56Up, the eighth instalment in the Up series, hit cinemas in the US last week. Offering a snapshot of the life of fourteen people every seven years, the series is widely regarded as the first of its kind, paving the way for shows like Child of Our Time. Invited to Sheffield Doc/Fest this summer to give a talk about his career, most importantly his work on the Up series, director and series co-founder Michael Apted took some time out of his hectic schedule to discuss his career with us.
You work both in documentary and fiction film. What is it about documentary that particularly appeals to you?
Well I think in some ways that’s where I started. I think that’s what my soul is – I’ve got a documentary soul. Even when I do movies I try and approach it slightly as a documentary – if it’s about something that’s real, or something that pretends to be real, I try to find out what the truth is. I think my instincts are documentarian, so that’s why I like coming back and doing them and exercising those muscles.
How were you involved with the Up series in the first place, and how has that involvement changed since it began?
Well, I’d just started at Granada [the television company]. Me and another trainee, Gordon MacDougall, were sent off with a Canadian director to find a group of seven-year-old kids to make a film about whether the English class system was changing or whether it was just cosmetic, The Beatles and all that sort of stuff. It was only ever going to be one film, a World in Action special. Then, when it came out it was very successful, because it had a kind of innocence to it and it was funny, but it did also seem to have some frightening truths about the class system. Still, the penny didn’t drop for some time. It wasn’t until four or five years after it came out that we got the idea of ‘why don’t we go back and see what’s happened to them?’. Once we did that then we could see that we had a big idea going, and then it wasn’t really such a tough thing. I went to live and work in America after I’d done 21, but I vowed that I would come back and do this. No-one believed it, but I did! It’s such a valuable thing, such a valuable part of my working life.
I imagine the Sixties as a time when people thought there would be really big changes coming about. Is the world today anything like how you think people might have envisaged it back then?
I can’t imagine it… I can’t even put myself back that far! All I know – and it’s a slightly damaging thing for us – is that we chose ten boys and four girls. We were a fairly forward-thinking group, but it was considered inconceivable that women could have such a major role in society. It’s a sorry thing, because I like to say that the biggest revolution in my lifetime has been the changing role of women, and we missed that. But I can’t beat myself – we didn’t deliberately set out to miss it, it just wasn’t there on the landscape. So that’s one way in which people would find it difficult, if you put yourself back fifty years, to imagine England now. In other ways, I really don’t know!
Is it hard not to pick favourites amongst the participants, to be objective?
It may be, but I don’t think so. I mean, it’s a strange relationship – it’s like a family. I see some of them between films, some of them I don’t. Some of them I get on with well, some I don’t. Well, not that I don’t get on with them but I don’t see them… It’s more than a professional relationship; it’s kind of a blood relationship. I don’t think I have favourites. I have people I get on with easier – I find it easier to talk to some than to others. The key thing I’ve learnt doing it is that you’ve got to – if it’s humanly possible – every time you start a new one, have a blank slate. Not to go in with a lot of preconceptions, not remembering what they said at the last one so they’ll say something about it this time. To really make it a genuine snapshot of their lives now. That’s quite difficult to do, to really clear your mind out. That’s definitely part of my agenda, if I have favourites, not to show my hand. I feel the films are stronger the less I impose my will on it, the less I try and direct it. The more I let them run it, the better it is. I don’t want it to be, in a subtle way, about me.
How do you feel about the things which have followed on from Up? Now we have Child of Our Time, The Simpsons have parodied it…
The greatest honour! I think it’s wonderful. We, I suppose, invented it. We didn’t sit down and invent it, it just happened organically and sort of by accident, but film is so great for marking the passage of time, it’s so much richer than reading a book to see images of a period. I’m thrilled that people have picked it up and it’s become a genre – longitudinal documentaries have become part of the documentary landscape. It’s quite frightening to think that one was in at the beginning of that!
A little morbid this one – how do you feel you’re related to the series? Could it continue after your death?
I would hope so… whether it would or not I don’t know. I also hope – and this is also a bit morbid! – that I go first. The thought of one of them going, and how one deals with all that, is a pretty chilling thought… I hope it would go on after me, I hope it would survive.
In the second part of our exclusive interview we discuss Michael's fiction film work.