by Steven Prokopy
When you reach a certain age, it’s almost impossible to fathom of an ongoing film series that has been around longer than you have. If you’re under the age of 50, franchises like those centered around James Bond or Godzilla were around before you were born, but those are fictional creations, played by different actors over the years, with very little connecting all of the films throughout the years. But the documentary series often referred to as the “7 UP” films (or the UP series) are a singular and utterly unique experiment that releases a wealth of insight and emotions into the world every seven years, focusing on the same group of “characters” since its inception in 1964, when the original 40-minute short was first played on British television
British-born Michael Apted was in his early 20s when he was brought in as a researcher for SEVEN UP (directed by Paul Almond), but he made a commitment that every seven years he would go back every seven years to re-interview each of the original children who were featured in the short. The concept behind the films was the saying “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man,” and Apted and his team wanted to see if the economic class a person was born into determined how likely they were to succeed as adults. But he also was interested to see if the dreams and attitudes of younger people found a way of translating into adulthood. Subjects dropped out throughout the years, but many of them eventually came back, even if it was just to promote their music or a charity in which they were involved.
The latest installment in the series, 63 UP (much like another famous film franchise, the one set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, this is the ninth episode in the series), is the first that really begins to look at mortality (in fact, it’s the first to deal with the death of one of its subjects since 56 UP), the possibility of retirement, and a genuine reflection on a life lived, as well as the impact being in this series has had on their lives—many of the subjects have a love/hate relationship with it because it puts their lives under a very public microscope every seven years. The result is a fascination exercise on reflection that most human beings aren’t normally asked to do before the cameras.
In between his UP movies, the now-78-year-old Apted became a celebrated prolific filmmaker of such works as COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER, CONTINENTAL DIVIDE, GORKY PARK, BRING ON THE NIGHT, GORILLAS IN THE MIST, CLASS ACTION, NELL, the James Bond entry THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH, ENIGMA, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER, and CHASING MAVERICKS, as well as a host of television dramas and other documentaries. We spoke with Apted recently to discuss the process of putting each new UP film together, how many more in the series he has in him, and what he has learned about growing older by having this project in his life for more than 50 years. The continuation of the series Roger Ebert called “the noblest project in cinema history,” 63 UP is now playing at the Music Box Theatre.
Question: I’ve been watching these films almost as long as I’ve been watching movies, so this is a real treat getting to finally talk to you about them. When you ask your opening question to each person “What has happened to you in the last seven year?”, how much do you already know going into the interview, or is it as much a discovery for you as it is for us?
Michael Apted: It’s somewhere in the middle. I don’t want a list a questions that I know what’s coming up, but I do want to know anything serious that might determine the run of the interview. If something really important has happened, I need to know that. But I don’t want to get into the details of it; I want to get that live in the interview.
In the years between the interviews, do you keep track of what’s going on? Do you keep in touch at all, or does somebody else on your team do that?
MA: I don’t speak to them during the seven years, unless something really drastic has happened. Unless I need to get more information about something, my feels has been that it’s better not to have much—or any—intermediary conversations with them. If someone rings me up after two years and says their mother died, then I’m interviewing them five years later, the real impact of losing a mother has disappeared up to a point. I won’t have that freshness. Life moves so quickly. Talking about a major event five years after the fact isn’t really what we want; we want the reaction fresh. I need to know what their state of mind is at this moment and not when I come into their lives again. We usually find out somehow what’s going on, if anything drastic is going on that we should know about. I usually have someone who will call them every year for a 10-minute update, but I don’t want to speak to them every time something happens in life, otherwise it will all get very confusing.
I have been told many time by British filmmakers and actors over the years that all British films are about class in some way. That idea seems like it was a jumping-off point for this series. What has this process revealed to you about class in the UK that maybe you weren’t even aware of?
MA: Class is a big issue and probably would take years to eradicate. It’s pretty deeply rooted into the society, not in the way it was 100 years ago or even 50 or 25 years ago. Things have equalled out, like education, opportunities for jobs, it’s on the move all the time. And as we carried on through the century, all of these things are changing—not necessarily disappeared, but they have a different place in the order. Certain schools are still important, certain social things, but some that were important five years ago aren’t important now.
I like to bring each profile up to date and find out what they’re feeling now, how do they feel now about things that were big five years ago. I keep up to date with what’s happening. In fact, when I did this last year, I really wanted to know what was important to them then, rather than something that happened six years ago. I want to get to what’s most important when I’m filming them right when I’m filming 63 UP or hopefully 70 UP, but I need to have it fresh; I won’t want it to be a history lesson. If there have been a lot of changes, I have to evaluate what’s important in the lives over seven years gone by, which can be very difficult to figure out. If your dog died five years ago and your mother died 20 minutes ago, some things are clearer since we’re all living the same life.
Something that fixes this installment in a moment in time is that you ask a few of your subjects to weigh in on Brexit. It gives us non-British viewers just how sweeping an issue that is on every level of society. Were you hesitant to timestamp this particular film, or did it seem important enough to ask everyone what they thought.
MA: It drove me mad. I’d gotten extra money out of producers to deal with just that, when it wasn’t as important. But it really only became important yesterday [this interview took place the day after the most recent British elections], and so that wouldn’t have been any good for our purposes since we’d finished filming, so that’s the end of that. But it was very nerve-wracking. I was ready last August, when we started filming, and we had money to go back if things changed radically, but nothing did happen and it looked like nothing was going to happen for the last six months. The film has gone out and been seen by people, but it’s not mentioned as a real thing in the film; when it was filmed, it didn’t exist. But it’s discussed very flimsily because I wanted it to be up to date but I didn’t want it to be months out of date. It’s very difficult that because you have to use your judgement about whether it was going to happen or not, and I always felt it was a very big deal and would happen quickly, meaning before the end of last year. Instead, it’s happening today.
You mentioned that you don’t want these profiles to become just history lessons. In terms of the editing, how do you and your editor decide how much backstory to give each person and how much new material to focus on?
MA: In every generation of this, I have to figure this out. Certain things are very important in life and some aren’t, and I guess I have to judge which are the important things, and I have to do that on the spot. They have the information, but I won’t have ever heard them talk about it, so I have to search for the pieces that are most important for them to talk about. But I do want to know what they have fretted over over the years, or been upset by, or been proud of. There are always high points in seven years of people’s lives. But by the time we get to them, maybe all is forgotten, so we have to somehow find a way to keep a sense of what’s important in their lives. It’s a question of staying in front of them without stepping away or getting things out of proportion.
In the past, you have dealt with health scares and that brings up themes of mortality to a degree. But I believe this is the first time you’ve had to deal with the death of one of your subjects. And the family give a great interview, but I like that you drop that in the middle of the film, you don’t seem to put any extra weight on that revelation, and I’m wondering how did you decide how to handle that in the context of this film.
MA: When we talk about it, I certainly knew that we had lost someone. Then when I speak to the rest of the family, I have to get a sense, because they are going to give me the news. I need to have a sense from them of how powerful that was, whether it’s history or not. For them, it will never be history. Because of that, we needed to give it the same delicacy that I would have given it if she had died three days before the interview. A lot of the questions I come up with, I come up with when I look over the old footage, and I look at how often we talked about, for example, someone’s mother and how often was the mother in the film. Not only do I need to try to figure out what’s important but also how much material I’ve got the family or her relationship with her mother. If I don’t have that much material or it never really came up before, it can be dealt with quite swiftly; if it’s something that was very much in the foreground seven years before and now it happened, then I would treat it in a different way.
I do shoot quite a lot of material, and if something stands out as being really important, I’ll recognize it. But if it’s something we hardly every touched on, we may not have the material to bring back later. I need some flexibility, otherwise I’d be doing two hours on each person. I have to make judgements, which is about as difficult as it sounds. But if something hasn’t been told to me as being important, but I’ve been told it is, in that case, I take a chance and mention it and try to get them to talk about it.
One of the things that has happened in the seven years since 56 UP is that Richard Linklater put out a film called BOYHOOD, which a lot of people compared to your series. He covered 12 years and went back every year, but I’m wondering if you saw the film, and what you thought of it? Do you wish you’d done something like it with one of your feature films?
MA: I was very disappointed about one aspect of it. I know him, and he asked me to come and see it at some point during the filming, and I asked him if he was going to make any changes, and he said “I don’t think so.” And I said, “Okay, but you have to have a future in your mind. Anticipate things that might be going on in the lives of these characters.” Like if one of the children gets very ill one year or something like that, and then they could die before the next part is filmed, but he never did that. And he might have gotten stuck, in my humble opinion, by doing that, by not covering the ground.
But if you don’t take hold of the present, if you ignore the past and never mention that some big event happened in the past, what are you doing when you move forward? But he didn’t do anything, which I always regretted on his behalf. Part of filming the UP movies is that even if something dramatic in one episode didn’t turn out to be serious by the next one, at least we had it covered. And he didn’t do that, and I would think the whole point of doing it is to follow these threads and be up to date, otherwise, I don’t know why you’re doing it. The point was to show the passage of time, but if you don’t do the passage of time, I don’t see that we have anything to talk about.
Interesting. Are you fully prepared to see this thing through as long as you are physically able to? And is there a mechanism in place to carry this one if you can’t for some reason?
MA: Very good question, especially since I’m not very well, and there is a certain chance that I may not be alive in seven years. It’s not that big a deal at the moment, so I didn’t want to go into it—that would almost seem melodramatic and irrelevant. But if I think there’s something in the wind, I’ll probably cover it. Even if it’s a false alarm, I may still need to use that 14 years later. I’ve got to be a little bit of a gambler, because I don’t want to get caught out, but it was obvious there was something odd going on, and film is just film, and we don’t even shoot it on film. My position is to do the much longer interviews, some of which won’t happen, but then you can bury it and forget about it. But I don’t want to be caught out, and this is me saying this about myself, “I might be dead before 70 UP. People do die young.” But if I have any doubt in my mind, I’ll talk about it. I know it’s weird [laughs].
In this particular installment, are there subject or themes being discussed that you would consider unique to this particular time of life that maybe haven’t been discussed much or at all prior to this film?
MA: Well we talk about death much more than we have before. If you’re seven years older and over 50—as all my lot are—then there’s always a chance you might peg out. I know it sound very macabre, but it would be foolish not to talk about it. All of them are over 60, obviously, and if any of them were in any way ill, I would bring it up, even if I didn’t use it because it would seem like I was being pessimistic or trying to wind them up. But I would want to cover it a bit and see if someone needed an operation or something they might do in a year, I would cover that.
People I know who watch these films ever seven years, since I usually get to see them before they do, they always ask me about Neil [Hughes] and how he’s doing. He seems to have become this fan favorite and maybe even a favorite of yours to a degree. Why do you think he’s become so popular? He certainly has the most unpredictable life.
MA: He had the most unpredictable path, and what goes down at 28 UP is forgotten by 35 UP. I’m not suggesting for a minute that he’s melodramatic, but he knows that if it appeared he was pretending about anything in his life that I wouldn’t use it because then I would look foolish. Again, he’s had a very up and down life, a tough life too, with really much larger steps than some of the others. His life has moved forwards and backwards, in quite dramatic ways. In his case it’s both a little melodramatic and a little bit of having an eventful life, so I do cover myself in his case. So that if something does happen, like he goes back on drugs or whatever it is, I’ll mention it. Drugs have been a bit part of his life, even drugs as part of proper medical research. I’m not saying he’s been a drug addict all of these years, but he’s had time when he’s clearly been on drugs more than not.
Michael, thank you so much. It’s been a real treat talking to you about these films.
MA: My pleasure. Thank you.
Steve Prokopy is the chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review (www.ThirdCoastReview.com), and appears weekly on WGN Radio as part of the Nick Digilio Show’s Monday Morning Movie Reviews segment. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago Editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.”