Michael Apted talks Appalachia, documentaries, and authenticity 

An Apt Director

Apted has directed everything from biopics and fantasy movies to TV episodes


Apted has directed everything from biopics and fantasy movies to TV episodes

Feature films, documentaries, television — you name it, director Michael Apted has done it. The British-born, critically-acclaimed director has accrued an extensive body of work that includes such disparate and impressive credits as Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorky Park, Bring on the Night, Gorillas in the Mist, episodes of the HBO series Rome, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

In addition to these projects, Apted has earned recognition and praise for the UP Series (Seven UP, 7 Plus 7, and 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, and 56 UP), an award-winning, ongoing documentary that has followed a group of 14 Britons from drastically different social strata since the age of seven.

Next week, Apted will add yet another credit to his name when he arrives in Charleston to shoot an episode of Reckless, the CBS legal drama set in the Holy City. While he's here, Apted will appear at the Terrace Theater for a special screening of Coal Miner's Daughter. The charitable event, which will support the Salvation Army, includes a Q&A session with the acclaimed director and an auction of signed memorabilia, such as original movie posters for Apted's films.

In anticipation of his upcoming visit to the Holy City, the City Paper caught up with the director to get to know him a little better.

City Paper: At first glance, Coal Miner's Daughter seems perhaps an odd marriage — a British filmmaker wedded to the story of Loretta Lynn and her journey from Butcher Holler, Kentucky to country singer stardom. What attracted you to the project?

Apted: I thought it would be an odd marriage and that it would be quite difficult, but then I discovered that it actually wasn't an odd marriage; it was startlingly serendipitous in a way. I didn't know anything about [Appalachia] at all, nor did any of the American crew, but worse than that, they were somewhat pretentious, as most Americans, particularly those on the two seaboards, are, toward the Appalachians and that part of America. I was perfectly neutral. I was completely ignorant about it, so I just went in without an attitude and filmed what I saw.

In my previous career in the United Kingdom, I learned that if you go into a location, you don't just shoot the scenery, you shoot the people, you shoot the voices. I used a cast that was 90 percent local or hadn't ever acted before. Also, it was odd because the locals could understand my accent better than a New York or Hollywood accent because Englishness goes deep into their DNA. There is a tradition of the United Kingdom in that part of the world, which was a surprise to me. So, it turned out to be very fortuitous, though it looked, at face value, to be a kind of ludicrous idea — sending an Englishman who had never made a film in America out to do this remote part of Americana — but it worked out well for me.

CP: How do you present a distinct population within a larger culture, particularly one that is often devalued, like Appalachians, or in the case of Thunderheart, American Indians, without falling into the traps of stereotyping or romanticizing?

Apted: You don't import people or attitude into it. You have to import Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones or Val Kilmer and Sam Shepard — but the rest of it, the texture of it, you shoot it all there and you shoot it with local people. That can kind of guarantee you that you don't slide into some ghastly rose-colored view of the world. But, in all fairness, you also need good scripts and scripts from people who know what they're talking about. You have to rely on that. If you have a "Hollywood" script then you're sunk. But if you've got an honorable script and you don't import elements that you don't need to, then I think you've got a chance to make it authentic.

CP: You seem quite skilled at eliciting powerful performances from actors. In addition to Sissy Spacek and Tommy Lee Jones in Coal Miner's Daughter, I'm also thinking of Val Kilmer (Thunderheart), Jodie Foster (Nell), and Sigourney Weaver (Gorillas in the Mist). How do you help actors give great performances?

Apted: I think it's a mutual listening thing. My set, my rehearsal, my process is as much of a listening process as a speaking process. Once actors get that, they cease to try to grandstand for me because they know I'm going to listen anyway, so they don't have to impress me. I let actors know that it's a two-way street, that I'm not going to dictate to them, and likewise will not be dictated to. It's a collaborative process and I think once you create that atmosphere, then you can get somewhere.

Also, I try to engage the actor. I took Sigourney to Rwanda before shooting, so she could take a look at it and so we could share that experience together. When I made Class Action, a legal film, with Gene Hackman, I went to court with him and we watched and listened. I try to go beyond the surface level and get actors interested in the world in which the film takes place.

CP: In spite of the diversity of your work, one recurring theme is the issue of class. Has your work made you more or less hopeful of the possibility of social mobility?

Apted: Having lived in both America and the United Kingdom, I'm less optimistic that there will ever be any sense of fair play in society. The class system that I present in Seven Up has gone away a bit, but I can't see hope for anything like an equal society — it's horribly loaded in favor of the rich. This is particularly true in America, where the disparities between rich and poor are extreme.

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