Michael Apted achieved something so rare in Hollywood, he was able to step onto another filmmaker’s set when he fell ill and triumph in spite of the immense challenge. But, then again, that is fitting considering the “there is no mountain we cannot climb” theme of Chasing Mavericks.
"It was unfortunate, Curtis (Hanson, 8 Mile) got sick and couldn’t continue and I took over,” Apted told us in our exclusive interview. “He did pre-production and did the first half of the shoot. I did the second half of the shoot and post-production.”
Much as the true-life subject of Chasing Mavericks, Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston), Apted knew he was right for the challenge and relished the opportunity to prove it.
“I had no time to get ready. I arrived on a Sunday and started shooting Monday with a cast I didn’t know, locations I’d never seen and a crew I’d never met. It was one of those childhood dreams that were actually nightmares,” Apted said and laughed. “Curtis had set the tone that I would have wanted to set -- to do it in a very realistic documentary way.”
Moriarty was a fresh-faced Santa Cruz teenager who happened to witness a neighbor, Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler), catching the often discussed but rarely seen Northern California monster waves known as Mavericks. Just as Moriarty knew he could tackle the world’s most dangerous waves, so too did Apted have the confidence of experience to help him through a shoot that found him literally diving into the deep end of cinema.
“I had gotten disillusioned over the years as I got older, the way I was regarded. Hollywood is only interested in young directors. Once you get past a certain age, you’re past it,” Apted said.
The director sought to prove Tinseltown wrong when it came to the type of work he could still produce. “I would always say, my colleagues and I, we are professionals. We learned the trade. We know what we’re doing. Doesn’t that count for anything? The fact that you are in your early twenties and did one thing… doesn’t matter as much."
Look at what he did with the towering power of his latest film. “I was able to draw on all of that experience and my war stories to be able to get through Chasing Mavericks. You really were flying by the seat of your pants every minute of every day. For me, it shows that experience counts for something. When bucking the flavor of the month, it’s nice to show that experience can be valuable.”
Apted made a name for himself in the documentary world with his astounding Up series that began with 7 Up. But he has had mainstream box office success as well with his work on Nell, The World is Not Enough, Gorillas in the Mist and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
With each work, the spirit of a documentarian permeates. “It’s in everything I do. It’s my spirit is documentary,” Apted said.
The challenge when doing a “fictionalized” version of someone’s life, Apted admitted, is honestly letting the “realness” go. “It’s difficult when you’re doing a film about someone who a lot of people know. I had to try to convince Jonny Weston that you shouldn’t live in that shadow of Jay, you should own the character. When I’ve done this with actors who have played real people, I always say, ‘You have to forget about it. Do who you are,’” Apted said.
“Curtis cast Jonny because he had an openness and sweetness that the real Jay had. Jonny didn’t have to act. He had to present his own self and put his own self into those situations in the movie. That’s part of my job as director is to protect Jonny from that. It’s a huge part and he did a large part of his own surfing. He was really put through it and triumphed.”
Chasing Mavericks features some of the most astounding surfing sights and sounds ever captured for a Hollywood movie. Apted is quick to credit his post-production team. “I had a really great and imaginative sound crew. We didn’t come away from filming with soundtracks like that. We had to make them up. That was a real thrill that you noticed it,” Apted said and smiled.
“It was a lot of work for a lot of people and sometimes that work goes unacknowledged. The photography too, there was great craftsmanship in that. Those were world class surf photographers doing the work for us and it was incredibly dangerous and we were very lucky.”