Michael Apted interview: Unlocked, Bond, thrillers

Director Michael Apted talks to us about his new film Unlocked, memories of making a Bond movie, and why thrillers make great cinema...

Over a career which stretches back to the 1960s, director Michael Apted has proved to be an extraordinarily versatile filmmaker. There’s his ongoing series of Up television documentaries, which have charted the experiences of a range of British people over a period of 49 years and counting. There are his movies, which range from the Oscar-winning Gorillas In The Mist (1988) to the big-budget Bond entry The World Is Not Enough (1999). And then there’s his TV work, which includes episodes of Rome and Masters Of Sex.

Apted’s deep in thriller territory with his new film Unlocked, which stars Noomi Rapace as a master interrogator racing to foil a terrorist plot in modern London. The story’s pure airport novel pulp, but Apted gives the film his documentary-maker’s eye for everyday detail: Unlocked largely takes place in run-of-the-mill, multi-cultural parts of the British capital rather than the gentrified, well-kept landmarks we’re used to seeing in expensive American thrillers.

As we later found out, this was partly due to Unlocked’s budget – much of the film was actually shot in Prague. That it barely notices in the finished movie says a lot about Apted and his filmmakers’ skill.

Ahead of Unlocked’s UK debut, we sat down with Mr Apted for a brisk and entertaining chat about the film’s making – a conversation which could be read as a compressed guide to writing a solid modern thriller. Keep your action sequences short, don’t fall into the trap of overstating the facts, and always keep the story grounded in the emotions of your characters.

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There’s also time for a brief chat about the making of The World Is Not Enough, and if you’re looking out for a classic thriller recommendation, stick around until the end of the interview…

I liked the way you grounded the film in a very modern, multi-cultural London. I guess that was your documentary-making background coming through. 

There’s a lot of that in everything I do. That’s my heart and soul. Not that I’d have wanted my whole career to be in documentaries, because I love doing narrative stuff, whether it’s television or movies. But I think my heart is in documentary, and those skills are very helpful to me when I make more formal stuff. 

So was that what interested you in this project, then? Because in some respects, this is a heightened thriller, but in other respects, you have to inject the realism in there. You’ve got to believe that what you’re seeing is happening.

I was attracted to the fact that it was a page-turner. And when I read it, I couldn’t believe that nobody had ever done it, because [the script] had been around for some time. I just thought it was a page-turner. Then having decided I wanted to do it, then I bring that other element – how I’m going to do it, and how authentic and documentary-like can I make it, without taking the air out of it. So I think, whatever film I’m doing, from Bond onwards, I always take an emotional attitude towards it. What is the emotion of it? Because I think that’s something we need to hang onto – relationships and so forth. I always look for that, and try to get that element out of actors. I get their feeling about it – whatever it is. Because if you did it in a bad way, it could be kind of exploitative and nauseating. To get the right tone for it, to make it authentic, to make these characters credible, that was the challenge.

No, you’re quite right. There are some films – that I won’t name – that use terrorism in a quite ghoulish, unpleasant way.

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I haven’t done much action films, and the ones I have made have been overloaded, like Bond or Narnia. But I had a good hard look at the first Bourne, because I thought what he [director Doug Liman] did was he kept his action scenes quick. Because most of them go on for fucking ever [Laughs] – and I can never understand how they’re not dead at the end of it all. How could they do it? 

I spoke to my stunt coordinator, and I said, “Look, they have to be quick. They have to be speedy”. Because then I think they’ll be more realistic, and you can move along to the next scene. It gives the film a big burst of energy. Once you overplay it, once they go on too long, you lose interest in it. Because then you can see the stunt people in it, and no one’s getting hurt. You know. 

So that was my big thing with the action in it: to keep it crisp and keep it as believable as a dialogue scene would be. 

Also, you have the build-up to an action scene. The anticipation, the tension. 

Absolutely, that’s right.

You say you haven’t made a lot of action, but you have made a lot of thrillers. So what is your personal philosophy when it comes to building up suspense in a thriller?

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Hmm. I don’t know whether there’s a formula for it. I think it’s the same point I’m making about the action; it should be somewhat understated, so that the audience don’t get ahead of you. Someone was asking me about music, and I said one of the tricky things with this score was, I needed a lot of music to keep it driving, but the music can’t be ahead of the movie. I think, not to signpost things, to get the surprise you get from reading something, like, “Oh my God”… it’s the “Oh my God” quality that I quite like. Where people aren’t quite ready for it. So don’t dress it up and don’t over-prepare an audience for something. To get a balance between that and something that’s so far out of left-field that you have no idea what’s going on, or whatever…

In my subconscious, that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to make it as much as a surprise as I can by backing away from it. You have to be careful, because it could come out like a monotone and everyone will fall asleep! [Laughs] But I think that’s the challenge. And I was very clear about the action in it, because there was a lot of action written in it. And I was so impressed with the way they did that Bourne film. I mean, when you’re doing Bond and stuff, you’ve got to do it – you’ve got to deliver. When you’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars, you’ve got to deliver spectacle. You can’t throw that under the carpet. But when you’re making a different kind of thriller, it’s a different game from doing a Bond film. Therefore, the best way to surprise people is to understate it. So that, when it happens, it’s a shock.

So it becomes more the John Le Carre school of thriller rather than blowing up a volcano or  something.

Yeah. I thought the script had that quality to it. But the big thing is, at the end of the film you don’t feel cheated. You don’t feel, “That doesn’t make any sense at all. Why did that happen?” 

I suppose some of it’s a bit far-fetched, but at least it has a certain kind of credibility to it. 

Without spoiling things, I thought the idea that the terrorists aren’t necessarily the bearded people you keep seeing in films was an interesting one.

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Yes. You have to cast against the obvious. I think that’s a good idea. And that opening sequence was, as you say, to make the film credible. What a multi-cultural city this is. Saying what the quality of the city is – this is what it is. You see different colours in everyday life – you get the impression that London is a complex and complicated and varied society. 

It’s interesting to see locations that location directors don’t tend to choose very often. Like markets, housing association buildings, things like that.

It was a big challenge, because we couldn’t afford to shoot in London for more than a few days. We had to shoot it in Prague. But I got a very bright, young Czech production designer who spoke good English, and he said to me, “Look, if you choose your key locations in London, don’t make them historical, because I can’t match those. Make them modern, because I can do modern. There are parts of Prague that look like London.”

First of all I thought, “That’s disappointing.” But when we came to choose the London locations with him, I understood what he meant. I didn’t scream London at you, but it was nonetheless London enough. So he could fill in the gaps in Prague.

I have to say I didn’t notice. I didn’t realise it was shot in Prague.

No. People have said to me they didn’t realise. I was only here [in London] for six days doing bits and pieces, you know. But that was pleasing, to pull that one off.

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How did you arrive on casting Noomi Rapace?

She was there before I was. Which was a kind of gift, in a way, because I love doing films about women – a lot of my films are about women. And I felt that if this was going to work, whoever played it would have to be able to do some of the action stuff. You couldn’t have some wonderful actress who you knew instinctively couldn’t knock some bloke on the head. But she can do that. I thought that was a great gift. If we hadn’t had her, I can’t think… there’s only a handful of actresses who I’ve seen be remotely convincing. Not that she did it all – we had to stop her, because she enjoyed doing it. I just needed the sense that she could deliver as that character – that she was strong and courageous and somewhat foolish. That was a crucial ingredient, and that was already a given. If she hadn’t been attached, I think it would’ve been much tougher. 

You have an amazing supporting cast, too.

Everybody dug in. Lorenzo [di Bonaventura, producer] knew John Malkovich, so we got him to do a week’s work. Lorenzo also knew Michael Douglas. I loved Orlando [Bloom]… I didn’t know him but I met with him, and I really wanted him to do it. I really wanted to get something out of him, and he got the message immediately. And he gave me a hard time – in rehearsals, he would say, “I don’t think he’d say this line” and blah, blah, blah. All these kinds of annoying things, but he was right. I initially said to him, “This has to be you. I want this to be you. And if you’re not comfortable with this or that or whatever…” You know, we had the occasional fight. He wanted tattoos all over his face, and no one wanted that. But he wanted tattoos, and we accommodated that up to a point. But I just wanted for him to portray himself, not to give a performance, because it’s such a difficult role to play. I was pleased – I really think he pulled it off. We saw a side to him that you don’t often see. 

I liked Toni Collette, because she was originally written as a man. I wanted another woman in the film who could offer comfort to Noomi’s character. So it wasn’t an all-male thing – to have a woman in a position of power. So I delivered Orlando, and the producers delivered Michael [Douglas] and Malkovich. Noomi was there, so that was pretty much it. That’s how it happened. You know, it was very hard on Noomi, because they were never all together at once, and she had to do a solid week with Orlando, and then Malkovich would come in, and she’d have to do her bits in chunks.

She was all over the place, but that’s the way we did it. We paid those guys a lot of money to do a week’s work or something like that, which is all you can do. But they all entered into the spirit of it, and they all entered into the way we were working, trying to get to the bottom of a scene so it wasn’t just a piece of narrative. There was some relationship, even if it was a bogus relationship. That, to me, drags an audience into a film, if you see something between them. Going back in a circle, that’s what you do in documentaries – to try and bring people out of who they are, to do whatever you need them to do. To try and make them able to express themselves. 

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Would you recommend more directors make a documentary, assuming they haven’t already?

Oh, I think so, yeah. It’s interesting, because you learn from both ways. The more I do it, the more I learn. From documentaries, I learn the business of getting into the character: why is he here, in your documentary? Trying to get as much emotion out of it, not asking endless questions, and just sitting there and looking at them sometimes. Not saying anything is sometimes the best way of trying to question someone. Because they know why they’re there, and you’re not going to help them, necessarily. I don’t mean being hostile to them.

So you learn that from documentaries and I can use that in movies. But in movies, you have to learn how to structure something. There are so many documentaries that don’t have a structure. They don’t have any rhythm to them. Again, so the way you have to structure a piece of narrative, you have to learn how to do that. You have to approach a documentary with at least some idea of the territory of it. Because the temptation is to go in, shoot a shit-load of stuff, and then make it in the editing room. Which sometimes works, but sometimes doesn’t work – and it’s a very long-winded and expensive way of doing things. But if you can train yourself to think about [structure]… and it doesn’t have to be anything you end up with, in a sense, but you have to have an idea of how you’re going to shape something. It gives you an idea of where the weight of it is, and what’s important, and what isn’t important. 

It’s interesting, because I had this idea around the early 90s, where I did a documentary and a movie about the same subject. About Native Americans – Thunderheart was the movie and Incident At Oglala was the documentary. That taught me what a documentary does well and what a movie does well, and what is hard to do in a documentary, and what is hard to do in a movie. In a movie, you have to cast it so carefully, and it’s kind of nice sometimes to put real people in there. Equally, when you’re doing a documentary, it goes back to my point about structuring something. 

It was interesting to have the same material and deal with it from different points of view. It was a strange and fearful lesson, really. 

Someone once asked David Cronenberg how he got such good performances out of his actors, and he said it was because they can feel him watching them. Do you think that’s how you get your performances, by observing what they’re doing, with your eye for detail?

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I think so, yeah. I love him, actually. He’s a good man, and I’m glad he said that. I think that’s exactly right: watch them to find out what they do. And try to mould what they do organically into what you want them to do. Sometimes I’ve had to put real people in with actors to get the actors to do it properly. 

Was there a hint of that in this film?

Umm… the boys who played the Muslims were actors, but they had a real presence about them. A certain dignity about them that I liked. I think that helped Noomi when she was doing scenes with them. I think actors pick it up from me instinctively, without being vain. What I liked about Michael Douglas and John Malkovich is that they were always on the set. They never just disappeared to their trailers and all that – they hung around and talked to the other actors and things like that. They made themselves part of the process, so it is kind of a family. Everybody is working with everybody else, and I think, instinctively, they felt that. I did some interviews with Michael in Los Angeles for this and sat with him, and someone asked him about me while I was there – which is embarrassing – but he said, “I loved that I could sit there for ages and Michael would come and talk to me about anything. Sport, family, stuff like that. Just to share things with him.” We’re both sports fans, so if I find a sports fan, that’s my idea of bliss. So it’s to involve people emotionally, that’s what I work for.

So was it even possible to bring that to something like The World Is Not Enough, because that was such a big production.

That’s a tricky thing. That’s tricky. I did rehearse, which was kind of ludicrous. [Laughs] We rehearsed at Pinewood for, probably, three or four days. It was completely ludicrous – not to be remotely disrespectful to [Pierce Brosnan], but it was, “Now I’m jumping out of this, now I’m fighting with this guy…” [Laughs] I did take the trouble to go through a couple of scenes he had with M [Judie Dench] and maybe a couple of the girls and stuff like that. It was kind of a waste of time and slightly embarrassing, but [Brosnan] is a good man. Again, it was just a way to get to know him, and even to share the fact that it was a complete waste of time – for me to say that to him and him to say, “Thank God you said that…”

Somehow, to create some rapport, so they trust you when you’re out there doing it and you say, “This is over the top” in a polite way, or whatever. It’s just some way to get contact with the actors before you start. It was okay on Narnia because I had the kids, and they wanted work and needed work. Sometimes, in this film it was completely inappropriate – I had half a day with Michael and Noomi [to rehearse] and that was all.

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Somehow, it just brings out who they are; as David Cronenberg put it in four words, “To look at them”! 

With your background, what do you think of the state of the media at the moment? Do you think there’s a certain confusion between reality and fiction, with fake news and things like that?

Well, not really. That caused me tremendous problems on the Up films, around 42 Up or something, “What the fuck is all this? All these people earning all this money and doing reality television?” So I had to explain, “Look, documentaries and reality TV aren’t the same thing.” And I think that’s been proven true, because reality TV’s become absurd. I don’t think that’s a problem anymore; reality television is what it is. I don’t mean to sound demeaning, but it is on the whole very simple and it’s cooking or whatever. To suggest that it has any deep insight into people’s psyches is long gone – it’s pure, cheap entertainment. But there was a period where people were asking, “Is this what documentary films are?” or whatever. We’ve got through that.

What I thought you were going to ask, more in America than here, is the way things go in cycles. I grew up loving European movies when I was at college. Then I fell in love with American movies, and went to America to make movies, and just caught the golden 70s and all that. Then the whole industry changed, and I was there when it changed, when Star Wars opened and Jaws opened, and suddenly the whole industry became about the weekend. The whole industry became something else, and all the films I wanted to do weren’t possible anymore because any movie made between $15m or $30m, you couldn’t get your money back. You either spent $200m or $1m, and that took about two decades. But now it’s going back to television again. Some of the most serious, best work is now on television, so that’s another wave, both here and in America. It’s better than the movie industry – you can do more interesting things. So everything goes in cycles.

I thought you were going to ask me another question, so I’ve answered the one you asked and then I answered the one you didn’t ask! [Laughs] You got double-whammy!

No, that’s great! Do you think that there’s more of an appetite for thrillers again now? That the mid-budget films you mentioned are making at least something of a comeback? 

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I think there always has been. I mean, Jesus, I went to see… what’s that fucking film, the famous thriller, 1950s… anyway, I took my sons to see this 1950s French thriller, which sounded like old-hat. But it was fucking brilliant. It was made 50 years ago, and it was as good as anything made today. I think thrillers – if you look at Hitchcock – thrillers have always been good meat for cinema. I think they survive the phases of cinema, you know? 

Rififi – that’s what it was called.

Oh yeah! 

Have you seen it?

Yes! I watched it on Netflix, funnily enough.

Really? I was expecting to take my sons and they’d say, “Oh God. What’s all this?” But they were completely engrossed. And I was gobsmacked by it. I was ashamed of myself for thinking that it would be rubbish! 

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I think the thriller as a genre has survived as much as anything; hopefully enough people will see Unlocked to realise that it is part of that tradition, without being full of myself. A good thriller – and there aren’t that many of them – most of them cheat, or are overbearing, or overloaded with explosions and all that sort of stuff. But a good thriller, especially a thoughtful thriller, is always good currency in cinema, and always will be.

Michael Apted, thank you very much.

Unlocked is out now in UK cinemas.