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Interview

Filmmaker Michael Apted discusses the genesis of the Up series. 56 Up is the latest documentary from this landmark television project.

POV: Tell us about the genesis of the Up series and, and how it has evolved into this iconic landmark film project.

Michael Apted: The Up series had a sort of strange beginning because it was only going to be one film. It was a quick snapshot of England in the early ‘60s, ’63-’64. Life seemed to be changing, working class guys were suddenly making millions of pounds as rock groups. Fashion and sport was a very big issue. So the question was, is English society changing? Are the barriers between the upper and the middle and the lower class sort of disappearing? So rather than just talk about it, we decided, well why don’t we get some young kids, some children from different backgrounds, different social backgrounds, get them together and ask them the future, their, what they do at home. Whether they do their homework, what they think of girls, what they think of television, what they think of money, what they think of race and see what comes out.

So that’s what it was. We did a lot of filming and took the best bits out of it and put it up there. It turned out to be kind of very funny, seven year-olds talking about things, it was very funny. But it was also chilling because you could see that whatever was happening to the Beatles or Rolling Stones, it wasn’t happening all over the place. That the society, the class you were born into is pretty much determining your view of the world. Those from the un-empowered really had no idea what lay ahead. Those from the richer areas had their lives planned out.

It was successful. But the penny still didn’t drop with this, it took about three or four years before, I remember the man who was running Granada Television came up to me and said, have you thought of going back and seeing what’s happened to them? And I thought well actually, no, but it sounds like a brilliant idea. So we went back and saw that this really was a very rich vein. They were now 14, but they weren’t great interviewees. They had spotty faces and spoke in monosyllables. But you could see the fascination of watching the passing of the ages.

From then on, we thought we were really onto something, so let’s keep going.

POV: The class system was a focus of the first film. How was that theme filtered through the series as it developed?

Michael Apted: Well I think it’s got less head-on. I think English society has changed. Class isn’t as prevalent as it was. I mean there’s a different kind of class I think now, as it is here in America. It’s more to do with how much money you’ve got and not what class you were born into. So I think it sort of played itself out a little bit, but it’s still very much the super structure of the whole series. I mean that’s the underlying kind of foundation of it if you want, but I think it’s changed.

It took me some time to realize you know how it was changing because I didn’t really get it until I brought the film to America. I was frightened to bring it here. I didn’t think Americans would understand it, because they don’t know the context of English social life. They didn’t know the difference between a grammar school and a comprehensive school. And I thought how can you understand the film if you don’t understand that? But I was wrong. People did understand it here and it was very warmly received.

Then I realized, well maybe I’m not making a film just about the English class system. I’m doing something which is more universal, which is more about things that everybody goes through, everybody on the planet goes through, whether having children, getting jobs, getting married, dealing with money all this kind of stuff. In some ways the whole initial class issue, although it’s still there, its shadow is across the film but I think it’s become less and less important.

POV: Has your approach to the film and the series changed over the years?

Michael Apted: Yeah, my approach to the film has changed radically as it’s grown up. We’ve all grown up. I mean the most important thing I suppose is the age difference. I’m 15 years older than them. When they are 14 or 21, someone 15 years older is from another planet you know. But as we all get older those, those years sort of decrease. We're almost collegial now. So it’s much more intimate. We share much more. But also I’ve had certain epiphanies as I do it. I realized early on that there’s no point in trying to predict what’s going to happen to people. I remember in 21 I made a horrible mistake. I was filming Tony in the dog track, passing out money and betting and all this and I thought, this guy is going to run into trouble. He’ll be in one of his majesty’s prisons the time I come back at 28.

I did a sequence of him driving his cab around all the hot spots of East End crime -- this is where Jack the Hat was shot, this was where the Krays were and all that. And of course that wasn’t true. He was pretty upset about it, so it was a wakeup call for me as not to play God. Not try and pretend I might know what’s happening in the seven years. That sort of extended into really not making each one just a follow-up from the last one, but trying to blank out your mind and say, well here we are in 2012 and what are these people doing? What are they thinking? What are their values now? Rather than asking them follow-up questions from seven years ago, which then gives the film some air, some breath. I think it allows the films to be slightly different. They’re about different things. They aren’t a kind of update of the previous ones.

POV: With this latest installment, what's the biggest surprise that you’re hearing from audiences?

Michael Apted: It’s a strange experience because obviously I make the films and I see them as a piece of film and all this. Sometimes I don’t actually realize what I’ve done until other people start seeing it. I made the film, we shot it, I edited it and I was sort of worried about it because I thought it was maybe going to be a depressing film. They’re getting into their mid-50s now, they have to think about retiring, their pensions. They’re thinking about mortality. They’re dealing with sickness and all this kind of stuff.

Then it didn’t turn out like that at all. It turned out in a much more positive way. People, especially those that had spent their energy, time and money building their families seemed to have found a very safe place in what’s a very difficult world to live in. I never thought about that when I was doing it.

I showed it first, always cut it here because I live in Los Angeles. I showed it to like 300 people in a cinema. Their response was completely different from what I expected it would be. And then I realized, it’s a kind of learning experience for me making the film. I never really quite know what I’ve got until I’ve done it.

POV: Several of your subjects express a reluctance and resentment about the series, but they keep being drawn back into the process. What keeps them coming back?

Michael Apted: The number of people who complain about it, if they want to moan about it and give me a hard time, I think that’s good. That's what they want to talk about and it’s kind of fun for the audience to hear me being beaten up a bit. But I think that it’s a kind of two-way thing. I think some of them do resent it. There’s always a residual anger about it because they had no say in it, when they were seven or fourteen. They were railroaded into it by schools and parents and all this.

Then they realized what they were into, this roller-coaster. I don’t think they’ve ever really recovered from that, but as the years have grown on, I think they’ve become proud of it in a way and attached to it. And feel some obligation towards it. They're part of something that has been very popular, is unique in the history of television and film. I think they take a certain pride in it.

So there’s this mixture of irritation and anger about it and also yet proud to be in it. And I think they’re caught in that kind of cleft stick.

POV: Can you talk a little bit about the filmmaking process?

Michael Apted: The way it happens every seven years, its broadcast about the same time every seventh year. So when I know that time is coming up, I go to Granada or ITV and I say, when do you want it? They'll tell me when they want to broadcast it. Then I’ll reverse engineer it. I’ll decide when I’m going to start recruiting them, when I’m going to shoot it and when I’m going to cut it. So I can sort of build a backwards calendar if you know what I mean.

During the shooting period, whatever they’re doing in that six-week period that I shoot it is what goes in the film. It’s kind of a logistical nightmare to figure out where everybody’s going to be, where I can be and all this. But it is a genuine snapshot of them every seventh year. I don’t say, oh they’re doing something very interesting in four months time, I'll come back and do that. I try not to break that rule. This is the time we do it, so it’s a genuine snapshot. If someone’s 53 and someone else is 56 and all that sort of stuff, I think it gets confusing.

That’s the real heart of the process. Then we have to recruit them, which is sometimes quite difficult to persuade them. They kind of like to torture me and give me a hard time. Then I shoot it and it depends if I have to travel to Australia to do Paul. I spend at least a week there because it’s a long way to go. But a lot of them are from the East End of London and so maybe I spend a whole week just doing those three or four people.

Then again, it depends on what sort of seven years they’ve had. If they’ve had a very interesting or traumatic seven years, I’m likely to spend more time with them rather than those where not much has happened. There’s always tremendous time pressure. I never want the films to run more than two and a quarter hours. So I’ve got eight generations and I reckon that every generation I remove 80% of the previous generation. I’ve got to keep in all the famous bits, all the iconic bits. And yet, I’ve got to add a whole new generation in.

So I shoot a lot of stuff. I don’t use very much necessarily of what I shoot. Sometimes, for example, in this one when I just thought, how am I going to do the Olympic Games. I discovered that the Olympic stadium is going to be built on the greyhound track that I’d filmed Tony on, I went back into 42 where I’d shot a sequence of him which I’d never used and put it in for the first time, because it was such a great thrill for me to had him at 21, I had him at 42. And there he was in the middle of the Olympic stadium.

So sometimes I go back into stuff that’s never ever been used. It’s a very fluid operation.

POV: Can you talk about the recruitment process that unfolds every seven years?

Michael Apted: Well, they kind of expect it in a way. But we ring up. We keep in touch with them. We speak to them at least once a year and sometimes if I’ve got a movie opening London, I’ll do a social event and have them. I keep in touch with some of them quite a bit and others I don’t see from every seventh year. It’s a bit like a family, you’re close with some and not with others.

Then we say, look it’s going to happen and we’re going to do it between this month and this month. And what are you up to? They say, oh we don’t want to do it. Then we have to start to know the kind of softening the blow and whatever. I pay them too. I mean, I don’t see why they shouldn’t get paid for it. I think it’s very brave what they do. How they open themselves up. So that helps a little bit. But it’s just a question of taking the time to convince them that it should be done. I think it’s important to have as many in as I can.

I think that’s my biggest job, bigger than the cutting or the interviewing is to recruit as many as I can, because I think if you start losing people, it kind of weakens it. The whole is really the sum of the parts, and if you lose some of the parts it diminishes the whole.

POV: How does this project fit into, or differentiate itself from, the broader media landscape of modern 'reality television.'

Michael Apted: Well I remember when we did 49 Up, it was a bit of a crisis for us because reality television was really big then. It was barely around when we did 42, and I think that was a crisis for all of us. Not for me, but for them. I think they thought, well are we just another reality show? And if not, why aren’t we being paid tons of money to do it? And why aren’t we getting free holidays and all this kind of stuff?

I tried to explain to them what I took to be the difference. I think what has been so compelling about this series that it was really the first time on television that television took the air time to have ordinary people speak about their lives in a considered way. Particularly as the people were chosen really for their class distinctions. They weren’t chosen because they were great speakers or anything like that, or there was something weird about them.

They were picked because they were regular people but they came from different class backgrounds. I think that’s always been the appeal, that they are ordinary people. Then of course you get the real appeal of the fact that you’re watching them grow up. You’re watching people grow up in front of you. And no one has ever had that kind of material. People have copied it, but I’m so far ahead of the game, that's what makes this unique. I may be overtaken, but I doubt it. I think the whole industry is so much different from what it was when we started. It’s much more fragmented and I don’t see any company saying, we’re going to commit to 50 years of this particular program.

So I don’t think it’ll ever be done again. But I think it’s that fact that it’s all very well if you ask me what I was like as a kid and I’ll tell you. But my film can show you what I was like as a kid so I think that’s what’s so unique about it. I think that’s why people don’t seem to lose interest in it, because it’s always unfolding. It’s very audience friendly. You look at this, these films, these 13 characters and there’s something in there for everybody, whether it’s a crisis or an incident. There’s stuff in there that we all identify with.

When I do press conferences about it and people are asking me questions, or I do stuff with the press, you get the feeling that people are talking about themselves. They're actually projecting themselves on to the film which is what an audience with it.

POV: There’s a famous Jesuit maxim which leads off every installment of the series. How do you feel about it after doing eight films?

Michael Apted: Well the Jesuit maxim, “show me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” I think in a certain way it’s true. I think their personality is set at seven. When you compare the 56 year-old personalities with the 7 year-old personalities on the whole you can see the 7 year-old and the 56 year-old and maybe that’s wishful thinking, but I got the feeling that one’s character is sort of set. But that doesn’t mean that you’re going to know what’s going to happen in their lives, how they’re going to conduct themselves or what slings and arrows are going to be thrown at them throughout their life.

In terms of personality, I think it is true. But again, I don’t see that you could predict a life at seven. I don’t think you can say, well this is what’s going to happen to that person because he happens to be an introvert at seven, whether he’s going to lead an introverted life. Or vice versa, if he’s a big character at seven, then he’s going to be a big character for his whole life. So I don’t think that’s true. But I think the personality stays much the same.

POV: You've worked in both feature films and documentary. How do you see this project within your overall body of work?

Michael Apted: Well I think it’s been enormously influential. It’s been very successful over my whole career really. It was the first thing I did and it will go on. I think it’s given me a seat to the documentary table. But in terms of the actual quality of the work, I think it’s been very interesting. I’m always intrigued by doing a movie or doing a documentary whichever one it is, how they feed off each other.

One of the things I’ve learned doing movies is how to structure characters. You know how to take a character through a story. I think that’s been very helpful in putting these films together, because you know how much do you tell an audience at the beginning? And how much do you hold information back? How do you keep an audience’s interest for 8, 10, 15 minutes with a character? I think that’s lessons you learn doing fiction. Doing documentaries teaches you to be very flexible, light on your feet, because when you do a documentary, I do these—I don’t know what they’re going to say, I don’t know what they’re going to do. Some area of questioning may be useless, we give it up and some areas may be rich. It gives you a kind of flexibility which can be very useful when you’re in the kind of behemoth film, when you’ve got crews of a 100 and all this kind of stuff and you’re stuck and you don’t know where to go with it.

Experience in documentaries gives you a bit more flexibility. So I've always kept both going because I feel that they feed off each other. They’re different muscles, but they’re good muscles to have, whatever you do.

POV: And have you seen an evolution in how documentaries are consumed, or what their place might be in our culture?

Michael Apted: Yeah, I think it’s a big question. Technically I think there’s been a big change in the last two decades with the advent of digital work. For example, I much prefer shooting the Up films digitally because you can do much longer interviews. When we were doing it on film that was ten minutes, I’d have someone sat down there, showing me how many minutes I have left, so I wouldn’t get into a very important question in minute 9.

Now it’s much freer. The equipment is smaller. It’s not quite so invasive like it used to be. So that’s a big thing. That’s very important. Where I come from in the United Kingdom, documentary was very much part of our culture. We grew up with them, they were always on primetime television.

I don’t think that’s so true in America. But because of people like Michael Moore who made documentaries more accessible I think they have a real role here. I know there’s a great history of documentaries here, but they’re in the public eye in television and film culture perhaps a bit more than they have been. I’m optimistic about it. I'm part of the Academy Documentary branch so we have to deal with, that's the big award for a documentarian, getting an Oscar. We see lots and lots of documentaries.

I think they fill a place in the American spectrum and information. Unfortunately news has become entertainment. People don’t really trust to give them information, the real stuff. A lot of it is political, political maneuvering. The same with newspapers. I think documentaries are filling a kind of gap, maybe they’re biased as well, but I think documentarians are dealing with really important issues that news programs on the whole don’t have the time, the space, or the appetite for. So documentaries in some ways are becoming more important, the way that the culture of newsgathering and dispensing news is happening.

POV: What’s been your greatest satisfaction in producing and directing this whole series?

Michael Apted: Well my greatest satisfaction is that it’s surviving so long you know. I mean I fell into it by chance. I’d just joined Granada and I was yanked out to be a researcher on this. And then the gentleman that directed it, a Canadian director, Paul Almond, he left the company and went back to Canada. Then I took it over and that was a huge stroke of luck. But it turned out to be a gold mine for me. It's the most important thing I’ll ever do you know, for all the movies I’ve done. That’s to me a great satisfaction and the fact that is significance or its popularity doesn’t seem to wane. People still seem interested. They don’t say, oh we had enough of this you know and we don’t want to watch this. And that’s been a huge source of satisfaction to me.






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