Up with People: Q&A with '56 Up' director Michael Apted

Still from ’56 Up’/Michael Apted © Featureflash/Shutterstock
Still from ’56 Up’/Michael Apted © Featureflash/Shutterstock

Beginning in 1964, director Michael Apted turned his camera on the lives of fourteen British 7-year-olds, recruited from across a wide spectrum of social classes, to document the future of the UK and the types of people who might be leading the country in the year 2000.  The documentary, titled “7 Up!,” was originally intended to be one-of to be broadcast on the BBC. But the film’s candid revelations about a set of compellingly disparate characters, from privileged prep-school kids to hapless orphans, struck a nerve that resonated with viewers around the world, elucidating the odd alchemy of luck, birthright and human agency that comprise a human life.

The film evolved from the original conceit of performing a study of class inequality into a more holistic vision of how people change and adapt to the circumstances life throws them. Over the past 49 years, Apted has reunited with his subjects each seven years to produce a ground-breaking series of films that capture his participants’ triumphs and disappointments involving marriage, divorce, children, career and the persistent pursuit of happiness.  These films offer a cinematic view of society's most pressing issues as told by a master storyteller and cultural ethnographer on the order of Alexis De Tocqueville and Barbara Ehrenreich. The result is nothing less than a stunning panoramic view of an incredible journey full of unpredictable twists and turns.

The latest installment, “56 Up,” recently released stateside, contains its fair share of surprises and what may be the most consistent take-away of any film in the series: There is a kind of peace to be found in middle age. Signature spoke with Apted about the creative and logistical challenges involved in sticking with such a long-term project and what he’s learned about himself and his own approach to life from his subjects.

Signature: After all the tumultuous periods in your subjects’ minds in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s they all seemed to find this peace of mind and a sense of acceptance about where they were in life. Did that take you by surprise?

Michael Apted: I was very surprised. I was worried that 56 would be depressing and people would be looking ahead with some fear to the future and looking back with unfulfillment. But I was really surprised by how positive it came out. There was a lot of negativity in the air with the economic crisis we’re all going through, but I thought that those who really invested their time and money and patience in families really had reaped a rich harvest and a kind of security and solid ground to deal with the times we live in. It made me ask questions of myself about the choices I made between family and career and ambition and all this sort of stuff. You never know how it’s going to turn out until you’ve done it and each one turned out better than I thought.

SIG: This had a meta aspect where you talked about the impact on the film on their lives. Do you think some of their acceptance of where they’ve landed had to do with having seen the whole trajectory of their progress on the small and big screen?

M.A.: I don’t think so. Some of them have had fairly smooth lives. Some have had rough ones. But I don’t think it’s changed them. I’m sure it’s had some impact. It can’t be easy having the world see your life writ large around the world. But I’m not aware of its affect on the pattern or journey. They become celebrities for a bit and most of them in a sneaky way quite like that. But they’d say they didn’t. But I’ve tried to go into each film not expecting anything. I try not to lead them and try not to make each film a follow up of the previous ones. I try and get an atmosphere when I’m talking to them where it’s a new moment, a new beginning, this is what your life is like now and tell me about it. I’m not going to ask you the same old questions. Because I became aware early on that each film has a different quality to it  and that’s what keeps it alive. It isn’t just a follow up. You do see changes in people and that’s reflected in their lives and I do everything I can to keep that freshness.

SIG: So do you feel like you’re starting over each time?

M.A.: That’s what I have to do. I’ve got all this stuff rattling around in my head – all this stuff they said. And it’s a problem to edit this stuff because each new film has to be self-contained. People seeing it for the first time have got to understand what it is. And I have to take stuff that was great last time and not use it. I do that because I love the idea of people watching it in a room.

SIG: How have these long-term relationships impacted you personally? It’s unusual for a filmmaker to spend such a long time-span with his subjects.

M.A.: It’s like family. Some of us are close, some of us are not. When people come out to the West Coast, some of them stay with me. Bruce was out last year with his family. They did the California tour and came and stayed for a bit. Nick and his sons have been out. We sometimes get together if I’ve got a movie opening in London, I’ll get a screening room and show it to them because it’s nice for me to be able to do something for them without them doing something for me. I’m always the supplicant if you know what I mean. I don’t fear that. I don’t think it spoils the relationship if we see each other between times. It’s impossible to conceive of having some rigorous attitude that I only see them for two days every few years and that’s that. I’ve never been able to go along with that kind of concept. They are just like old friends. Some of us are closer than others.

SIG: Have you gone through times where you worried about their wellbeing?

M.A.: Oh, yes. But that’s the sort of family thing. We were really worried about Neil in his 20’s and 30’s. We really did wonder whether we’d see him again. We did take some professional advice about whether it was wise to put him under the pressure of being in the film. But we were told that if he likes doing it, then he should do it. It’s his choice. You do worry for them like I worry for my children. It would be odd if he didn’t.

SIG: Neil is the one character who has really haunted viewers.

M.A.: Yes, well it’s a very dramatic life under any circumstances. It’s pretty unbelievable but there it is chapter and verse in this film. It’s a pretty remarkable change that his life has taken through his 20’s and then the huge change at 42. It’s a remarkable life.

SIG: Did he seem stable this time?

M.A.: Yes he did. He said, ‘you misunderstood me. I want to make a speech and I want to tell you the truth about me.’ I said of course. I empower them. They tell me what they want to do. The reason we had Nick and Suzy together was because it was their idea. More and more they take possession of it, which can only be good because it’s about their lives. If it’s more about what they think and what they do, it can only be better for me.

SIG: Nick and Suzy was interesting because they really got into their ambivalence about doing the films.

M.A.: It was sort of her idea. I’d had such a difficult time interviewing her every generation and then I managed to persuade her to take part again even though she said she wouldn’t. But then she had the idea that she’d really like to do it with Nick on the other side of the camera but not me. I thought, Oh my God, what’s going to happen here. But it did work out well. I would have never thought about it if they hadn’t suggested it.

SIG: Why has it been so difficult to interview her?

M.A.: I think she’s desperately shy and worried about what she’d say. I think she actually watched this film. It may be the first one she watched. Some don’t watch it ever. She’s had a relatively quiet life. She’s lived in the country. She’d not high on self-esteem. And one of my arguments with her is that women really like her because she speaks to a whole generation and breed of women who didn’t have careers. People really appreciate her and are moved by her. But she had no sense of that at al.

SIG: That theme came up with some of the wives as well. That generation stopped and raised families struggle with self-esteem.

M.A. I was underequipped with women because we chose too few in the beginning because we thought we were only doing one film and this was supposed to be a snapshot in 1963 of who would be running the country in the year 2000 and then it was inconceivable that women would be in positions of power. And that’s the biggest social revolution of my lifetime: the changing role of women in society. So I had to beef it up by giving prominence to spouses of the men in it. I didn’t want the film to look to male centric.

The same goes for the racial landscape, which is also ridiculously under represented. But, again, that was in the early ‘60’s and immigration in a big way didn’t start until the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. So it was a fair dissection of society but not for a project that projects into the future.

SIG: How did Peter enter the picture again?

M.A.: I’d been courting him all the time and I could understand why he left and I would always ask him to do it and we had shared interests in football. His wife supported the football team I support in the UK. And then he started his music and at 49, he said he’d like the band to get some traction in the US, can you help me with that? And I said, look I can help you by putting you in the film. So 56 came up and I asked him again and he said, I can’t do that but he said the band is going really well now and we have a song on YouTube, could you put it in the film? And I said, I’d love to put it in the film, but not without you. And he said, ‘Oh I can’t do that.’ Two days later I got an email saying, ‘What if I relent?’ Then it was almost a year ago exactly that I flew back to Liverpool and spent a day with him and his wife. I’d already almost finished the film at that point.

SIG: It was very bracing when he said the reason he came back was to publicize his band. Was that something you asked him to do?

M.A.: Yeah. I wanted to be transparent. I’m thrilled he’s come back. I hate it when I lose any of them. I think the whole thing is weakened. So I don’t care whatever we do to get them back. John, the Bulgarian one, is open about that, he does it for his charity. Whatever brings them back into the family is fine by me. I lost John once or twice. And I lost Simon when he was divorcing his wife with his five young children. I even sent Tony around to talk to him but he wouldn’t even talk to Tony about it. But otherwise people like to torture me and say they’ve changed their minds. But I do pay them to do it, so that helps. I put the money up a bit this time because I knew everyone was hurting. They don’t do it for nothing.

SIG: Simon’s had a pretty incredible turn-around.

M.A.: He’s grown up a lot. It’s staggering. It’s amazing how the power of marriage can do that for you. He missed 35, but the difference between him at 28 and 42 with the presence of his second wife, it’s remarkable how it changed him.

SIG: This film is a lot about the power of marriage.

M.A.: Yeah, I think it’s very intriguing about that and I think the discussion of marriage has been more powerful than it’s ever been?

SIG: The film began as a study of class inequality but now it’s evolved into something else. What do you hope people take away from it now.

M.A.: I don’t think it has a tremendous amount of purpose in that field. Society’s changed quite a lot. Just after we started the series, a socialist government came in and invested in education and social programs and I think there was much more mobility. But society has changed. And I think this bizarre idea of the English class system, which is that you’re born into it even if you’ve got no money. You can have a good life if you’ve got a good name and good breeding. But the English class system has changed a lot and has become more American now, much more based on people’s wealth than on people’s birthright. But definitely for me when I first brought the film to America, I was reluctant to do it because I didn’t know if they would understand the context of the film. But they did understand it a lot, which meant to me that it was about larger issues than just the English class system. And I realized I was dealing much more in personalities and universal issues. I think the English class system cast a shadow over this generation. I think if I would have started the film a decade or two later, I think it would have been somewhat different.

SIG: Now it’s more about what it means to be human over the long trajectory.

M.A.: Yes and that’s why people everywhere connect with it. I certainly do as an audience. Forget being a filmmaker.

SIG: How do you leave it with them? I’ll see you in seven years.

M.A.: Pretty much. We always keep in touch and let them know how people are responding to it. Then it will all ramp up again in 12/18 or whenever it is.

SIG: It’s amazing that nobody has gotten sick or died.

M.A.: Yeah, I know. It’s not entirely remarkable, but fairly. I’m sure we won’t be getting away with that much longer. Which is always something I can barely think about without welling up.