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.
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.
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.
You also spent a long time editing the film: 8 months. Was it a difficult process?
Yes. Finding a visual style was difficult, and we had a lot of material. It was hard to strike the right balance between dealing with their science and not trivializing it, and yet on the other hand not making it just gossip. It was a rather daring thing for me to do, because I was totally uneducated in science. And the thought of sitting down with these people and talking to them! I was very anxious not to make a fool of myself, so I tried to keep the science very simple and straightforward. I mean, if I could understand it, pretty well anybody could.
It’s fascinating to hear what the scientists say about their work, but I did find some of it quite disturbing. Like Steven Pinker, the cognitive scientist, with his theory of behavioral genetics. So many of your films – including the “Seven Up” series – have focused on the social influences of behaviour. How did you react to someone who thinks that everything we do is determined by evolutionary hard-wiring?
Well, I didn’t. I didn’t really want to. It might sound a bit lame, but I just wanted to put things out there in a form that audiences could understand. I didn’t want to take issue with Karel Sikora, the professor of cancer medicine, on the ethics of gene therapy. My agenda was really to deal with them as human beings. Of course a lot of what they said is very spooky and alarming, like the concept of a unified “theory of everything,” or the whole idea of robots with feelings. Nonetheless, this is a group of passionate, interesting, compelling people, and that’s what I wanted to make the film about.
You also make a point of highlighting their activism, showing that one person can make a difference and positively change people’s lives. For example, because of Patricia Wright’s initiative, an endangered rainforest became a national park. And environmental scientist Ashok Gadgil has invented a device for purifying water in developing countries.
We tried to cover as many bases as we could. The theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku, is involved in the ethics of the atomic bomb and the military use of physics. Patricia Wright, who was in Madagascar, had somehow transformed her energies from purely biological issues into cultural issues and environmental concerns. Maja Mataric, the artificial intelligence researcher, was pregnant and she was at the beginning of her career, while Gertrude Elion, the Nobel prize-winning pharmaceutical chemist, was at the end of her career. All these people were chosen for specific reasons, to make it as broad-based as possible.
It’s striking that most of the scientists are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.
I wish I had some statistics for that. It’s terrifying, it’s shameful, that in the United States they do not produce their own scientists. They rely entirely on the brain drain: bringing people in from other parts of the world to maintain the whole of American science, which is the best-financed, best-equipped science in the world. It simply functions on immigrants. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important this film gets out there.
Another striking aspect of the film is the beautiful camerawork by Maryse Alberti. Do you work with her regularly?
Oh yes, I’ve done lots with her. Incident at Oglala, Moving the Mountain, Inspirations... She’s a very big cheese in the indie world. She did Todd Solondz’ Happiness, she did Velvet Goldmine. When I’m making a documentary, my whole energy is focused on my interview subjects. I don’t want to be looking down the camera and all that. I am very much in the hands of the camera person. Sometimes I don’t know what she’s shooting. So it’s good that we understand each other. Over the years we have developed a kind of instinctive relationship.
I also work regularly with the editor, Suzanne Szabo Rostock, for similar reasons. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’m something of a dilettante. The fiction features are the main thrust of my life, and they pay the rent, which means I do the documentaries in between times. So invariably we edit via Federal Express. With this film, we sat down together and developed a structure for it, and then I went off to do the Bond film, and she stayed in New York. So again, I need to have someone who really knows what I want.
What is it about documentary that keeps bringing you back? Isn’t it unusual that someone who directs James Bond films is also still interested in doing this kind of work?
Well, I think I have a documentarian’s soul. When I do James Bond and the story happens to be about Caspian oil, my first instinct is to cart everybody off to Azerbaijan to have a look. But also, it’s my calling card in a way. I know a lot of the jobs I’ve got in Hollywood have been because of my documentary experience. For instance, with *Gorillas in the Mist they needed someone who could handle documentary, because we shot so much wildlife material. Also, I love the change of rhythm. Doing *Me and Isaac Newton, with a crew of 6 people, and then going off to do Bond with a crew of a thousand and 100 million dollars. As long as I don’t keep doing the same thing, I’m happy. Doing Bond is not what I’d been doing before, and sitting down with 7 scientists including a Nobel prize-winner is not something I’d done before. I love documentary; it keeps me interested in life.