Winter 2018

An Aptitude for Leadership

Michael Apted's deep documentary experience informs his quest for authenticity, and as the issue of creative rights loomed after Thunderheart, that awareness sparked a decades-long involvement in DGA leadership

BY ROBERT KOEHLER


Director Michael Apted. (Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia)

Keeping up with the shifting career leaps of director Michael Apted turns out to be an adventure.

From his beginnings in the early 1960s at the U.K.'s legendary Granada Television, which served as his training ground, Apted refused to be slotted into a single category. First as researcher, then as director, Apted broke ground as a documentarian with the Up series, which profiled a group of 7 year olds across Britain's stratified class system—and then revisited them every seven years. (In a sustained act unprecedented in nonfiction filmmaking, Apted is currently preparing 63 Up.)

At the same time, he worked in a wide range of British television productions, from the still-running soap opera Coronation Street to dramas to theater adaptations, such as the 1976 Great Performances version of Harold Pinter's The Collection, produced by Laurence Olivier, with a dream cast of Alan Bates, Malcolm McDowell, Olivier and Helen Mirren.

In 1980, Apted came to the U.S. to direct Coal Miner's Daughter, immediately sealing his reputation in Hollywood as a maker of nuanced, genre-crossing stories with strong, humanist hearts beating at their centers, including Gorky Park (1983), Gorillas in the Mist (1988), Class Action (1991), Thunderheart (1992), Nell (1994), Enigma (2001), Amazing Grace (2006) and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).

Like the late Jonathan Demme did, Apted maintains a dance between fiction and nonfiction, each creatively feeding the other. Besides his regular seven-year process of revisiting the Up project, he's made a range of documentaries profiling performers and artists (including the brilliant and little-known Inspirations, featuring David Bowie) and work that taps complex political topics, from the arrest of American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier (Incident at Oglala) to the experience of young Chinese activists who survived the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in Beijing (Moving the Mountain).

As he explains in this wide-ranging interview with DGA Quarterly, Apted is at heart a realist who brings his drive for truth even to the James Bond spectacle The World Is Not Enough (1999) and his latest, the 2017 international espionage thriller Unlocked, starring Noomi Rapace. A three-term president of the DGA, as well as its current secretary-treasurer, and upcoming 2018 recipient of the DGA's Honorary Life Member Award, Apted also expresses strong, clear-headed ideas on the current and future course of the Guild and its core values.




(Top) Apted confers with Sigourney Weaver on location for Gorillas in the Mist; (Bottom) The director, sitting behind the microphone, takes a pause in the action during the making of 35 Up, part of a landmark documentary series that became a stinging indictment of the English class system. (Photos: (Top) Photofest; (Bottom) Granada Television)

Q: Now, you didn't study filmmaking. Your background is history and law. How did you tumble into television and film production?

A: When I was 11, I got a scholarship to The City of London School. It gave me a sense of a big city, and that led to an interest in amateur, school drama. When I was 14, I went to the Academy Theater and saw an Ingmar Bergman film, Wild Strawberries. That changed my life, because I had been going to the movies really as a social event but I never really knew the existence of anything profound or lasting about movies, and this was my road to Damascus. From then on, that is what I wanted to do.

I was on London's West End, so we could go to the theater. We did great school plays, and it was all very seriously done. My real roots came from my mother because she loved going to plays. I tagged along with her, and I loved that.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: In Elford, in Essex, which is kind of a slightly middle-class part of the East End of London. That gave me a basis for when I went to Cambridge. I jumped straight into college theater and going to the movies all the time. It was an interesting generation. I was at college with Trevor Nunn, Stephen Frears, Mike Newell. John Cleese and I were on the football team together. It was kind of a golden age at Cambridge in the '60s. A lot of us went off into the entertainment industry.

I graduated [during a] time of change in U.K. television. The BBC had run the whole thing for decades. After starting around 1958, commercial television was looking for talent to develop by the early 1960s. They [focused on] raw talent from the universities, and I got in on that and I went to Granada Television, which was the best place to be. It had a famous Australian documentarian named Tim Hewat who transformed the face of news and documentaries in British television. He ran a weekly show called World in Action, which focused on real social problems and went all over the world. I joined this unit after I had done training at Granada. The company was too small to really train us, so it was on-the-job training. We jumped in straight away, making horrific mistakes and things like that. But that didn't seem to matter.

One of the shows I did was Seven Up! Hewat said, "The English social system stinks to heaven; how are we going to dramatize it? How are we going to show that? You know, we could talk to journalists and intellectuals. But why not get 7-year-old kids in and ask them about their lives and their hopes?"

I was put on it as researcher, and found the children. We prepared it for about a month, shot it and then put it on the air. And it was staggering… the impact it had. Because here for the first time was a real look at the English class system, which was horrific.

Q: What was interesting and maybe unprecedented about Seven Up! was how it grouped all of the classes together. They were all under the same tent.

A: Exactly. What was good about it was that it was directed by a very skillful Canadian director, Paul Almond (Apted directed all of the subsequent films in the series). He didn't really have any sense of the English class system as a Canadian. He turned it into a nice film, but I turned it into a political document. That if you were born into a certain environment, you had no chance at all of achieving any ambition. It was going to be controversial, crude, no holds barred, and was going to tell it as it was. It had a huge effect on the country, not just on television, because it showed graphically how awful things were.

Q: Some people said it had an effect similar to that of Dickens' novels.

A: Yeah, I think it did.

Q: How did you see yourself growing up, developing, maturing, both as a filmmaker and also as a human being interacting with these kids turning into adults?

A: It was a piece of hands-on sociology. You know, as I went on with the program, I learned how to do it properly. Earlier on, I made mistakes trying to anticipate what was going to happen to them, like most famously when I did 21 Up. I was convinced by 28 that [Tony Walker, whom Apted referred to as "Tony the Jockey"] was going to be in prison, so I thought it would be a very cute idea to have him drive around the East End of London where he lived and he could point out the great crime spots because there had been very famous criminals who had been murdering people in the East End of London. I thought this would be very, very good. And of course, it wasn't. Nothing could have been further from the truth. And he realized it. He picked it up at 28 Up. I'll never forget, he said, "See, Michael, don't judge the book by its cover." And I realized, "Michael, you're trying to play God here, so stop it." And so that was the first lesson I learned painfully, don't try and anticipate what's going on. It's the hardest thing to do. I refined that to such a degree that I would have almost no fixed questions. It wasn't about my input, it was what they were. Because if you look at all the films, they're all different in a way. 35 Up, for example, is about death, because a lot of them were losing their parents at that age. And yet when I did 56 Up, they weren't thinking about death. Economically, it was interesting because when 35 was filmed [in 1991], England was in a catastrophic crisis with the miners' strikes, and they never mentioned it. I might try to get them [to comment on it], but they had nothing to say about it. Yet by 56, they're worried about their pensions. So, it had to be their view of the world, and that took quite a lot of figuring out, to be honest with you. And so the interviews are really what they want to talk about, not what I want them to talk about. It isn't about current affairs. It's about where their emotional, political, social lives are. And that gives freshness to it.

Q: Was Coronation Street your training ground for directing actors?

A: Absolutely. That was the first time I ever met actors. Mike Newell, who's still a very close friend—we've had very similar careers—was directing Coronation Street and went on holiday. So I went to the management and said, "Newell's going on holidays, can I do his episodes?" I can't imagine how I managed to get the nerve to do it. They said, "Really?" I said, "Yeah. I would really love to do it." And they said, "OK." It was as simple as that. So I did his pair, and I did them well, and the actors liked working with me. I went back to documentaries, and then about six, seven months later, they came back and said, "Do you want to do some more of that?" It was a fantastic experience. We weren't exactly doing it live, but it had to be done in two chunks with a commercial break in the middle. So you had to get through the first 15 minutes without stopping. And then you had a break and then you did the second. So you had to plan everything. It also helped that they'd been doing it for six years. And it's still going.

Q: At the same time, you were developing your skills and tools as a director of dramatic material. The Collection remains one of the most interesting visual records of a Pinter play in a more realistic world. When you got to that point, did you feel like, wow, I have really reached the top of a mountain here? I'm working with Laurence Olivier.

A: Olivier was married to Joan Plowright, and her brother David ran Granada. Olivier went through quite a long period of illness, and he wanted to get back into acting again. So he did this deal with Granada that they would do six plays, [and] he would act in one or two of them. But he would be the producer, which is why we attracted all this incredible talent. I was only in my late 20s, so it was a frightening experience. I mean I would have a read-through and there were all these actors with Harold Pinter. And there was me saying, "Shall we get going?"




(Top) The director with Sissy Spacek, who played the title role in Apted's Coal Miner's Daughter, for which she won an Oscar; (Bottom) Apted decrees order in the court on the set of Class Action with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. (Photos: (Top) Courtesy Michael Apted; (Bottom) Everett)

Q: One of the most interesting examples of you directing an actor is with Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter. On what details did you work with her?

A: Well, the big specific was singing. Loretta and the music producer spent six weeks with Sissy, working on the whole thing. Sissy had all that time with Loretta to learn about her, watch her sing. It was concrete. She learned how to sing. She already had a lovely voice for it, but she also learned all the body movements. Incredibly, Loretta did the preparations and then left, and never showed up for any of the filming. She didn't intend to get in the way once we started.

Q: How do you direct actors?

A: Well, I've never really been an actor. My way of directing actors is to figure out their strengths and weaknesses. For me, it's always a case of not being afraid to talk about the characters and scenes a lot, and get their input as much as I can. Not to go in there and say to them, "This is what I want you to do." I mean, specific directions may come later in matters of staging or whatever. But I begin by trying to help them feel part of the character. Sissy had to enter the living world of Loretta. The documentarian in me is still very large. I think I'm much more of a documentarian than I am a theatrical person. So whenever I do anything, I go to what is the truth of the matter, even if it's kind of a ridiculous or invented truth. But to get into that world and to find a way to rehearse, which introduces them to their world. Like if they're playing a cop, go out with a cop. To get them to look at the world which we're going to inhabit in as intimate a way as possible.

Q: When you say you get to know the actor's strengths and talk to them about that—for example, in Sissy Spacek's case, what did that mean? There isn't anyone else like her, she's sort of sui generis.

A: Yeah, she's also tough in the way she works. And it's that toughness that I wanted to get because everything was against her the whole time. So the question I face is considering what is the character's strength as written and what strengths does the actor bring to that. It's some way to find the documentary part of it in the casting and also in the way I talk to the actors. And what I talk to them about is the kind of real world they're in. That's what interests me.

Even when I did The World Is Not Enough, the Bond movie, that involved business in the Caspian Sea. I told the producers I want to go to the Caspian and see what's going on there. I think they thought I was crazy. And I said, "I want to go down to the Caspian and to Azerbaijan." It was amazing what we got out of doing that. We discovered that the Russians were building cities on the water because they had so much steel in the '50s and '60s, they didn't know what to do with it, so they built these cities. I mean, we would never have figured that out if we hadn't gone down there. That was a kind of an extreme example of what I do to bring out reality.

Q: That raises another interesting element in a lot of your work: How you work with location scouts. Your movies, almost without exception, are shot on location and usually shot where the story is set.

A: I was enormously influenced by English realism, our version of Italian neo-realism—dominated by people like Ken Loach—which was about not just finding the place but also to have the voice of the people living there. Getting away from the usual BBC theatrical thing. That was always my agenda. If I could do it outside a studio, in the real place, I would do it. I always want to go and see where these story's events took place, even if it was impossible to shoot in the original location. It's part of the documentarian, a very strong element even now in my life. That's why doing The Chronicles of Narnia was a nightmare for me because that was magical. I mean other people can sit down and just draw something like that out of their imagination. But my imagination is always rooted in reality, which can be a burden as well as an advantage. And I was having a fit doing Narnia because I had all these great artists doing all these themes for the various islands we have in the film, and I thought, "Oh my God, how am I going to choose?"

Q: Your most recent movie, Unlocked, has some incredible locations. Where were they?

A: People saw the film and assumed I shot it in London. But I shot five days in London, and the rest of it in Prague, exteriors and everything. In that case, I listened to my production designer [Ondřej Nekvasi] who said, "When you pick the London locations that I've got to match, don't make them necessarily famous things. And don't make them very old. Because I can't match old in the Czech Republic as London. Forget all that. And go more recent. Then I can do it." Which he did. I'm usually very close with the production designer.

I think in some ways the production designer to me is more important than the cinematographer because I know a cinematographer whose work I like, and I know that I'm not a great photographer. I tend to trust a DP. I can't express to them how I want it done. But I know what to ask the designers, I know what I want from them.

Q: Then we're really talking about a three-way conversation, right? Between the production designer, the location scout and you in terms of finding that right place.

A: Yes. The location scout can understand how to change what's there to suit what I need, i.e., to find you a place where you can do things to it, to fit in with the look. So the location manager is a very important figure in all this, because he'll be part of the discussions I have with the production designer. That part of production I enjoy a lot, how to make locations work.

Nell was interesting because the DP, Dante Spinotti, with whom I've done three or four films, worked very closely with the production designer, Jon Hutman, because he wanted the sun to be in a particular place for the location for certain parts of the film. So that was the two of them having to decide exactly where to put that cabin so Dante had the best opportunities with dawn and dusk. So it became Jon's and the location scout's job to find us a piece of seaside or lakeside where we could do that. Dante's needs became my needs since I would never have thought of that. And when we started doing it, I realized how important that decision was by Dante and how well the location scout and production designer understood that.

Q: You don't write your own movies. Where do you begin to be involved with the script? How do you work with a writer?

A: I go with scripts that are about a subject that interests me.

Q: What's an example of that?

A: Well, I mean with Coal Miner's Daughter, I thought, "My God, you know, I'm in the north of England here. I'm there."

Q: You see that in the early scenes right away?

A: The most important thing to me in a script is to have a relationship at the center of the film. It could be Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. I have to have an emotional center in the film, whatever it is. Because to me I can only tell a story through the emotion of it. I can't necessarily tell it through the action or the scale of it so much.

Then I know what to ask a writer for. Then I know what to ask in a piece of casting. Is this actress capable of creating a relationship with this actor? Would they be sympathetic together? Because I find the better films I've done have been the ones that have some real emotional power to them. If I don't see that in a script, then there's nothing I can do because I can't rewrite the script. I'm not capable of doing that.






(Top) Apted with star Jodie Foster on Nell; (Middle) Going over the script with Georgie Henley on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; (Bottom) Apted trains his focus on Dougray Scott and Kate Winslet on Enigma. (Photos: (Top & Middle) Everett; (Bottom) Shutterstock)

Q: Do you treat the writer's words as sacrosanct on the set or do you change them? Or do they change in the rehearsal period?

A: I think it is all of the above. If I know a scene or film is beautifully written, I will make sure it is done in that way. If I think a script can be enhanced by something an actor brings to it, I would go along with that. I don't have strict rules with it, except I do think the script and writers should be treated with respect. I don't pick up a script and say, "Thank you very much" and then turn the whole thing round. If someone comes up with a line that seems to me to be better than what is written, I will use it. I won't say no. So, again it is part of the whole kind of documentary discovery of me doing a movie to finding out what are the best bits to use.

Q: In the case of Nell, screenwriter William Nicholson came to the set to work on scenes and the language. What's unique about that movie is that you have this invented language. And he has to write it. What kind of discussion would you have?

A: Bill gave us kind of a rough synthesis of what the key words would be and how you would say "and" and "the" and things like that. He gave us 20, 30, 40 words and then (Jodie Foster) got used to those and then would improvise. He gave her the kind of structure of sentences and clues on kind of the simplest words. The character had never heard someone speak and there was no research we could do. There was no living person who had gone through this. It was just a nightmare for her and then for me all the way through.

Q: With Thunderheart, the story develops these relationships that in different ways become emotional with the elder, with the Indian police, with Sam Shepard's FBI guy. And they all go in different ways.

A: I also used real people. I was making Incident at Oglala when the script of Thunderheart came in. The [elder] brought something to it, which was so moving that you can't act that. That was him. And there are occasions when you cast someone who you know brings something [special] to it. There's some emotional quality they bring to it, because I think that's the essence of movies, the emotional thing. The films I love are the films with emotion, which make me cry. And the films I like the most [are] political stories that can be told within the microcosm of a relationship.

And what was so interesting to me, by doing a documentary and a drama about the same subject (in this case, injustices at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota), you can see the power of the documentary, the weakness of the documentary, the power of the written script and the weakness of the written script. The most difficult thing about making a documentary is giving it some shape or form. You simply have to build the thing up from the raw material. And there was raw material in Incident at Oglala that was very powerful.

And when you're doing a scripted film, you can't quite get the authenticity of the real thing. You can't get the surprises of a real thing that can happen in a documentary. [So] I sometimes mix non-actors in with actors, not to train the non-actors, but to put the actors in the right ballpark. When they're doing scenes with the real thing, they behave quite differently from when they're doing scenes with fellow actors. They have to subconsciously and consciously acknowledge the existence of this weight that this person is bringing. To me, the real success of a project is if it feels that there is some almost intangible reality, some emotional truthfulness about it and isn't a load of actors doing a good job.

Q: Thunderheart was how you first discovered the DGA's workings—when you had to claim your rights to fight alterations to the original cut that 20th Century Fox demanded for TV broadcast. You joined the Guild in 1978 in order to make Coal Miner's Daughter.

A: I had been interested in the Guild in London because I had always been very left wing and interested in industrial relations. But it was a time when [then-Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher was destroying the trade union movement and the [British version of the Directors Guild] with it. The Thunderheart story was remarkable. One of the agreements on Thunderheart was that I needed to represent religious aspects of Sioux life, which are critical in the story. The traditional Sioux insisted that they be represented. They wanted to be there when these things are filmed to make sure they're accurate. So that is what we did, and they were very, very helpful and I used a lot of them in the film. Then I got a letter from Fox saying I have to take 28 minutes out of the film. It has to run 90 minutes. I said "What?" I didn't know what to do. I said to my agent, "Where do I go, I don't know where to go." He said go to the DGA. I hadn't shown much interest in the DGA. But I asked for help and the Guild was phenomenal. They just took the whole thing over and it was a long fight and we won each decision as it was appealed.

Q: You went all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court?

A: Yeah. The court said Fox can cut it down to 90 but you have to put a title card on the front of the film and hold it for about 15 seconds stating that the director did not approve of this cut. That was when Fox gave up. But I mean, the money that the Guild spent defending me. I wanted to know more about the Guild at this point.

Q: This was based on the spiritual needs of the Lakota people making a promise and this historical and cultural burden of another white man breaking a promise to the Native Americans for the umpteenth time.

A: Absolutely. It was a real promise I made to them because it was essential for the credibility of the film. It was so generous, what the Guild did for us. Kevin Costner deserves a lot of credit, too, because of the success of Dances With Wolves. My film wouldn't have been made if he hadn't (A) made a successful film and (B) treated the Indian population with respect.

Q: What's striking is how, once you got involved, you really rose through the DGA leadership so rapidly. How did that happen?

A: I did have an interest in my blood about the labor movement. I met very good people and then John Frankenheimer passed away, and there was a need to bring in new blood. I then became friendly with Steven Soderbergh and between us we pushed the idea of having an independent council for independent filmmakers. I knew [the Guild] would fight for financial things, but what I was so impressed with was the way it protected our cultural and artistic interests, [as when] they went to a huge expense to support Thunderheart.

So, although doing the negotiations is our bread and butter, there's still a whole acknowledgement of the spiritual side of the work we do, the quality of the work, the subject matter. Making it an acceptable organization, encouraging creativity, as well as encouraging good negotiation. I love that balance.

Q: During your time on the Board, you have seen negotiations up close, first from both the role of the president and, most recently, from the role of negotiations co-chair. Can you share a little about that evolution from your perspective?

A: I've been intimately involved with the last… must be five negotiations. Sort of going backwards. When you do the presidency, because it's a difficult job, you've got to in some ways be in the middle of it but you've also got to be able to step back from it. I think it's a mistake when presidents want to be too involved in it, because they miss the point of being able to look at it from 30,000 feet. Negotiations are a skilled and singular event which have their own kind of routine, their own unpredictability or predictability, but you can't get bogged down in that. You can't get involved in all the minutiae of it. You've got to know what's going on but you've got to let people do their job.






(Top) Apted surveys the scene on location for Gorky Park with actors William Hurt and Joanna Pacula; (Middle) the director provides guidance to Sophie Marceau and his 007 star Pierce Brosnan on the Bond thriller The World Is Not Enough; (Bottom) Apted with Thunderheart writer/producer John Fusco. (Photos: (Top) Courtesy Michael Apted; (Middle & Bottom) Everett)

Q: You were president during a time when technological change was happening quite rapidly. Wasn't much of it about new delivery systems and how they were going to affect directors?

A: Absolutely. [Former National Executive Director] Jay Roth was very, very interested in this. He's a very powerful figure, and I just made sure that he got all the support we could give him from the membership. Because the Guild was being run efficiently, we were able to look into the future.

Q: New media had really started to come onto the agenda in 2006. What did you and the leadership decide to do with respect to that issue?

A: Well, we approved that we would start really doing our homework, trying to be on the cutting edge of it. I remember in 2006, we had a big retreat in Santa Monica when all the senior directors of the Guild showed up, and we brought in a number of experts who made presentations to us. That was the birth of what became for management, a kind of two- to three-year guidance. We tried to make ourselves as knowledgeable as we could about the technology of new media because we felt very strongly that that was going to be, other than health care, a necessary infusion of resources into the future.

Q: So what were the basic goals of the DGA negotiations on new media at that time?

A: Well, it was two things. One was jurisdiction, and the second was residual compensation that was reasonable. But it was the jurisdiction that was the key thing—that we had to have some control over this new medium. Those were our two ambitions, that we needed to establish those two things, which we achieved.

Q: Your career marks these sometimes surprising jumps, and yet if you look at it, there's a pattern. One of the patterns is the crime thriller. And there are such interesting different types of action that you've staged. How do you manage the choreography?

A: The first thing I deal with is to make sure [the sequences] gel with the drama and the characters, and keep the story moving. It was more difficult with the Bond movie and more difficult with Narnia, but particularly with Bond because if you are taking on a Bond, then you have to take on the action sequences. You have a big map in your office. There's two hours of the film. We have to have an action scene there at the 59th minute, 73rd minute, and you have to have six action sequences. They are all plotted carefully. I had to do a skiing sequence, but there were already three skiing sequences in previous Bond movies so you're trying to—

Q: —make it fresh.

A: Yeah. Which is almost impossible. What are the circumstances? What are the characters doing? And is there anything singular or individual? Or does it kind of become, as it were, an element to their character in the way they conduct themselves?

One of my favorite lines is (paraphrasing) "tension is the removal of information." You limit what audiences know. When action scenes are too long, you get off message a bit. That's why in all the action movies I have done, I have been quite tough about not making [the action] stay around too long, because I think with action sequences, they're so brilliant that less is more.

Q: The finale also has to be the biggest sequence too, right? You have to build through each one.

Yes. You do it so that it is real. As long as it keeps the same tone that I am trying to set with the rest of the film. Again, it was the relationship.

Q: You don't do fast cutting.

A: If you go too fast, you haven't the faintest idea of what is going on. You can sense the filmmaker has watched the cut 100 times and saying, "Well, I think we could still shorten that a little bit," and there comes a point where you can't understand it. Nothing is worse.

Q: What advice would you have to new directors?

A: Have a sense of priorities. Everything is never going to be perfect, and you have to build a sense of priorities when you schedule a film so that you give enough time to shoot the very difficult, important scenes. You do other scenes quickly simply because you've got to get the thing done in as good a way as you can. I find this very stimulating because it makes you think about everything.




(Top) Apted commands the podium at a Guild 75th Anniversary event in December of 2011; (Bottom) Apted and his lead actress Noomi Rapace ponder their next move on the director's latest feature, Unlocked. (Photos: (Top) DGA Archives; (Bottom) Larry Horricks/Lionsgate)

Q: I think of how William Friedkin spoke about how much time and energy he spent constructing, designing, planning the main chase sequence in The French Connection. He knew that if he didn't get that sequence right, the rest of the movie falls apart.

A: Absolutely. I'm very much a part of that school. The whole thing can't be perfect. But you have to realize where the money is, what you're selling, and make sure those elements are done to the best of your ability. That's the way of the industry. People get stuck trying to make everything perfect and go over budget. Spielberg always gets the job done and knows what has to be done. That's why he has such a huge body of work. He realizes the essence of this particular film [and] makes sure to give attention to developing that essence.

Q: Both Spielberg and Friedkin have also served in DGA leadership; can you tell me a little more about working with other directors in the Guild?

A: What was impressive to me is the quality of the people and the quality of their work, and it has been just wonderful to be able to be around those people and talk to them. One of the joys of going to a Council meeting or to a Board meeting is meeting directors that I wouldn't necessarily run across during my working career, and just to be with them, and talk about them, and not necessarily talk about the DGA, but talk about the work, and what they were doing, and what people liked and what people didn't like. That congeniality; that kind of brotherhood of directors was perhaps the most important thing to me, because I didn't grow up in America.

Q: After you stepped down as president, you played a huge role in organizing the Guild's 75th anniversary celebration.

A: Yeah, I just had an idea: Which of the directors have changed the game? From Hitchcock through Cassavetes, Spielberg, James Cameron, and game-changing ADs, UPMs, daytime television directors, television comedy directors and so on. That was an interesting way of getting a variety of films shown. And people who would still be alive; it wasn't just a history lesson.

Q: You are perhaps not appreciated enough for your role as an early activist for diversity. When did that start for you at the Guild and what did you do in a practical, fundamental way of articulating that to the membership?

A: I used to go to the staff meetings with the various studios and companies. I was able to report back to my colleagues about what was going on. We were on to it very early. It was back-breaking and very uncomfortable and very difficult to get any movement with [the studios regarding] people of color and women. It took years.

I think it's now changed. It's still not the right balance about people who get jobs, but in terms of the running of the DGA, it's much healthier. More than 50% of the National Board is now women.

Q: After serving as president, you now serve as secretary and treasurer.

A: Gil [Cates] was secretary/treasurer after he was president. I took that post over when he died. The opening had to be filled immediately.

Q: His death left a huge vacuum to be filled.

A: We've never really filled it. You'll never have him again. But at least we stopped any bleeding, as it were.

Q: Right now, what do you think are the most important issues for the Guild?

A: I think we've got to be very, very alert to how things change, but we've got to stick to our rights. Things are slipping and sliding and changing all the time: It's a very fastmoving horizon with distribution. It's very complicated. As long as we are unified as a Guild, we're very, very powerful. The industry could not exist without us. Things would stop if every DGA member refused to work for a company that wouldn't recognize the minimal requirements of any guild, not just us.

You can see it with Trump, where trade unions have been vilified for decades. I think that's always a terrible thing when the people who make the things, do the jobs, don't have a place at the table. That was what I used to say to everybody. I think we should have a seat at the table. And we can only fight for that if we're solid—and we are all in the same rhythm. And we do have an important [role] in the way the business is run. We're committed to that.

We can be a bastion. We know what we want, we know what we're entitled to, and we know the price we'll pay if we don't pay attention to it.

The whole creative process is changing. But we all believe that the director is crucial to this whole—not to the business, but to the execution of what we're distributing, whether it's on a telephone or a Marvel film, there is quality and intelligence and good business practices attached to directing.

We know that movies are very difficult to direct, and if you don't use experienced directors, you end up with chaos and huge amounts of money being lost. We know that we have something, as well as our creative senses, organizational senses, to get films made in a civilized and proper manner. And that's our business.

We want to be part of the economic fabric of the industry but we want to preserve the quality that the DGA brings in its job, which we think is central to the making of films. That's what we have to fight for.

DGA Interviews

Prominent directors reflecting on their body of
work through an extended and in-depth Q&A.

More from this issue
Check out the latest DGA Quarterly, featuring a Special Report exploring Content Distribution in the Streaming Age as well as interviews with Michael Apted, Reed Morano, Lily Olszewski, Martin Campbell, Kenneth Branagh, Pamela Adlon, and more!