Michael Apted interview: Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, 3D, Harry Potter, James Bond and more

As Voyage Of The Dawn Treader sails into cinemas, we catch up with director Michael Apted to chat about Narnia, remakes and Mexican drug wars…

There’s been more than a touch of life imitating art in the case of the third instalment of The Chronicles Of Narnia franchise, The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader. From the Narnian snowstorm that accompanied the film’s cast down the red carpet at last Tuesday night’s premiere, to the raft of challenges faced by veteran Brit director Michael Apted and crew since production started in early 2007, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons.

Prince Caspian fled an uncle and was rescued by a badger. Dawn Treader was abandoned by Disney and rescued by a Fox. Caspian and crew do battle with slave traders, dufflepods and a sea serpent. Apted and crew battled writers’ strikes, a recession and the burgeoning pituitary glands of a young cast whose growth spurts and breaking voices were poised to ruin everything.

Add to that the terrifying prospect of being caught in the crossfire of a Mexican drug war on the shoot’s original Rosarito location, as well as the prospect of an even more violent reaction from Narniaphiles if the talking mouse’s hat turned out to be the wrong colour and you wouldn’t have blamed Apted and crew had they upped anchor and sailed away.

But hope and faith being the stuff Narnia is made of, sail away they didn’t. We talked to the man himself, a director with more than 40 years in the business, director of  Gorillas In The Mist, The World Is Not Enough and the seminal series of Up television documentaries profiling the lives of a group of children every seven years since 1964, about returning to the magic of Narnia.

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You made some additions to the source material in Dawn Treader to give Caspian’s journey more of an urgent purpose than it had in the book. How important do you think fidelity is to the original material in film adaptations?

I think fidelity in spirit is the important thing. You can’t do a biopic – and I’ve done a few of those – or tell someone’s life in two hours, so you have to make choices. I think in this case it was clear from the minute I read it that we would have a problem dramatizing because there’s no real forward motion in it.  It’s full of wonderful scenes that are great to read the children at night in bed, because you can read a chapter, forget about it and then do the next chapter, but for a movie that’s disastrous.

We did try to be totally faithful to the book but it never worked. We were able to steal, as it were, from between the two books, this and The Silver Chair, from a whole bit CS Lewis never bothered to write about, how the underworld was recruiting Narnians to eventually attack Narnia. So, we eventually stole from that and put it in this story. We didn’t invent it. We just moved things about a bit.

You’ve described Dawn Treader as the definition of an epic. Which cinematic epics have influenced your filmmaking?

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I don’t really like epic films. I find them sort of distancing because it’s all these scenes and action and movement and sometimes you just get disconnected to the characters. They just get lost in the landscape.

So, what attracted me to this is that Dawn Treader is a very intimate story. It’s a very emotional story, and yet it’s also epic. I liked the challenge of that because of the contrast between the scale of it and the emotion of it. It was really an intimate story on a big scale setting. It was also a challenge, really, with the visual effects and the 3D that I didn’t want either of them to swamp the story or to swamp the characters.

It’s just so easy. Technology is so amazing now you can do almost anything you want and I thought my job really was to keep an eye on it, to make sure that the characters didn’t get lost and the emotions didn’t get lost.

You’ve been described as an actor’s director before because of that, your focus on emotion and performance. Is that how you see the director’s role?

I think that’s the most important thing I do, other than make sure that the script is as good as I can get it, is really to get performances out of actors.

I think that’s what stays in the mind. Not just a beautiful image or a beautiful landscape. Especially in this day and age where there are so many visual effects and they’re all breathtaking and people become blasé about it. It’s a bit ‘seen that, done that, what’s new?’ And I think what’s new is emotion and character.

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As a child did you watch epics at the cinema?

I suppose I would have been growing up with David Lean epics, if you know what I mean, which are very sort of English ones.

Which modern fantasies did you watch when preparing for Dawn Treader?

I watched them all, really. When I knew I was doing this, I did all my homework and again, without mentioning any names, you feel sometimes they do get swamped with technology and then they all begin to look and sound the same.

You’ve had an epic journey with three-and-a-half years making Dawn Treader

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Yes, indeed I have!

Was there any point at which you felt like walking away? And if so, what brought you back to the film?

There were many points when I thought we were never going to make the film, and, yes, I did think why am I hanging around?

It was a very difficult time in the industry. In America, the writers were on strike, the actors were threatening strikes, there were not very many films being made, but I really loved this project. It was a huge challenge for me and I was lucky to get the job. So, I thought, “Well, if you just walk away from it, what are you going into? What would you lose?” And I was right. I’m glad I didn’t walk away, because there wasn’t anything around that I wanted to do more than this.

I thought I’d just hang in, and we got lucky in the end, because by hanging in, we made it.  I think we all felt lucky. The actors were nervous about it because they were getting older all the time and waiting…

And then there were the Mexican drug wars…

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…which were terrifying, yes.

We had all these dramas going on around us and it was really a stroke of luck that the currency changed at a time when Disney pulled out then Fox moved in, and suddenly the film became economically viable. So, we went off and made it pretty quickly after hanging around for so long. We really got on with it.

On the point that 3D technology can swamp nuance in a film, there have been reports that you weren’t entirely happy with Dawn Treader‘s3D release…

No, that’s not true. I suppose it would have been… I don’t know whether it would have been better to have actually shot it in 3D and then have that.

Will The Silver Chair be shot in 3D?

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Well, I don’t know. I suppose so. I don’t know whether The Silver Chair would be. I mean there’s no dates for that as far as I know about.

I suppose it might have been more interesting to have actually shot it in 3D. I know it’s a very, very slow process and when you’re working with kids and teenagers you don’t have many hours with them each day, so you have to take the time for 3D to do it.

But, you know, I wasn’t unhappy about it at all when it was decided to convert it, because I just thought, “Well, here’s another challenge. Here’s something I’ve never done before. It’ll be interesting to see how it works out.”

Inevitably, because of Dawn Treader‘s release date, there will be comparisons to David Yates’ Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows. Have you seen it?

I haven’t seen it yet. We didn’t finish this until fairly recently.

How do you feel about the competition from films like Deathly Hallows?

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Well, you have to get over it. There’s a lot of competition and what can you do? You do the best you can and you just hope you’re not up against directly something that hits the same market.

I suspect that Potter is a bit older than we are, and Tron is definitely more male-orientated. So, yes, it does give you a nervous breakdown, because you just want no other film to be anywhere near yours for a month. But then, you know, you get over it.

You just cited Tron: Legacy as being male-orientated, and in another interview you said that Dawn Treader is more likely to appeal to girls than the previous two Narnia films. What do you make of JK Rowling’s criticism of CS Lewis that the books have a misogynist subtext?

Well, I’m not going to speak to that. I don’t know. I think Lucy is a very sympathetic character in all the books, so I don’t see what her problem is with that.

It was so interesting actually doing this with Georgie (Henley, who plays Lucy Pevensie in the films) because you felt in some ways she was going through the same life as Lucy. She’s becoming very beautiful, Lucy. She’s growing up from being a young girl into a teenage girl.

You just felt in the underbelly of the film that Georgie was almost playing what she was living through. So, I think this is a kind of honest attempt at a younger girl looking at her older sister and seeing the older sister become a beautiful swan and hungering for that. I think it was a very valid nerve we were touching, really.

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That storyline spoke to me in the film.

Yes, it would do and I don’t know what Miss Rowling’s problem with that would be but… who knows?

You’ve dealt with that theme, growing up, now in the fantasy genre and also in the Up documentary series. Did you find one mode of filmmaking revealed more than the other about growing up?

I think it’s valid in both and they both have their advantages. In documentaries there’s a sort of reality about it. You see things that are happening in front of you and there’s no – when it’s a good documentary – there’s no barrier between you and the person and the emotion. But then when you’re doing fiction there is a barrier. But on the other hand, you can be very precise with what you’re talking about. You can have very well written emotional scenes, whereas in documentaries you wish people could speak faster or not babble quite so much.

So, there’s an advantage in both, but I think the emotions of the Up films and the emotions of this are not that dissimilar.

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Another comparison: how did taking on this franchise compare to working on Bond? Which did you feel under more pressure with?

In neither was I pressured except in my own mind.

I could never have done this film if I hadn’t done Bond first, because this was actually a bigger film than Bond. This was more complicated, doing so much fantasy and surrealism, but I learnt on Bond.

I mean, I almost had a heart attack when I started Bond thinking, “You’re never going to get through thi,” but you have to do it step by step. You surround yourself with good people and you’re not afraid to ask questions and you’re not afraid to say, “I don’t know how to do it. Tell me”

In both instances I got a very warm, supportive welcome, so there was no sense of being an outsider either way. Especially with Bond, as I was doing the nineteenth Bond, so they had a whole culture, and a whole generation of people on the crew who had been working on it for years.

But in both cases I was very warmly received and I had a wonderful time on both.

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One final question. As a filmmaker with 40 plus years of experience in the industry, what do you make of the rash of remakes we’re seeing on our screens? Is there a dearth of ideas in cinema at the moment?

It is a tough time. There’s a big market for hugely expensive films, like Potter, particularly, and us to a lesser extent, and they tend to take the air out of the industry a bit. There’s no room for the middle budget films. Though, saying that, then something like The Social Network comes along and you think, “God, that’s great.”

There has always been good low budget work, whether it’s in films or in television, British television, British independent films, or cable television in America. But it’s that kind of $20-30 million budget that gets sort of clobbered and those were the really good films when I was growing up.

Take American cinema in the seventies. Those were the sort of films that were so brilliant. They were smart and clever and found an audience. All the films of Martin Scorsese, the Godfather films, Altman’s films, Woody Allen’s films… It’s an endless list. You look at the Best Picture nominations in the seventies and it takes your breath away. And those sort of films have largely disappeared today.

Although franchises are great and I’m thrilled with this film, you know, they’ve sucked a bit too much air and money out of the industry.

Michael Apted, thank you very much.

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The Chronicles Of Narnia Voyage Of The Dawn Treader will be released in the UK on Thursday 9th December.