First Run Features released Michael Apted's entire Up series on DVD last year.
One could argue that the format is ideally suited for such a collection. The initial entries - 7 Up
, 7 Plus Seven
, 21 Up
and 28 Up
- were as influential and revolutionary in England as Stefan Jarl
's They Call Us Misfits
and its sequels were in Sweden. Now, with the release of the latest edition in the series, 49 Up
, we present this interview with the multi-talented Apted (whose latest narrative feature, Amazing Grace
, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival
). We spoke in February of 2005.
I believe that you started as a researcher at Granada Television?
My first job, at the age of 22, was to help find children for this one-off election special looking at England in 1964 though the eyes of children rather through the eyes of journalists, politicians or economists. England was going through a lot of changes at that time and there was a feeling - is it a significant change or is it cosmetic? Is the class system in England about to disappear or is this just something temporary? The feeling was that it would be a good idea to have kids tell us what they thought of the world that they lived in and what future they saw for this world and themselves. Hence, 7 Up
What was your process in selecting the fourteen children?
It was fairly arbitrary because it was made in a hell of a hurry. World in Action
was a weekly show and it tended to be about just one subject for the entire half-hour. They occasionally did special films. 7 Up
was one of these films, but we had only about three weeks to prepare it. Granada Television definitely had a very political left-wing agenda. I think the idea of the film was to show, from the beginning, that the class system wasn't changing. Therefore, I selected children from the fringes of society, from the extremely wealthy to the extremely blue collar, which ultimately was a mistake and a piece of manipulation. There were very few children from the middle ground. There were two middle class boys from Liverpool and there was a boy brought up in the rural world and a couple of guys from a children's home. These were socio-political choices although the film transcended these decisions. It was funny and moving and very resonant. It didn't just seem to ape its political intentions.
The documentary began to transform without me realizing it. I always thought that I was making a political documentary about my country. When I was first persuaded to show it in America, Americans seemed to respond to it as well as the British did. It occurred to me that since the Americans really hadn't the faintest idea about the language of the English class system, they weren't really understanding the subtleties of it. But the film is much bigger than that now. It is much more about being alive and getting through the day and growing up and making all of the choices that we all have to make. The political side of it became secondary to the human side.
So the maxim, "Give me a child until he is seven, I will give you the man..." Do you believe that is accurate?
I think that's one of the appeals of the film. It's very accessible and I think everybody makes their own mind up about it. I think there are parts of it - people or incidents - that touch everyone. I think everybody can make their own minds up whether they think that those seven-year-old kids you see are the men and women they've become today. My personal belief is that you can't entirely predict, by any means, how you're going to respond to the curve balls that are thrown at you or what the curve balls even will be. However, I think that there is some innate personality that never changes. If you're an introvert at seven, you're likely to still be one and vice versa. I think there are certain characteristics that never change but how important they are in the scheme of things I just don't know. I certainly don't think you can predict a person's life from just seeing them at seven.
Of course not.
Maybe less so now than you could then, considering the social divisions in England. If you were to start the film again, 40 years later, I think that you'd come up with something quite different.
Your work in television in the 1970s was fairly extensive. How did the opportunity to direct your first feature, The Triple Echo, come about?
I was cheap, fast and available! They had Glenda Jackson
available for six weeks and she was at the height of her popularity. If they'd gone with an established film director, they didn't think that he could deliver the film in that time. They looked into the world of television to see if they could extract someone who was used to working quickly and cheaply. The light fell on me, as it were. I had been working in 1964 doing a mixture of fiction and non-fiction and I had begun to build a reputation in fiction work.
A few years later, you made your first American film. Quite an American debut - Coal Miner's Daughter. The film was an immediate hit and Sissy Spacek won an Academy Award. Did the producers find your documentary background to be a particular strength for directing a biopic?
Not in that particular instance. It did subsequently, though. [For Coal Miner's Daughter
], I don't think they knew enough about me. I believe what got me that job was more Stardust
, a rock-and-roll film I'd made in the early 1970s which David Puttnam
had produced. There was a lot of music and it was a good story. There was a young executive at Universal, Sean Daniel, who was nurturing the project and he saw Stardust
. I happened to be in Hollywood for a project that never happened and we met and got on. I think that the documentary element, as a sort of calling card for me, came later on. Of course, it turned out to be very useful.
The documentary approach was particularly useful with Coal Miner's Daughter
because Hollywood, up to that time, had a very poor record in dealing with that part of the world. Even the great films like Nashville
have a very patronizing attitude towards the Appalachians. Not that I'm less prejudiced than anyone else, but I just didn't know anything. I simply recorded what I saw. I didn't go in with an attitude. I think that my natural documentary experience, which the producer really didn't know about at that time, was very helpful for that. I think it largely gave the film a kind of authenticity that has allowed it to survive over the years.
As a result of that success, you were involved shortly thereafter in a number of high profile films, such as Continental Divide and Gorky Park. Is your work enhanced by your studies at Cambridge in history? The subject matter for your work is much broader than most contemporary directors.
You could change subjects at Cambridge after two years. It's a three-year course. You can do the first part of your degree in one subject and change for another. Although history is always, and still is a big part of my interest in life, I read law for a year and that had a profound influence on me. It made me much more socially aware of contemporary issues. That's what lead me into the documentary division at Granada. Hence, 7 Up
. It made me much more aware of political and social issues and I think that it helped me to think more clearly. Being a lawyer and being a film director, in some areas, isn't all that different. You have to marshal a huge amount of facts and sort out what works and what doesn't work. In many ways, the year that I did of law turned out to be very beneficial.
I don't often hear people compare the legal profession to filmmaking...
I'm sure that you don't. Ken Loach
, I think, had a law degree. A few other people I've come across in the business did as well.
Loach, of course, is also making films that have relevance to social issues.
It depends on what branch of law interests you. If you get out of it what he and I clearly got out of it, dealing in the real world, not with abstract "jurist-prudential" things but more with life and the unfairness of it all. It can point you in that direction.