The veteran filmmaker on his landmark doc series, the rise of reality TV, and the decline of American movies.
He’s been messing around in other people’s business for 50 years.
Since he began his career at the BBC in the mid-’60s, the 71-year-old Apted has amassed a formidable set of film and TV credits that ranges from a Loretta Lynn biopic (1980’s Coal Miner’s Daughter) to a J-Lo revenge thriller (2002’s Enough) to instalments in the Bond and Narnia franchises. But every seven years, the director checks in with a group of Brits who viewers first met as schoolchildren in the 1964 doc Seven Up! They’ve reunited again for 56 Up, which starts a run at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema this weekend. Apted, who helped find the kids as a researcher, has spent nearly 50 years steering a project that’s become both a landmark in documentary cinema and an unusually compelling and revealing real-life saga. Yet, as the filmmaker notes in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles, the idea of tracking the tykes over the course of their lives didn’t occur to anyone until the second movie was commissioned in 1970. “The program itself wasn’t entirely thrilling, what with all the spotty teenagers,” says Apted. “But we saw the beginnings of a big idea. From then on, it was a no-brainer because we could see we were onto something that no one had ever done. It wasn’t as though we were geniuses—I can’t imagine anyone sitting down and saying, ‘Let’s do a project for the next 50 years!’ It was a massive stroke of luck, really.”
His subjects’ lives as fiftysomethings aren’t nearly as bleak as he expected.
Apted avoids re-watching the previous Up films before starting a new one in order to maintain a fresh approach and limit the influence of both viewers’ expectations and his own. Nevertheless, he was surprised to discover that so many subjects—whose challenges have included divorces, battles with depression, and unemployment—have arrived at a great place. “I thought it might be very depressing, what with people worried about retiring and dying,” says Apted. “But I found a positive element: People seem to have found peace and happiness and confidence in their relationships. I didn’t get a sense of doom and gloom about it at all.” He considers such unexpected developments another benefit of the project’s slowly evolving nature, which he likens to that of a Victorian classic. “I hope I’m not being too full of myself to consider it like a George Eliot or Charles Dickens novel where the characters move inch by inch,” he adds.
The series might’ve blazed a trail for reality TV, but it’s nowhere near as sadistic as that stuff.
Another surprise in 56 Up is the return of a subject who’d long been absent from the series and the ongoing presence of others who’ve sometimes aired their misgivings about participating. One incentive: Apted has upped the money they earn for their involvement (he’s paid them since 28 Up, which is only fair given how the show opens them up to the less welcome attentions of the U.K.’s tabloid media). As well, the series itself continues to respect the privacy of those involved, which sets it apart from the reality-TV genre that Seven Up! anticipated. “If it was starting now, it might seem very, very tame,” Apted admits. “Because there’s the unique element of seeing people go up in age and change in front of you, it has its own built-in drama. But tastes have changed and people expect much greater levels of intrusion, cruelty, and exploitation than we offer.”
The Up films are still great, but American movies sure ain’t what they used to be.
As an exploration of the English class system that has evolved into something much greater, the Up series reflects an interest in social issues that’s long been part of Apted’s work. Yet he says that finding financing for features with the same degree of courage and intelligence—like Thunderheart, his 1992 Val Kilmer drama about conflicts between the U.S. government and Native American activists—has become nearly impossible in today’s Hollywood. “I would think that none of the films I’ve made would be made now, even the successful ones,” he says. “When I came to America to do Coal Miner’s Daughter, we were sort of at the end of the golden age of the ’70s. If you look at the lists of best-picture nominees from the period, it’s breathtaking. All of them live on in a way that not much of today’s stuff will.”
56 Up opens at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on Dec. 21.