POV: There were 14 children profiled in the original 7 Up film, and 12 of those 14 participated in the latest installment of the series. Can you describe the process that you go through every seven years? How do you convince these people to lay out their lives for the rest of the world to see?
Michael Apted: The hardest part of the job, really, is to persuade all the subjects to take part. It's clearly a serious invasion of privacy, and there's a certain bitterness about it from a number of them, which, in fact, reveals itself in 49 Up. Some of the subjects felt that had no choice in their participation: They were railroaded into it by parents and schools originally, and then when they became adults, they found that they were in the middle of this "event." And then it became hard for them to back out, although one backed out at 21, and another at 28. The others kind of come and go a bit. But really, it is very hard to persuade them to participate. Why should they, after all, put themselves up for judgment every seven years to a huge audience? The release of a new Up film is still a major event in British television, and the films have found audiences all over the world. So being in the films is quite a bit of exposure.
I suppose I have to use all my guile to try and persuade them to participate, to say, "We've started something, let's keep it going." I talk about how unique the films have been, how entertaining — in the best sense — they are, that people enjoy the films and seem to get something from them, that because the subjects are accessible, people seem to relate to them. I suppose I use a gentle form of moral blackmail to get them to do the film. Also, I pay them and they all get paid the same money, so it's a business arrangement, they're not doing it for nothing. But I do dread that every seventh year I have to knock on the door and say, "Here I am again. Would you come aboard?"
POV: Are there areas that you won't cover with some of the characters, out of respect for their their privacy or to protect issues that they don't want to talk about?
Apted: There are issues they don't want to talk about. The burden of being a longitudinal documentarian — someone who does long-term films — is that you have to behave yourself because if you treat people badly or lie to them, then they won't come back. And the whole point of doing a longitudinal film is to have people come back.
So it's a rather awkward and unusual position to be in, in that I push the interviews as much as I can, but there are certain things that they won't talk about. And there's really no point in me trying to trick them into talking about it because I'll only shoot myself in the foot. The subjects have a certain amount of power here. Some of them ask to see their chapters of the films before they're broadcast so they can give me notes on it. And really, I don't have much choice. I sort of have to go along with it. I'll argue with them and try and make my points, but at the end of the day, they do have a certain leverage. Everybody who is in a longitudinal film has a certain leverage with the filmmaker, and that situation creates an unusual position for a documentarian to be in.
POV: Has your approach to making these films changed over the course of the past 42 years?
Apted: My approach has changed organically. I'm 15 years older than the subjects, and 15 years when you're 14 or 21, is a whole deep sea. But as everybody's gotten older, that age difference has meant less, and I think the change in my relationship to the subjects has given us a more intimate relationship, a more collegial relationship. It's not an adult-to-child, big brother or father figure kind of relationship anymore. Now I sense that we're all on the same level ground. I think it makes the whole thing more emotional and more intimate, and that intimacy has determined the changes in my approach.
POV: Have changes in the film industry and the technology that people use to create films changed your approach to filming?
Apted: Yes, recently it has. I shot 49 Up digitally, which allowed me to have much longer interviews and not change film every ten minutes. That's a big help. It also allows you to have less crew, so you can create a stronger atmosphere. But I've always resisted stylistic changes. Some little voice inside me early on said: "The cards you have to play are these people's faces, and that's what's going to be interesting and unusual, the ability to watch them grow." So I've always made the interview part the center of all the films. It's as if the interview is the spine. And I've never been tempted to go into more avant-garde filmmaking or a looser style of shooting. I've always kept that same style to it — that simple, well-lit close-up — and I think that's paid off for me. Watching these people's faces change over the generations is really the biggest emotional card the film has to play.
POV: You might not like the use of this term, but could the Up series be considered one of the first reality television series?
Apted: Yes, I suppose. It depends on, though, on how you define reality. This was actually a big issue for me while shooting 49 Up because reality television was now the 500-pound gorilla in the room that had never been there before. It was causing a lot of concern to the subjects of the films. They thought, "Is that all we are? Are we just another piece of cheap entertainment, another piece of primetime exploitation?" I was at pains to try and explain to them what I thought was the difference between their documentary and reality television.
Without being judgmental, because some of the reality television is very good, I told them that with reality television, the whole notion of it is usually to put people in an unusual or contrived situation and see how they respond to it, which can be very revealing and funny and too often cruel. But with the documentary, you really are trying to capture life as it is. You want to try as best as you can to get the truthfulness of it. So there is a difference, and I think I managed to persuade them that there was a world of difference between Big Brother and 49 Up.