Michael Apted Interviewed – ‘Amazing Grace’

     February 23, 2007

Only after attending the roundtable with Michael Apted did I realize how badly I fucked up. After all, he was the actor who played the Ace tomato agent in Spies Like Us and I didn’t even ask him how he prepared for the role. Damn!

Seriously though, Michael Apted has been making good movies since before most of us were born. Rather than me list off his resume you should check it out for yourself as it’s quite impressive. However the highlight for me is how he often deals with social issues that most filmmakers tend to ignore. Yeah I’ll let him slide on Enough…

Now for the reason we are here.

Opening today is Amazing Grace. In the film Ioan Gruffudd plays William Wilberfoce who’s a not very well known figure in British history. If you have not heard of him, don’t worry, I hadn’t either. What you need to know is he was very much ahead of his time as he sought to abolish slavery when it was very much against what the leaders in government desired.

The reason I liked the film is that it isn’t preachy and it doesn’t try to show all the politicians as evil corrupt people. Instead director Michael Apted shows us a world where many people wanted social change but were compelled to keep the status quo, as making those changes could lead to financial ruin.

Below is the interview that was done a few days ago. You can also listen to it here.

And the other day I posted an interview with Ioan Gruffudd in case you missed it. You might know him better as Mr. Fantastic from the FF films. During his interview he talks a lot about FF2.

The story is sort of new to us because we grew up with American History and slavery and Abe Lincoln. Is this more well known in England or is it also sort of the untold story.

A little bit of the untold. It was part of a very famous period of English history. It was the British Revolution as opposed to the French or American. Our revolution wasn’t blood in the streets but a whole slew of legislation to transform society to reform society, electioneering, electoral votes, industrial moves, education everything. So we knew about the period but the details about this particular incident weren’t widely known at all. Also all the forces sort of embraced by the faith community a lot so he’s known more for that than for a lot of his political work.

Is that why you wanted to bring his story to light?

I’ve been trying to find a story about politics to throw some as it were inspiration out of politics because I was disillusioned myself with politics and disillusioned with people’s lack of interest in politics, the negativism and pessimism of politics and I’ve been trying for years to find a story to throw some light on what politics has the power to do. Then this story came to me in a slightly different way as a bio-pic but I could see within the biopic there was this great story about the slave trailer which sort of demonstrated the other issue which is the church/state issue. How man’s religious beliefs can transform his life but not stop him being a real politician. Not just using his religion as a political weapon but use his religion for inspiration and also deal with politics in the way that Mandela or Martin Luther King or Gandhi could do.

Is there anything in Wilberforce that you could see in yourself that you stood up for something?

Well, no. I just thought it was a great story from my point of view I suppose what I get from it is in a sense because I’m not at all religious I’m afraid but just the sheer courage of sticking at it year after year after year. I tend to give up on things a bit. You take on a project and just end up being inane about my business but sometimes you have to hang in with projects and sometimes it takes years for things to get made. My inclination sometimes is more often than not let’s just move on. Forget about it. Let’s move on with other things. I think I was very taken by the power of someone’s spiritual life. How that can really as long as it stays in that person.

How much license was taken in the actual advance? Do you have a record of him taking people to the boat to get a whiff of the horrible….


That’s written down in his own diaries?

No. There’s a ton of books written about him especially after his death largely manufactured by his children so there was a lot of material about him. Some of the words are his too in the Parliament. Mr. Knight used some of the words. Obviously we take enormous liberties with compressing history and we found the big stroke was to find that structure to tell that story, to tell it some ways through that central romantic relationship. In some ways that became in a sense the little engine for the story and everything else sort of came off that. That was very helpful. That was a very serendipitous moment when we landed on that. We also had to take characters out. We had to do that. Because we didn’t have to worry, which I’ve had to do before on bio-pics I’ve done, is the laborious process of going all the way through it and having to take big chunks of dead air out of this part of someone’s life. By this structure of having it on parallel universe having one section of the film in real time and just be able to cherry pick back into the past I think helped us not have to take too many liberties because we could just find an incident and use it and then move on. We were never stuck with linear problems.

I want to ask about Ioan but I also want to get into Benedict Cumberbatch and it’s a completely different role. Where did you find him?

He just came in to see me. I had a great casting director and he just came in to see me. It’s kind of interesting for me casting. This is something you lot wouldn’t get, Casting the English class system. As soon as someone comes in you know immediately. I had terrible trouble casting Mrs. Thornton, remember Mrs. Thornton, Sylvia, the woman where he goes to stay at her house, the woman who tries to set them up. To find people who have real breeding and not acting breeding as an Englishman you can spot it like that. When Benedict walked in I knew he had the intelligence and he was the real thing. He was blue blooded. You can’t act that I don’t think. When you’re dealing with the class system as you are a bit in this film, you know the difference between Wilberforce and Pitt. Wilberforce was a merchant and Pitt was to the manor born. He had a kind of breeding and a poise and a class to him that was I thought essential for Pitt. Pitt couldn’t look like a middle class scrubber like me pretending to be posh. So that’s how he came to me. I just met him. I met tons of people for that role because I knew it was going to be an unknown as indeed was to a certain extent Wilberforce and to a large extent Mrs. Wilberforce because what I wanted was the generational thing. That seemed to be one of the most attractive features of the story, kind of a Kennedy-esque thing. These young people taking on the establishment and I wanted to reflect that in the casting and it meant that the studio was faced with me saying to them the 3 leading roles could well be played by unknown people. And they said….but then Ioan came to see me and I thought he was great and then of course he had a big toe into the marketing system with The Fantastic Four so that was helpful, but I had to guarantee to them that I would provide an all star British cast to play the other roles to boost up the name value of the cast.

Doing period pieces obviously always has challenges but the British do so many. Is it easier over there to do these period pieces?

I think it is actually. Someone was saying Ioan knows how to wear his outfits and I said well, don’t Americans and he says no. We are much more interested in history for one is it surrounds us more and also it’s all we have in some ways is our history. We are no longer anything like a major power and haven’t been for many generations so our history is very important to us and I think we are more interested in it. It would be hard not to be really. It’s just in your DNA. I think it’s more in our blood than it is in America. America’s history is much more in motion, much more developing. Ours is not so. I think the English do wear frocks and wigs quite well. I could be wrong. Well, we’ll see. Your HBO is doing this huge John Adams thing, although some of my cast is in that but there will be a lot of American’s in that so we’ll see.

What about the biggest challenges as far as shooting the scenes with all the ships or….

Well that was all invented. I decided because it was kind of a talky script and very internal I decided I had to pick my moments for when I was going to get scale into the film. I wanted to get scale so one of the moments it seemed to me was the docks. So we found a little piece of Gloucester docks that was untouched and we brought 4 ships up and put them in there and spent a week shooting there and then we just computer generated the rest of it.

There were at least 4 real ones though?

There were just 4 real ones and about 200 invented ones. That wasn’t a shooting nightmare. That’s was a kind of post production nightmare. I just felt that I had to choose moments to put space into the film to try convince people it was a real movie and not a TV film.

Last Christmas they came out with all the James Bond movies again to coincide with their new one on DVD. Do you feel you’re a part of that tradition or was that just a for hire gig?

Well, you’re always for hire but on the other hand you leave your little tiny mark and it’s a very odd job. It’s kind of exciting but you can’t mess with the franchise. They messed with the franchise this time but that was the agenda. When I was doing it you have to be…..when someone says to you he wouldn’t do that and you say why and they say he wouldn’t do that and you say alright you know better than I do if he wouldn’t do that. You are for hire yeah definitely for hire, but it is kind of fun. It’s enjoyable but don’t expect….it’s not exactly an auteurs assignment.

This Sunday Martin Scorsese is going out. Is there someone that you’re pulling for or more so than the other ones?

No, I can’t say that for a thousand reasons but no I mean the thing about Scorsese is that he’s made some wonderful seminal movies but it is unfortunate that he hasn’t….you know I’m president of the guild and when he got his guild award he was very sweet about it. He said I never thought I’d be stood here for this film which I think speaks in the sense if he does win it for this he’ll be winning it for other things as well rather than that which is kind of a pity in a way that he didn’t win it when he should have won it.

Is there any kind of element in the back of your head or anything that this would be appealing to young people to teach history in a way that would be interesting and entertaining and more alive? Because you read this in a history book, it’s interesting but it’s not nearly as vital as it is in this film.

No. I don’t know. It fills me with fear and dread the selling of this film and how it’s going to be perceived by young people. Whether they have the remotest interest in seeing it or not. You just can’t think about it. You sort of know that when people come in and see it they like the fact they don’t know anything about it. It’s a fresh piece of history and its not entirely unrelated to American history although it’s kind of at arms length. I just dread to think….they doing a really good job and they also are doing a very civilized job. They have their amazing change campaign which is saying to people don’t at this film and think that slavery is a done deal. We’ve dealt with that. They’re saying there’s more slavery now then there was in 1807, so they’re trying to keep it alive and keep it relevant to the lives we live which is why I wanted to do the film in the first place. The thought of whether this film will attract an audience is ….I don’t dare go down that road at the moment.

Well, the strategic opening during Black History Month is interesting.

That was good and the 200th anniversary of that in Britian that will have a bit more impact there than here but….

Is Black History Month just an American thing?

Yes, I think so.

I don’t even know if that was world wide?

No, I don’t think it is. I think it’s American.

You worked on HBO’s Rome. Could you talk a little bit about that show and in particular the challenges of mounting it?

It was a nightmare and I was astonished that it turned out. It was a nightmare because it was a very unusual thing for them to do. The way they work is they do a pilot and then they take the pilot apart and then figure out whether they want to go on with it. They take sometimes a year between doing the pilot and then commissioning. They couldn’t do that with this. They had to build a $15 million dollar set to do the first 3 hours of it. Also it was costing much more than they had anticipated so the whole thing was chaotic from beginning to end. It was brutal. The challenges were just excruciating. The challenges were unequalled in my career. I’ve tried to shepherd this thing through with a company that was in a profound panic about…it did end up costing twice as much as they wanted to spend on it which is why it will have such a short life.

Getting back to the film at hand, do you have any plans already for the DVD?

Well, I’ve got deletions and I’ve got to do the commentary. I think Ioan and I are going to do it together. I don’t know what other extras they’re thinking about. Is that what you’re talking about?

The extras. The deleted scenes?

There’s that. I don’t know if they have any other plans for it.

How soon do you have to start work on that?

Well they want it done by the end of this month which is ridiculous. I need to think about it and prepare something for it but the pressure now with day and date and reduced windows and this sort of stuff. It’s almost you have to do it simultaneously almost.

Does it strike you as kind of silly that every single movie has a director’s commentary now? Do you think that is something that should just be left alone?

I don’t know. You tell me. You probably listen to more than I do. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to it. I don’t think I do. Whatever sells. It’s great if it’s going to educate people. People getting something out of it. I quite enjoy doing it. I’m not sure I enjoy listening to it, my own or anybody’s, but I do enjoy doing it.

Continued on the next page ———-&gt


I’ll of course open the question of what are you doing next?

I’ve got two things coming out two documentaries and I’m now looking for a movie to do which is a big agenda in my life because I need to do another movie.

Could you talk about the documentaries?

One is a sequel. I did a thing called Married in America in 2001 about nine couples who had gotten married that summer and I just finished the 2nd film on them and how they’re all doing. And the other one is a very ambitious documentary about one of the passions of my life which is football. Not American football, soccer. I’ve always wanted to do a film about the game because I’ve always thought football can penetrate more cultures and more places than any religious or political ideal. I’ve always wanted to do a film sort of loosely set in Germany in the World Cup and about the impact of the game in different parts of the world. I did the politics of South Africa and how football is closely intertwined there. Iranian women’s rights, social empowerment in South America, slavery in Senegal, racism in Europe and America being a country a team without heroes without a country. No one knows or cares what happens to them.

Is Beckham changing that?

Oh, he will change for a bit like it did in the 70’s with Pele came to New York and to the Cosmos as it then was. It will change it for a bit but I don’t think the game will ever take deep root because the other major sports will muscle it out. It just doesn’t have a television….it’s not really a television sport you know. It doesn’t lend itself to television like American sports do and I think that’s crucial for a sport to succeed in America it has to be a television sport. That’s how most people get it and football isn’t.

Are all the married couples still together?

No. No. That’s for me to know and you to find out.

Talking about the feature film you’re looking to do, do you have something you’re looking at?

I’ve got 3 things in various stages of development. One is a football one, one is a Mexican boarder one and one is a kind of ecology one all in different stages of development. Whether any of them end up being what I do next I don’t know. You never know. It’s a hard struggle when you get… the sort of films I want to do to get them made is difficult. That market has been sort of evaporating. I like working very cheaply, too. At least 2 of these films will be very, very low budget but I think that’s the way it has to be these days. This film is very unusual. It cost $28 million. To spend that amount of money on this kind of film is very unusual and it was only because Philip Anschutz wanted to make the film. This is his pet project.

You mentioned earlier that a lot of the smaller parts are played by pretty big names. Could you talk about getting all those…?

It was surprisingly easy really once they knew the film was being made because it is a heroic period. I used to send the cast to the National Portrait gallery where they could see themselves you know all painted up. I’ve been trying to work with Finney. I first offered him a film in 1973 and I never succeeded and now I’ve got him. People went to enormous trouble to be in it. Michael Gambon was in the middle of the nightmare of the ….what was it called?

Harry Potter?

No, no, the DiNero spy film.

Oh, The Good Shepard.

The Good Shepard which was just in complete chaos and he really he had his agent go through hoops to have him show up to do our little thing. It was not really difficult in the end, I thought it would be but my problem was that some of the people they wanted in it was kind of ludicrous. I already agreed to have celebrity casting but you have to be careful. You can’t have Robby Williams playing Thornton or something like that. You have to be careful. You’d have to turn down ideas they came up with….so and so is dying to do it, dying to be in it. And you say hang on a minute.

I was going to say if Robby Williams came in and said hey I want to do this would you turn him down?

Well I don’t know. I can’t remember if I did or whether I just made that up but I certainly did have to pour cold water on some ideas. There had to be certain intelligence about who I had in it or the whole thing would go belly up fast.

Latest News