Michael Apted, Aging With The '7 Up' Crew Every seven years since 1964, the director has caught us up on the lives of 14 everyday people in his acclaimed 7 Up series. Apted was 22 when the series began, and the subjects were 7. In the latest episode — 56 Up — the subjects are well into middle age.
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Michael Apted, Aging With The '7 Up' Crew

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Michael Apted, Aging With The '7 Up' Crew

Michael Apted, Aging With The '7 Up' Crew

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You know the sensation of looking back at photos or videos of yourself over the years and seeing how you've changed? Imagine getting that kind of feeling by watching movies made, over the years, of people you don't know. The documentaries known as the "Up Series" have that affect on many people.

The series began in 1964, when Grenada TV in England broadcast the documentary film "Seven Up!" about the lives of 14 children who were seven years old and from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Every seven years since then, filmmakers have returned to the people from the original film to document how their lives have changed.

The new edition, the eighth in the series, is called "56 Up" and catches up with its subjects at the age of 56. My guest Michael Apted was a researcher on "Seven Up!" and has directed all the subsequent "Up" films. Apted is British and now lives in America. He's directed many fiction films, including "Coal Miner's Daughter," "Gorky Park," "Gorillas In the Mist" and the James Bond film "The World is Not Enough."

Michael Apted, welcome, and thank you for joining us. Let me go back to the very beginning. When "Seven Up!" was first made, you were the researcher for the series, you weren't, you know, the director, which you became.


GROSS: So one of the things you had to do was choose the children. How did you go about choosing them?

APTED: Well, it was pretty arbitrary and very quick. It was part of a weekly series of programs, "World in Action." I would ring the schools up, the schools, I'd say would you help us make this film, and they would say yes or no. Then I'd go to the school and say to the teachers teaching the seven-year-olds, bring me your brightest and your best.

And I would look at them, talk to them and then pick a couple. And the next thing that happened was, you know, there they were in front of the camera. So it was done in a very arbitrary way because we weren't interested in the personalities so much. We needed children who could - weren't fazed by us, who could speak to us, but we weren't looking for any particular characteristics. We were just interested in their backgrounds.

The idea of the film was to examine the British class system in 1963, '64, to see whether it was changing, see if it was reflecting the very cultural upheavals that were going up in the United Kingdom from the Beatles onwards. So instead of getting professionals in to talk about it, the idea was that we would get seven-year-old children from different backgrounds - from rich backgrounds, from poor backgrounds, from rural backgrounds like Nick Hitchon, from people who were removed from their parents, to get within about 14 children and have them talk about their lives, their ambitions, their dreams and whatever, and see whether that told us anything.

And of course it did, because it was both very funny and also chilling. Showing that, in fact, the class system was very active and that people in certain backgrounds had a real vision of their future, and others really didn't know what day it was. And so, you know, it made that point, and then the rest is history.

GROSS: So this was supposed to be just a one-shot, and then you stepped in, and you wanted to make it - you wanted to do another one and eventually make it a series. Why did you want to do that?

APTED: Well, I wish what you said was true because then I could claim credit for it. But no, the film went out. It was a huge success. It was funny and chilling. And it took us five years before someone actually piped up and said, well, why don't we go back and see what happened to them. And we all thought oh, that might be good.

So we did go back. It wasn't a very interesting film because they were monosyllabic, spotty and just general teenagers, but, you know, you could see the beginnings of a great idea that I don't think anybody had ever seen before. And so from there on, we all got behind it, and we decided let's keep going back as long as we could and let this thing grow and see what happens to it.

GROSS: So what was it like you? What's it been like for you every seven years to drop in on these people's lives and, you know, ask them about the landmark events that have happened in the seven-year interim?

APTED: What can I say? I mean, it's the favorite thing that I've done, the thing that I'm most proud of. It's nerve-wracking because you always think you're going to blow it, and you'll wreck the whole thing. It seems fragile. And I've learned a lot of lessons about it. I've made mistakes on it and had to correct those mistakes.

You know, particularly I got into a situation, I think, early on when I became judgmental about people, that if they didn't agree with my standards of success, failure, happiness, whatever, then, you know, that I would feel that they were lesser for it. And also I tried to play God. I tried to predict what might happen to people and sort of set it all up for that.

And I did that, and that was an embarrassing mistake. And I think what I've learned all the way through is the less I do, the better, that the more I let them speak for themselves because what's so interesting about the films to me is that they're all different. They all have a different tone to them.

The 56 took me completely by surprise, and my feeling is if I'd gone in just to update 49 when I did 56 and ask the same questions and see what the response would be, then I wouldn't have got such an interesting film out. I in a way try and become like a blank slate and start all over again and have a conversation with them about their lives and what's going on and try not to lead them anywhere I think they should be led and let them do the leading.

GROSS: That's Michael Apted, the director of "56 Up," the latest film in the "Up Series." We'll hear more from him in a few minutes. In a minute we'll hear my brief interview with Nick Hitchon, who has been profiled in all the "Up" films, starting when he was seven years old. Hitchon now lives in the U.S. and is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Here he is in a clip from "56 Up," showing how he responded in earlier films at age seven, 14 and 28 to the question do you have a girlfriend.


GROSS: Nick, I'm sure you've seen "56 Up" once or more times.

: No, I haven't.

GROSS: Excuse me, you haven't?

: No, I haven't.

GROSS: Really? That's a statement. Why not?

: Oh, it's I mean, I think this is a wonderful project, but it's a profoundly uncomfortable thing for me. I don't willingly watch myself.

GROSS: Because?

: It feels to very, very uncomfortable.

GROSS: Is it uncomfortable because you just don't like watching and hearing yourself, or is it uncomfortable because you don't want to see your life played out in front of the camera in seven-year increments?

: Both of those things. I don't like the sound of my own voice. I think I look ridiculous. And if I say that I am uncomfortable with this, it doesn't mean that I don't like the project, and it doesn't mean that I am mad at Michael, but I am deeply uncomfortable doing the interviews.

And but I don't - I pretend while I'm being interviewed that it's just a chat. I pretend to myself that nobody else is watching, and I don't want that particular bubble burst.

GROSS: Has your level of discomfort changed over the years?

: It actually seems to have gotten more so. And it's very hard to explain. Before the "49 Up" taping happened, Michael came and visited for a couple of days, and we just talked about what we might discuss. And after he left, I was just depressed for two days, and I couldn't figure out why, and I can't altogether tell you why.

But there's something really disturbing about the process for me. Some of it is just the issue that I'm really scared that I'm going to get on there, and I'm going to hurt other people that I care about by something I say. So it's just profoundly worrying to me.

GROSS: Do you also feel a certain pressure that even seven years your life sort of had, like, an incremental change where, like, you've climbed the ladder of success or, you know, accomplished something wonderful in your personal life or, you know, found a new measure of happiness or - do you know what I mean - so that you could demonstrate something to yourself and to those of us watching?

: Actually, no. I mean, some of the people involved do feel that way. I never have. And you see, I've been insulated from that because I've always been portrayed as somebody who started out quite disadvantaged. So anything that I did was always, you know, oh look how clever he was, you know. He came from a background where it was going to be hard for him to get up in the morning. So, you know, I always look good.

GROSS: Right because you grew up on a farm, you went to a one-room schoolhouse, and now you're a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. So yeah, you've accomplished a lot. So how did you get into this in the first place, considering how uncomfortable you are with the whole project?

: Well, I was - hey, as far as I knew, they put a camera in front of me and asked me some questions, and I love to talk to people. So these people were talking to me. I chatted to them perfectly happily.

GROSS: What have the ground rules been for you? Like if you say something, and you're sorry you said it because you think it might offend your mother or, you know, offend somebody else in your life and be misinterpreted, or it's something you decided which is too personal, you were sorry you said it, do you have the right to say to the director Michael Apted I regret I said that, can we delete it, can we edit it out?

: Oh yes. Michael's always been very good about that sort of thing. So yeah, that's - the problem comes when he says I want to talk about this because it's interesting. And so I say OK, we'll talk about it, I mean these are important things to talk about. You know, he's not being sneaky about it, but there are just things that are hard that he wants to talk about. And I agree maybe these things need talking about, but they're still hard.

GROSS: Well, thank you for talking with us.

: You're welcome.

GROSS: That was Nick Hitchon, one of the subjects of the documentary "56 Up." Let's get back to my conversation with the director of the "Up Series," Michael Apted.

So you heard what Nick Hitchon had to say about being in the series and how he really respects the series and really likes you, but it's just painful to be a part of it, and it's hard for him to watch it, and he usually doesn't watch it. Does it make you wince at all to hear that?

APTED: No, I don't think so. I mean, he's very willing to be in it, and he's very, very good. He has very incisive things to say, you know, about himself and about society and about his life. There are others who feel the same as he do, that don't watch it, but it doesn't particularly worry me. I mean, it would worry me. I mean, it would worry me if they didn't want to do it, or I was dragging their ankles to the fire and all this sort of stuff.

But no, it doesn't worry me that he feels like that. He's a great contributor and has some of the most, you know, intelligent and interesting things to say about what we're talking about.

GROSS: What did surprise you about "56 Up"?

APTED: Well, the people seemed happy. I mean, I thought they'd be getting depressed, worried about age, very worried about the economic climate, looking back on their lives, maybe, sometimes with regret. But no, I mean, what was so interesting to me was that, you know, that a lot of them had found real, kind of, comfort in their families and their extended families.

I was of the belief in my life that you can't have everything, that I have pursued a career, I was ambitious, and I paid a price for it. I wasn't as good a father as - or a husband as I should have been. And sometimes I thought, well, maybe that's my way, and maybe that's the right way.

But then I saw the payoff, that people who'd put their energies into their families and their loyalties into their families, that at this age, in their mid-50s, you know they've got real pleasure and power from it.

GROSS: Can I say something that will contradict what you just said? And this is just coming from my perspective.

APTED: Please.

GROSS: As a film viewer. I didn't make the movie. So, you know, I'm just a casual filmgoer. But it seems to me there's a lot of pain in "56 Up." You've got a woman who has rheumatoid arthritis, and she can't sit long, she can't stand long, she can't walk long. She has pain in her fingers. She can't type. And she's unemployed. And she says: Who's going to employ me? I can't even guarantee I'm going to show up to work.

You have somebody in the movie who has had a nervous breakdown years ago who suffers with what appears to be chronic depression. And among the things - he has some very fulfilling things in his life now, but one of the things he seems very bitter about is that even with all the attention that this series of movies has brought him, no one will give his writing a second look, no one's even going to take it seriously enough to pass judgment on it.

You've got somebody else who has, like, five kids I think from his first marriage, three of whom aren't talking to him. You know, I could go on. But it seems to me there's a lot of pain in this film.

APTED: Yes, you're right, everybody has their failures, everybody has their regrets. But let's go through these people. Let's take Jackie, who's lost her - the father of her children. She's lost her mother-in-law. She's lost her sister. But have you ever seen anybody as bright and courageous as that, someone who keeps saying lines like, you know, my glass is half-full, not half-empty? You talk about the girl...

GROSS: I'm going to stop you right there. But I hear that, and I sometimes wonder are they saying that because they want to say it? I mean, I did really wonder, like, does she really feel that way, is she really more sad and depressed about her life right now but is wanting to put on a good face for the camera or just for the world in general?

APTED: Well, that's not my feeling about it. I mean, you may be right. We all have our own perspectives on the things that you've numbered out here for me. And I think you relate it to your life, I relate it to my life, but I think what's unique, rare about these films is that you do in some ways know these people quite well, although you don't know them at all.

And I think you can relate to them and make your own judgments on them and, you know, get something for yourself from it. Now if you get a negative thing from this, so be it. I didn't. And I was surprised. I was happy that I didn't because we've had glum ones, "35 Up" was pretty glum because they seemed to be losing a lot of parents. And so it was much more about death and loss than any of the other ones have been, and I thought we may be getting a rerun of that at 56.

But to my way of thinking, I came away, and it's only me, with a sense of positivism about it.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Apted. His new documentary is "56 Up." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Michael Apted, the director of the "Up" series of films, which has been documenting the lives of a group of people, returning to them every seven years since the age of seven. The latest is "56 Up," and it catches up with them when they're 56.

I'm interesting in hearing some of the ground rules, so to speak, that you've set for the "Up Series." I know, for instance, like you've paid the interviewees in the movie. Was it that way from the start, or is that something that you instituted in subsequent films?

APTED: I started paying them at 28, you know, when we became, as it were, more international. Once it came to America, the film, and 28 was the first one to be shown in America, you know, then there was sort of some money around in terms of, you know, royalties and things like that. And so, you know, there was that money going around, and we would give them their share of it.

But I also thought they should have a fee for being in it. It was very, very small, but it's increased over the years, not that the films make money, but, you know, I feel they should be paid for it. And so I juggle the budget around, you know, so I can pay them a bit more each time because I think what they do is courageous, and not many people would do it, so why shouldn't they get some material advantages out of it.

GROSS: And when you ask a question, and you know that that question is making the person you're interviewing uncomfortable and maybe pushing them to speak a little more privately than they'd care, how do you balance your desire to be protective of them because they've become people who you care very much about with your desire to get the best film possible, which probably means pushing them a little bit past their comfort zones?

APTED: Yeah, what you have to understand is there's a set of rules when you do longitudinal films. You know, you have to behave yourself, as the director, as the interviewer, because you want them to come back. I mean, if they say they don't want to talk about something, and I ask them the question, and I embarrass them or unsettle them, and then I insist on using it, then they'll never come back.

So I do have these moments. I have moments when, you know, I know there's a question I've got to ask them, and I know there's a question that if I don't ask it, the audience will say why didn't he ask that, and I know that question might be hurtful. Now, to some of them I wouldn't ask it because it would break them down. Others I think are more resilient, and I ask it.

And sometimes they get upset about it, and then we have the discussion about do I use it, or do I not use it. And, you know, that happens in "56 Up" sort of fairly graphically. And we had this discussion, and, you know, we used it in the film. So it's that sort of process. But it differs from what you do, in a way, because you have me here once, and you can use whatever you want because you probably won't want me back again.


APTED: But with these people, I want them back.

GROSS: Never.


APTED: No, I'm not being childish, but I want them back, and so, you know, I do have to behave myself.

GROSS: So can you give us an example of something that you actually, you know, talked about whether to use or not, use that was...?

APTED: Yeah, I mean, it was with Tony, the jockey, you know, the - we just, we've had long discussions over the last three or four films about the changing racial profile of the East End of London, which he left and he left because, you know, he regarded it as being invaded by Bangladeshis, you know, by people from, you know, particularly Asian communities, and the East End of London has changed dramatically.

You know, and he has had things to say about that. Sometimes I wondered whether he was pushing it too far, what he was saying, and so in "56," I just came out with it and said, you know, you sound to me, Tony, as though you're being racist. And he answered that, and he was very indignant about it and upset about it. And I thought he answered it very well.

And so I put it in the program, and then, you know, he knew I'd put - he asked had I put it in, and I said yes, and he said how is it, and I said, well, I think you should look at it. So he looked it, and he said I don't know what to do. And I said, well, I think you answered it well, that's my opinion. So he, you know, he took some advice from family and whatever and decided to keep it in.

But that was an example of the process that can go on between us because we all have a commitment to, as it were, staying on the same page.

GROSS: Director Michael Apted will be back in the second half of the show. His latest documentary in the "Up Series" is "56 Up." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with film director Michael Apted. We're talking about his "Up" series of movies, which have documented the lives of a group of English people, returning to them every seven years. The series began with the film "7 Up" that showed them at age seven. In the latest edition, "56 Up," they're 56. This excerpt from "56 Up" recaps how one of the men, Neil Hughes, has talked about the possibility of having children, starting with his response at age seven.


GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Michael Apted, the director of "56 Up".

Do you expect the people in the "Up" series to keep you updated as to where they are so you can find them every seven years? And I'm thinking especially here of Neil, who is somebody who seems to have struggled most of his life with depression and...

APTED: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...like really serious depression, and maybe other issues as well. And there was a period - an extended period where he was homeless. And I don't - I don't know how you track down somebody like Neil when they're in that part of their life.

APTED: We did lose track of Neil a bit at 28. And so we did have to try and, you know, get through some piece of bureaucracy to find him. He's always been, you know, very willing to do it and he's incredibly articulate, as you know if you've seen them.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

APTED: But he's been a worry. I mean what a rollercoaster he's had. And it hasn't ended badly. It's not - you know, in his 20s we did think whether we would lose him, literally. But he was, you know, he recovered himself in his early 40s and 42, 49, 56, you know, there's - again there's a sort of solid ground there. But, you know, you get the sense of a very fragile personality, but a very intelligent and articulate man.

GROSS: So do you have to grapple with feelings of responsibility for the people whose lives you're documenting during those periods of their lives when they're in trouble?

APTED: Well, I would, yes, and I have done. Yes. I mean, you know, I've given up any notion of objectivity. I mean, you know, I care about them all if they need help and I can help or they need advice and I can give it, then certainly I do. Yes, I don't shut myself off and say, look, I'm a documentarian here and I have to be objective, so please be quiet and I'll see you in seven years. It can't exist like that.

GROSS: Are you saying there are times you actually like helped people out?

APTED: Yeah. Sure.

GROSS: What kinds of things - if don't mind my asking - and if you do, that's fine.

APTED: No, I don't mind. I mean I've lent money to one or two of them if they've needed it and they've always paid it back. But, you know, if they're in trouble with stuff, I've always been prepared to help. And, you know, on a brighter side, a cheerful side, I mean if people come out to California, they come and stay with me. Bruce was here this summer with his wife and two kids. And Nick's been out with his son and stayed with me. And I love all that. And if I have a movie opening in London, I always, you know, hire a theater and invite them all and their neighbors and friends to show it. It's great for me to be able to do something for them without, you know, without me asking for stuff in return. I mean I'm always the supplicant asking them to do things, and it's nice when I can do things for them when I'm not asking for anything, just to give them something and to have a good time.

GROSS: You started "7 Up" long before reality television.

APTED: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And now in the area of reality television, many of people in those shows are there because they have outsize personalities, they're willing to do things that are ridiculous or shameless even, and are willing to be ridiculed because that's how a lot of people watch reality TV, to ridicule the people who are in it. Do you find ever that people are watching your "Up" series in the spirit of reality TV, which is not the spirit that the movies are intended to be in?

APTED: I honestly don't think so. I mean it was a big issue for us, especially when we did "49 Up," because that was the elephant in the room. You know, reality television had really got a grip of - in British television at that time, and so my participants are saying: Are we another cheesy reality show? And if so, why are we being paid tons of money like "American Idol"? And I had to try to explain what I perceived as a difference between a reality and the documentary. With the reality they take people out of their comfort zone, out of their homes, as it were, and put them into other situations. And sometimes that's very interesting and rewarding; sometimes it's cruel and unusual. What we try and do is in a sense every seven years get a - as truthful as we can - snapshot of what these people's lives are. And we are not driven, you know, by having to have high drama. As you said earlier, this is the drama of real life. This is like a novel, like a Victorian novel when characters move half an inch every seven years. But since it's all so familiar to us, we're tracking that, and in the end that's much more dramatic than watching, you know, cops and robbers or whatever, James Bond or whatever, because it's something you really relate to. So, you know, I don't feel I have to beef it up like reality, I don't feel I have to compete with reality because in another way I think this series of films exists on a different plane from reality, and not an unpopular plane. I mean we do very well in terms of crass, you know, numbers in business and all this kind of stuff.

GROSS: Michael Apted, thank you so much for talking with us. And congratulations on yet another in the series of "Up" movies.

APTED: Well, thanks. Nice to talk to you.

GROSS: Michael Apted's latest documentary in the "Up" series is "56 Up".

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