Guest of Honor

Heads up, 56 Up: Director Michael Apted on hobbies, documentary film-making, and his on-screen family

Rico Gagliano: Our guest of honor this week is filmmaker Michael Apted. He directed the Oscar winning movie Coalminer’s Daughter and more recently Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the latest of the Narnia movie franchise. But since 1971 he’s also directed the documentary series Up, in which he has followed the same group of Britons every seven years as they’ve grown up. Roger Ebert put it on his list of the greatest films of all time.. This week the latest installment  56 Up, opens in Los Angeles and rolls out across the country over the next couple of months.


Rico Gagliano: The first film 7 Up was shot in 1964 but you didn’t direct that one. How did this come to be your baby seven years later?

Michael Apted: Well, I researched the original one. I was one of the two researchers sent out to find a group of seven year old children who would, as it were, represent English society of 1964, class ridden as it were. The film was only ever going to be one film and there was never any thought of carrying it on but it was successful and eventually I was asked, ‘Have you thought of going back to seeing how all the children are doing?’ I said, ‘Oh, that might be a good idea.’ Although it was a slightly stressful film, there was a lot of grumpy teenagers there, you could see the beginnings of something that I describe as a ‘big idea’. So from then on it was really a no brainer just to keep going back every seven years. It’s I think the most rewarding and enriching professional experience I’ve ever had.

Rico Gagliano: That said though the series began, as you mentioned, as a look at the British class system. The idea was that by age 7 you might already be able to see where these kids might end up. The rich ones were already planning whether they’d go to Oxford or Cambridge, for instance.

Michael Apted: That’s correct.

Rico Gagliano: And are arguing about what newspapers they read.

Boy 1: I read the Financial Times.

Boy 2: I read the Observer and the Times.

Boy 3: I like my newspaper because I’ve got shares in it.

Rico Gagliano: Do you think that that’s proven true?

Michael Apted: I think it is proven true but had I started the film a decade later it might well have had a different outcome. I think for the generation that was born in the mid-50s the class system did determine the wealthy people and knew how their education was going to plan out and it did and the less empowered really didn’t have much idea what was going on. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have happy successful lives but as far as opportunities and options go I think the class system did deliver itself in that generation.

Rico Gagliano: Something that you mentioned in other interviews too is that you wish you had accounted more for…you didn’t have for feminism when you did this.

Michael Apted: We missed that. It’s a bad mistake because for me in my lifetime the most important revolution really was the changing role of women in society, in every area of society and we missed that.

Rico Gagliano: How would you have done things differently?

Michael Apted: Well, I would have had seven men, seven women, frankly.

Rico Gagliano: You have only four women.

Michael Apted: An equal balance. But in 1964 we were looking at the picture of English society and it’s a dreadful thing to say but women didn’t really figure in it and if we were looking at who was going to be running the country in the year 2000, which was one of the taglines really of the original film, you wouldn’t have put a lot of women up there. In fact we had a woman prime minister not too long after in the 70s and 80s so we were way wrong.

Rico Gagliano: And there’s other things that you missed. Obviously necessarily several of the now 56 year old characters remark in this film about how dissatisfied they are with their portrayals in the series; you can only show a small slice of their lives and yet from that audiences think they know who they are all.

Man 1: I think I’d like to say this and I’d like to say that and they then film me doing all this daft stuff and it goes on seven days out of every seven years. It’s sort of Biblical something or other and it’s all this excitement and so on. And then they present this tiny little snippet of your life and it’s like, ‘That’s all there is to me?’

Rico Gagliano: I’m sure you shoot hours and hours of footage of these people. How do you decide what slice of them to show especially knowing that that’s the case: they’re going to be judged on what you show.

Michael Apted: It’s a judgment call on my part every time. Not only am I limited by what I’m shooting now but I have to be careful with how much of the past I use. It’s a tricky balance because that’s my greatest card; the advantage I’ve got over every film is I’ve got their past. If they talk about the past, lo and behold, there it is. It is an issue and of course they complain about it. I’m happy to listen to the complaints because that in some ways draws the audience’s attention to it. That by no means is this a comprehensive look at a person’s life. These are choices that I made.

Rico Gagliano: But on the other hand I have to say I had to laugh when the characters bemoan your time constraints because each installment is hours long. There have been eight of them now?

Michael Apted: Yeah, this is the eighth film.

Rico Gagliano: There’s a lot more time than most documentaries have to tell a story.

Michael Apted: Precisely. We can’t look a gift horse in the mouth. It’s brilliant that Grenada Television have supported the film over 50 years. What other broadcaster would have done that?

Rico Gagliano: That’s true. I actually wonder how you, as a filmmaker, are able to turn from this series which really gains power from watching people closely for long, long periods of time to a regular movie where you have two hours max to tell an entire story.

Michael Apted: It’s just a different animal. I do both features and documentaries because they’re different muscles but I’ve always felt that my heart is as a documentarian. B9ut they both have their irritations. When I’m doing a documentary I think even something like the Ups, ‘Why can’t they say that quicker? What can’t they say it like this? If I had a group writer I could do it much quicker.‘ Then doing the other things, ‘Why do we have to have all this equipment and everything’s so slow and why won’t the actors come out of their trailers?’ So each has their burden but I think helps the other; they both help each other.

Rico Gagliano: Something you brought up earlier: you have the opportunity of having all these characters’ pasts and something that you do repeatedly, and I love these, is where you’ll show a montage of them through time saying something that they’re absolutely sure of, contradicting it seven years later and then what they’re saying today which is really different.

Boy 1: Yes, I’d say I believed in God. I go to church with my parents on Sundays.
Man 1: I don’t know even now whether I do believe in God or not.
Man 1: I’m a lay minister. I’m licensed to carry out quite a number of functions includes leading services.

Rico Gagliano: It’s mind blowing to me because I guess it makes me question anything that I believe at any point. I know now seven years from now I may not even remember having said it.

Michael Apted: I think that’s an astute observation. Going back to your very first question while there’s a certain predictability, and certainly the educational choices that they all had because of their class, I don’t think there’s anything predictable about the issues they’ve had to face within life and the way they’ve handled them and the way it’s formed their characters. While I think you can definitely, in the 56 phase, see the little 7 year old beaming at you I don’t think you could predict what’s happened to a lot of these people.

Rico Gagliano: Are you friends with these people now?

Michael Apted: I’m more than friends. We are, this always sounds a little sickening when I say it, but we are a family. I’ve known them for nearly 50 years and watched them grow up and some of us are close. Some aren’t. Bruce is making a trip to California so he’s going to come and stay. We’re bonded by something, this kind of bond of blood, if you want.

Rico Gagliano: We have two questions that we ask each quest on our program. The first is if we were to meet you at a dinner party what question would you least like to be asked?

Michael Apted: What hobbies do I have?

Rico Gagliano: Really. I would think that would be a chance not to talk about movies.

Michael Apted: Well, I don’t have hobbies that’s why I don’t like to be asked.

Rico Gagliano: Really? That is kind of surprising to me.

Michael Apted: One of the reasons I keep working, although I’m now in my early 70s, I’m petrified of stopping to work because what am I going to do apart from drive my partner Paige stark raving mad.

Rico Gagliano: You just don’t do anything except make movies all day.

Michael Apted: I have a lot of things. I’ve a great sports fan. I like to read, I like to ride my bicycle but these are hardly conversation stoppers. If I said I played the lute or wrote poetry that would be all right.

Rico Gagliano: I don’t know. We got a decent enough conversation out of the fact that you don’t have a hobby. That’s interesting. You sort of answered my second question but I’ll throw it at you anyway which is to tell us something we don’t know either about yourself or just something about the world in general.

Michael Apted: God. I just have a very unhealthy interest in sport I think and I’m ridiculously passionate about it and I do put out a kind of calm exterior but I can throw things at the television and all sorts of things under the slightest provocation and I’m a very, very poor driver. I’m possessed in certain situations.