Michael Apted, the versatile British film director has passed away at the age of 79 according to this surprisingly well-written obituary in Deadline Hollywood. I was extremely fortunate to interview the man shortly before Lee Marvin Point Blank was published. Luckily, my publisher did allow me to use much of Apted’s thoughts on working with Lee Marvin on Gorky Park. Below is the transcription of that interview. Beware, however, that since we speak in details of the film’s plot and we both give away much of the story. Not a fan of spoiler alerts but it’s necessary here…..
Dwayne: Was Lee Marvin your first choice to play Jack Osborne in the film?
Michael: I honestly don’t remember. When he showed interest, he was the only person we wanted. It was how long ago?
D: About 30 years now.
M: Right. Obviously, when the name came up…It was probably from UA, who were producing the film and had lots of contacts in that world that probably suggested it…
D: I had heard that Burt Lancaster was considered but he had gotten sick or something…
M: So you asked me if whether Lee was our first choice and I had to answer I can’t remember.
D: Understandable. Maybe it’ll be better if I ask what you do remember about working with him on the film with Lee.
M: Well, it was a challenging idea for him. We had spoke about this before. What he had loved about wanting to do the film was that he was speaking. He’d be doing a lot of dialog. He had a reputation I suppose as an actor who preferred to say less than more words. So, he really embraced the idea of having real dialog scenes and having good dialog to speak, and all that. I think that’s what attracted him to it, and the idea of the character. What was very tense in a sense and worrying, was his health. He knew he wasn’t well. In fact, when he arrived in Helsinki, where we shot a good chunk of his stuff, he had to go to hospital straight away. But he was so interested to prepare himself….
D: How did he prepare for the film?
M: Well, he talked to me. Talked to Bill [Hurt]. Rehearse, all those sorts of things. Costume fittings, you know. Be part of the preparation.
D: Was there anything in particular he did to find out what kind of person Jack Osborne would be?
M: Dunno. What I remember most vividly was that we rehearsed in hospital. Bill and I went into intensive care where he was in a bed. Had kind of tubes on it. We were rehearsing in hospital which I must say is a first and only time I’ve ever had to do that. Lee had such a huge commitment to doing it and he wanted to do it well. He was prepared for the kind of indignity of having to be in hospital and rehearsing at the same time. His commitment to it was huge.
D: What was he hospitalized for?
M: Emphysema, which is what killed him. I mean this was his last film.
D: One of, yes. Delta Force (1986), made a few years later, was his last. How did he and William Hurt get along?
M: They got along very well because Marvin was great with him. He’s a very uncomfortable person, Bill Hurt. He wasn’t comfortable, I don’t think, being a movie star, being a lead in a film, having such a huge part and having to carry the film. This was one of his early big roles. It was clear that he was uncomfortable having this kind of responsibility. His subsequent career is one where he really became a character actor. He rejected the idea of being a leading man on the whole and became more of a character. Not more of a supporting player but…So, he was, it was very hard for him; the amount of work that he had to do and the amount of responsibility that he had. But Marvin was incredibly supportive of him. Much more so than the English actors around him. He really understood what Bill was going through, how difficult it was to do a role of this size and this responsibility. Lee was very generous with Bill and very supportive of him. For me, [he was] a real kind of good, solid rock, a good friend to have around. Although, we didn’t share much history together, Lee or I. We got along very well. He was just very supportive for me and for Bill.
M: Yes, he was a real joy. He’s one of my best memories of working with actors in my whole career.
D: I don’t know how well you remember certain things Lee did in the film, but I’m gonna ask specifics. [explains about closing victim’s eyes] Was that something that was in the script or that you had talked about? Was it Lee’s invention?
M: Probably him. He was great with that stuff. He was very inventive. He was the sort of actor who I thought was such a great actor, that I thought the way to direct people like that is to keep out of the way. Make sure we’re all on the same page and leave them to their own instincts because…You know, he wasn’t really like the character in the book. We were sort of casting against type. The character [in the book] was more of an unattractive man, maybe a round businessman, all that sort of thing. Not attractive at all, whereas Marvin was, in his own way, very attractive, very sort of sexual. So, other than the fact that it paid us back in spades with the relationship with Joanna Pacula, it wasn’t really as written. He had to kind of stretch a bit because he had to be elegant. He had to be beautifully dressed, beautifully coiffured, and all that sort of stuff because he was a man that stank of wealth, this very powerful, wealthy man. Not, I think, as [Martin] Cruz Smith had written it, but he certainly made it his own.
D: Indeed he did. Glad to hear you say that because that’s how I saw the character, too. There’s that moment when he’s talking to Hurt, getting dressed after swimming and the way he straightens his tie with the back of his pinkies, I love that.
M: And he loved that. You know, this was new territory for him, I think. You know better than I do but I don’t think he played necessarily that kind of suave, educated, sophisticated characters too many times. So, he rather enjoyed that.
D: Not too that extent. Was any of the dialog tweaked at all or was it done exactly as written?
M: I’m sure it was tweaked. I’m not against that. Dennis Potter, who wrote it, wasn’t around very much. He was also ill. He wrote very precisely and I think Lee was very respectful of that. He was dealing with a very kind of loquacious character and he hadn’t had much experience dealing with it. I think he was pretty respectful of the dialog, but I’m sure we tweaked it. I’m sure it had to be changed to fit his patterns and also his instincts. But I think he was very respectful of it. As I said to you, that was the part he enjoyed most, being trusted with playing long dialog scenes. He loved doing that sort of stuff.
D: Great to hear. There was that wonderful cat-and-mouse dialog when the first meet. Brings it back to the audience level…
M: Yes, that scene you talked about in the bar, that one when Hurt kind of stakes him out, he loved doing that scene. I remember that stuff lying his towel on the bed and that great scene when he was dressing afterwards. He had an immaculate sense of timing…so, everything came together; the dialog and the points. See, I remember that was one of his best days on it. He really enjoyed that.
D: When you say one of his best days, were there bad days for him?
M: I don’t think so. I think that when we did the action stuff, he was in very familiar territory. I don’t remember him being uncomfortable, at all. The other thing, his reputation preceded him, being quite a heavy drinker. I think what he did was have one night a week when he would drink on a Saturday night. Otherwise, he seemed to be totally off that sort of stuff. Totally focused on what he was doing.
D: What was that drew you to the story?
M: I like the whole territory of it. I liked the whole idea of doing a thriller set in Russia. It sort of shot us in the foot. The film was ahead of its time. I don’t think a general audience was interested in the Russia of Andropov, Brezhnev, and whatever. I don’t think Western audiences became interested in Russia until Gorbachev came around. There’s a lot of interest in the film in Europe but it did very poorly here, which is disappointing. The very thing that interested me about it, didn’t interest an American audience. I loved that I was going into a new environment, to something I’d never been to been to before. Creating a new world very much as I had done in a film I had done a bit earlier, Coal Miner’s Daughter...
D: That’s one of my favorites.
M: Well thank you. What I went into, for me, an alien world, and try to bring it to life and the same with this. What was frustrating was, we went into Russia to research it, to look at it and all that but they found out what we were doing. I think we made an application to film there. They rejected it out of hand, saying the book was rubbish and things like this never happened in Russia. Then, we did go in to do some sneaky research, and they found us. Then they just sort of us threw us out of the country. So, we never had access really to any kind of living Russian information, as it were. That was frustrating so it all had to be rather secondhand. We had to try to createMoscow, and Leningrad in Helsinki and what not. So, it was so frustrating in a way, the film. If one had been able to make it ten years later or something, you’d have had much more access, and maybe more interest in the film. I figure it is a film that sort of does survive. It does last. At the time, people in America were fairly cool towards it.
D: Was there any attempt made to film inside the Soviet Union?
M: No, we didn’t. We got so roughly treated when we were just acting as tourists. Wandering around taking pictures that we never attempted anything like that. It was a tall order for Paul Sylbert, who was the production designer, to try and create in Helsinki some decent wide shots so it wasn’t completely claustrophobic; so you did get some sense that you were in Moscow. I don’t know how successful that was. It was a big stretch for us to have do that but we did what we had to do.
D: Indeed. I think it worked. Gorky Park wasn’t the only film to substitute Helsinki for Moscow.
M: Oh no, not at all. I think it’s standard practice, in those days. I don’t know…I don’t think western films were a lot to shoot in Russia until way into the 90s. It didn’t become open to Western film makers at all [until then]. It was a good ten years after we did Gorky Park.
D: Do you recall when you first met Lee Marvin and what that was like?
M: [thoughtful pause] I don’t. I was living here. I don’t remember it. I suppose we met. We may have only just talked. I don’t know. I remember vividly the whole Helsinki part of it; when we met him and as I say we were in hospital for a bit with him, and all that. I don’t know whether I met him here. It’s a ridiculous thing to say. I’m inclined to think that I didn’t. We may have a had a conversation. I was thrilled to have him aboard. He wanted to do it. End of story. Seeing him out there. Obviously, I would have sent costume designers to see him and this sort. I don’t think I met before I met him before he arrived in Helsinki because I was there some time. We a lot of preparation to do. I was in Helsinki three or four months before we started shooting. I suspect I probably wouldn’t have done it. I can’t remember making a trip back from Helsinki to Los Angeles to meet with him. I think it was all done on the phone and out of trust and admiration.
D: How long was he in the hospital for?
M: Not very long. It was really the result of a long flight. I think he was only in for two or three days. Then he came out and then we started. I think he was…you know it’s a long flight there. With his bad lungs and all that sort of thing, I think it sort of whacked him about a bit. There was no question that he wouldn’t show up on day one and shoot. Nonetheless, it was a little bit unnerving.
D: Was there ever any time during the film..the exteriors in the end of the film and the cold weather and snow, did his health issues flair up later?
M: I don’t think so. I just think he was careful about it. We looked after him. It was cold. When we shot that end sequence, we shot that outside Stockholm. It was pretty cold, although the joke was that to do Gorky Park we had to import snow because it was a very mild winter in Helsinki. We had to get tons of snow in, to make it. I think it was a relatively mild winter while we were shooting it. I think he had to be very careful with how he looked after himself.
D: He wasn’t on oxygen or anything between shots?
M: No, no he wasn’t carting one of those things around.
D: In his death scene at the end…Lee Marvin died on film better than any other actor…
M: [laughs] Yeah, I know.
D: Did he do that himself or was that stunt double?
M: I think he did it himself. You know he was great…I think he enjoyed doing all that stuff. He was pretty helpful with that thing. It’s a bit intimidating to have him in a gunfight and then telling him what to do with the amount of gunfights he had been in [I laugh]. I think he did pretty much all of it himself. He was a real team player.
D: Did you see him at all after the film was finished?
M: No, I didn’t. I cut the film, I think I cut the film in London for a big chunk of time so we sort of lost touch. We would write to each other. I never saw him again. I don’t even know….when did he pass away? How long after that?
M: No, I didn’t see him after that.
D: Did you ever hear what he thought of the film or his performance?
M: Well yes, I know he saw it. I think he sent a message that he was pleased with it. That was reassuring.
D: Anything else you may have considered him for in spite of his health?
M: I’m surprised he lived as long as he did because I think his health got very questionable. I think he…I don’t believe I did anything after that that would have been suitable for him. I did just love working with him. I can say honestly to you, that was one of the high points of my directing life, working with him. The memories of it, the experience of it, the generosity of the man and the experience of the man, and the demeanor of the man, very inspiring.
D: Was Hurt always your first choice to play Renko?
M: Again, I can’t remember.
D: I had read Dustin Hoffman was approached…
M: I had worked with Dustin before…
D: Agatha (1979), right?
M: Yeah, Agatha was before Gorky Park, about 6 or 7 years before. I think I would have remembered that about Hoffman. No, I don’t think so. There may well have been because it was clearly a leading man role and I imagine the studios and producers would have wanted someone who was an established star to play it. I bet there were a lot of people considered to do it. It wouldn’t make sense not to. Bill was…I don’t know how many films he had done by that time. It was fairly early on in his career. He had a strange career. He became a star straight away. He went from off-Broadway to Altered States (1980).
D: William Hurt’s accent in the film sounded British.
M: Well yes, I mean that was deliberate. The problem that we had was to differentiate between Russians and Americans, which is what the story was about. So, we elected to make Americans speak with an American accent, you know, Brian Dennehy, and Lee, and whatever. Then have the Russian speak with English accents. So, that was part of the plan. How successful it was, I’ve forgotten. The idea was that Bill would play with an English accent. I didn’t want him to play with a fake Russian accent. I wanted them to play in a voice they were comfortable in, not some bogus Anglo-Russian voice. Then I had the problems to differentiate between the Americans in the story and the Russians in the story.
M: Quite well. As I said it was quite…apart from certain difficulties with Bill, but I think everybody else…Brian was very, very [much] a good guy to have around. I think he and Lee got on well. I think Brian was very much in awe of Lee as I was. Brian was in that same kind of genre, as it were; Wanting to do action stuff and here is one of the great action movie stars of all time.
D: Indeed. You mentioned before problems with Bill. Was there any kind of flare-ups between him and Lee Marvin, or anything like that?
M: No, I don’t think so. I think Marvin was much too smart for that. There were flare-ups between Bill and some of the English actors, for sure.
D: Do you recall any of those?
M: No, I wouldn’t want to drag that out. Bill was quite a difficult method actor and the English tend to rather poo-poo that. They like to get on, know their lines and do it.
D: I had read that Lee established a friendship with Dennis Potter during the making of the film. Know anything about that?
M: I don’t think Dennis came out for more than a couple of days for all thing was that he was unwell. Whether they had a private relationship or correspondent relationship, I don’t think they were ever in Helsinki together for much time. So, I don’t know. I’m sure he admired the work. As I said to you, he liked the dialog and all that, so I know he admired Dennis. I don’t whether he had time to forge anything. Well, not while we were doing the film. I only remember Dennis coming out one weekend, or something.
D: When Lee was in Helsinki, he was with his wife, correct?
M: Yes, yes.
D: Was he with anybody else?
M: I don’t think so. I didn’t get the feeling that he had his ‘people’ around him. I can’t even remember who his agent was at that time and whether they came out. We were there a fair amount of time in Helsinki and Stockholm and I don’t remember it. I just remembered his wife. He certainly didn’t have an entourage.
D: His agent was Meyer Mishkin, by the way.
M: No, I don’t remember him being there.
D: Anything you want to add about working with Lee or your thoughts on him?
M: No, don’t think so. I think I’ve said why I wanted to do it was because I liked him so much. Anything I think I could add to increasing his esteem in the world of film acting, I would love to do because I think he was a terrific actor.
D: Glad to hear you say that. More people should be aware…
M: Yeah. This generation, probably never heard of him. It’s frightening.
D: That’s one of the reasons I took this project on. Any favorite films?
M: Oh, well I loved Point Blank. I loved that. I always liked watching him. I don’t have his filmography in front of me but I always loved that film. John Boorman did a great job with that. I thought that was a terrific piece of work. I’m sure there are…I just looked up, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I don’t know how big a role he had but that’s one of my favorite films.
D: It’s also a family favorite. His son named the dog Liberty. [both laugh]
M: So, he did Dog Day, Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission, and Delta Force after Gorky Park. He worked for another three years after Gorky Park.
D: I don’t have his filmography in front of me, either.
M: I went online while we were chatting. All right, um…
D: Yes, thank you very much Mr. Apted. I appreciate you taking the time.
M: Good luck and let us know when it comes out.
D: Well I can tell you it comes out January 2013.
M: Okay, very good.
D: It’s called Lee Marvin: Point Blank.
M: Perfect! [chuckles]
– Dwayne Epstein