Culture Trip caught up with Unlocked (2017) director Michael Apted and found out why he loves putting London on screen. We also found out how he unexpectedly came to make one of the best Bond movies of recent years…
Culture Trip (CT): What would you say are the main difficulties in making an entertaining movie while dealing with real life political issues?
Michael Apted (MA): Well, I think you have to bear in mind that it is a piece of entertainment, but for it to work it has to have some seriousness to it – it has to deal respectfully with the subject, you can’t trash or disregard it. So it’s to find a way of treating it so that it isn’t so blood thirsty, vicious, or full of hysteria, which would frighten people off. I mean, it is an important part of all our lives and so it’s fair game to discuss it, but if you can make it in a way that’s acceptable within a structure, with the well proven cinema structure of a thriller, which you know has worked as well as anything through the decades. Then I think its fair game if you’re responsible or not unintelligent about what you’re dealing with.
CT: What makes London the perfect setting?
MA: Well because it is multi-cultural. I mean, I hardly shot any of it in London, it’s kind of the miracle – my very brilliant young Czech production designer said: ‘When you choose your key English locations, don’t choose old buildings, I cannot match old buildings in Prague – go modern because I can do that,’ and in fact I think we pulled it off. I was only here for six days and the rest of it was shot in Prague. But that opening sequence, all I wanted to say is that it’s a multi-cultural society. So that opening sequence sort of did that. It seemed to be a story that would work well in London, that’s where it was written. I came on board and they already had Noomi. I mean, you have to feel responsible, it’s a difficult subject to be entertaining in.
CT: You get a real sense of the city in the film, and areas of London that you don’t always necessarily see…
MA: I like that because I actually come from the East End of London, from Ilford years and years ago, and I thought – because of the Olympics, there were a lot of interesting buildings done in that part. You can go deep into the East End of London and still see the city in the background and I love that. I just thought there were some interesting things in east London, some of which we were able to reproduce in Prague.
CT: Did you always have Noomi in mind for the main role?
MA: No she was already in it, but it was such a gift because I always felt, looking at the script, that it was crucial that whoever played the role could do the heavy stuff. Not all of it, we didn’t want someone getting hurt, but I can’t imagine many actresses in the world who could have convincingly played someone who could really look after themselves. There’s something about her demeanour, that she can give as good as she got, and she delivers that. She was already part of the package so I thought that was a big plus for me, because I liked the script – I’m sure there are bigger movie stars, but she is authentic. Obviously we had stunt girls doing some of the stuff, but you didn’t for one minute doubt that she could do it. So I was thrilled to have her in it.
CT: What qualities does she have that make her right for the character?
MA: I think she has a real physicality to her. I mean she’s an attractive woman, but she looks as though she can handle herself. I mean if you’re in a room with her, you’re not likely to start insulting her because she could easily do you in. She takes it very seriously, the physical stuff, she’s sort of built her career on it. It’s a genuine thing and she’s a genuinely strong woman. So I think it comes with her, there’s a physicality and – maybe it’s hurtful for her, whether she can do a romantic film, whether you’re going to get a bleeding nose if you make a move on her – but for these kind of genre films, she’s perfect.
CT: It’s interesting you say that actually – there’s moments after we meet Orlando Bloom’s character where we think he’ll become a love interest for Noomi’s character, obviously that’s not what happens, was that deliberate?
MA: Yes, I thought what was so good about the script was that it wasn’t predictable. When I showed it to my grandson he said, ‘the best thing about it, grandpa, is that I swore they were going to go off and do another bloody love story and they don’t,’ and so that was great. The script was full of things you thought might happen but didn’t happen – that unexpected quality, I thought, is the sign of a good thriller.
CT: Not what I expected at all! There’s some huge Hollywood names involved in the film, does that gravitas help to get a film off the ground?
MA: Oh yes, financially – absolutely. The producers bought in, they knew Malkovich and they knew Michael Douglas, and they offered them a lot of money to show up for a few days. You need that sort of connection and if you don’t have it, and I don’t usually, then it’s hard to get these kind of films made. So it was done well and in good spirits; John came in for a week and Michael came in for two weeks, it’s hard for her because she had to do her role with whoever was in! She had to do all the Malkovich stuff then all the Douglas stuff, then all of the Orlando stuff whenever – but that’s the only way you can get films like this made.
CT: Orlando’s character is a lot more complex than we first expect. What does he bring to the role that audiences might find surprising?
MA: Well I think he is so interesting to work with. You see, I had to talk him into it a bit and then he really gave me a hard time. He wanted everything explained to him and stuff like that, but I’d seen him do a South African role, which I don’t think was ever shown here, but he played a cop.
I thought this is what Orlando can do, this is perfect because he was a name that I wanted – but would he be up to it? I mean, we know Malkovich and we know Michael Douglas can do it – could he do it? And he was really good! He did irritating things like ask, “Can I say it like this?” but he was right!
What I wanted him to do – what I want all actors to do – is to bring themselves into the role, so they become indistinguishable from the role, so any quirk they’ve got becomes a quirk the character’s got, so we get some emotion, some depth.
Some actors do it just to be annoying, for no reason other than to show that they can write lines or stuff like that, but he did it for a reason! He was saying ‘I just want this to be an authentic character – and I know this character, parts of me are this character,’ and I said well that’s what we need. He was really good to work with, you know, he really got stuck in.
CT: You mentioned it briefly, there are a number of twists and turns throughout the film – are those fun to work on, in terms of giving the audience a surprise or a shock?
MA: Yeah exactly, I mean that’s the fun of doing it. You’ve got to be so careful that you don’t give things away, you can’t let the audience get ahead of you. Whether it’s the music or something like that, you know, or just the way it’s shot or something like that. You’ve got to really work out the language of keeping people in the dark, not in an obvious way – so that it’s really making them think ‘What’s going on here?’ That’s the fun of it.
CT: Going back to London very quickly – you were able to feature the city in the Bond movie The World Is Not Enough. Even in the relatively short time between the two films, what sort of changes have you seen in the city, whether in the film or just in your personal life?
MA: The Gherkin! I think that obviously architecturally it’s changed quite a bit and all that, but did I talk about the opening sequence? I think it’s more multi-racial than it was in Bond’s time, so that fitted the story. It made the narrative more organic, you know. It was a multi-dimensional society, I just wanted to make that point very simply, without much palaver, so you’d either notice it or you wouldn’t. It set the table for the London we were going to look at, especially shooting some of it in the East End, which is obviously more crowded culturally.
CT: Would you ever go back to Bond?
MA: I’m not sure, I mean, I don’t think they’d ever ask me to but yeah, it was fun to do. It was hard because I had to learn on the spot. I couldn’t understand why I was asked to do it. It took some time before they told me why – it was because they wanted to make a Bond that had some interesting women, because women weren’t going to see it.
One way of expanding the economic value of the thing was to see if they could get couples or young women to go and see it. They wanted to make it a more female-driven story. So the villain was a woman, Sophie Marceau, and M had a lot more to do, she got involved in the plot. They wanted to use a director who had done a lot of work with women, worked with them in leading roles and stuff like that. Once I knew that, well at least I know why I’m here! They’re not going to ask me to do it for my technical brilliance with visual effects because I don’t know one visual effect from another.
It was very stressful to have to learn all the stuff, to have to learn stunts and all that. I mean I’d done some – but nothing to this intensity, so it was a very frightening experience, but they were very very nice people, very good people, and as soon as I knew the reason why I was there it gave me a certain confidence that I did have something to offer.
CT: A learning curve…
MA: Yeah, I was over 50 and had this big learning curve, and you know, it was so big. I did one very smart thing – you start preparing in August and you finish shooting in June, so I was preparing stuff in September which I wouldn’t shoot until May. I thought, well that’s alright because I have all this time, but a little voice in me said ‘pay attention, pay attention now – even if it’s months away before you shoot the scene, pay attention,’ so I did and I was right. You know, once it starts it’s just this juggernaut – and if you haven’t paid attention, you have to make decisions in September which will pay off in March and April, and I was alive to that. If I hadn’t, if I’d thought ‘fuck this, lets concentrate on what I’m going to shoot first,’ I’d have got into a terrible mess.
CT: The film sets it up for more adventures, would you be interested in making a sequel?
MA: Oh yeah, I would. We did an end to the film which was terrible, we had to reshoot it. But also some of the reasons to reshoot it – the title needed work, she had to do something at the end, and someone had to die. The obvious person to die was the guy who had been behind it all. But also open up the possibility of something else.
CT: It could be a new franchise…
MA: Well yeah, you never know, do you?
Unlocked is in UK cinemas from Friday, May 5