Michael Apted

Michael Apted

Born in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England, Apted began his career with England's Granada Television - first as a researcher, where he first encountered fellow future British director Mike Newell; then as a director, most notably on the long-running soap "Coronation Street" (ITV, 1960-). After serving as the assistant to director Paul Almond on "7 Up" (Granada TV, 1963), Apted directed and produced some 50-odd episodes of plays, serials and television series. In 1970, he helmed "7 Plus Seven," a documentary update of Almond's "7 Up." Apted soon ventured into feature films, making his debut with "Triple Echo" (1973), an off-beat wartime romance in which Oliver Reed falls for an AWOL soldier (Brian Deacon) disguised as a woman. The director displayed his enthusiasm for the music scene with his follow-up, "Stardust" (1974), which chronicled the rise and fall of a Beatles-like pop group. Continuing to show eclectic taste, as well as a talent for action sequences, Apted made the gritty British crime thriller, "The Squeeze" (1977), starring Stacy Keach as a burnt-out, alcoholic ex-cop offered a chance at redemption when called upon to rescue his former spouse from kidnappers.Apted's last British effort before crossing the pond to work in Hollywood, "Agatha" (1979), was an intriguing speculation on the 11-day disappearance of Agatha Christie in 1926, which starred Vanessa Redgrave as the famous mystery writer and Dustin Hoffman as the smooth Yankee reporter who tracks her down. Making his American film debut, Apted gained instant credibility with "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980), widely considered to be one of the finest musical bios ever made. The rags-to-riches story of country star Loretta Lynn earned star Sissy Spacek - who also sang Lynn's songs pitch-perfect - a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar and featured equally outstanding work from Tommy Lee Jones, Beverly D'Angelo and Levon Helm in supporting parts. He stumbled with his next outing, "Continental Divide" (1981), despite the presence of potent collaborators like screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, executive producer Steven Spielberg and star John Belushi, whom viewers had a hard time accepting in a romantic leading man role. Apted returned to England for the middling adolescent comedy "Kipperbang" (1982), which was made for British television, but released theatrically in the United States, before finally scoring at the box office with "Gorky Park" (1983). Adapted from Martin Cruz Smith's best-selling crime novel, "Gorky Park" was an absorbing, but rather complex examination of a corrupt Soviet state hindering a murder investigation headed by a dogged police inspector (William Hurt). Following a very bad Richard Pryor vehicle, "Critical Condition" (1986), Apted recovered his bearings with "Gorillas in the Mist" (1988), an intriguing blend of documentary and career-woman melodrama starring Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey, the real-life ferocious and antisocial recluse whose zealous protection of Rwandan gorillas led to her unsolved murder. His success in features not withstanding, Apted was also an accomplished documentarian, particularly after his assistant stint on Paul Almond's "7 Up," which attempted to document the effects of social and economic disparities among English schoolchildren of radically different backgrounds. Once Apted came into his own as a director, he took over the project and made it his own, directing follow-up portraits of the same group of subjects at seven-year intervals in the sequels "7 Plus Seven," "21 Up" (1977), "28 Up" (1984), "35 Up" (1991) and "42 Up" (1998). The popularity of the series led to an American spin-off, "Age Seven in America" (CBS, 1992) and its later installment "14 Up in America" (Showtime, 1998); both directed by Phil Joanou with Apted serving behind the scenes as producer and executive producer, respectively. The series crossed over into other countries, with Russia, South Africa, Japan and Germany producing their own series.Although there was a time when the "Up" films were his only break from fiction, Apted increasingly expanded his scope as a nonfiction filmmaker. "Bring on the Night" (1985), his look into the formation of Sting's rock/jazz band culminating in their first concert performance, earned a Grammy for Best Music Video, Long Form. He similarly profiled Russian rock star Boris Grebenshikov in "The Long Way Home" (Granada TV, 1989). After soliciting crackling performances from Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as father and daughter lawyers on opposite sides in "Class Action" (1991), Apted journeyed to Sioux country for the incisive documentary "Incident at Oglala" (1992) and its related feature "Thunderheart" (1992), a drama based loosely on those events of the 1970s which occurred at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota which led to the framing of Indian activist Leonard Peltier. The engrossing thriller starred Val Kilmer as an FBI man who discovers his own Indian roots while investigating murder on the reservation. Apted next traveled to China for "Moving the Mountain" (1994), a documentary look inside the origins of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and what subsequently happened to the lives of the movement's leaders.Apted's penchant for dramas revolving around female protagonists continued with "Blink" (1994), which starred Madeline Stowe as a blind woman who regains her sight after 20 years, only to witnesses a murder, which she then doubts she has seen. For "Nell" (1994), Apted incorporated a documentary tone to tell the story of a young woman (Jodie Foster) raised in isolation who becomes the center of controversy when a kindly doctor (Liam Neeson) and an ambitious psychologist (Natasha Richardson) take opposing views on whether she should be integrated into society. Following "Extreme Measures" (1996), a rather predictable conspiracy thriller set in the medical world, Apted embarked on back-to-back documentaries: "Inspirations" (1997), which detailed the creative process of celebrated artists like David Bowie and Roy Lichtenstein, and "Me and Isaac Newton" (1999), which examined individuals who find solace in the answers provided by science. His reputation for helming character-driven projects prompted producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli to invite him to take on James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) in "The World Is Not Enough" (1999). Apted tried to concentrate on strong characterization and storytelling amidst the usual gadgets and action sequence, while elevating the Bond girls above their usual sexual ornamentation. But instead, he created a lifeless and confusing addition to the franchise, while also introducing Dr. Christmas Jones (Denise Richards), widely considered to be one of the worst Bond girls of all time.Staying within espionage territory, Apted directed the talky and nostalgic spy film, "Enigma" (2001), which starred Kate Winslet as a plucky member of the British team trying to crack the Nazi's Enigma machine ciphers, while helping a brilliant, but broken-down mathematician (Dougray Scott) trying to find his missing former love (Saffron Burrows). After helming the dismal Jennifer Lopez revenge vehicle "Enough" (2002), he embarked on a documentary series on marriage called "Married in America" (A&E, 2002). Using the same format as his seminal "7 Up" series, nine couple's lives were documented over the course of a decade. A second installment, "Married in America 2" (A&E, 2006), caught up with the same couples five years later. Meanwhile, Apted returned to episodic television, directing episodes of the short-lived procedural "Blind Justice" (ABC, 2004-05) and the first three episodes of the lurid and violent historical drama, "Rome" (HBO, 2005-07). While serving as President of the Directors Guild of America from 2003-09, Apted directed "Saving Grace" (2007), a historical drama chronicling the efforts of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd) to eliminate the slave trade in 19th century England. Returning to large-scale filmmaking, Apted directed "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" (2010), the third installment to the popular film franchise based on the novels of C.S. Lewis. Michael Apted died on January 8, 2021 at the age of 79.