Jesuit maxim: "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man." That's the inspiration for the 7 Up documentary series, which has been interviewing the same group of British subjects at seven year intervals since 1964, when they were each seven years old. In the first film, they are seen in sharp black and white, bouncing off the walls and full of quips like pre-school Beatles. At age 21, we see them in the gauzy color of 70s film stock. They are faux-rebellious chain-smokers, reflective and cool-headed, with all the time in the world to spare. At 28, they are still young, but they've made choices that can't be un-made. They are like adults-in-training. At 42, they are heartbreaking. Youth has quietly slipped away. Spouses have come and gone, and the answers they give to the interview questions are things like..."We both knew it wasn't going any further..."
Now at 49, old age is rapidly approaching, but they are still the same people. The ones who have always seemed buoyant are still that way. Tony, [pictured above] the poor Eastend kid who was hustling as a taxi driver at 28 now owns his own taxi service. He has kids and grandkids and seems bemused at the minor celebrity bestowed on him by the 7 Up series. Jackie, who in her twenties mocked the women she saw pushing baby carriages down the street, now seems lonely and regretful. Simon, a black orphan whose white mother wanted nothing to do with him, is now compelled to open his home to the most hopeless foster children. "One child had two knives in his hands," he tells us.
Cinematical recently spoke with director Michael Apted, who began his involvement with the series as a young researcher on 7 Up and now keeps the project alive. Although he's too mannered and too British to admit it, Apted seems to have internalized what many critics have already noted: that 7 Up may be the most important documentary project of all time.
There's an interesting moment in the film when one of the subjects, I think it's Tony, makes an indirect comparison between the 7 Up series and reality television. The show "I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here" is mentioned. It was surprising to hear such a comparison -- did it rub you the wrong way?
MA: It's a major issue. I think it was the big gorilla in the room between 42 Up and 49 Up, because reality television didn't exist under those terms, when we did the last one. I think it's really confused some of the people in it. They wonder 'What is this? Is this a reality show? Is it high-entertainment? Should we be making tons of money? Are we being exploited?' I try to explain to them that I think there's a distinct difference. With reality television, some of which is very good and illuminating and some isn't, you create a situation. You contrive it, and the point is to see how people will react when you put them in a foreign culture or a foreign environment and give them something to do. You create the atmosphere. But with a documentary, whether it pulls it off or not, is supposed to capture people's lives as they are, rather than constructing something different. So I think that's a big difference and I was trying to persuade them of that.
This project began in 1964. If you were starting it over in 2006, what would you do differently?
MA: Well, I think 50 percent would be women. I'd rather draw more from the middle strata of society than we drew originally. We tended to draw from the extremes. The middle areas tend to have the most movement in their lives. But of course, times have changed since 1964. So it's interesting being involved in the American one. When we did 7 Up, the original one, we had no idea it was going to be more than one film. When you do some of these kinds of spin-offs, like the American one, you know you're in for the long haul, so you can try to anticipate things. You can try to see what you think the big social-economic, racial movements in America over the next few decades will be and try to pick subjects that you think might help you with that. It's a whole different kind of dynamic than what I was doing.
Speaking of the long haul, what happens if the 7 Up series outlives you?
MA: I don't know whether it would survive after I'm gone. A lot of the people are quite reluctant to do it and need quite a lot of persuading. But I've stuck with it and I interrupt my American life to go back and do it, and there's a bond we all have after sharing this experience for 40-odd years, and I think that if someone new comes in, obviously they might not have that history with them that sways them into doing it again.
Some of them apparently can't be swayed. What kind of effort do you make to persuade the drop-outs to change their minds? Do you make an effort at all?
MA: It's a constant effort. If you've seen any of the other films, you've seen that people come and go. Some people drop out and then come back. There are only two that I've lost. One I lost at 21 and one I lost at 28. There's constantly an effort to get them back -- not so much the one I lost at 21 but the one I lost at 28 I always try and get back in. The more I can get in, the better it is.
The ones you have a good relationship with -- do you keep in touch between films?
MA: Yes, some of them. It's a bit like an extended family -- some I'm closer to than others. Those that I'm close to, we do speak a lot and they come to Los Angeles to meet up. Sometimes if I have a film opening in London and there's a screening of it, I'll invite them. It's nice to be able to do something for them without asking for something in return. It varies from person to person. Some I never see from one seventh year to the other, and others I'm in touch with.
Since the series has grown more popular over the years, do you ever return to do your interviews and find someone's entire family wanting to sit down and be interviewed by you?
MA: No, not really. I sort of established the currency of the film, originally -- I didn't want it to get out of control. But because I don't really have enough women in the film, I'm very interested in interviewing some of the wives or significant others. But beyond that, I've sort of resisted bringing the children into it. There is a tiny piece of an interview of the Australian, Paul's daughter, but I very rarely do that. Otherwise it gets out of control, with so many people and so many faces to remember and so many stories to figure out.
Before you start the new interviews, do you ask the subjects to review the earlier films?
MA: No, I don't. In fact, I don't review them either. I think it's important for me to start each film with a clear mind. I don't want to make it just a follow-up or make it about 'what might have occurred after 42' when you're doing 49. Each of the films, if you watch all of them, are quite different. I think one of the reasons I can get that is that I've learned not to second guess or try and preempt, but instead to take each generation as I find it. I want to figure out what their lives 'are', rather than making their lives just a continuum of the last film.
How much original footage is filmed for each episode of the series? Do you do one long interview or do you shoot tons of footage and then edit it down?
MA: It's usually one long interview. It's a style I devised, almost accidentally I suppose, rather than a kind of modern documentary where a lot of interviews are done on the move. I think the most important element I've got going is the face, the close-up -- that's what guides us through the generations. So I tend to do one long interview. I'll maybe supplement it with other ones, but it's basically one interview that's two to three hours, I think.
Once you're in the editing room, how do you decide who is going to open the show and close it? I notice you chose the once-homeless Neil as the closer this time.
MA: I think the whole thing, the structure of it, changes over and over. It is a piece of drama. It's a piece of entertainment. You don't want to get stories that are too similar together and you don't want a story that's sad with another one that might be downbeat. So it really is put together like you put a film together, like a piece of drama. Usually we start out with Tony because he's very bright and fun and he gives the film a kind of energetic start. And we usually end with Neil because I think he's the one people are most curious about. He has, in some ways, the most dramatic life in terms of what we're doing. He's really my big gun that I like to finish off with. But again, I wouldn't want to put the Australian guy next to the American guy and I wouldn't want to put women together, so it is a question of carefully plotting it and seeing what the strengths and weaknesses of each one are, and getting the most energetic force out of it.
One of the PR reps for 49 Up made a comment to me that some preliminary work was already going on for the next installment of the series. Is that right?
MA: No. I won't even think about the next one for a few years. I'll take a break from it. Aside from occasionally speaking to some of the people in it, there's no work being done on it at all.
So now that you're off the hook for another seven years, what's on your plate for the near future? What do you have coming up?
MA: I've got a movie coming out in February about the anti-slave trade movement. That's a feature film called Amazing Grace. I just delivered the official DVD of the World Cup. I've got another documentary about football that's nearly done. I've just done a TV episode of my wife's show, What about Brian? Also, I've just finished the sequel to Married in America. I don't know when that's coming out -- I think in February of this coming year.
Very few directors walk that line between documentary films and major studio features like you do. Do you see yourself as more of one than the other?
MA: I like to spread it evenly, but I would say that I think I have the spirit of a documentarian. Even when I do my movies, I tend to approach them in a documentary way. You know, the whole idea that truth is stranger than fiction, and even when I've done something as fantastical as a James Bond, I was interested in seeing what the reality was. Mine was about the Caspian Sea, getting gas out of the Caspian Sea, so I made them all go down there and have a look at it, and we got some pretty startling images out of it.
Ok, last question -- since you brought it up, my editors would kill me if I didn't ask -- are you or are you not in negotiations to direct the follow-up to Casino Royale?
MA: No, they didn't come back to me. I can categorically deny that one. It's a nice rumor, but not true.
For more on 49 Up, check out Erik's NYFF review of the film.