Skip to main content

1999 Career Achievement Award: Michael Apted

By Tom White

Michael Apted, a white man, looks through the camera.

Michael Apted is an original. While most of his contemporaries choose one genre, Apted often toils in both simultaneously and can be found shooting a narrative feature while editing a documentary, and vice versa. He is that rare filmmaker who has successfully and consistently crossed back and forth between the fiction and nonfiction worlds throughout his career.

In 1962, Granada Television hired Apted as a researcher. He had just graduated from Cambridge University, where he studied law and history—not film. He joined the London-based studio and selected a cross-section of English children. The premise was to look at the English class system through their eyes. What began as a project specific to England and its peculiar mores evolved over the next three decades into a fascinating study of ordinary people growing up and coping with life's vicissitudes—in front of an audience of millions. The Up series has earned two British Academy Awards, two International Emmys and an IDA Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award (for 28-Up), and it inspired similar series in the United States and Russia. (Apted serves as executive producer of both of these series).

A long-running documentary series such as Up is most unusual in that there are no guarantees of cooperation from the subjects, especially for 35 years! Apted has managed to maintain their trust and respect over a period of time, which demonstrates a remarkable patience and humility that most documentarians would envy. However, for Apted, whether as a history scholar, reporter or director, the stories his subjects have to tell are reason enough for him to listen and learn, in this case, for a lifetime.

Through his own production company, Osiris Films, he executive-produced Criminal Justice (1990), for HBO; Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), directed by Francis Ford Coppola; and Strapped (1993), for HBO. Apted has received IDA Awards for Incident at Oglala and Moving the Mountain, a Grammy Award for Bring on the Night and, a Heartland Festival Award for Moving the Mountain.

Apted has also made nearly 20 feature films, including Coal Miner's Daughter (1980), for which he earned a Directors Guild of America Award nomination; Continental Divide (1981); Gorillas in the Mist (1988); Thunderheart (1991); Nell (1994); and Always Outnumbered (1998), for HBO.

Other credits include Bring on the Night (1985), which featured the rock artist Sting; The Long Way Home (1989), about Russian rock star Boris Brebenshikiv; Moving the Mountain (1994), which tells the story of the Tiananmen Square massacre through the eyes of five student dissident leaders; Inspirations (1997), a meditation on the creative process through the words of seven artists; and Me & Isaac Newton (1999), which complements Inspirations by looking at creativity in the world of science. Apted recently completed 42 Up, the latest installment in his 35-year old Up series, and is currently directing the latest James Bond thriller The World Is not Enough for UA/MGM and EON Productions.