Director Michael Apted Dies, Aged 79

By James White | Posted 9 Jan 2021Michael Apted, the award-winning director who enjoyed a long, eclectic career of film and TV work, has died. He was 79. Apted was born in Aylesbury in 1941 and studied law and history at Cambridge University. He began his career as a researcher at Granada Television, where he first worked on the project that would partly define his career: the Up series, which began chronicling a group of seven-year-old-children. Originally intended as a one-shot documentary for World In Action, it has been checking in on the participants every seven years, with the most recent being 63 Up in 2019. Apted, who helped select the original group of subjects, has been part of every episode since, and won a Peabody for his work on the series.

"Schindler's List." During production, the atmosphere was so grim and depressing that Steven Spielberg asked his friend Robin Williams if he could tell some jokes and do comedy sketches while Spielberg would watch episodes of Seinfeld (1989). Some of Williams' sketches, while played through the speaker phone to the cast and crew, ended up being part of dialogue material for his character in Aladdin (1992), the Genie.

Beyond that, Apted has worked on a wide variety of TV series, ranging from Coronation Street, Play For Today, Rome, Ray Donovan and Masters Of Sex. On the big screen, Apted first made 1972's The Triple Echo, which starred Oliver Reed and Glenda Jackson. Among his best-known work were Coal Miner's Daughter (which scored seven Oscar nominations and a Best Actress win for Sissy Spacek), Gorky Park, Gorillas In The Mist, Blink, Nell, Bond film The World Is Not Enough, Enigma, The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader and Chasing Mavericks.

"Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)." Given the unusual style of filming long takes, Edward Norton and Michael Keaton kept a running tally of flubs made by the actors and actresses. Emma Stone made the most mistakes. Zach Galifianakis made the fewest. He actually did mess up a few lines during the filming, but played his mistakes off well enough, that the shots were included in the film.

A key component of Apted's concerns was supporting his union, and he joined the Directors Guild of America in 1978, and became active in guild service in 1997, when he was first elected to the Western Directors Council. In 2001, he was elected to the National Board and became fifth vice president the following year. He also founded (alongside Steven Soderbergh) the Guild’s Independent Directors Committee in 1998, and served as chair until he was elected president of the guild. "Whether having the foresight as a young man to conceptualize the revolutionary Up documentary series or helming large-scale features, whether negotiating directors’ rights throughout our industry’s digital revolution, or advocating for independent filmmakers and inclusion, Michael’s search for the truth and what’s right was evident in all that he endeavored," current DGA president Thomas Schlamme said in a statement.

"Avatar." James Cameron was convinced that CGI effects had progressed enough to make this film when he saw Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002).

"With his steady hand, acerbic wit, and keen eye to the future, he has steered our Guild through times of great change, setting the path for our industry and benefiting thousands and thousands of us. He always generously extended a hand to those behind him and understood the importance of activating leadership in the next generation. What I thought was an innocent lunch with him twenty years ago turned into my lifelong commitment to this Guild, all thanks to his passion and belief in me. I, like so many others, will be forever grateful for his mentorship. Words can’t express how much he will be missed. Our hearts go out to his wife Paige, and his children Jim, John, and Lily."

"Interstellar." For a cornfield scene, Christopher Nolan sought to grow five hundred acres of corn, which he learned was feasible from his producing of Man of Steel (2013). The corn was then sold, and actually made a profit.

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