Variety speaks to British director Michael Apted, who has served as president of the Directors Guild of America, and as a governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He talks about his approach to working with cinematographers, how he gets the best out of actors, and how Hollywood should respond to the sexual harassment crisis. Apted heads the jury at Camerimage, a film festival dedicated to the art of cinematography. The event wraps on Saturday.
Apted has received numerous accolades for his films. The “Up” documentary series, which has followed the same group of people since they were 7 years old, has won two BAFTAs.
His Hollywood movies have included “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” which won an Oscar for Sissy Spacek, and was nominated in six other categories including best picture, “Gorillas in the Mist,” which was nominated for five Oscars, and “Nell,” which earned Jodie Foster an Oscar nomination. His other pictures include “Gorky Park,” James Bond movie “The World Is Not Enough,” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” His latest film was this year’s action drama “Unlocked.”
He has also worked on episodes of prestigious drama series, such as HBO-BBC’s “Rome,” for which he shared a Directors Guild award, and the Emmy-nominated “Masters of Sex.”
In terms of your work on the jury at Camerimage, what are you looking for in the cinematography?
You are looking for fine cinematography obviously, but you want to look at how it serves the picture. How the DP finds a way to light it or shoot it that is at one with the subject-matter. There are two of us who are not cinematographers [on the jury] but the others agree: It is not: “Oh this is beautifully lit.” [We ask:] Does it add to the story? Is it heightening whatever the tension of the story is, whether it is a comedy, a thriller or whatever? It isn’t for pure cinematography, it is for seeing if the cinematography blends into the movie.
What is your ideal relationship with a cinematographer? What do you look for in a DP?
I have strengths and weaknesses. I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot here but I think there are other directors who have got a better visual sense than I have. So I am very interested in working with cameramen who have an intelligent sense of how you can push the visual side of it. Not people who can do tricks but people who can somehow bring something to it that I can’t. I am also looking for someone who I sense is interested in actors. I have had occasions when I have worked with DPs who really don’t like actors very much, and that is kind of disastrous because, for my money, other than having a good script, your biggest asset is a good cast. If the actors sense that the DP is really only shooting for light and whatever, and is not much interested in what they are doing … I have to be really wary of that. I have one or two examples where the DP really didn’t like actors and that’s a real pain in the a-se.
Is your approach to cinematography the same in television as it is in film?
You have to be wary when you hire a feature film DP to do a TV series. The time pressures are much greater in television. And if the DP has a reputation for being careful and slow then you would have to think twice about that.
A lot of television looks really great. It is very impressive, but there is a lot of pressure to get it done. A lot of films are not luxurious in terms of time, but television is definitely very tight on time.
Do you have a particular approach to actors?
I like actors basically. A lot of people don’t necessarily like them. I like them and I am very sympathetic towards them because they are up there; they are doing it. If I scr-w up it’s not good, but the world doesn’t necessarily know about it. But if an actor is giving a bad performance the whole world watches it on screens 60-foot deep, and it is terrible. I am very respectful of that and if they are uncomfortable or they are not sure of things then it is definitely worth taking the time and patience to try and figure things out with them.
I just love it because it is different things each time. Sometimes I have cast people who have never worked before because they bring a kind of reality to it. And other times I have worked with great actors and I have had to move them around a little bit. But I love actors, period, and I like working with them.
How do you think the industry has responded to the sexual harassment scandal, and is there something concrete that can be done to make sets and the casting process safer from sexual predators?
I think so. It seems to be hysterical at the moment and it seems to be flooding at you all the time. Clearly there were serious goings on, and there was some bad behavior. But I think it will settle down.
We at the Directors Guild are very aware of this. There has got to be a code of conduct, and people have got to understand that it is not shameful to report [sexual harassment]. I think once you set that in motion, once we are through the first blood of it — you know, everybody is hysterical about it now and rightly so – there has to be a pattern of behavior that is civilized and proper and not ridiculous. But it is shocking how much of this is going on, and that is awful and has to be dealt with, and I think it will be. I think people, once this flood is over, will take it seriously. Not just sue people or whatever, but the industry will have standards of how people can behave which directors, actors, writers and producers understand.
Do you find yourself doing more and more TV nowadays?
Well I came out of television so I have gone back to the womb a bit. I still want to do movies, but I do like to do television, for the very reason that it is difficult [the time pressure]. I love the energy you get. Movies take so long to set up and get going. Before I did a movie, I did about 15 years of television, mainly in England, so it is close to my heart. A good deal of the American film industry is alive and well working in television. The gap between them is not as wide as it used to be.
With hindsight was your time working on [the HBO-BBC series] “Rome,” on which you directed the first three episodes, the beginning of this so-called “Golden Age” of television?
It was up there. I don’t know whether it was the beginning but it was certainly very powerful and successful, and they made a terrible mistake to cancel it after they shot the second season. The first season did alright, but the second season went through the roof because it hit the sweet spot of DVDs. We had a huge set at Cinecitta. You had to have a map to get round it, it was so big. They thought it would be too expensive to keep going. Season two made a fortune, but they couldn’t cash in on it [with further seasons].
Are the “Up” films continuing?
Yes, sir. Absolutely. While I’m above ground, yes!
So the next one is “63,” isn’t it?
Correct. Which I will broadcast in England in 2019.
So it is ITV again?
Yes, it is always ITV, aka Granada. The reason that it has gone on so long is one company has always done it. And the reason that it is absolutely crucial and why it has not been [possible] to do an American [version] is you have to own all the material for all, in my case, 50-odd years, because you are always going into the material. You can’t have fights over… who owns [this film] or [that film]? So it is the fact that this company got behind it and stayed with it all this time for 50-odd years – it is the only reason other than my own enthusiasm and the fact that audiences seem to like it – that it has kept going.
And in terms of [documentary series] “Married in America” have you managed to complete the third instalment?
Well, that is exactly the same problem. The first three we did were done by different companies, and the legal issues are just impossible, just tiring. You have to find out who has got the rights to so and so, and whether they will do a deal with you. So already you are spending money before you shoot. And I don’t think we were aware of that so much; only once we started. I have done two and a half films. I try to keep it to a mathematical [formula]… every five years. I managed to do two [instalments], and I have shot half of [the third]. I haven’t finished three and I am looking for money to finish three.
Do you think the standard of documentaries is as good as when you were working at Granada?
Yeah, well I mean, there are so many of them now it is unbelievable, which is great but [the question] is whether it waters down things. There are a lot of great documentaries and a lot of not so good documentaries. I think it was much harder to get them done [when I was at Granada]. They were more expensive to do because you shot them on film and you needed a crew. You and I could go out this evening and do a documentary on a phone. There are great documentaries and people are open to them and like them. There are just so many of them. I used to be on the Academy documentary [branch executive committee] and there were 180 documentaries, not that you are supposed to look at all of them. Better that than not having [enough]. I think it is a great form of storytelling.
You don’t think it has been diminished by reality television?
I think reality television as a serious [threat] to kill documentaries is over. Reality is exactly what it is. I had a terrible time on the “Up” films – I think it was “42 Up” — when reality documentaries were rearing their head, and my people were saying “What the f—k is going on here? All these people are getting all this money.” And I had to explain to them, painfully, the difference. One it is: you’re being exploited; it is about putting you in different situations and seeing how you respond; the documentaries, depending on the quality of the people doing them, is about trying to get inside someone’s character – trying to be honorable toward them – it can be critical but also you are honorable; but you are not trying to create something cheesy. I convinced them, otherwise we would have had to pay them hundreds of thousands of pounds. I may be wrong but I think the crazy period of reality television [is over] as it has settled down into respectability, as it were.
In terms of feature films, have you got another one after “Unlocked”?
Not at the moment, no. Look, I am developing stuff, who isn’t? I am not, as it were, on the cusp of going [into production]. I’m not getting any younger so I am of course anxious about that.