Exclusive: Amazing Grace Director Michael Apted

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The last time ComingSoon.net spoke to Michael Apted, it was about 49 Up, the latest in his string of documentaries following the lives of regular British folk. (Well-rounded CS readers may have noticed that the most recent episode of “The Simpsons” was inspired by the series.)

At the time, the prolific filmmaker mentioned Amazing Grace, his upcoming historic drama about British politician William Wilberforce, who helped abolish the slave trade in the UK during the early 19th Century. Considering Apted’s extensive background making historic films including the WWII political thriller Enigma and his sting directing the first three episodes of the HBO series “Rome,” it makes sense that Apted would be interested in this politically charged story from 200 years ago.

With the film’s nationwide release on Friday, ComingSoon.net sat down to talk with Apted about the film, learning once again why he’s such a great spokesperson as he explained the reasons for making the film with his usual dry wit.

ComingSoon.net: Was this movie something you were involved with from its very inception?
Michael Apted: No, not at all. It was an odd turn of events really. I have for some time, many many years, been looking to make a political film, a film about political process, largely because I felt that it had been disregarded and ignored at our cost in society, the whole notion of politics as a medium of engagement and movement. I’ve been trying to find contemporary stories. I flirted with the book “Thank You for Smoking,” so this material came to me, but this came to me as a biopic, which really was emphasizing more the religious part of his life. They were having a lot of trouble getting it going. No one really wanted much to do with it. They had done a lot of drafts with a lot of writers on it, hence all the producers. They’d all come in on various stages. Anyway, they were slightly at their wit’s end, because they wanted to make the film for the 200th Anniversary and they really couldn’t find anybody to take it on. I went into them and said, “I can see another way of doing this film which brings out to a prominence the slave trade act and makes much more play of him as a politician as well as his religious ideals. It walks the tightrope between them, it doesn’t make it into a faith movie and doesn’t demean his faith. So basically, they bought into that and I got to know Steven [Knight, the screenwriter] and he was keen to do it, and we started the whole thing over from scratch.

CS: It’s interesting that Steven worked on this after writing about the modern-day treatment of immigrants in “Dirty Pretty Things.”
Apted: That’s why I asked him. I wanted to give it that contemporary resonance. I wanted a writer who was contemporary, muscular, I didn’t want somebody who had written period films. I think the key to a period film is to give it some points of access to a modern audience, so you’re not just looking at an artifact.

CS: Even though you wanted to do a political film, why did you feel it was so important to tell this story?
Apted: Because his story presented itself as something that really fit my bill, because I wanted to do it about process. I didn’t want to do a political film where you were arguing about the value of what the issue was. If you were to do a film about abortion, then you’d have the audience on one side and the other half on the other, whereas with this one, it would be seen to be a good thing to abolish slavery, so then you don’t have to worry about that. As I said, I was very interested in the political maneuverings of the whole thing. Also, what I take to be one of the ghastly things in the world today is the way that religion has become politics, that people use their religion as a political basis and then polarize it, whether they’re Muslim or Christian or Jewish, it seems to be the roots of so much bloody trouble. This seemed to be a wonderful example out of history of somebody that could do both, someone could never compromise his beliefs but also be able to play the political game. In a way, [it’s like] someone like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr or Mandela could do. That’s what attracted me to it.

CS: Did you have to do a lot of research for this yourself or did Steven do a lot of that work before writing the script?
Apted: We read the books and all that sort of stuff, and he also went into a lot of documents, because he put a lot of the words spoken into the Parliament scenes, which were really used. We figured out the structure which ‘d had in my head anyway, the idea of the two parallel stories i.e. the time present from when she meets him. I always thought that had great potential as a love story, because unlike most love stories in these kinds of films, it’s not the woman saying “Don’t do it, don’t do it…” It’s the woman giving him a swift kick in the ass to do it. I liked that a lot, so I thought it would be great to have that love story going all the way through the film, which if you did it in a linear way, you couldn’t have. The producers responded to that and understood that very clearly, too. Once we got the structure, which was to do that as the time present and then cherry pick the flashbacks, whatever we wanted of the history of it or his history, then the research was more focused. We were only going to research part of his life. And in all fairness, the original scripts had a lot of research in them, and there were a few books. Some books had a very religious agenda, some of them had a more marginal political agenda. There wasn’t an immense amount of reading to do.

CS: You said that you didn’t want to do something to polarize people, but who do you see as the audience for the film? Americans obviously won’t know much about this person’s place in history…
Apted: I don’t know, but it’s an issue. Obviously, the faith audience is a big audience because they know about him. We’ve tested the film there and they do seem to embrace the film, although I’m very careful to walk this tightrope. That’s a big audience, and the rest of the audience is who can we really get in? Who can we say that this is sort of a story about today and it’s challenging and it’s a good love story. It’s well done and the star of “Fantastic Four” is in it. What more could you want?

CS: Funny you should mention Ioan, because overall, this cast really is just terrific, probably one of the most amazing casts I’ve seen in a film in a long time.
Apted: Since “Bobby.”

CS: (laughs) The fact that you have both Albert Finney and Michael Gambon, two actors who literally can walk into a scene, say one line and the movie’s theirs. Can you talk about getting actors of that caliber involved in the film?
Apted: Well, the key for me again was to do this generational thing. What I thought was rather commercial about this story was the fact that it was guys in their 20s doing this, going into politics, and I wanted to make a very clear distinction between their generation and the generations of the people that have gone before and the establishment. In a sense, it was a bit of horse trading. They would let me do that, although Ioan was very useful because he’d done “Fantastic Four” and he had a certain box office credibility. I had to guarantee to [the producers] that I could surround this cast, the three leading players—Ioan, Benedict playing Pitt and Romola playing Barbara—with real starry names, as much as British actors are starry names. Then it turned out to be very easy to cast. I spent my life trying to do a film with Albert Finney, he turned down everything I ever offered him, and now this script, this piece of material, this great character. And also Michael, he went through hoops to navigate his very difficult schedule on “The Good Shepherd” to do the film, and Rufus [Sewell] actually came into read for it. It was amazing how it all sort of fell into place.

CS: Benedict Cumberbatch is also pretty amazing in this film, and he’s also good in this other movie called “Starter for 10” which opens this week. Was he someone you found just by him coming in and reading for you?
Apted: He came in and read and I was like “Holy sh*t!” because he’s a guy who has a real sense of class. I don’t mean he’s a classy guy, which he is, but he has a sense of class and that’s what was so interesting to me about Pitt. The difference between Pitt and Wilberforce was that Wilberforce was from a trade family and Pitt was to the manor born, his blood was blue, and I thought Benedict came in and he was it.

CS: It makes the film almost like an opera where you have each amazing actor comes in and do a speech, almost like an aria.
Apted: It’s tough to direct that, because you gotta have them all on the same page. It’s to get that balance, because Michael’s so cheeky and funny and entertaining and he’ll do outrageous things. It’s to decide what works within the context of the film, so it’s not going to look like the Michael Gambon Late Night Show. It’s kind of a tough thing to keep the tone of the film even, otherwise it just swamps Ioan and Benedict if all these people come in and do these amazing turns then exit stage right and then hang them out to dry. It’s all has to be a unity.

CS: I’d like to talk about a few of the more impressive scenes, particularly the ones in Parliament, which are quite amazing. There’s a lot of actors and dialogue involved in them, so how were you able to choreograph and get those scenes on film?
Apted: It was fun to research it frankly, to try to get a sense of the level of robustness and farce about it all. But just simple things were interesting, like the fact that pages and people were always walking around, so it wasn’t just people there paying attention, it was a bit like Grand Central Station. I just shot it on a lot of cameras, too, so I never had less than 4 cameras shooting. I just felt that you always needed to have the texture, the color, the cutaways, the different sizes and different angles, and he lit every scene a different way, so I couldn’t use bits from one scene in another, so I had to take each scene on its own. I think it was fun because people used to eat in there and no women allowed in. That was fun, I enjoyed that. That was the last thing we did. We had a Christmas break and we came back after Christmas and did that. We spent about six or seven days shooting those scenes.

CS: And the other scenes that blew me away were the ones on the docks with the tall ships.
Apted: I put a ton of money into that. We had $28 million and a certain part of that could go into CGI, so I said apart from cleaning up some of the locations with aerials and bloody telephone wires, we put all the money into those scenes and spent a lot of time doing them. It’s a very talky film and it’s a very internal film, so I had to make sure that whenever I went outside, it counted. I knew that one of my biggest visual opportunities was going to be those docks, even if I was only there for less than five minutes. I had to get the most out of that. It was worth sinking a lot of money into them.

CS: Did directing the first few episodes of “Rome” help as far as directing something on this scale quickly, on a lower budget than these things normally cost?
Apted: Well, I dunno. I’ve done a bit of period stuff before. I suppose it did. We weren’t working on a budget with “Rome” because no one knew how much it was going to cost, cause I did the first three hours and everybody was just flying by the seat of their pants. In the end, it cost twice as much as it should have done by the end of the twelve hours. But of course, yeah, the worry of doing a period film is how long it takes to get everybody ready and made-up and costumes and hair and wigs. Anything you do like that is useful experience.

CS: Do you have any idea what you’ll be doing next?
Apted: Well, I’ve done a couple of documentaries already since this. Done the soccer one, done the sequel to “Marriage in America,” “Marriage in America 2,” about these couples I’ve been following that got married in 2001.

CS: Are they all still together?
Apted: Some of them are, it’s for you to see, me to know and you to find out. And I did this big soccer film that I’d been shooting over a period of about 18 months

CS: And how’s that coming along?
Apted: It’s finished now. I’m just dubbing it next week, so it’s sort of done. I hope it’s alright. It’s quite a challenge.

CS: What happened with the official film for the World Cup? Did that ever come out here in the States?
Apted: It was always going to go on DVD. It might not be out here yet, because there’s not that major interest here. It’s quite a big seller in Europe. Really, I helped set up how it was going to be shot, but I was doing other things, they just shot it and then we put it all together.

CS: Are you looking to do another dramatic film now that you’ve finished all these docs?
Apted: I am very much looking for another drama.

CS: Maybe something more modern if you stay in politics?
Apted: Yeah, I think the three I’ve got, a couple of them are political, but they’re all relatively modern, one is like ten years old. But who knows, for God’s sake. I’ll sit here and say something to you and then in a year’s time, you’ll say, “You said to me you wouldn’t do another period film and there you are with Queen Victoria!” or something like that.

CS: That would make sense, because everybody’s doing a movie about a queen now.
Apted: I know it’s kind of silly, innit? There’s only a couple left. Shekhar is doing the follow-up to the Cate Blanchett “Elizabeth” so we got that one coming as well.

Amazing Grace opens nationwide on Friday, February 23.