MARCY GOLDBERG talked to him about the work he loves best, and about his latest non-fiction feature.

Filmmaker Michael Apted (b. 1941) leads a double life. In one incarnation he is known as the director of high-profile Hollywood productions like Gorky Park and Gorillas in the Mist. In his other life, he has been a dedicated documentarian since the 1960s. This second Apted is perhaps best known for his “Seven Up” series, which followed a group of British children from age 7 (1963) to 42 (1998). In October 1999, this Michael Apted received the International Documentary Association’s Career Achievement Award.

Gorillas in the Mist

What both Apteds have in common: a proven commitment to bringing real stories and social issues to the big screen, whether in the form of fictionalized bio-pic (Coal Miner’s Daughter, the life of country singer Loretta Lynn) or feature documentary (Incident at Oglala, about imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier). With his 1994 doc Moving the Mountain, Apted analyzed the Tiananmen Square massacre by profiling five leaders of the brutally crushed student uprising. In 1997, he released *Inspirations, a look at artistic creativity which included portraits of musician David Bowie, painter Roy Lichtenstein and choreographer Édouard Lock. And in late 1999 he presented its companion piece: Me and Isaac Newton, an exploration of scientific creativity which profiles seven prominent scientists.

Gorky Park (Michael Apted, 1983

In the recent crop of ‘instant’ docs and docu-soaps, Me and Isaac Newtone  is that shining exception: a real feature documentary, researched, shot and edited with the same painstaking care as a big-budget fiction film. Each of the seven scientists in the film is engaged, in his or her own way, in unravelling the secrets of the universe. Astoundingly, they are all able to explain what they do in terms that are not only easy to understand but also utterly fascinating. Using a sensitive, down-to-earth approach, Apted also succeeds at capturing the simple human aspects of his scientists’ lives. And in spite of the often abstract subject matter, he never loses sight of the social and ethical questions raised by the scientists’ work. “To me, science is truth and truth is beautiful,” says the Nobel prize-winning chemist in the film. With its compelling camerawork and intricate editing, Me and Isaac Newton provides the best glimpse of that beauty that lesser mortals can hope to find.

At the Toronto Film Festival in September 1999, a gracious Apted had just finished a series of interviews about his latest fiction feature, the James Bond thriller The World is Not Enough, and was pleased – and perhaps slightly surprised? – to be asked about his documentary life.

MG: Why a film about science?

MA: There is something about scientists that is slightly chilling, as if they have the monopoly on truth and we can’t approach them. We are afraid of them, because they have such a dominant influence in our lives. I wanted to get beyond the clichés to the human, inspiring, creative side. With artists you can film what they’re doing, which is very varied and visual and interesting. For Me and Isaac Newton it was a challenge to find a visual language for such cerebral concepts, beyond filming people looking down test tubes or writing formulas on blackboards. You have to use a lot of imagination to reach a level of poetry above the spoken word – although the film is driven by the spoken word.

You’ve said that you found the scientists surprisingly articulate – more so than the artists in Inspirations.

I did. It was kind of weird to have scientists talk like human beings. Which was a bit of a stunner to me, since the whole cliché I was trying to undo was that science was remote and no one could understand it. Then of course I realized why they’re so articulate: it’s because they spend most of their time trying to raise money to do their work. They have to present what they do to the people who’ve got the money – politicians, industrialists – in very simple terms. At the same time, I wasn’t that interested in the details of the science. I was much more interested in them as people: how they got started, their emotions and ambitions, the tremendous competition, and the legacy they want to leave behind.

I had to cast the scientists very carefully so I could dramatize many issues that I thought were important within science. There were a few questions that I asked all of them: What was the moment when they realized they were going to be a scientist? Is there such a thing as an epiphany, a kind of eureka moment? And I also asked them about spirituality. It took the best part of a year to choose who should be in the film. But I knew that the more time it took, the better the choices would be.

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