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The Sunday Conversation: Michael Apted keeps 'Up' series up and running

The filmmaker's long-running documentary's latest installment is '56 Up.' He talks about the series as well as his tenure as president at the DGA.

January 19, 2013|By Irene Lacher
  • Film director Michael David Apted
Film director Michael David Apted (Arkasha Stevenson, Los…)

Director Michael Apted is known for such diverse films as "Gorillas in the Mist," "Coal Miner's Daughter" and the James Bond romp "The World Is Not Enough," but it's the "Up" series of documentaries following a small group of Britons every seven years, starting at age 7, that carries his most distinctive signature. His latest entry, "56 Up," exploring their lives well into middle age, is now at the Nuart Theatre. And at the DGA Awards on Feb. 2, Apted (British-born and now a citizen of both Britain and the U.S.) is slated to receive the Directors Guild of America's Robert B. Aldrich Award in honor of his tenure as guild president from 2003 to 2009.

What did you discover in your latest installment in the "Up" series?

I discovered that despite the fact that I thought it was going to be depressing, that people would be concerned, disgruntled, wary of the future, [but] the people who found a solid base in life with their families — as opposed to others who put their initiative into careers and moneymaking — there was some payoff for that. And I could relate that in a sense to my own life.

That family matters most?

Not that it necessarily matters most, but it's a fair choice. I grew up with the feeling, at least in my adult years, that you pursued a career or you concentrated on your family. And I chose a career. And I suppose the rewards of that were fairly quick to come, in terms of decades. But those who invested their lives in their family, they had a somewhat later payoff, but this was kind of a manifestation of this generation of the film. In seven years, who knows?

So there will be another installment in seven years?

I hope so, if my marbles are in order.

How old were you when you started as a researcher on the series?

Twenty-two. I'd been at Granada Television out of university for about six months. One of my first on-the-job training [tasks] was to be put in with Paul Almond as a researcher and make this "World in Action" special program. "World in Action" was a weekly news show, and it was very revolutionary in its early days. Paul Almond was the heavy hitter on "Seven Up" and I was his, as it were, his tea boy. He was busy, so I had to go out and find the children, which I did very quickly. We had three weeks to shoot.

How did you pick the kids?

My assignment was to choose selections from the empowered class and the unempowered class and try to get some geographical variety. I did all the London ones. We weren't particularly interested in the character of the children at that point. It was how they were a product of their class and how that determined their view of the world and their view of their options and each other.

We now know where they ended up. Was it true that people stayed pretty much in the classes they were born into?

Pretty much, yes. I think it would have been different if it started a decade later, but generally, I think those that were empowered, who knew they could plot their lives out, at least the first 20 years of their lives, with school, university and career, did that. And those for whom the options were less clear or more restricted rolled with the punches and stayed within the perimeters of that class.

Did you find any group was any happier than any other?

No, I don't think so. I think that was a very important lesson I learned throughout the decades on the film, that I can't project my version of happiness or success or ambition onto other people.

There were a lot of complaints from the participants. What was their beef and why did they continue anyway?

I think the beefs are not as deeply felt as their loyalty to staying in the film. Their beefs, particularly in "49," were, you can edit this any way you want, which of course is true. But then it's a matter of their trust in me and their trust in my value judgments, and none of them called out particularly because I'd misrepresented them.

There is a kind of residual anger because they found themselves in the middle of this roller coaster, without having any input into whether or not they should be in it. They were yanked out of school at 7 and presumably persuaded when they were 14 by parents and schools to carry on. Of course, it is a tremendous invasion. They have to put their lives up for analysis to a very large audience.

How do you think portraying a life going forward differs from doing it through a retrospect-oscope, which is how most portraits are done?

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