Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
November 15, 2007.
In 1963, when a twenty-two-year-old
researcher for Granada Television in England was sent out to find a
representative sampling of British children for a special program on how
seven year olds saw the world, he never realized that assignment would
completely change his life.
Forty-four years later, Michael Apted is one of the most respected film
directors in the business. However, the children who appeared in Seven
Up have been a huge part of his world and career ever since. Apted and
his crew have returned to those children every seven years and in the
process have created perhaps the most fascinating sociological experiment
ever committed to film – the Up series. The seven films, so
far, in the series (the most recent installment was 49 Up in 2005)
traced the developments of these fourteen children as they went through
school, marriage, family, divorces, the loss of parents, illness, changes in
financial and political status – all without the sensationalism of the
so-called reality television that followed in their wake. This was
just a group of smart, surprisingly well-spoken human beings ruminating on
their world and beliefs.
Of course, Apted’s accolades have reached far beyond that series. He has
directed such acclaimed films as Coal Miner’s Daughter with Sissy
Spacek, Gorillas in the Mist with Sigourney Weaver and Nell
with Jodie Foster. The leads of these films all were recognized with Best
Actress nominations for their work with Apted. He has also done many
mainstream films, including one of the best recent James Bond films (The
World Is Not Enough), a superior courtroom drama (A Civil Action
with John Travolta) and Jennifer Lopez’s spousal-abuse melodrama Enough.
He has recently signed on to helm the third film in The Chronicles of
During this time, the driven Apted also continued with his documentary
work. He even did one of the best rock-concert films of the 1980s – Sting’s
Bring on the Night. Apted has also directed quite a few episodes of
television series, most recently for HBO’s acclaimed Rome. If that
all wasn’t enough to keep Apted on his toes, he is the current President of
the Directors Guild of America.
latest film was Amazing Grace, the true story of William Wilberforce
(Ioan Gruffudd), a 19th Century British lawmaker who was instrumental
in the abolition of slavery.
The day before Amazing Grace was due to be released on DVD, Mr. Apted
was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to discuss his
I have to admit that
as much as I liked
– and I promise I will be asking you about that – the real reason I was
excited to talk to you is because of the
which I feel is one of the most important film projects ever. In 1963, when
you were a researcher for Granada and tracking down the children for
Seven Up, could you have ever imagined that you would be involved with
them and the project for the rest of your lives?
No. Not at all. It wasn’t even in our radar. We just had this rather…
probably cute… idea of how we could find a way to talk about what was
happening in England at that time. It was a pretty exciting time, with all
the cultural events and the rock and roll, fashion and London being sort of
the center of the world for fifteen minutes or something. There was a lot
of discussion. Is British society changing? Are the swinging 60s anything
more than something cosmetic or is it really effecting society? It was this
terrific idea really. Rather than yank in a load of professionals or
experts on the subject – you know: sociologists, politicians,
journalists, or whatever – let’s just get a group of kids in from different
kinds of backgrounds and see what they have to say. Of course, it paid off
like gangbusters, but I have to say that even after it came out and it was
very, very successful, the penny still didn’t drop that this might be
something worth carrying on. It wasn’t until three or four years afterwards
that someone sat me down and said, ‘Why don’t we go back to see how they’re
doing?’ There was implied promise in there, because the original film said
tune in in the year 2000 to see what’s happening.
Now that it is
past the year 2000 and you have seen how far they have gone in the past
forty-odd years, do you believe in the Jesuit quote ["Give me the child until seven and I will show you the
man."] that inspired the whole enterprise?
little bit, I believe in it. I believe there is an innate personality that
is evident at seven that doesn’t really seem to change. I mean people’s
whole lives change and they develop as they grow up and you can’t say ‘Here
is the man’ at seven years old, but I still think there is some innate sense
of personality – which may be a kind of banal thing to say – but it seems to
me with all of them, you look at them at seven and you look at them at 49
and there is something you recognize in them.
recently re-watched all of the
Up films and one of
the children I thought would be most interesting – Charles – stopped making
the films after 21 Up. Peter also stopped
and John and Simon have taken off films, but are you pleasantly surprised
how many of them have stuck it out?
Oh, yeah. I’m always just mortified when people drop out. I was obviously
disappointed with all of them. Charles and Peter are incredibly
interesting. I understand why Peter dropped out. After 28 Up, he
got a terrible pasting by the British press for all his very anti-government
left wing views. They said, “Why is this person teaching our children?” I
think he thought, “Jesus. What have I done to deserve this?” So he kind of
yanked out of it. But then he had an incredibly interesting life. Since
then, he completely changed tack – became a lawyer and remarried and had
kids. But Charles is a mystery, because, you know, Charles became a
documentary filmmaker. So I couldn’t ever really get my mind around that.
He does the job, and yet won’t participate.
49 Up, John
compares the series to reality series like Big Brother. While I
don’t buy that, as a filmmaker how strange is it for you how much TV
documenting real people has changed since you started?
Yeah. It was the gorilla in the room, really. It was new since 42 Up.
Clearly, I didn’t lead them down that path. They just wanted to talk about
it. It’s always been sort of jokingly said that I invented reality
television – now it became sort of serious. I think a lot of the
participants in my stuff were saying, “What are we? Are we a documentary or
are we just a junked-up reality show? Should we be making hundreds of
thousands of pounds?” I was at pains to express what I think is a
distinction – without being critical of reality television, which I am most
of the time – but as an idea, reality tends to put people in contrived or
unusual circumstances and see how they respond. A documentary attempts, I
think, to catch life as it is. To show a reality rather than show how
people react in alien circumstances. Which can be very interesting, but I
think there is a difference. Reality lends itself to more exploitation
really than a documentary does.
Thankfully, none of the people from the films have died – but unfortunately
we know it will be inevitable that eventually someone will. Have you
considered how you are going to handle that eventuality?
Not really. No, it’s a very chilling thought, one that I’m sort of in
denial about. I’m hoping that I go first. I really don’t know how to
handle it. It depends on the circumstances. If I knew someone was
terminally ill and they weren’t going to make it to the next, would I….
This all sounds really terrible, calculating it. I just don’t know how to
deal with it. I suppose it would depend on the person and what they wanted
to do. I think it would depend entirely on what they wanted.
(sighs) If they knew that things weren’t going well and they wanted to
do something, then…. I mean it’s just a shocking thought. I don’t know why
I’m so worried about it, but I’ve known them over 40 years. We are like a
family. Of course people feel a little ill. Some of us are close. Some of
us aren’t close. But that’s an issue that I really dread having to deal
know it wasn’t your first feature film, but the first movie to make a real
big splash internationally was the Loretta Lynn biography
Coal Miner’s Daughter.
Yes, that was my first American [film]. I’d done a few films in the UK, but
needless to say, they didn’t make much impact outside the UK. So Coal
Miner’s was my first international film, yeah.
Were you surprised
when it took off like it did?
Oh, yeah. There was nothing ever said to encourage it. I never forget that
Universal sold it to the airlines before it opened, so you could actually
see it on an aeroplane before it [played in theaters]. (laughs) So
then we had a couple of previews of it just before it opened and clearly we
were onto something. Then it did take off and was very successful, but I
don’t think anybody knew – me, anybody – what we had until suddenly it went
out there. And, it’s all luck, you know? It was the right time. It was a
time when country music was entering the popular culture, with Dolly Parton
and Willie Nelson and all of them. And Loretta. If it had come out a
couple of years earlier or a couple of years later, it might not have had
that impact. I’ve had good timing and bad timing with movies and that was a
bit of good timing.
You have made a lot of films with strong female leads – in fact Sissy Spacek,
Sigourney Weaver and Jodie Foster were nominated for Oscars when they worked
with you. What do you enjoy about working with female characters and
like the subject matter, actually. I sort of missed the boat in the Up
films about what I think is one of the great social-political dramas of
my lifetime – the dramatically changing place of women in society. The real
drama of women with careers and women with families – how do you deal with
that? The social impact of that and the economic impact. I’ve always been
drawn to women’s stories. I was brought up by a strong and independent
mother who was before her time. I think that left a mark on me. I’ve
always been interested in that dilemma. I think it’s a real emotional
dilemma. All these movies you talk about do reflect that in a way. They
reflect women pursuing their lives or their identities and coming up against
the conventions of society that try and stop it, in a way…
Even your Bond film –
The World is Not Enough
– was very female oriented – the antagonist was a woman and Q had a more
significant role than usual. What was it like to come in on and play a part
in such an iconic series?
That was why I was brought in, I think. They wanted to do one where the
villain was a woman. They had Dame Judi Dench and they had a lot of good
women in it. I think they wanted to get away from the high-testosterone
element and bring some other ingredient in. It was overwhelming at first.
I had no idea that I could ever get through it. But once I started getting
the hang of it, it was good fun.
Was that the reason you only did one Bond film? Lots of the other directors
do more than one…
would have done another one, but there was a change of studio and all the
upper management of the studio. It got complicated. Then I did another
film. I enjoyed it. I would have done another one.
have done a lot of biographical films – like Agatha Christie, Loretta Lynn,
Dian Fossey and of course here with William Wilberforce. What is it about
true stories that intrigue you as a filmmaker?
Well, I like them. I like that they are true stories. A true story can be
very inspiring. People like Loretta and Dian Fossey and William Wilberforce
– I think they can be inspiring to young people and to audiences today.
There’s something sort of untouchable about the fact that it’s true. There
are a lot of problems making those films. They’re not easy to make by any
means. I just like the idea that you can turn around to people who look at
Amazing Grace in disbelief and say, well, sorry to disappoint you,
but the whole thing is true. I kind of like that.
Amazing Grace is
very much a story that deals with specific problems of that era, I did seem
to notice some political aspects of the movie that did seem to be commenting
on or mirroring the current political climate. Was that something you were
conscious of when developing and making the film?
No, I didn’t want to sort of hammer it. I wanted people to… if they wanted
to make resonance to today, that was fine by me. I was more interested in
the bigger issue of the power of politics – the redeeming power of politics
– and the character of Wilberforce. The spiritual and the political man
leading side by side. His great stubbornness and persistence and courage to
keep it going. I thought, as you say, there are similarities with Iraq, and
you can take it or leave it. It was there if you wanted it, but if you
didn’t come away with that, that wasn’t a lofty concern of mine. I was more
interested that people came away with bigger issues the film deals with.
As a director, what is
it like to make period films? Is it interesting to immerse yourself in a
different time and place?
Yes. It’s a challenge. Also, you don’t want to just make a period
film. That’s more what I think the difficulty is. You don’t want to be
shooting hats and costumes. You want to be shooting energy and life and
issues and drama. I think the trap with period films is you get caught up
in the paraphernalia of it. You want to honor the periods, but you don’t
want to get trapped in it. I think that’s the exciting challenge – giving
them a kind of vitality where you in the end don’t notice the costumes. You
don’t notice the buildings. You’re just involved in the people and the
story. That’s very difficult to do. Not many people can pull it off. I’m
not saying I do… that’s not the point I’m making. I think it’s very
difficult when you see a film that has real vitality to it.
is also something you have often explored in your films. While the movie is
not actually specifically about the song, “Amazing Grace” does suffuse the
story and play a big role. How vital was the song to the tale you were
trying to tell?
It was a gift, really. It gave us a title and… again, the same thing I was
saying about something being true – the fact of the Albert Finney character
and his relevance to Wilberforce and the existence of the song. The
existence of the words of the song and the existence of the title was all
very serendipitous. It wasn’t like we just stuck it on and said, well
here’s a title, etc., etc. It was organic to the movie. It was just too
big a gift to turn your back on it. The problem was not to overdo it. Not
to overuse it. I’ve used [the song] a couple of times already. I used it
in Coal Miner’s Daughter. At Loretta’s father’s funeral – so I’ve
exploited it myself. But it was just so great to have it as part of the
story. Also, to just, in a sense, shine a light on that famous piece of
music. That’s what its roots are. That’s what it’s about.
You mentioned it was a
little intimidating to jump into the Bond series. I see you’ve signed on to
do the third
Yes, I’m just in the middle of preparing it now. This is even bigger than
Bond and even more scary.
How did you get
involved with the series?
It was a bit of amazing grace. One of the two companies doing it – Walden
[Media] – did Amazing Grace. So there was a relationship there, so
here I am.
How do you think your
film will be different than the one that came first and the upcoming sequel?
Well, they are
different. They’re kind of fun. They’re a bit like Bond but not like Harry
Potter. They are completely different stories. Mine has only got two of
the original characters in there, so you have to create different worlds
with each of the books – which is the strength of what Lewis wrote. I think
it’s quite a challenge. It’s a lot more fun, really, than coming in and
just developing the same ground, using the same people. It’s a kind of
built-in challenge. I don’t have to struggle to leave my fingerprints on
it, because I’m confronted with a whole different challenge from what they
had when they did the first two episodes.
are in sort of a nice position as a director where you can do lots of things
that interest you. You do big blockbusters like
The World is Not
Enough and Narnia, more artistic films like Amazing Grace,
your documentaries – you can even take some time to do TV series like
Rome. How satisfying is it to have hit a position in your profession
where you have that kind of freedom?
Well, it’s not as easy as…. I know you’re not saying it’s easy, but it’s
not quite as comfortable as you might [think]. It’s just hard to get good
jobs here. To get good, challenging films. Frankly, I’ve kept my door wide
open. Kept my documentary career going. Made myself available to do
television. Do indie films. Do blockbuster films. Really, the idea is
just so I can get a larger choice of material and do more things that
interest me, rather than just have to do stuff to earn a living. It’s been
a deliberate policy. It is incredibly stimulating to me that I can have a
go at different sorts of things. Exercise different muscles. Have
different challenges. It’s always a struggle just to find a piece of really
good material, but because my career is fairly broad-based I just think I
have more options than other people. More options to find interesting
stuff. It’s still a struggle to get things going, but I just think I have
slightly more options.
Beyond your feature work, your television and documentaries, you are also
the head of the Directors Guild. Do you ever get time to sleep?
I know it always
sounds very impressive. It’s just, I suppose, merely managing your time.
The Directors Guild is very well run. When I’m off doing a film they look
after me and make it easy for me. Then when I’m not shooting I do a lot. I
think the Directors Guild is very keen to have someone like me as its
president, because they want to suggest that working members can run the
Guild. It isn’t people who are retired or don’t have a career. They make
it work for me. I believe there are 140 full-time employees working for the
Guild, so it’s a big organization.
Well, being so
involved in the Guild, how is the Writers Guild strike affecting things for
you and has it made things more difficult in Hollywood?
yeah. We have to decide soon what we’re going to do. We’re preparing to go
in for our own negotiations, so the timing of that is the next big
decision. We don’t want to undercut the writers, but if there is nothing
going on with the writers and producers, we’ve got our own business to deal
us Let us know what you
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