Movie Talk

’56 Up’ Director Michael Apted Talks about the ‘Up’ series and the importance of family

Movie Talk

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A Scene from '56 Up' (Photo: First Run Features)

British director Michael Apted has had a very long and lucrative career in Hollywood, creating such Oscar-winning movies as "Coal Miner's Daughter," "Gorillas in the Mist," and "Nell," along with directing blockbusters like "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" and Bond movie "The World Is Not Enough."

Yet the thing that septuagenarian filmmaker will most likely be remembered for is the "Seven Up" series. Fresh out of school, Apted was hired as a researcher for "Seven Up," a TV documentary about the changing face of British society. Apted helped select fourteen 7-year-old children from across the socioeconomic spectrum and asked them about their lives and their futures. But starting with "7 Plus Seven," Apted (who directed subsequent movies in the series) returned to interview the same people every seven years, intercutting their present situations with their past fears and aspirations. The result is portraits of actual lives -- with its longings, successes, and disappointments -- unfolding onscreen. Watching these movies is akin to catching up with distant relatives at a family reunion.

The most recent movie in this series, "56 Up," is making its way around the country. I had a chance to talk with Apted about making the series that has lasted nearly a half century.

Jonathan Crow: So tell me, when the six-year mark starts rolling around and the next movie is coming up, do you look forward to making this? Do you kind of dread it? How have your feelings toward the series changed?

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Director Michael Apted (Photo: Getty Images)

Michael Apted: I think I'm enamored of it. I really enjoy this process because people seem to like to talk about it. Whenever I take out the movies out on the road, the "Up" films always come up. So I know people appreciate it. That's very heartwarming.

To answer the question, I go and see whoever is running Granada Television at that time and I say, "When do you want to broadcast it?" They tell me, and then I reverse-engineer the whole process. I know how much time I want to cut the film, how much time I need to shoot it, and then I figure out -- I just build it into when they want to broadcast it. It usually takes me between six and nine months to do the film. I don't like to tell them too early about it because they get time to get jumpy and all that, nor do I want to leave it too late so they think I'm just being sneaky about it.

JC: I know that it's not quite clear whether the interviewees are going to continue to cooperate. How is that negotiation? Many of them have very complicated feelings toward the series.

MA: Yeah. Since 28, I've paid them. I've frankly just increased the payment to make it more attractive to them. In the olden days, I didn't do much of that, or what I paid them was nominal. The torture they would put me through to say whether they were going to do it or not was the most exhausting part of the whole film. I mean, paying them doesn't compromise what they're going to say. This isn't a film that makes a lot of money for anybody, but it is successful, so why shouldn't they share in that?

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JC: Correct me if I'm wrong, but you're a researcher for Granada TV. This was one of your first jobs, and your job was partially to select these children.

MA: Yeah, there were two of us. I did the south of England, and the other guy did the north of England.

JC: How did you select these kids?

MA: It was done in a very arbitrary way. I have to explain the context of it. This was a one-off film. The United Kingdom seemed to be changing. We had the Beatles, Stones, fashion, theater, music. So the question was, is the English class system changing? Are people from unempowered backgrounds really getting more opportunities now?

Rather than getting a lot of experts to discuss it, we've decided to get 7-year-old children from different backgrounds and to make it as big a variety as possible. Hence, getting some boys who are living in a children's home or a boy who lived in the countryside, a couple who were living in the north of England, someone who's at the boarding school at the age of 7, some who are in impoverished areas of East London. So they were more types than personalities.

So we didn't really have our audition. I went to the schools and said to the teachers, "Bring me out the children who wouldn't just evaporate by 10 people in the room and a camera pointing at them." And that was that.

They were asked simple questions about their ambitions or what they thought of life and what they thought of colored people and sex and money and what jobs they're going to do, what their dreams were and all of that. So out of those simple questions, to try and get the kind of sense of the ambitions and the aims and boundaries that these people had in their lives at that age.

JC: So when did this become a series, then, if that was a one-off? "14 Up" or "21 Up"?

MA: Well, it was a very successful film because it was both chilling and funny, but it took us five years to figure out that we should go back and see what happened to them. When we did go back, we made "7 Plus Seven," and then you could see the beginning of the very big ideas.

So I think from that moment on, we all committed ourselves to a very big idea, that this would be something worth doing every seven years. The more it went on, the bigger it became, and so it was really a no-brainer.

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JC: This round seemed -- perhaps a little bit more upbeat, a couple exceptions. Everybody seemed a bit more together, settled.

MA: I think so, and I was surprised by that. I thought it was going to be depressing. I thought people would be overburdened with the economic crisis. I thought they would be frightened of the future, frightened of getting old, maybe looking back at lack of fulfilling lives. But, no, they seemed to be on solid ground.

What I found that's interesting about it is that the people who had invested their lives in their families were gaining strength from that. Whereas other people, including myself in some ways, made sacrifices to family by pursuing a career, ambition, or whatever. I thought those families -- people who had really put all their energies into family life -- were being paid back for that attention. I was very impressed with that. It's hard to believe, but I never know what it's going to be about the film until you see it. All I do know is that all the films are different. They all have a different tone. So when I approach each one, I really have to have a blank mind. I can't just make a follow-up to what I asked them in "49." We're starting from scratch each time, trying to figure out what's changed in their lives and what's important now.

JC: Was there one story that you particularly connected with?

MA: Nick's story. He and I had parallel lives. We both left England to go to America to build careers there. We sort of went through the same difficulties with families and marriages, upending one's roots and rerooting oneself.

JC: How many more of these films do you think will be made? I mean, are we going to have "77 Up"?

MA: Well, if we do "84," I'm probably 99. I imagine that when I pass away -- I hope I'm the first to go, I can't face the prospect of mortality for them -- perhaps [producer] Claire Lewis could take it over. She's been with me since "28." It's going to be hard for an outsider to come and take it over because it's such a closely knit family. I've used the same crew for a long time. The guy who films it has been with me since "21." The editor, since "28." The sound man, since "21," etc. I feel that if I go, Claire might be able to do it. There's so much trust involved with all this. When we're both gone, I think it might fall apart.

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