Five Favorite Films

Michael Apted's Five Favorite Films

The director of The World Is Not Enough, the Up documentary series, and this week's Unlocked on the universal language of laughter, time travel, and female-centered stories.

by | August 31, 2017 | Comments

(Photo by First Run Features courtesy Everett Collection)

Few directors will ever be able to say that they’ve helmed both an influential documentary franchise and a James Bond film, but Michael Apted certainly can. He took the reins for the Pierce Brosnan 007 film The World Is Not Enough, and his acclaimed Up documentary series, which began in 1964 with a profile of several seven-year-olds and has checked in with the same “kids” every seven years since then, remains a singular cinematic achievement. Since making his debut over half a century ago, Apted has worked steadily in both television and film, as a documentarian and narrative filmmaker, establishing himself as one of the most prolific, most versatile directors of his era.

Apted is also known for working with celebrated actresses in acclaimed films about famous women, like Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist and Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter — both earned multiple Oscar nominations, and Spacek actually took home the Best Actress trophy. This week, Apted returns to the big screen with Unlocked, a tense spy thriller starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Douglas, Orlando Bloom, and Toni Collette. He spoke with RT about his Five Favorite Films, explained what he finds so fascinating about women’s stories, and talked about how his documentary background informs even his most outrageous films.


Wild Strawberries (1957) 95%

The first one is Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. It’s what I saw when I was 15, and it showed me that films could be something more than just entertainment or going and staring at girls in the cinema or whatever, but film could have the kind of weight of a book or something like that. I used to be a big reader, and I loved going to the movies, but I had no sense of taste in the movies.

You know, I grew up in a suburb of London, and I went to school in the middle of London, and that’s when I found myself, one wet afternoon, in an arthouse, and there was Wild Strawberries, and that, for me, was the beginning of it all. It had so many ideas, and it played with dreams, and I thought, “Oh my God. This is quite something.” So it really was a kind of major event in my life.

RT: Had you seen many foreign or arthouse films at that point?

No, never. Never. My life had been entirely that of a middle class suburban lad who went to the movies with his friends for all sorts of reasons. This was the first time I could look at a film as an equal of a book.

Kes (1969) 100%

Number two is Kes, Ken Loach’s film. I’d already kind of established myself in television, and I loved Italian movies and all that. And then here was a genuine British neo-realist movie, which I thought was an exquisite film. It dealt with incredibly complicated social issues, which I was very much involved in myself, with my Up series, which had already started by that time. But what I thought was so beautiful about it was that he found the metaphor of this boy and this kestrel, and he told the whole tale of the boy’s life — the stress the boy was under, and the unfairness of life — through the relationship with him and a bird, which I thought was just a brilliant filmic notion.

I mean, I’ve always loved his work. He was very influential on my generation — not that he’s much older than us, but I think he was very much our man, and, you know, he has a huge body of work in his lifetime. He never seems to stop. Stop! Right? Otherwise, we’ve all got to keep going, if you keep going. God.

Nuit et Brouillard (Night and Fog) (1955) 100%

Next is a documentary called Night and Fog by Alain Resnais, which is a story of then and now, of concentration camps. That had a major influence on me, again, for the poetry, if you can call it that, of the documentary, but also the way he used time, the way he used two time zones, two sets of material, to make his point, and to give the film, which obviously had some astounding, alarming images in it, but without a lot of babble, of explanation, by contrasting what it once was and what it is now. It was very moving to me, and I think that was inspirational, again, in the [Up] films I did with these children, which I’m still doing.

But I could see how you could time travel in documentary, and it makes both sets of material more powerful. Of course, the film is incredibly powerful anyway. But nonetheless, he’d found a style of doing it, a way of doing it… It’s just, the power of those images, without endless babble, was, to me, a very strong lesson.

RT: That’s an interesting notion, of time travel through documentary.

Yeah, I’ve used it a lot. I mean, we’ll get to it in a movie in a minute, but that, to me, was very, very striking — not just the material, but the whole structure of it, the whole idea of it.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984) 95%

And then, my fourth one is a comedy, and I was torn between Some Like It Hot, which I love, but my vote went to Spinal Tap, which I thought was more contemporary. It made me feel such an old man, but…

One of the things about Spinal Tap — I was doing a documentary [The Long Way Home] about Russian rock and roll in, I don’t know, the late ’80s or something like that, and it was about a Russian band coming — it was around Glasnost when they came across to America to make the record, and it was about Glasnost, and the co-production, as it were, saw the closing of the gap between East and West, as it were. That’s what it set out to be, but it turned out to be a disaster. Not the film, but the whole object of the enterprise, because it split the band up, and the Russian band never made another record. They were completely disoriented by being in the West and all that. So it was one of those documentaries where what you set out to do, you don’t do, and you do something else, which is usually better than what you were going to do.

The point of the story is that I showed them Spinal Tap. They fell about, and they couldn’t speak a word of English, but they absolutely got it. It was just, again, the power of the humor and the power of the images, and all this kind of stuff. I mean, we were in common ground — they never understood a word of it, but they were just laughing as much I would laugh every time I saw it. That was a kind of interesting experience for me, to see how universal films can be.

RT: So you showed this film to them as you were filming the documentary?

Yeah, yeah. One evening, I brought it with me, because I’ve loved it, and I thought, well, I’ll try it. I’ll show it to them, and they might throw me out, or whatever. [laughs] And I thought, let’s just try it. Let’s see what they thought. And so I put it on, and they just were absolutely gobsmacked by it, and just were crying with laughter. It was a great bonding moment, you know. I mean, the music was the bonding moment that I was doing with them, but it was sweet to see humor as a great bonding thing.

Pulp Fiction (1994) 92%

The last one is Pulp Fiction. Me and my, as he was then, I suppose, eight-year-old, nine-year-old son, thought it was great. I just loved, again, the way [Quentin Tarantino] used time, the way he moved backwards and forwards in time, which I thought was sort of groundbreaking, although it may not have been. But I thought it was. And I saw the energy and the vigor of it all, and just the images of it. I just love that film.

I watch it now and again, as it were, and it never palls for me at all, but I just thought he kind of invented a way, or kind of storytelling technique, which is sort of second nature to us all now, but again, that nonlinear business — for me, it was a revelation. I’m sure there have been other films like it, but this seemed to work so well within a very contemporary, very fast-moving, very original piece. To have the courage to play with the structure, and tell things backwards and forwards and all that sort of thing, I thought, was not just cute, or just showmanship. It actually enhanced the drama, trying to figure out where you were and what was going on. I found that a very creative effort, and so did my son, which thrilled me. He wasn’t fazed by it at all.


Ryan Fujitani for Rotten Tomatoes: A lot of your films — and perhaps some of the ones you’re best known for — feature female protagonists, and Unlocked also falls into that category. Can you talk a little bit about why it’s important to you to tell these female-centered stories?

Michael Apted: I’ve always felt that women’s lives were intrinsically more dramatic than men’s, largely because they have the issue of having children, and so at some point in their life, they have to make a decision not to have children, or to have children. And just to compare two of my women’s films, one was Sissy [Spacek] in Coal Miner’s Daughter, when she burdened with having to bring up four children and have a career. And with Gorillas in the Mist, when Dian Fossey decided to abandon all kinds of social life. Although she liked men, and she liked clothes, and all those things, she decided to go live in these godawful mountains for 15, 16 years.

I find that, at the heart of women’s stories, for me, there’s much more drama, much more emotion in it, because of the kind of expectations they have of life, how they’re expected maybe to have children, get married, blah, blah, blah. Even in something like the film I did with [John] Belushi, Continental Divide, which was directly on that motive, that there was this woman who’d gone on up and sit on the top of the mountain to follow birds around — eagles — and there was this kind of grubby newspaperman coming in and wondering what the hell was going on. Although it was a comedy, nonetheless underlying it was the fact that this woman has given up the expectations of her life to do this rather odd job, to try and see how many the eagles were and all this sort of stuff.

And Nell, too. I just found women’s stories more emotional, and that’s what I have to look for in any film I do, is the emotion, whatever it is. It doesn’t have to be between a man and a woman. It can be with an older man, or a younger boy, or whatever, but as long as some emotional center to it, then I can come up with it. And I find that that’s why I’m attracted to stories with women.

Only this one was slightly different, because this one was in place, and Noomi [Rapace] was in place and all that when I came in to do it, but nonetheless… I feel like every film I’ve done, there always seems to be women in it, which is just an instinctive choice on my part.

RT: Going back to Unlocked, in the end, it’s a propulsive spy thriller, and it’s set in a sort of heightened reality, but it sort of sits in this interesting middle ground between truly fantastical stuff — like your James Bond film or the Chronicles of Narnia film that you did — and movies that are strictly based in reality, like the documentaries you make. Does something like Unlocked hit sort of a sweet spot for you as a filmmaker who has made films in both realms?

Apted: It’s dealing with a horrendous issue. It’s slightly over-the-top and slightly unbelievable, but nonetheless it does ask questions about where we’re at or what we are, and it brings intimacy to the kind of dangerous life we’re all living, every time we go down the Underground, every time we get on a bus, or into the car. Without being too squeamish about it and all that, I found that that story took me into something that maybe people don’t think about quite enough. Not that we should all go around terrified of opening the door.

But I thought, again, it was the kind of human way of expressing what is very troubling — not that it should ruin our lives, but we should not be unaware of it. So, yeah, it does… I mean, there’s the stuff that I do, I suppose,  that is in the middle ground, if you like. That’s an astute observation on your part. But I think everything I do is basically a documentary. I mean, even things as outrageous as Bond and that.

I remember with the Bond film, it was about getting gas out of the water, out of the Caspian, so I made them all go down there and have a look at it and see what was down there. We got some astonishing images. I shot some of them, in the design of the sets and all that kind stuff. It was this city in the middle of the Caspian sea. It was unbelievable. And had I not sort of said, “Well, look, I’ve got to find out how this really happens…” I find my documentary instinct always, at some point, comes to bear, and if it doesn’t, usually I don’t do a very good job. I like having that as a kind of back stop, if you know what I mean.

I was very upset when I did Gorky Park, because they wouldn’t let us in. We did go in to start, but they threw us out when they realized what we were doing, that we were adapting this book. And they said, “There is no crime in Russia. Get out.” And they threw us out in a rather unceremonious, rather scary way, because this was pre-Gorbachev.

But again, I felt… “God, I didn’t know what they had for breakfast,” and things like that, and how they live and all that. “How am I going to do this if I don’t know this stuff?” You know, I do my best with it, but I always love to have a kind of documentary or reality base to what I do.


Unlocked opens in limited release this Friday, September 1.

Tag Cloud

worst batman Fox Searchlight football Amazon Prime richard e. Grant comedies Action Best and Worst Starz 2020 Discovery Channel superhero Amazon Prime Video Pet Sematary Black Mirror kids Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Winners Nickelodeon Disney streaming service TLC indie Fall TV Turner TCM Universal YouTube Countdown AMC travel Chilling Adventures of Sabrina dark period drama thriller singing competition TCA 2017 comics halloween tv aliens Epix political drama FX on Hulu remakes psycho Country Mary Tyler Moore Amazon Lucasfilm zombie President Shudder nature Tumblr directors obituary finale Reality romance renewed TV shows blockbuster TBS Winter TV YouTube Premium unscripted cancelled TV shows HBO CMT Sony Pictures romantic comedy game of thrones FOX Trophy Talk The CW social media IFC Star Wars E3 golden globes independent HBO Max Reality Competition green book ABC Family DC Universe Sci-Fi dceu crime thriller Sundance boxoffice Watching Series critics Esquire video Superheroe Sundance Now Marvel Television SDCC Nominations politics PBS Binge Guide supernatural vampires Writers Guild of America Paramount Network discovery Warner Bros. Rom-Com archives teaser Toys MTV south america BBC Pirates Nat Geo Red Carpet 2016 revenge Box Office YA Pop TV natural history scorecard GoT festivals mutant Disney Channel Amazon Studios LGBT CBS All Access cats Pride Month war Mudbound tv talk game show LGBTQ Film Festival 2015 Sneak Peek Crackle transformers diversity VH1 composers medical drama Tomatazos Super Bowl miniseries Valentine's Day Musical worst movies crime parents Disney+ Disney Plus New York Comic Con Video Games cults 2017 films Christmas stand-up comedy latino Elton John sitcom Marvel Studios CNN Cartoon Network Photos science fiction scary movies stoner versus crime drama Year in Review franchise Rock 20th Century Fox Comics on TV hispanic Netflix Christmas movies Lifetime The Academy news award winner Chernobyl a nightmare on elm street American Society of Cinematographers GIFs documentaries asian-american zombies ghosts DC Comics Hulu Set visit TCA Awards Dark Horse Comics Acorn TV TCA Winter 2020 sequel nbcuniversal 2019 toy story canceled Television Critics Association cancelled TV series RT21 TV renewals Fox News ESPN animated Lionsgate cops Lifetime Christmas movies cinemax GLAAD CW Seed Endgame Shondaland Kids & Family DGA 71st Emmy Awards National Geographic dramedy jamie lee curtis children's TV Hallmark Polls and Games psychological thriller 45 rotten movies we love disaster Funimation crossover biography Comedy Central hist BBC One laika theme song universal monsters Columbia Pictures binge First Look Travel Channel cancelled television Stephen King technology child's play TV Land NBC comic TV movie ratings classics Film Turner Classic Movies Adult Swim christmas movies SXSW breaking bad FXX Tarantino documentary Disney Arrowverse The Purge sports all-time Fantasy french Peacock Pop Emmys hollywood E! Opinion APB canceled TV shows Emmy Nominations robots Women's History Month 4/20 spanish TCA PlayStation Trailer Extras Walt Disney Pictures Anna Paquin RT History Podcast Awards Tour Creative Arts Emmys adaptation Mindy Kaling Sundance TV police drama Brie Larson DirecTV Bravo BET IFC Films Awards Spring TV zero dark thirty justice league mission: impossible toronto halloween festival quibi harry potter Baby Yoda space YouTube Red based on movie FX Tubi Ellie Kemper anthology streaming indiana jones spy thriller Election Spike VOD OWN History First Reviews ABC twilight adventure what to watch werewolf HBO Go Thanksgiving japanese The Arrangement screenings satire foreign Holiday movies VICE screen actors guild Mary poppins true crime 24 frames 2018 X-Men comiccon venice Apple San Diego Comic-Con concert cartoon Mystery Apple TV+ Teen Food Network Biopics sag awards book The Walking Dead Family TruTV Britbox nfl Classic Film BBC America die hard dragons Quiz docudrama Ovation NYCC El Rey The Witch fast and furious MSNBC spanish language Ghostbusters 007 Captain marvel Horror 21st Century Fox Summer WGN Cannes Vudu Marathons Black History Month casting Interview BAFTA A24 Music ITV CBS See It Skip It cooking chucky DC streaming service USA serial killer Avengers sequels WarnerMedia Infographic Comedy slashers PaleyFest Logo joker Trivia facebook Netflix anime Television Academy cancelled 72 Emmy Awards historical drama Marvel reviews rotten Oscars criterion Hallmark Christmas movies spider-man elevated horror Freeform A&E Comic Book Character Guide Academy Awards Syfy Star Trek free movies Showtime Certified Fresh cars italian Paramount Drama talk show USA Network Superheroes dogs mockumentary strong female leads doctor who blaxploitation Calendar video on demand dc Premiere Dates spinoff Schedule emmy awards OneApp TIFF name the review Spectrum Originals witnail Apple TV Plus BET Awards Heroines Pixar Crunchyroll TNT Animation spain Masterpiece Mary Poppins Returns television stop motion Musicals Grammys best Holidays Disney Plus Song of Ice and Fire Western MCU Martial Arts Rocketman Rocky Cosplay Hear Us Out reboot SundanceTV series