Veteran director Michael Apted investigates the art of the lens in his new documentary Bending the Light, which takes audiences inside a lens-making factory to explore the relationship between artists and their tools. Apted spoke to EW about the film (set to premiere at the Traverse City Film Festival on Aug. 3), the challenges of being afforded a “rare glimpse” inside an otherwise secure factory, the cultural influences of his Up series, and whether or not he thinks it might have inspired Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.
EW: Why did you choose this subject matter?
MICHAEL APTED: Canon wanted to open up their factory to a film camera and to come up with an idea of how they could present their product, not in an industrial or commercial way, but in a cultural way. So what about the idea of finding people who use Canon lenses and people who make them and somehow telling the story that intertwines both? That was kind of the brief and we really took it from there. The real challenge that appealed to me was the way people use the lenses and make wonderful works of art are in a sense intertwined with the great pride of making these beautiful lenses and the thought of presenting this technology in a creative and artistic way rather than doing a technological or an industrial film. I thought it was very appealing so I went for it.
The factory that you show in the film does not usually let outsiders or media in. Why is that? Did that prove to be a challenge for you?
It’s a very competitive world. Even when I was filming, the security was enormous because it’s so competitive between the companies who make these lenses. They don’t want the outside world to know what goes on there. I completely understood that. There were even security restrictions on what I was shooting. I would point the camera at something and they would have a fit, saying “no, you can’t show that.” I gave up asking why. I got the idea that it might not look like anything much to me, but it’s very important to them and if anybody from some rival company sees the film and blows it up that they might see something that Canon doesn’t want them to learn. I got the message eventually, but it was a bit frustrating.
How did you choose which artists to focus on?
I wanted to get as much variety as possible. I chose areas that particularly interested me—art photography, sports photography—and then started to investigate people like that. It’s slightly intimidating. I wanted to get a cinematographer and four still photographers. Then I was playing around with whether or not I wanted a celebrity photographer, a wildlife photographer, and so on. I knocked it down to all these categories and then started calling up people and determining who would have the time to take part in it.
Was there much anxiety or urgency around reestablishing the lens as central to photography with the proliferation of things like Instagram?
I think it’s all grist to the mill. I think it’s all part of it. We were particularly interested in the purity of it… the purity of the frame that was being done and how the photographer did that. I wasn’t particularly interested in looking at stuff that was artificially put together or whatever. But I was also interested in what the Japanese thought and what the photographers thought about the fact that, you know, everyone’s become a photographer. Everyone’s got their cell phone and they’re taking photographs. Does this debase the coinage or does this increase people’s interest? The proliferation of photography which is kind of amazing over this last decade or two, I suppose that was on my mind.
Where you surprised by anything you learned in interacting with these photographers or cinematographers?
I’ve worked with a lot of DPs in my life. That was a world I’d lived in. I knew a lot about that world. But the world of still photography, I haven’t spent a lot of time in. But the kind of meticulousness and the pressure of working for Canon and having to keep ahead of the game all the time. The world of photography is changing all the time in front of you. How do you keep up with it? How do you keep ahead of it? How do you keep interesting people? How do you present products that people still want to use when they’ve got their telephones in their pockets? I just thought it was a very interesting world with a lot of modern issues at stake.
Now, to ask about something completely different. Have you seen Boyhood?
Of course! It’s terrific.
There have been many comparisons made to your Up series. Do you think your films might have inspired it in some way?
Well possibly. It’s completely different, but yes, I suppose, in a way, by happenstance or good fortune. I lucked in with the Up films and they’ve become a kind of beacon, as it were, for the passage of time in film. No one’s done it to the extent that I’ve done it, or the length of time that I’ve done it. Richard’s film is about the passage of time and not putting makeup on but rather following the actors as participants through a period of time. I suppose my film is a kind of beacon to that, but what he did was really remarkable and quite different.
In a sense my films have created a whole genre of films. There are lots and lots of films that take this idea that you can follow people through time. Film does this more brilliantly than maybe a book. There’s so much more information visually than on a page. In that small way I can take some responsibility, or certainly some pleasure and pride in it. But the whole thing was an accident anyway in my case, so I can’t take too much credit.
Are there more opportunities to explore this concept in film?
It’s fascinating watching time pass and people change and grow up. It’s been the source of great material in books and novels for years. I’ve been in cable television for a bit doing Masters of Sex and you look there and longitudinal work goes on. And shows like The Sopranos—they follow the passage of time and it’s intriguing. Now there are outlets to do it. On cable, people are in for the long haul. It’s a real source of great filmic drama.