POV: The Up series is such a phenomenon in England. Could you describe the series for the American viewers who might not be as familiar with it?
Michael Apted: Well, it’s kind of a life’s work. It’s a series of films that started in 1964. We chose 14 children from different backgrounds at a time in England when society seemed to be changing. We were curious to see whether English society really was changing or whether that was just surface. It was only ever going to be one film: just a look at England in 1964, not through the eyes of politicians or journalists or psychologists or sociologists, but through the eyes of 7-year-old children talking about themselves and their view of the world.
But it was a striking and very resonant film. It showed, in chilling fashion, that the English class system, which was at the heart of it all, was very much alive and well. And so it really wasn’t brain surgery to decide to go back to see how the children were doing seven years later. That film — 7 Plus Seven — was awkward; it was adolescent; the 14-year-olds were spotty and answered in monosyllables, so it was a bit arduous. But you could see the beginnings of a big idea. Then we simply ran with it. Every seven years I’ve been back to film the original subjects, and this is the seventh film: 49 Up. The series has simply chronicled the lives of these people through all the changes that they’ve gone through over the last four decades.
POV: How did you get started working on these films?
Apted: I had just left university to joined Granada, a television production company in England, as a trainee. I was assigned to work as a researcher on 7 Up, and my job was to go find the children. Seven years later I was still at Granada, and I had established myself there. I took over the series, produced and directed 7 Plus Seven, and have done the same with all the subsequent films.
POV: Why did you choose these particular children to be your subjects in 1964?
Apted: 7 Up was a look at the English social and class system, so we really chose the children from the different classes of English society. Looking back on it, we probably went too extreme. We went to the edges of society rather than the middle of it. Again, looking back — which is fun but annoying to do when you see the mistakes you made — I would have been better served had I stayed in the middle of the social system; it was really the middle class who have suffered the biggest upheavals during the 40 years I’ve been making these films.
So the subjects were chosen from different backgrounds, from different classes, from different parts of England and from different sorts of environments. There were two children from children’s homes who weren’t living with their parents; there was a child from a country school; there were children from provincial Liverpool; and there were children from different parts of London.
POV: When you made the second film, was it an experiment? Or was the idea, even at that time, to make these films every seven years?
Apted: When we looked at the second film, we saw that there was something going on there. No one had ever done this before, and the possibilities looked rich and promising, although the film itself wasn’t — I didn’t think — very rich, because at 14 the subjects were very monosyllabic. But there was clearly the beginnings of a big idea, and my role in it was that I just committed to doing it every seven years. Whatever else I was doing, I always made time to film the Up series. Even when I was moving to America, I was filming 28 Up. I’ve lived in America ever since then, and I always etched out some time every seventh year to keep the series going.
POV: Each film opens with this maxim: “Give me a child until he is seven, I will give you the man.” Where does this maxim come from, and do you think it has proven to be true over the course of the Up series?
Apted: It’s a famous Jesuit saying, and it was sort of the mantra of the films. It’s interesting, now, to see whether the maxim is true or not, and I think in some ways it is true. When you look at children when they are seven, and compare them to how they are now, in some ways they don’t change; that inner personality seems to survive. That’s kind of fun to watch: You see the subjects become, at different parts of their lives, more like how they were when they were seven, recapturing that kind of twinkle they had as kids. The inner core personality never changes: If you’re an extrovert at seven, like Tony, you always stay an extrovert. And if you tend to be more introverted or thoughtful, that seems to stay as well. This doesn’t mean that you can predict what’s going to happen in people’s lives. It would foolish to say that the films make any claims about that. But I do think there is something in that Jesuit saying.
POV: All of these people, whatever strata of society they were from, are just ordinary people. What is it that makes them so compelling?
Apted: The characters were chosen because they could present themselves well at seven. I went to the schools, spoke to their teachers and said, “Bring me your brightest and your best.” I talked to a lot of kids, we filmed a lot of kids and we whittled it down. So the characters were people who from a very early age could articulate, and who weren’t overwhelmed by the experience of standing in front of a camera being grilled with questions.
They have turned out to be incredibly articulate, and I like to think that’s because everybody’s got a story to tell. If you give people the time and the space, and you’re talking about things that they have lived through, people can be very moving and articulate about their lives. There aren’t many pieces of work, especially in film, that have the patience or the longevity or the time to honor the drama of ordinary life; and after all, the drama of what we all have to go through — children, jobs, marriage, the things that touch us — is the big drama of life, far more so than the drama of movies and television. So the characters are ordinary people, they’re not any more special than anybody else. But they do seem to be able to express themselves, which I think gives you a general truth: People can tell stories.
POV: The film started as an exploration of the English class system. How has the film been received in America and other places besides Britain?
Apted: Personally, I think I was deluding myself for the first few films, thinking I was making this big political statement about the English social class system. Then I brought the film to America, somewhat reluctantly; I didn’t think Americans would understand it because there are a lot of descriptions of the education system that an American wouldn’t know, for example, they wouldn’t know the difference between a comprehensive school, a public school and a private school. I thought that if they didn’t really understand the language of the film, they simply wouldn’t get it. And since these films were precious to me, I didn’t want the vast American audience misunderstanding it.
But Americans understood the films very well. Then it occurred to me that maybe what I was doing was something quite different from what I thought I was doing. I was making a much more humanitarian film — I was making something about an experience that’s shared by everyone on the planet, and not particularly just about England. The series is in England, but it’s about something more than living in England, it’s about being alive. That was an epiphany for me, strange as it might seem, and that, in some ways, relaxed me a bit. I wasn’t hammering on about politics and about how awful it is to have grown up in England during those periods anymore, and it kind of relaxed the film a bit, gave it more room to breathe.
POV: What do you think your greatest satisfaction is in making these films?
Apted: I suppose all of us working on it have created an unusual and singular piece of work that is now much copied, so that’s gratifying. For myself, I’m gratified by the fact that I’ve had the will to keep it going. I’m pretty sure that if I’d dropped out, the project would have collapsed. The series needs this sense of family that we all have, this bonding that’s been created because we’ve been doing it for so long, in order to keep it going.
The films continue to be popular. I was always worried that it would get less popular as the fun of watching people’s bodies change grew less. But it seems audiences are very capable of tracking emotional changes and enjoying it. So that’s the most gratifying thing: how well it’s received and how people seem to respond to it everywhere it plays, even in cultures that are quite different from the roots of the film.
POV: Do you think making these films has changed you?
Apted: They’ve been the foundations of my career. I was always interested in characters and people, and these films became clear definition of that for me. I make narrative films as well, but I tend to make narrative films that are focused on characters or have a slightly documentary spin to them. I think the Up series has been a big calling card for me. They’ve been, I think, the most important work that I’ve ever done.
POV: Over the course of your career, you’ve directed a long list of both narrative and documentary films, including films such as Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorky Park, Gorillas in the Mist and, more recently, Amazing Grace. Do you have a preference in terms of narrative or documentary film? How do you balance them both?
Apted: I love them both, and it’s been my good fortune to be able to do both. I started out in my career doing both: After I’d been the researcher on “7 Up,” I went off to do Coronation Street, which is the most famous soap opera in Britain, one that’s been going for 50 years. So my whole life I’ve been keeping these two strands — documentary and narrative — going. I find it incredibly stimulating and rewarding to do both because they’re like different muscles that you have to exercise.
I remember going straight from doing 42 Up, with seven of us in a van schlepping all over the United Kingdom, to making a James Bond film with a crew of 900. And you don’t really lose a beat! You don’t suddenly think: “Where am I?” You’re still doing the same job, you’re still telling a story.
But I do find it very stimulating to be able to get away from the kind of machinery of movies and television and go off and do documentaries. Making documentaries gives you a kind of freedom, it gets you out of certain ways of thinking and it refreshes the spirit a bit. On the other hand, it’s also wonderful to go and do movies and television where you know you’ve got an infrastructure and a huge built-in audience. And it’s fun to work with writers. Sometimes you sit interviewing someone and you think: “Why can’t they say it simply? Why are they babbling on and on?” A writer could just give you two lines that define something.
Both narratives and documentaries have their frustrations and their challenges, and I find them both rewarding. So I’m always going to keep both strands going.
POV: Thematically, what is this film really about for you?
Apted: Well, I’ve discovered that it’s not actually about anything because the only way I can do it every seven years is to try to start with a blank sheet and an empty mind. I’m not trying to find themes now; I’m not trying to ask clever questions. I find that the way to give the films life and the way to make them interesting is to approach each new film in the series with a fresh eye. All the films, interestingly, are completely different in tone. And if you sit down and watch them — and God help you because there’s a lot of them — it’s curious how different they are. Some of them are sadder than others; in some of them a clear message comes through. I remember that 35 Up had, in a sense, very much to do with death because a lot of them were losing their parents. So there’s a different tone to all of them.
All I have to do is show up, not try and preempt what they’re going to say, not try and guide people through it, not try and have them say what I think they should say. I have to try and take myself out of the equation and let them speak. I am involved in their lives and interested in their lives, but I think the films are more successful if I can just get them to tell their story at each generation and then really let the audience figure it out.
The question is: What is each new film about for the audience, not what is the film about for me? Everybody gets different things out of it. Some characters appeal to people, some moments appeal to people. It’s rare for a person to sit through the film and not find something that they can relate to. And I think it’s my job just to present the subjects and not to make it a projection of my own values. That’s quite a hard thing to do because I am who I am. I have certain views about everything, about ambition, money, sex, everything else. But what I don’t want to do is in any way try and impose my values on the film. In the films, what we’re interested in is what the subjects have to say.
POV: You’ve made many films for major studios, but you’ve also made independent films. What’s the hardest thing about making an independent film?
Apted: 49 Up is not really an independent film. The reason the series has survived over all these generations is largely because it grew out of television, which has always financed it. On the other hand, I’m doing a similar series in America on marriage. The series follows nine couples who got married at the turn of the century. That’s been a nightmare because investors keep backing out, so I have to get new money.
Doing independent films is very, very difficult. It never ends. You break your backside to get the money to do make the film, and then you can’t get the things distributed. In some ways, documentaries are going through an interesting golden period where there’s many more of them playing in the theaters, and they seem to be more a part of popular culture than they’ve ever been before. Nonetheless, for those of us slogging in the trenches, it’s still very, very difficult to get money to make independent documentaries, and to get the wherewithal to get them shown. So you really have to have a strong will and a lot of courage to make independent films.
POV: What new projects are you working on now?
Apted: I’m starting work on the third film of The Narnia Chronicles. It’s called The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and it’s a very big film for me. It’s a wonderful change of rhythm. I’ve got to learn a whole new language of visual effects, and it’s a much more imaginative film than I have done before. Anything new is a challenge, and at my age, to be asked to do something new is very exciting.