- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2007

Michael Apted wants to save American film.

The 66-year-old British-born director might seem an odd man for the job. Three of his last four feature films — including his latest, “Amazing Grace” — were British. He’s also a documentarian whose best-known project in that genre is the “Up” series, which has chronicled the lives of 14 Britons every seven years since 1964.

Mr. Apted, who has lived in this country for more than two decades, is passionate about keeping American movies filmed in the U.S. The distinguished filmmaker, president of the Directors Guild of America, was in Washington recently to promote “Amazing Grace,” a moving work he calls his first foray into politics, and to join other big names such as Clint Eastwood and Will Smith in a dialogue with legislators on Capitol Hill.

“We find it very difficult to deal with lawmakers,” he says. “They think we’re all fat cats trying to get tax breaks so we get richer and richer.”

The film business may be centered in Hollywood, but movies, even those produced by Americans, are made around the world.

“What we worry about most is the American film industry being outsourced,” he says. “We think that’s damaging … economically at every level.”

Imagine, he asks, if thrifty producers had urged him to film his Oscar-winning film “Coal Miner’s Daughter” in Romania rather than Kentucky. “Nowadays that would probably happen unless Kentucky had some kind of tax breaks,” he says.

Of “Amazing Grace,” he reveals, “There was a lot of talk of doing this film in Czechoslovakia.” Filming in the land where a true story takes place, he insists, brings “authenticity to the roots of the story.”

“Amazing Grace,” like many of Mr. Apted’s other films, tells a true story. Ioan Gruffudd, star of “Fantastic Four” and the “Horatio Hornblower” series, plays William Wilberforce, an 18th-century British politician who tirelessly campaigned for the abolition of slavery.

The film contains a veritable who’s who of British actors, old and young. Michael Gambon (“Gosford Park”), Rufus Sewell (“The Illusionist”) and Stephen Campbell Moore (“The History Boys”) are Wilberforce’s allies; their political enemies include Ciaran Hinds (“Rome”) and Tony Jones (“Infamous”). Bill Paterson (“Miss Potter”), Romola Garai (“Scoop”) and musician Youssou N’Dour also make appearances.

The most touching performance is that of Albert Finney. He plays John Newton, a former slave-ship master who repented his ways, became an Anglican clergyman and wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.”

The project came about because Mr. Apted was anxious to try to make a film about politics. The current lack of interest in political affairs, he says, “is a very dangerous thing.” He also thought about doing a film about lobbyists but felt that subject already had been done well in last year’s “Thank You for Smoking.”

One of the best things about “Amazing Grace” is that it’s not a typical biopic. Wilberforce is the focus of the film, but the story isn’t his alone. Many dedicated men and women joined in his efforts.

Mr. Apted says the project came to him “as a straight biopic with a pretty straight evangelical bias to it.” No one was interested, however, and the producers grew worried about missing the opportunity to commemorate this year’s 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. They were desperate enough to let Mr. Apted completely overhaul the script, for which he hired Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things”).

The director is not religious himself, but he was fascinated by how one man’s convictions helped change the world. “What Wilberforce did was to use the strength of his beliefs — and I couldn’t care less about what those beliefs are — to give him the strength to deal with the world of politics,” he says. “This was an interesting, incredibly heroic period of history. It was the beginning of the first wave of reforms which transformed the country — voting rights, health, education, everything.”

“Amazing Grace” is just one of Mr. Apted’s inspired retellings of true stories. He gave us country singer Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and ethologist Dian Fossey in “Gorillas in the Mist.”

“It appeals to the documentarian in me,” he says, adding that the material is “full of pitfalls … very difficult stuff to do, especially if someone’s alive.” He adds, “I do believe truth is stranger than fiction. I always try to find what the truth of the matter is, what the real world is behind the fictional story.”

Documentaries remain his true love. “That’s where my heart is,” he says, noting he has just completed four documentaries in 18 months. “There’s a reality to them, nothing between you and the experience,” he says, “but you really can’t make a living doing them.”

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