For many, the new film Amazing Grace will be their introduction to William Wilberforce, a devout Christian who, as a British parliamentarian, fought most of his life to ban the British slave trade. He finally succeeded in 1807—exactly 200 years ago to the day when the movie releases this Friday.

Despite that claim to fame, many are clueless about Wilberforce. But not British director Michael Apted, who was a history major at Cambridge and well aware of the abolitionist's place in history.

Apted on the set of 'Amazing Grace'

Apted on the set of 'Amazing Grace'

Apted, 66, is perhaps best known for films like The World Is Not Enough, Gorillas in the Mist, and Coal Miner's Daughter. But his best critical acclaim has been reserved for his Up films—a series of documentaries following the lives of several Brits every seven years. The first film was called 7 Up, the second 14 Up, and so on, till last year's 49 Up, which caught up with its subjects at the age of 49.

Between the Up films and the bio-pics about Dian Fossey and Loretta Lynn, Apted obviously has some experience depicting the lives of real people. But filming Wilberforce's story seems to have had a special impact on Apted, who says he was moved by the politician's passion for social justice, calling him a "man of principle."

We recently chatted with Apted about the new movie, and about his impressions of Wilberforce.

How did you get involved with this project, and why did you want to do it?

Michael Apted: The project had been around for some time, and they were having problems getting it going—I think the problem largely was scripts that I read. Generally, for a diverse audience, I think the early scripts were too much the story of a man's finding, losing, and finding Christianity again. I think they were having a hard time setting the project for a larger audience.

I came in and said I had another way of doing it. I wanted to focus on the anti-slave trade act itself, which I thought, for all the great work he did in his life, could well be seen as kind of a central event, an event you could hang everything off. And so I sold them on that. So then we hired Steven Knight to write the script, and off we went.

I've always wanted to do a film about politics, and since politics has become so discredited in modern times, I quite like to do a film where politics is seen as somewhat heroic. And this seemed to me a genuine piece of political heroism. And so that's really how I became involved in it.

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Many people have never heard of Wilberforce. What kind of challenges did that bring to making this film?

Apted: I think it's a challenge in the marketing. I don't know how much a challenge it was for me in making the film—except it was clearly a good idea to make it as attractive as I could, to put in the film people with somewhat recognizable names. But I'm hoping the power of the story on many levels will carry it—on the Christian level, and on the Camelot level if you want … you know, the generational thing of two young men taking on the British establishment. And the heroism of the story.

My problems were trying to compress the story, trying to get the balance of the background and the current, and to see whether people could follow the film in terms of going into flashback. What I liked about the structure—centering it around the slave trade act—was that I could compress everything. I could tell the story of the anti-slave trade act—which in fact took over 20 years—much quicker. And I could cherry-pick the parts of his life that I wanted to deal with, so that you weren't stuck with a linear structure.

How much did you know about Wilberforce before taking on this project?

Apted: Quite a bit, because I studied history for two years at Cambridge. This has always been a period of English history that's really interested me, because it was a very complicated time with a lot of great community work, social work, artistic work, and scientific work. It was a very rich period of English history.

Wilberforce's anti-slave trade act, by mobilizing the voice of the people in this small way, set the table ready for all the great revolutions in the 19th century—all the emancipation acts, the voting acts and all the great social changes. I'm very interested in the way people like Wilberforce managed to have a vision about English society.

People will be inspired by watching this movie. Were you inspired by making it?

Apted: I think so. I was inspired by the courage of it. That's something I hung on to in the casting process—that these were young guys. I think that's very important to be told—that you don't have to be an old guy to do things in politics. I was very inspired by that.

Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd, right) and Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd, right) and Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch)

I was also inspired by the interesting differences between William Pitt [Wilberforce's boyhood friend who later became Prime Minister] and Wilberforce; a bit of that comes out in the film—Pitt's pragmatism as opposed to Wilberforce's vision. But you know, it showed me that there are many ways to skin a cat. Wilberforce's vision gave him tremendous strength and real spine to deal with all the comings and goings. And Pitt's pragmatism helped get things through. And I think a mixture of both is kind of the ideal, that people can have vision and also be pragmatic about it. I should think it's an interesting lesson in modern politics.

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Wilberforce's faith comes through clearly in the movie, but without it being preachy?

Apted: That's what I hoped for, because I didn't want to put people off with that. I think also it helps generalize the film that you don't have to be Christian to be a man of principle. You could be a Muslim, a Jew or whatever, and be a person of principle. So I didn't want to make it preachy; I think it would have weakened the film to have made it preachy.

What can you tell me about your own spirituality?

Apted: I'm agnostic. My brother is a priest, oddly enough. We grew up in a fairly Christian environment, but I didn't pursue it and haven't as an adult. But I'm always interested in people of principle, and I come at it from that point of view.

The film is relevant now because it's the 200th anniversary of the bill, but also because slavery is still a big issue around the world?

Apted: Yes. In fact, there's more slavery in the world now than there was when this act was passed in 1807. You don't want to frighten people off the film by thinking they're going to be told off for not paying attention to what goes on. But I think it's very important, if it can be done in an interesting and compassionate way, to say to people, "Wake up." It's easy to objectify slavery by putting it into the past. But if the film, or the publicity around the film, can draw attention to the world we live in, I think that would be great.

That's another reason not to make the film preachy in a sense, because you want this message to get to as big an audience as you possibly can, and not just to a Christian audience. This message—that life isn't quite what it seems to be, and if you think things were bad then, take a look now—I think you want that message to be a kind of a bi-partisan or non-partisan message that can get to anyone in any environment in any country of the world.

Do you think this will rank up there with some of the other projects you've done?

Apted: I think so. You make films not for yourself, but to communicate to people. You'd like the film to have some kind of impact. I think the films I've done that have impact. I think I take more pride in the films I've done that I thought might have been good, but no one went to see.

I think my view of the film will be colored a bit by how it does [at the box office], not by what people say about it, because I'm sure we'll get mixed reviews. But what I'm interested in is whether it can find an audience, and change people's lives a teeny, weeny bit.