Michael Apted, the British director best known for low-key female-centered dramas and for a series of films that grew into the crowning glory of the documentary form, was puzzled about being asked to direct, in late middle age, a James Bond picture called The World Is Not Enough (1999). Eventually Apted figured out the reason: “They were very worried that they could not attract women into the Bond franchise,” he said in an interview with La-La Land Records, the label that released a soundtrack album for the film. In 1999 Hollywood, an established director with a reputation for being able to handle women’s stories was so rare that a man with no experience in spectacle whatsoever was handed the reins to one of the industry’s most valuable franchises.
Apted, who died Thursday at 79 in Los Angeles (no cause of death was reported by his agent), was one of the few heterosexual men in his industry who were genuinely interested in women’s stories, directing several of them with great success. Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) was a massive hit (number seven on the year) that did better at the box office than The Blues Brothers, The Shining, or Caddyshack, all released the same year. Yet as an obituary in the Washington Post notes, many reviews didn’t even mention the film’s director: Apted declined to make himself the star of the movie, which won Sissy Spacek an Oscar for an absolutely uncanny portrayal of Kentucky-born singer Loretta Lynn. Apted, an Englishman who had attended the University of Cambridge with John Cleese and the eminent director Stephen Frears, was a contrarian choice to direct an all-American story about hillbillies, but he proved to be an ideal one. “Michael was the key to it all,” Spacek later said. “I shudder to think what the film would have been without him.”
Apted brought to the material a documentarian’s curiosity and naturalism, and told the story plainly, without condescension or cliché. The film was a hillbilly elegy, and it scored with audiences across the sociological spectrum. Apted returned to women’s stories again and again: Agatha (1979), starring Vanessa Redgrave, built upon an incident in Agatha Christie’s life; Gorillas in the Mist (1988) celebrated the conservationist and primatologist Dian Fossey (played by Sigourney Weaver in an Oscar-nominated turn), who was murdered in Rwanda in 1985; and Nell (1994), which earned Jodie Foster an Oscar nomination, was about a young woman raised in isolation in a cabin in the woods. He also directed another blockbuster, the Narnia film The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010), as well as indies and episodic television. “I’m a magpie rather than a visionary,” he said. “Little of what I do is about myself. I tend not to make personal films, which allows me to have an enormous variety in my work.”
What is the opposite of a visionary filmmaker? Perhaps it’s a curious one — a director who is interested in learning rather than imposing his pre-decided views on the material. In his most notable project — a landmark in cinema — he demonstrated that fidelity to the nature of the material can steer a filmmaker in surprising directions. The Up series is a collection of films that tracks a selected group of British children starting at age seven, checking in on them with a new film every seven years thereafter. Apted was a researcher on the first installment, Seven Up! (1964), and then directed every subsequent episode at seven-year intervals through 63 Up (2019). The aims of the project were clear from the opening moments: By casting a cross-section of Britons from different classes, the series of TV productions set out to obtain documentary proof of class determinism. The firmly held notion among progressives of the day was that the British class system had built tall and unbreachable walls, and that these barriers trapped people in place. As Apted put it, “The class system needed a kick up the backside.” Reality turned out to be much more complicated than Apted expected, though, and instead of massaging his material to fit the predetermined narrative — the editor of a documentary can depict more or less any reality he chooses — he simply stood aside and let the evidence prove him wrong.
Contra its own intentions, the Up series stands as a monument to the importance of character in determining outcomes, not to class as destiny. “What I had seen as a significant statement about the English class system was in fact a humanistic document about the real issues of life,” he wrote in 2000. He also cheerfully admitted failure in trying to impose his liberal vision of feminine self-actualization on the women in the Up series (five out of the original cast of 14) and found them pushing back. “I keep saying there’s a big world out there, beyond going to dances and having babies and beer money,” Apted once said, “and they just have a go at me on camera.” A liberal’s idea of how to direct the masses for their own good runs aground on people’s actual preferences.
Apted leaves behind a double legacy: reality television owes much to him, as does what you might call reality moviemaking. His documentary-influenced feature films helped lay the groundwork for later directors such as Paul Greengrass and Kathryn Bigelow who took Apted’s approach even further, via hand-held cameras and non-professional actors, to create gritty, sometimes grueling cinematic experiences. “The films I like best are hybrids,” Apted said. “Coal Miner’s Daughter was a sociological film and an intimate story. I can get real performances out of people from doing documentaries.” The hybrid style is flourishing; if only more filmmakers shared Apted’s refusal to impose an ideological vision on their material.