Michael Apted (1941-2021)
8th January 2021
The director of The World Is Not Enough has died aged 79
British filmmaker, Michael Apted, who directed Pierce Brosnan’s third outing as James Bond, 'The World Is Not Enough', has died. He was 79. Apted had a steady and distinguished career in documentaries and feature films spanning more than six decades. Producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli said in a statement, “He was a director of enormous talent and range and unique in his ability to move effortlessly and successfully between all genres. He was beloved by all those who worked with him.”
Michael David Apted was born in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire on 10 February 1941. While his father, Ronald, worked for an insurance company, he described his mother, Frances, as “a sort of dyed-in-the-wool socialist” who instilled a liberal outlook in him. He earned a scholarship to study law and history at Cambridge where he met future Monty Python-star, John Cleese, whom he would later direct as the character ‘R’ in 'The World Is Not Enough'.
In 1964, he joined Granada Television in Manchester as a trainee researcher and was tasked with assisting director, Paul Almond, with finding 14, 7-year-old children, for an experimental sociological documentary, ‘Seven Up!’ The participants were interviewed about all aspects of their lives and future aspirations and the results made ground-breaking television. The project fascinated 23-year-old Apted so much, that he continued the experiment and re-visited the same individuals every seven years for the rest of his career, the most recent, ’63 Up’ in 2019. He told Slant magazine, “The series was an attempt to do a long view of English society,” and he vowed to continue producing the documentary series for as long as he could “breathe and speak.” Over the course of 50 years, Apted’s series won three BAFTAs and was often described as the precursor of modern-day reality TV.
Throughout the 1960s and while still at Granada, Apted cut his teeth in British TV drama, including episodes of the long-running soap, ‘Coronation Street’. In 1970, he went freelance and spent the next two years directing plays for the BBC as well as the ITV companies including episodes of the children's show, Follyfoot, which starred veteran Bond regular Desmond Llewelyn. Apted made his feature film debut with ‘The Triple Echo’ (1972), starring Glenda Jackson and Oliver Reed, and followed with his rock-flick ‘Stardust’ (1974), starring David Essex. One overlooked film was his London-based gangster thriller, 'The Squeeze' (1977) starring David Hemmings and Edward Fox. He made his name in Hollywood with the Loretta Lynn biopic ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (1980), starring Sissy Spacek. It was a commercial and critical hit receiving seven Academy Awards.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Apted enjoyed steady success with well-observed character-driven dramas, most notably ‘Gorky Park’ (1983), ‘Gorillas In The Mist (1988), and Nell (1994), and the crime drama, Extreme Measures (1996) starring Hugh Grant and Gene Hackman.
In 1998, Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson approached Apted about directing Bond 19. It was a leftfield choice but showed the producers’ desire to explore a more character-driven Bond picture. During the research for Some Kind of Hero: The Remarkable Story of the James Bond Films, Apted spoke at length during a number of interview sessions with Ajay Chowdhury and I about his time at the helm of James Bond. “When I was asked if I was interested I thought it was a joke because I had never done anything like it. But then I discovered they were worried that the Bonds had got a little mechanical and they were trying to get some emotion into it.”
In truth, it was Apted’s successful reputation with female-driven stories that had attracted EON. He had directed three performances that secured Oscar nominations: Sissy Spacek in ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ Sigourney Weaver in ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ and Jodie Foster in ‘Nell,’ with Spacek going on to win the Academy Award. ‘The World Is Not Enough’ was to feature a female villain in a Bond adventure as overwrought as a Shakespearean tragedy, in which the history, motivation, and interaction between the principal characters underpin the entire story.
Apted admitted he was not a Bond fan, “Frankly, in the sixties when they started, I was more likely to be looking at Fellini or Bergman or Godard and all that sort of stuff, rather than seeing a Bond film.” However, he admired the talents of Pierce Brosnan and the direction the actor had taken the spy in 'GoldenEye' and 'Tomorrow Never Dies', “He could go from being funny to being a hero to being serious to being emotional. I thought he had a lot of bullets in his gun as it were.” By his third 007 movie, Brosnan had a say in the choice of director. Remembered Apted, “He certainly auditioned me. We had lunch together and it was clearly for him to meet me and talk to me and to see if it could work.” Brosnan said in Some Kind of Hero, “[Apted] had a very dry sense of humour, a droll sense of humour, and I really appreciated that. He was very affable and had a vision.”
Apted joined Broccoli and Wilson’s team with caution, “I was scared shitless going in because I was an outsider and I didn’t know how well I was going to be regarded by the family or how much I was imposing in a family environment, but they couldn’t have been more open and friendly.” The experience would be an education for Apted, “The film business is very ageist. At my age, to learn the dynamics of such a huge international action blockbuster was very exciting.”
Apted immediately shook things up by suggesting the producers hire a female writer to work on the screenplay initially penned by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, “It needed the injection of a woman to give some spirit to the women in the film. Intellectually everybody wanted there to be some more femininity in the story but when it came to the reality of it, Michael [Wilson] was a little nervous.” The director introduced his then-wife, Hollywood screenwriter, Dana Stevens, to undertake an un-credited re-write. Stevens recalled later, “On every movie that Michael made while I was married to him, there was a sinking feeling from the writers, “Oh no, Michael Apted might bring his wife on to do some work!’” Apted worked with Stevens to further develop the Electra King character and Judi Dench’s M.
He pushed to cast ‘Braveheart’ (1995) actor Sophie Marceau as Electra, but initially, MGM pushed back, “I had to fight for her because I think she was quite expensive and I remember I did dig my heel in.” He compromised with the casting of Hollywood star, Denise Richards, as nuclear physicist, Dr. Christmas Jones, which he described as “a nod to the more conventional Bond girl – we weren’t going to ditch the heavy chested glamorous Bond girls. They didn’t want to change the formula too much.”
The plot was to be loosely told against the backdrop of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and how it had become the centre of an oil boom following the break-up of the USSR some years earlier. The location appealed to Apted’s documentary antennae and as soon as he signed on to the picture, he led a team to study the oil operation around the Caspian. “I was knocked out by it, the visual possibilities, because you are always looking for new visual grammar in Bond. Here seemed to be an entirely original location. There were incredible images, these oil fields, going to rack and ruin. That gave us a lot of terrific ideas and a lot of terrific images. I suppose my whole faith in documentaries is that the truth is stranger than fiction.”
The pre-title sequence was shot on home turf with the producers convincing authorities to allow them to stage a high-speed boat chase on the River Thames in London. It was during these negotiations that Apted witnessed first hand the power of the franchise, “If you knock on the door and say you are doing a Bond film people let you do anything. They must know we are going to blow up things. Because it is Bond, everybody goes weak at the knees. And we took full advantage of it.”
Following the international box office success of 'The World Is Not Enough', Apted was asked if he wanted to helm the next chapter in the series, which ultimately became 'Die Another Day' (2002). However, following a change in management at MGM the offer was withdrawn. “I had this very difficult meeting with the Broccolis where they said they had to un-invite me. [MGM] thought, ‘We can do better than him. We can get Tony Scott or John Woo’ and they couldn’t. They came back to me, but by that time I had got another job. So that was unfortunate because I would have loved to have done another one.”
Apted utilized his Bond success as a calling card to secure bigger projects and budgets, such as the fantasy sequel ‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ (2010). His other post Bond features include his World War 2, Bletchley Park drama, ‘Enigma’ (2001) (which incidentally featured the last score from veteran Bond composer John Barry), and ‘Enough’ (2002) starring Jennifer Lopez.
He spent his later years in Los Angeles where he directed episodes of HBO’s ‘Rome’ and Showtime’s ‘Ray Donovan’ and ‘Masters of Sex’ as well as the 2017 “Bourne” style feature thriller ‘Unlocked’, which starred Noomi Rapace as a CIA interrogator. He returned to the world of documentaries with ‘The FIFA 2006 World Cup Film: The Grand Finale’ (2006) narrated by Pierce Brosnan and a film about the Rolling Stones 40th-anniversary Licks tour which was never released following a dispute with Mick Jagger. Apted also served as president of the Directors Guild of America from 2003-09 and helped negotiate its contracts with producers.
Apted summarised his Bond memories, “It was one of the best experiences of my professional life. I really enjoyed it. Whenever I say I’ve done a Bond film, whatever other films I’ve done really count for very little. It’s the Bond film, in the public’s eye, that is the jewel in the crown.”
Apted is survived by his third wife, Paige, and children Jim, John, and Lily. His son, Paul Apted, a sound editor pre-deceased him in 2014.
Special thanks to Ajay Chowdhury.