The world today is a more dangerous place.
Veteran director Michael Apted returns to the spy thriller genre with Unlocked that stars Noomi Rapace in the lead role as a CIA interrogator.
The film also stars Michael Douglas, Toni Collette, John Malkovich and Orlando Bloom.
After failing to apprehend the terrorist behind a Paris attack that claimed dozens of lives, CIA agent Alice Racine is forced to live in London as a caseworker. Unexpectedly, she is called back into action by her mentor, Eric Lasch, when the CIA discovers intel of another imminent attack. While “unlocking” the suspect, Alice discovers that the classified information she has uncovered has been compromised. Running for her life, Alice turns to ex-soldier Jack to prevent a lethal biological attack on the citizens of London.
LRM had a telephone interview with director Michael Apted earlier this month. We discussed the grounded reality of Unlocked to current events of our time and the attraction of films with females in the central role. He also talked with us about filming Prague to look like London and the awesome all-star cast.
Apted is best known as a James Bond director with 1999’s The World Is Not Enough with Pierce Brosnan and filming the sequel The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 2010. He is also known for his television work with Masters of Sex and Rome. His next project is with 63 Up, the next installment of his long BBC documentary.
Unlocked will be in theaters and On Demand this Friday, September 1.
Read our conversation transcript below.
LRM: I’ve checked out your film Unlocked. It really put you on the edge of your seat with all those twists and thrills.
Michael Apted: I hope so. It’s certainly the idea. When I read it and I thought I like thrillers. I like it when I’m surprised or don’t expect things to happen. I do like the twists and turns. This movie seems to have all of them to make the worthwhile effort to make.
LRM: How does it feel in being back in this type of spy thriller genre then?
Michael Apted: Well, I enjoy it. I like looking at them. I like reading them. I like making them, but not generally all the time. I do like good thrillers, especially on television. This type of genre carry themselves very well on television.
This genre is good, because there’s always that undertone of politics. It’s usually about something that is important although we treated it in entertainment. The belly of Unlocked is totally alarming. It’s on how easy it is to be blown up as it were.
So I do like the thrillers that are related to current events with the underbelly to it. It’s very relevant in the way we live our lives and the pressure we’re under. The fantasy ones don’t really thrill me too much. I do like that. I do like the crime and punishment as it were. These crime stories are to my liking due to my history as a law student.
LRM: So what in particular attracted you to this script of Unlocked. What made you to decide that, “I want to make this movie?”
Michael Apted: Well, I liked the fact that it had a woman in the lead. I’ve always been drawn into that kind of stuff. I find women stories more emotionally interesting than men’s usually, because it has to do on what it means to be a woman, families, children and all these kind of stuff. They are usually caught in the middle of something. That’s on what a lot of films being [with women] from gorillas to coal miner’s daughter. Women are at the center of something dangerous or difficult situations.
[Unlocked] seemed to be a good idea for that. I was attracted to, as you said, the twists and turns of it. I liked it on what it was about without being hysterical. It’s about something that we all had to live with. They aren’t just the nightmares of depression of something like the Manchester bombings. It’s something that we all have to be aware of. Maybe it’s not a bad idea to remind people of this. It’s in the terms of entertainment rather than the dreadful true stories.
LRM: Did you have to take a different approach towards a female lead? You have a long history in directing films, but did you have to do something different here?
Michael Apted: I don’t think so. Stories that have women in the center of them tend to be more emotional. For me, I had to find the emotion in the story whether it’s in a relationship of [other things]. Otherwise, stuff would get too dry for me as the viewer and the maker. It’s always looking for the central relationship. It could be between a man and a woman. It doesn’t have to be a love story. At the heart of it, there has to be an emotional tension.
That’s what I look for in doing these films. It’s what appeals to women. It’s just not a usual routine that there is some emotional substance to it, which we can all identify and give another level to the film. It doesn’t have to be a typical love story. There’s a love story in almost all the films I do to a greater or lesser extent.
That’s how I set about it. That’s what I need to do a film.
LRM: Speaking of, talk about Noomi [Rapace] in this role. Why is she so perfect in playing this leading actress role?
Michael Apted: She’s amazing, because she can do it. We didn’t let her do a lot of stuff, because we wanted her to show up the next day. She works very hard in the physicality. She does enough of the physical work [required for the film]. You don’t have to keep cutting to the back of people’s heads when they start fighting.
She had a very tough kind of life anyway. She’s not a million miles away from the character. She has a real good physical sense that will make it believable. That’s what so great about her. That’s why I wanted to do this film with her. She was already on the film before I was. I was delighted at this, because she was great in the Swedish films that she did and totally convincing. It didn’t feel like it was some actress trying to get through it. She’s an actress and woman, who can feel it and do it. She gave it a certain authenticity and made my job easier.
There’s so much that she could do herself without putting her at risk or her health at risk. It’s very attractive. It’s staggering on how much work she did to prepare for it—not just on the materials, but also physically. She went to the gym for hours in the day. It’s a real conviction she had for it.
LRM: This film has a lot of different elements of action, thriller and certain emotional scenes. It’s quite different from a lot of projects you’ve done in the past. Could you talk about balancing all those elements out?
Michael Apted: It was similar to the very first Bourne Identity film that I was interested in. What I thought it was so good for the action in it—it was very quick. I find action in most films to be endless and unbelievable. I felt this script gave me the opportunity to do set peace scenes, which had to be more protracted. There are also moments of violence in it. It did so well in the first Bourne movie. They didn’t let these fist fights go on forever to become completely unrealistic.
I was very impressed with that. I wanted to steal that attitude towards this film. I told the stunt people that I wanted to keep [the action] short. I wanted them short and violent. I don’t want it to endlessly go on. I didn’t want it to appear superhuman or idiotic.
So it was something about this script and some of the violence in it that appealed to me.
LRM: I understand [Unlocked] wasn’t filmed in London per se. It was filmed in Prague. Was that quite different for you?
Michael Apted: I was very, very lucky. I had a wonderful Czech production designer, who is a young man [that guided me]. We already shot six days in London. We shot for like 36 days in Prague. We had to find that balance. He told me, “Don’t choose old architecture that I have to match in Prague. I can’t do that.” The windows aren’t the same. The sixteenth or seventeenth century English windows don’t match the old windows in Prague. However, if you make them more modern and he could match it.
I remembered showing the film in England and someone said, “I didn’t know you shot this film in London? When did you do it?” I said that I didn’t shoot it London. I just did five or six days of exterior and the rest was all shot in Prague. I was pleased with that. I’m glad I listened to Andre the set designer. There’s always that temptation to shoot in London or New York. They have those locations that will easily be recognizable. You’ll have trouble in matching parts of the building or the rooms in another country.
It worked out well. It doesn’t look like it was shot in two different cultures.
LRM: Well, you fooled me! I just found out that it was in Prague. I didn’t realize it was in London at all.
Michael Apted: There you go. Bits of it was in London and with a few key images. Ninety percent of the film was shot in Prague.
LRM: Can you talk about the rest of your cast? You have an all-star cast with Orlando Bloom, Toni Collette, Michael Douglas and John Malkovich.
Michael Apted: Michael [Douglas] was friendly with Lorenzo [di Bonaventura] and he brought Michael on board this project. I was thrilled about it. John Malkovich was perfect for his role as well.
Toni Collette’s part was written for a man. I thought it would be interesting to have another woman in this film. They could have a relationship that goes deeper and longer. It was the idea that Noomi wasn’t the only woman there.
The real coup was with our friend, Orlando [Bloom]. I’ve seen the film he had done in South Africa, where he played a cop. I thought he was very good in it. I’ve never seen him this good. It was a very tough and realistic film. In his mannerisms, I thought he really dug himself into this role. I was very impressed with it.
I found out that he was free and agreed to meet me in London. We’ve talked about the film I’ve seen. I wanted him to give that type of performance in this film. You have to make it believe that you think he is, but it turns out to be someone different. He responded to that. He did have endless questions and “do it again” shootings during the production. I thought he had a real-go at it. He made it quite an interesting character. He wanted lines rewritten all the time so that it’ll fit more with his personality. I always told him, “You got to bring your personality into this.” You’re not just playing a part. You’re playing an extension of yourself here.
I think he responded to that. He wasn’t in the film that long. I supposed he was there for production for two to three weeks. He really put a lot of effort into it. I’m pleased on what he did and he’ll surprise people with it.
LRM: Those are certainly great casting choices. Let me start wrapping things up with you. Can you talk about your future projects? Are you exiting the spy genre after this film?
Michael Apted: Probably, yeah. I am currently looking for stuff. The only thing I know I’m doing Up film that should be out in 2019. It’ll be 63 Up. I’ve been doing some television work, because I came out of television all those years ago. I do enjoy that. I do find it difficult to find films for me frankly. I’ve been around for a long time and there’s a great generation of young film directors. It’s a little bit tougher and I have to be more open to be up for. I’m on the lookout.
LRM: Terrific. And just real fast. Do you enjoy television work better than film work? Or vice versa?
Michael Apted: I think it’s different. I enjoy doing movies most of all. What’s good about doing television is that you’ll get more air in it. You can do longer pieces. I do like the episodic things that go on. It works very well on television.
Also as a director, I like the energy of television that you’ll get on with it. For film, it’s not about hanging around while doing it, but waiting of it to be setup. They usually cost money. There’s a bit more energy in television. The post-production in television is hideous. But, the energy in television is much better rather than sitting around and waiting for things to come. It keeps me going.
LRM: Awesome. Thank you for this conversation. I know I’ve taken a lot of time from you, Michael.
Michael Apted: It’s my pleasure. Nice to talk to you.
Unlocked will be playing in theaters this Friday, September 1.