Interview: Michael Apted, director of ‘56 Up’
The acclaimed filmmaker has been documenting the lives of a group of British children since they were seven years old
In my opinion, the most extraordinary documentary series in the history of the medium is Michael Apted’s “Up” films. Beginning in 1964 with “Seven Up,” a group of 14 British children from various socio-economic backgrounds were interviewed about their lives, hopes, and dreams for the future. Attempting to explore the Jesuit maxim, “Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you a man,” the film offered a fascinating glimpse into class and social structures of 1960s England. Apted was a young researcher for that film, but seven years later, when the children were 14, he took over the reigns and has been directing updates ever since. I first caught up with the series in 1984 when the subject were 28 and I’ve waited with great anticipation every seven years for the next installment: “35 Up,” “42 Up,” “49 Up,” and now, just released in this country, the latest, and I think the most powerful film in the series. The children are now 56 years old. While some of the players have come and gone over the years, the current film features 13 of the 14 original subjects. We catch up with charismatic cab driver Tony; former East London schoolmates Jackie, Lynn, and Susan; the troubled but always searching Neil; Nick and Suzy, who were among the more privileged kids, and the others, each one revealing a fascinating story despite the fact that they are a fairly ordinary group of people.
When he wasn’t working on this lifetime project, Apted became one of the most prolific, well-respected directors of his generation. His feature films include “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “Gorillas in the Mist,” “Nell,” “Enigma,” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” I sat down with Michael Apted in a Los Angeles recording studio to talk about the remarkable “56 Up.”
MSN Movies: I know that the first film was made as a one-off for British television. Was it your idea to go back seven years later to see what happened to those kids?
Michael Apted: No—I wish I could take credit for it but I was just a small cog in the wheel. I found most of the children for the first one. We were just trying to get a quick look at the class system in England and we were surprised how successful it was when it came out—I think people responded to it because it was funny as well as being chilling. But even then the penny didn’t drop until about five years later. I was having lunch with the head of Granada Television one day and he asked me if I ever thought of going back to those kids and seeing what they were up to. So we did it and it wasn’t that great because they were teenagers and pretty mono-syllabic with spots on their faces and all that! But we could see there was a big idea there that no one had ever tried before and it was really a no brainer to keep it going every seven years. I love the series and I know it’s never going to happen again because the business side of things just won't allow for it.
Yeah, for one thing I can’t imagine any company today having the patience and foresight to wait seven years between films!
Never, and remember, this same company has bankrolled it every time for fifty years now. Hell, I can’t even imagine any company staying in business that long anymore! And I’ve seen what happens without that kind of support. I tried to do another series called “Married in America” which I thought had a lot of very rich material. I somehow managed to do two films, but I can’t get the money to do a third one. The people who financed the first one disappeared, the people who did the second one pulled out, then you get into the copyright issues in terms of who owns what, and so on.
Not an easy model to follow these days! I love all of the films but was surprised at how uplifting the current film is. It felt like at 56, despite some big challenges they were facing, all of the people were getting a much better handle on what’s really important in life and what true “success” is. I found this film to be terribly moving and inspiring.
It’s reassuring to hear you say that. I just did this interview on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross and she said she thought the film was quite depressing, all these people in very difficult situations. I said “Really?” Like you, I was very surprised by how positive the film was in the end. You don’t really know what you’re going to get in something like this because each film really has a different tone to it that you can’t anticipate. But when I saw the film put together as a whole, I thought the cumulative effect was very positive.
The series is such a great depiction of the “extraordinary” in the “ordinary.” Even though no one is curing cancer or famous in any way, they have proven to be such a fascinating group of people. Did that surprise you over the years?
It just made me believe what I always suspected—that everyone has a story worth telling. We picked these kids very quickly back in 1964, almost in an arbitrary way, really. We just thought, okay, let’s have a few with this background, maybe a couple from the north of England, and so on, but they all turned out great.
One element of the films that I find so fascinating is the antagonism some of them feel toward the series. I love that you include those conversations. These are obviously not the Kardashians looking for some kind of false celebrity. And considering it all began when they were just seven, it’s not realy like they chose to be in it.
No, not at all, that’s why there is this residual anger that probably started at 21 when they found themselves in the middle of this roller coaster. By that time the series was beginning to gather momentum and they started to have a lot of negative feelings about it since they had no say in getting involved in the first place. To be honest, there’s been a lot of anger generally about the project—it’s always been torture for me to get some of them to do it every seven years! It’s gotten less difficult lately, but sometimes it was really awful, it took months to talk them into it.
I think one of the funniest lines in the new film is when Suzy compares being in the series to staying with a bad book—she hates it but feels a kind of strange loyalty to it!
I know! I had a lot of trouble with Suzy who announced in “49 Up” that she wasn’t going to do any more films. Suzy and I are quite close, actually, she’s a wonderful person, but she seemed quite firm that she wasn’t going to come back. She had always stayed in touch with Nick and it was finally Nick who convinced her to return which is why the two of them appear together in the film. That was their idea, not mine, I was quite worried about it but Nick got much more out of her than I ever could. For me it was always like trying to get blood from a stone! But I always thought comments like Suzy's were fair game, and people love it when they tell me off, it’s part of the life of the films!
Do you stay in contact with them between the entries?
Not that much. It’s kind like a family, some of us get on better, some of us are more social than others. Whenever I have a movie opening in the UK, I always get a theater and invite them and their families. It’s nice for me to do something for them for a change without asking for something in return. (Laughs.) I'm usually in the role of the supplicant!
Is there ever a situation that arises that would make you shoot them in between the seven-year gaps?
I only did it once and that’s when Bruce got married and Neil showed up at the wedding. I just couldn’t miss that, but it’s the only time. I think doing that would be very confusing. There are now eight films where they are eight different ages, not more, and if I mess around with that and start going somewhere when I think something important is happening, it undermines the whole idea. This is a snapshot of these people every seven years.
I guess I was also thinking, God forbid, if one of them dies.
Well, that’s a big question that I may have to deal with at some point. I can’t see how I couldn’t ask them whether they wanted to do something if that happens.
It must be incredible for them all to watch their lives flash before their eyes as they age from seven to 56 in minutes. Is there vanity involved? Do they panic in the months before you get there and try to lose weight or something like that?
I don’t think so. I remember going around to all of them at 42 asking them how the series has affected their lives. And I think it was Symon who said that he always thinks, “What have I done over the past seven years—I better hurry up and do something before Michael gets here!” But I honestly don’t think they do anything special to prepare for the cameras. I do agree with you that they’re very brave. Who would want one’s life put up to examination like that to a fairly big audience? It’s a huge act of courage!
At this point are they pretty well known in the UK?
Oh yes, for a time, anyway. For about six months after it comes out they’ll be recognized in shops and on the street, and of course some of them, like Tony who has become something of a celebrity, really embrace it and do interviews and press. But a lot of them wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot bargepole!
Do you think your original assumptions about what would happen to the kids were borne out?
No, not really, and I learned a painful lesson about that. I made a bad mistake with Tony in “21 Up.” At that time he was running around the dog park laying bets and I thought, this guy is going to end up in the slammer—wouldn’t it be a good idea to take him around East London in his cab and have him show me all the choice crime spots. So I did that and put it in the film and it proved to be a major embarrassment since he didn’t go that route at all and he was very upset when he figured out what I had done. After that I thought, fuck Michael, you can’t play God with these people! It’s interesting enough and hard enough to track what’s really happening in their lives, I don’t need to try to anticipate what might happen. I’m glad I learned that lesson early on!
Of all the people that dropped out of the series from time to time, Charles is the only one who hasn’t returned to it. Do you still hold out hope that he might?
I don’t know. The truth is I behaved badly when he pulled out. Charles is a documentary filmmaker himself and that made me more angry—I thought, if you live by the sword, you die by the sword! With Peter, who was gone for several films but came back for “56 Up,” I was much more humane and kept in touch with him all these years but with Charles I’m afraid I misbehaved. I think I cursed at him when he said he wasn’t going to do “28 Up!”
Do the rest of them have any control over the content of their segments?
Yes, now they do! At this point they know they have the ultimate sanction in whether they come back to do the next one. As it’s gone on some of them have become very savvy about it!
Well, I’m already counting the minutes until “63 Up” comes out!
Let’s just hope we’re both still above ground at that point!
“56 Up” is in theaters in select cities. Michael Apted will be appearing for a Q&A and to introduce select screenings at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles on January 18 and 19.