Nationality: British. Born: Aylesbury, England, 10 February 1941; son of Ronald William and Frances Amelia (Thomas) Apted. Education: Downing College, Cambridge University, B.A., 1961. Family: Married Joan, 9 July 1966; children: Paul, James. Career: Researcher, director, and producer for Granada television, London, 1960s; director, Strawberry Fields , National Theatre, London, 1978; executive producer, Crossroads ( C. C. Riders ) TV series, ABC, 1992. Awards: TV Critics Award, for best play, for Another Sunday and Sweet F.A. , 1972; TV Critics Award, for best play, SFTA award for best director, both for Kisses at Fifty , 1974; International Emmy, for The Collection , 1976; British Academy Award, for 28 Up , 1984. Address: Osiris Films, 300 South Lorimar, Building 137, Burbank, CA 91505, U.S.A. Agent: Mike Marcus, Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.
Number 10 (for TV); Your Name's Not God, It's Edgar (for TV); Big Breadwinner Hog (for TV)
In a Cottage Hospital (for TV)
Don't Touch Him, He Might Resent It (for TV); Slattery's Mounted Foot (for TV); The Day They Buried Cleaver (for TV)
Big Soft Nellie (for TV); The Mosedale Horseshoe (for TV); One Thousand Pounds for Rosebud (for TV)
Another Sunday and Sweet F.A. (for TV); Joy (for TV); Said the Preacher (for TV); The Style of the Countess (for TV); The Reporters (for TV); Buggins' Ermine (for TV)
Triple Echo ( Soldier in Skirts ); High Kampf (for TV); Jack Point (for TV)
Stardust ; Kisses at Fifty (for TV); Poor Girl (for TV); A Great Day for Bonzo ( Childhood ) (for TV)
Wednesday Love (for TV)
The Squeeze ; 21 (for TV); The Collection (for TV)
Stronger than the Sun (for TV)
Coal Miner's Daughter
Kipperbang ( P'Tang Yang, Kipperbang ); Gorky Park
28 Up (for TV) (+ pr); First Run Features ; First Born ; The River Rat (+ exec pr)
Bring on the Night
Gorillas in the Mist
The Long Way Home (for TV)
Class Action ; 35 Up (for TV) (+ pr, sc)
Thunderheart ; Incident at Oglala
Blink ; Nell ; Moving the Mountain
Inspirations (+ pr)
Always Outnumbered (for TV); 42: Forty Two Up (+ pr)
Me & Isaac Newton ; The World Is Not Enough ; Nathan Dixon (for TV)
Spies like Us (role as Ace Tomato agent)
Criminal Justice (co-exec pr) (for TV)
Bram Stoker's Dracula (co-exec pr); Intruders: They Are among Us (mini, for TV) (exec pr); Murder without Motive: The Edmund Perry Story ( Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry ) (co-exec pr) (mini, for TV); Age 7 in America ( 7 up in America ) (for TV) (pr)
Strapped (for TV) (exec pr)
A Personal History if British Cinema by Stephen Frears (for TV) (role as himself)
14 Up in America (for TV) (exec pr)
The James Bond Story (role as himself)
With Alan Parker, "One on One. Michael Apted and Alan Parker," in American Film (Marion, Ohio), vol. 15, no. 12, September 1990.
Interview with F. Arnold, in EPD Film (Frankfurt), vol. 9, no. 9, September 1992.
"Michael Apted and the Documentary Heartbeat," interview with Vincent DeVeau, in DGA (Los Angeles), vol. 19, no. 6, December-January 1994–1995.
Chaudhuri, Anita, "Mother Nurture," in Time Out (London), no. 1280, 1 March 1995.
Roddick, N., "Michael Apted: Van dondon naar Hollywood, van televisie naar bioscoop," in Skoop , vol. 22, no. 1, February 1986.
Maude, C., "True to Life," in Time Out (London), no. 1088, 26 June 1991.
Pede, R., " Gorillas in the Mist , Apted uit di mouw," in Film and Televisie (Brussels), no. 389, October 1989.
Interview , September, 1991.
* * *
Classic Hollywood, with its contract personnel and assembly-line approach to film production, no doubt encouraged directors to be craftsmen rather than artists. Certainly, studio workers with no pretensions to what would later be called auteurship could be counted on to do a competent, occasionally inspired job with scripts and performers of many different types. This cadre of professionals on which all five majors depended regularly turned out films that would make back their negative costs and perhaps turn a small profit at the box office. Since American film production became largely independent with the demise of the studio system in the 1960s, not many directors have been satisfied with this traditional hack role, despite the benefits it could bring. For flexibility and steady diligence are qualities that are useful in sustaining a career in an era of more limited feature production.
Michael Apted is an instructive case in point of how well such a strategy can work. Apted came to Hollywood in 1979 after a prolific, mildly celebrated stint as a director of features and documentaries for British Granada Television. Like some actors eager for steady employment (Michael Caine and Gene Hackman come to mind), Apted, since leaving Britain, has signed on to a variety of projects in order to practice his craft regularly. In part, his career is defined by his generally satisfactory, occasionally excellent handling of mainstream fiction film projects. Apted, however, is not just a very competent hack. He has remained faithful to an artistic vision as well, which was nurtured by his television work. In fact, his ordinary commercial projects have made it possible for him to continue working as a documentarist.
Apted's debut effort for Hollywood was an unusual project, Agatha , a mystery about that most enigmatic of mystery writers, Agatha Christie. Saddled with a full-of-holes plot by writers Kathleen Tynan and Arthur Hopcraft, Apted proved unable to make much sense of this women's picture story (the famed novelist disappears, only to experience an exciting, brief fling with an American newspaperman). However, he did a commendable job with coaching layered performances from the two leads, the unexpected combination of Dustin Hoffman and Vanessa Redgrave. Predictably, Apted was at his most competent with the detailed recreation of 1920s Britain, especially the lush interiors of luxury hotels.
Interestingly, several other of Apted's Hollywood films are studies in enigmatic, powerful women. Gorillas in the Mist traces the conversion of biologist Dian Fossey into an African conservationist who goes back to nature to study the primates with whom she becomes obsessed. Once again, Apted does a fine job merging Hollywood fakery (i.e., men in gorilla suits, studio sets) with the real thing (much of the film was made, in grueling fashion, on scene in Rwanda). Apted is sensitive to the twists and turns of this ultimately tragic story, including Fossey's suicidal opposition to the natives in general and poachers in particular, who are trying to kill "her" gorillas. Like these two others films, Coal Miner's Daughter is part woman's picture, part biographical picture, for the main character is here again a "real" person, country singer Loretta Lynn.
More than is the case in either Agatha or Gorillas , however, Loretta Lynn's story is melodramatized in the customary TV docudrama style. Her rise to stardom is fueled by the assistance of a mentor, the unselfish singer Patsy Cline, and the relentless, self-serving promotion of a no-good husband, appropriately named Doolittle. Yet Lynn's success, adroitly evoked by Sissy Spacek's endearing performance and excellent singing, goes beyond the power of others to instruct and direct. Even Doolittle's alcoholism and her own depression cannot derail her career, though the film seems cautionary in its depiction of the problems success creates for her personal and family life. Nell likewise focuses on an unusual woman, a girl who has grown up in savage isolation in the woodland home where her mother's death has stranded her. Discovered by a physician and a psychologist, Nell is first a "case," only later to be seen by the scientifically oriented professionals as a human being with her own needs and rights, including the opportunity to keep herself distant from civilization. This Rousseauean point is made with perhaps more sophistication in Truffaut's quite similar The Wild Child , but Apted's treatment is, if predictably heartwarming, effective nonetheless. Much the same could be said about Firstborn , which probes the effects on her children of a recently divorced woman's rebound relationship with a charming sociopath. Both these films, in the manner of docudrama, are short on coherent plot, even as they focus on suitably affecting moments of emotional crisis.
Given the enduring popularity of the form in the 1980s and 1990s, it is hardly surprising that Apted has tried his hand at thrillers as well as the contemporary woman's picture. Gorky Park , Extreme Measures , and Blink collectively demonstrate that he has little talent in either managing a narrative of generically predictable twists and turns or sustaining suspense and interest from beginning to end. In all three of these films, Apted seems uncertain whether to treat the story seriously (which would have been a smart choice with the intricate web of intrigue Martin Cruz Smith weaves in the novel version of Gorky Park ) or, in the Hitchcockian manner, use it as a disposable McGuffin and concentrate on the sophisticated management of spectator emotions.
In contrast, Apted's several treatments of male and female manners, slick updatings of the classic screwball comedy, have been more generally successful. Continental Divide features a hard-bitten journalist who is both "greened" and charmed by his encounter with a reclusive ornithologist high in the Rockies. As his pride is humbled, her prejudice gives way to admiration and affection. Married at the end, they decide, however, to live apart and pursue their separate careers. Here Apted makes the most of Lawrence Kasdan's somewhat prosaic and unimaginative script. Class Action , with its courtroom opposition of old left-wing father and modern corporate daughter, recalls several Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn pairings of the 1940s and offers an entertaining dramatization of contemporary mores. Critical Condition is a Richard Pryor vehicle that, despite some interesting comment on the dubious distinction between sane and crazy behavior, proves generally unfunny.
More interesting from the point of view of cinema history perhaps is Apted's continuing work as a documentarist. In 1963, he was part of a huge sociological project undertaken by Granada Television, the interviewing of a cross-section of British seven-year olds with a view toward demonstrating the effects of social class on the directions their lives would assume. Updatings were undertaken by Granada at the fourteen and twenty-one year point, while Apted has assumed direction of the commercially released segments done at ages twenty-eight and thirty-five for the group. In those two films, 28 Up and 35 Up , Apted acts as the interviewer, showing no little talent for asking the questions that, with wit and perspicacity, often go directly to the heart of the matter.
The traditional left-wing politics of the project (which was conceived to demonstrate that in the middle of the "swinging London" era that class still mattered in the "new" Britain) are very much Apted's own, as his two other principal documentary films show. Conceived and financed by Robert Redford, Incident at Oglala examines the controversial case of Leonard Peltier, a Sioux activist convicted of murdering two FBI agents at the Oglala Reservation. The film is a tendentious, quite convincing marshaling of evidence that Peltier was framed for the crime by the FBI and thus improperly imprisoned. Thunderheart , a fiction film project conceived and produced by Robert De Niro, yet another marquee supporter of the movement for Native American justice, was likewise directed by Apted, with special permission from the tribe, on the same reservation. The plot is thin, a predictable thriller with a man of divided loyalty (an FBI agent of Indian blood) at its center; here the main interest lies in Apted's expert evocation of a way of life fallen on disastrously hard times. Much the same praise may be accorded Apted's second most impressive documentarian project Moving the Mountain , a meticulously detailed account of the student democracy movement in China that culminated in the Tian An Men square massacre in 1989. Bring on the Night shows that Apted can deal effectively with lighter material as well, in this case rock star Sting's attempt to create a band with jazz musicians after the demise of The Police.
—R. Barton Palmer