It was announced yesterday that British filmmaker Michael Apted died at the age of 79. He leaves behind an eclectic body of work. It is a collection of films and documentaries that touched many corners of the filmmaking world, from multi-million dollar blockbusters, to one of the most influential documentary series of all-time with the series of Up documentaries, meaning that the footprint he leaves on the cultural world is somewhat larger than most.
Born in February 1941 in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, Apted got his start at a young age working as a trainee at Granada Television in the early 60’s. It was here at the age of 23 that he was tasked with profiling a group of seven-year-old children for an upcoming documentary to be directed by Canadian filmmaker Paul Almond. Going on to assist Almond in production, that film became Seven Up, and would be the beginnings of a lifelong project for Apted, as every seven years after that he was invited back to catch up with the children as they grew up, something he continued to do until very recently, as the latest instalment, 63 Up, was produced in 2019. The series of films has often been regarded as one of the most ambitious and profound works of the last 50 years, winning Apted an Institutional Peabody Award in 2012. It remains to be seen whether or not the series will continue without him.
Committing oneself to such an undertaking of a documentary series might have been enough for some people, but Apted directed many more well known and beloved movies and documentaries. He made his feature debut with the Oliver Reed World War two film, The Triple Echo, in 1972. He truly broke out though with the Oscar-nominated Coal Miner’s Daughter, the biopic of country singer Loretta Lynn which won Sissy Spacek the Oscar for Best Lead Actress. That led to him being hired by Steven Spielberg himself for Continental Divide (1981), where he managed to coax a romantic lead performance out of John Belushi. Similar to Spacek, he also directed Sigourney Weaver and Jodie Foster to Oscar nominations with Gorillas in the Mist in 1988 and Nell in 1994 respectively.
His filmography across the ’90s and through the 2000’s varied from political thrillers to historical dramas, and included the likes of Gorky Park, Class Action, Extreme Measures, and Enigma. He is perhaps best known to movie fans for his Pierce Brosnan James Bond film The World Is Not Enough in 1999, most certainly his biggest Hollywood tentpole flick, earning nearly $400 million worldwide.
His last film was the Noomi Rapace action thriller Unlocked in 2017, but he returned to Hollywood every now and again in between, delivering the third Narnia movie in 2010 with Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Gerard Butler’s Chasing Mavericks in 2012. He kept very busy in the realm of television as well, directing episodes for some of the most acclaimed shows of the last 20 years, including Rome, Masters of Sex, Ray Donovan, and Bloodline.
He was also something of a rock ‘n’ roll fan, and that more than showed in his work as well. In 1974, Apted directed Stardust, which starred David Essex and delved into the underbelly of the music world. His music documentaries included Bring on the Night (1985), which chronicled the making of Sting’s The Dream of the Blue Turtles album and subsequent tour (a video included in that won Apted a Grammy Award), and The Long Way Home (1989), about Boris Grebenshchikov, a Soviet version of Bruce Springsteen.
He also made a film about The Rolling Stones’ Forty Licks tour in 2002, but following a disagreement with Mick Jagger, it was never released. In 1997, his doc Inspirations focused on David Bowie and six other artists: painter Roy Lichtenstein, sculptor Nora Naranjo Morse, architect Tadao Ando, glassblower Dale Chihuly, choreographer Édouard Lock, and dancer Louise LeCavalier.
That is a body of work that would make anyone question their own level of productivity. But to top it all off, Apted also served three terms as the DGA president from 2003 to 2009, and received the guild’s Robert B. Aldrich Award in 2013 and its Honorary Life Member honor five years later. He also was a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences board of governors. “His legacy will be forever woven into the fabric of cinema and our guild,” DGA president Thomas Schlamme said in a statement. “A fearless visionary as a director and unparalleled guild leader, Michael saw the trajectory of things when others didn’t, and we were all the beneficiaries of his wisdom and lifelong dedication.”
Apted’s lifework is undoubtedly something he and his surviving family members will be exceptionally proud of. He highlighted so many different walks of life in both his movies and his documentaries, producing great works of the human experience whilst also finding the time to cut loose and have some fun with a James Bond flick. It is the kind of career any filmmaker would dream of. Rest in peace Mr. Apted, what a filmography and legacy you leave behind.