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). He has also directed political thrillers (Gorky Park), spy thrillers (Enigma), comedies (Continental Divide), music documentaries (Sting’s Bring on the Night) and a blockbuster Bond movie (The World Is Not Enough).
Apted even made a feature film and a documentary about the same event (Thunderheart and Incident at Oglala). He has also directed many TV projects, including Ray Donovan, Rome and Masters of Sex. That is one diverse resume.
In fact, the only constant in an eclectic career that stretches back to the 1960s is the “Up Series,” which he first worked on as a researcher back in 1964, and which he returns to every seven years like clockwork (56 Up came out in 2012).
His latest film, Unlocked, is a pulpy, fast-moving spy thriller which, like many of Apted’s films, stars a woman in the lead role — Noomi Rapace plays a CIA agent undercover in London and on a mission to save the city from biological terrorism. She’s joined by an all-star cast, including Michael Douglas as her handler, Orlando Bloom as her unlikely helper, John Malkovich as the CIA spy chief at Langley and Toni Collette as his MI5 counterpart.
I recently met with Apted to talk about his process on this film along with his long career and what’s next for him.
You’ve made a lot of thrillers. What’s the secret to a good one?
On a trivial level, you always need a good pace. Then you look for lots of twists and turns and a script that isn’t quite what it appears to be. This allows you to keep the audience unsettled and never comfortable. The element of surprise is key.
You’ve made a lot of films with women in the leads. What did Noomi bring to the role?
She was already on board before me, so the idea was to have a woman organically at the heart of it; we met and I thought she was perfect for this. I’ve made a lot of dramas with women, as I find their lives are fundamentally more dramatic than most men’s. They have to make major life choices — having kids, marriage, jobs and so on — and men don’t have the same pressures, at least not in thrillers.
Look at a remarkable woman like Gorillas’ Dian Fossey, who pretty much sacrificed her personal life and any chance of romance and children to do what she did. I find those situations very dramatic, while men tend to follow a more routine life. There’s always far more emotion with the women playing the lead in dramas and thrillers. While women can seem more vulnerable, they often overcome that and so there’s more at stake. That’s another key element to a good thriller or drama.
How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Pretty early, though this only has about 200 VFX shots, compared to the Bond film, where the VFX are the main piece of the pie, and Narnia that had close to 1,400 VFX shots. My early films, like Coal Miner’s Daughter, had no VFX at all, but now almost every movie has some.
Is it true you shot most of it in Prague? How did you make that work?
Yes, we could only shoot six days in London due to the budget, so the rest was Prague. The key to doing it was the Czech production designer, a very clever guy who told me, “When you choose your key locations in London, don’t use the familiar classic sights as I won’t be able to match them. But if you go more modern, I can probably match it far better.” So that’s what I did. I avoided all the well-known locations, and it worked out great.
Do you like the post process?
I do, a lot. It allows you to fix things. It’s the last draft of a film, and as long as you know what you’re doing while you shoot and what scenes you may be vulnerable in — so you have the necessary coverage — you can then play around with it in post. The more films you do, the more experience you have about what scenes are truly important and which ones are not as you shoot. You have to give each one a value, and the crucial ones are where you want to spend the most time and money, so you can then shape them in the edit.
Where did you post?
I worked with editor Andrew MacRitchie. We cut as we shot and then did the first cut and most of the post in London, including all the VFX at Lipsync. But we had a problem with the ending. From the very start of the edit we knew we’d have to reshoot the end, but we ran into more budget problems.
Ultimately, we reshot the end in Munich and did the final post at Arri Post there for about three weeks. It was a bit hair-raising since we had to ship all the final post elements we’d already done in London, like the music and mix, but they did a great job. Arri also did any needed adjustments to the VFX because of the changes. The big VFX sequence was the big football game at the end, which we shot in Prague, and then made it more like Wembley stadium in London.
Talk about the importance of sound and music to you as a filmmaker.
It’s beyond important — it’s crucial. The composer, Stephen Barton, was very savvy about combining a real orchestra with computers and synths, so we could keep chopping and changing it and do rough scores as we felt our way through it all. All the sound design was done in London with some extra work at Arri Sound in Munich.
Where did you do the DI, and how important is it to you?
We did most of it at Lipsync in London, and then went to Arri Post to re-grade and finish it off after the reshoot. The DI was key in getting the film’s overall look, a palette of cool grays and blues.
Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It did. It’s got some nice twists and great characters, and once we figured out the right end, it came together really well I feel.
I’m working on a film that we’re casting now. It’s a very emotional story about a father and son, set in Naples, about the son finding his long-lost father. I’ll be doing 63 Up at the end of next year, which will come out in spring 2019.
Do you think of yourself ultimately as a documentary filmmaker?
Yes, I think that’s true because I approach material and all my films in a documentary way. I remember when we did Coal Miner’s Daughter, I insisted on shooting it in the real locations with the local people in it. There’s only three professional actors in the whole film, so that was my documentary voice speaking.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.