The Sciences

Midlife Crisis

Michael Apted, director of the 7 Up documentary series, discusses the British class system, the impossibility of achieving objectivity, and a new obstacle to making his latest films: reality television.

By Susan Kruglinski and Jocelyn SelimSep 5, 2006 5:00 AM


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In our October issue, Discover reviewed the movie 49 Up, the latest in a series of documentary movies widely known as the 7 Up series. In 1964, fourteen seven-year-old children from the U.K. were asked questions about love, work, race, and their future for a television show. Every seven years since, Academy Award–winning director Michael Apted has caught up with these subjects on film. In a Web exclusive, Discover editors Susan Kruglinski and Jocelyn Selim interviewed Apted about these extraordinary films and their place in science.

First of all, could you just briefly explain how you got involved with the project?

I had just started work at Granada Television as a researcher and I was assigned to the program World in Action. The episode that was being made first was this look at seven-year-old children. So I was assigned the research job on that. My job was to find the kids.

Could you talk a little bit about how you chose the children?

Their [the producers'] idea of the film was to prove that the English class system was still very much in place despite all the great cultural movements of the early sixties in music, fashion, art, playwriting, whatever. Which seemed to suggest that there had been a democratization in English society. This film wanted to prove that the class system was still very much in evidence. So it was a slight self-fulfilling prophecy to fill, but it meant that I had to choose people really from the extremes of the social spectrum. Very wealthy, privileged people from London and also people from the working class in the poorer areas of London. It was a very, very quick process. The schools would put me in touch with the teacher. I'd tell them I wanted to see their seven-year-olds and then I would go down to the school and interview the seven-year-olds and make the choice from that.

And what was it that you were looking for?

People who could present themselves, who wouldn't just disappear on camera, who wouldn't be intimidated or overwhelmed by it all—which was hard to predict. But at least a child who could articulate whatever he was articulating whether he was working class or upper class.

What do you think the answer is after all these films? Do you think the British class system is still very much in place?

Oh, much less so. This film is only a portrait of people who were born in 1956. Class is still in the back of the national brain, but it's loosened up in considerable amounts since then. So this doesn't present an accurate portrait of England now, but just an accurate portrait of a generation of people. And even then it's skewed because what I missed in all that was the middle classes, which in the end proved to be the most mobile and the most threatened and the most volatile of all of them. Of course, the film outgrew its political roots fairly quickly. The class thing, although it's always been the kind of underpinning of the film, became I think, less and less important.

Is this film series scientific or not?

It's never been scientific.

But many well-received studies may be seen as attempting to quantify things that possibly aren't quantifiable, using small pools of people. How does this series compare?

I think the data is very powerful. I don't know anything about psychology or sociology. I'm just a filmmaker who knows these people, cares about these people, and asks them the questions that come into my head. I mean I'm not being naïve or self-deprecating, but I did at one point think I better read up on psychology and sociology. I did it for about five minutes and thought, "This is ridiculous."

Don't you ever think of 7 Up as a longitudinal study of real life?

I'm told that constantly. But it isn't scientifically data based. It's much more a complicated emotional event than it is pure science, but I don't think that in any sense diminishes it. It's flesh and blood, whereas so much of sociological data is cold data. This puts flesh and blood on data. But I don't think it's not valuable because it isn't scientifically approached. I think it's proved very valuable.

Were you surprised in 49 Up that at least half of the subjects said something about how painful it is to do this film? Jackie in particular really called you out on this, saying she was really unhappy with the way you edit the film.

I was surprised by it because I didn't realize what the 500-pound gorilla in the room was going to be this time. It was reality television, which didn't exist when we did 42 Up. I think this gave the subjects of my film real pause for thought. Are they part of the circus that is reality television? Are they being exploited in a way that clearly reality television thrives on? I think it made them want to talk about being in the film and all the various responses they had to it.

And unlike the subjects of most reality television, they didn't choose to be in this series in the first place.

Absolutely. There is a residual anger, I think, in a lot of them about being in it. The hardest job I have in the whole process is to persuade them to do it.

So Jackie complained about the editing. Do you feel that there is some legitimacy in her outrage?

Of course, yes. I mean anybody that thinks film editing—whether you're doing Titanic or a tiny documentary on digital—is an objective exercise. . . Every cut is a judgment. The filmmaker's voice is there. Sometimes with Michael Moore the voice is the film. I try and keep the voice out of it as much as possible. But of course she's right. Somebody makes the decisions about what follows what. The only pure documentary I've ever heard of was Andy Warhol pointing a camera for eight hours at the Empire State Building.

A couple of subjects have dropped out. Do you keep in touch with Peter?

Yes, I do actually. I have a better relationship with him than almost anybody, oddly enough. We're both big football fans. I try to persuade him to do it every time, but I've had no success. I have absolutely zero relationship with Charles, who I can't understand. Never could understand why he wouldn't keep doing the series, since he is a documentary filmmaker. So he was prepared to live by the sword, but not die by the sword. I could never understand that.

Why did Peter drop out?

Well, he got chewed up by the press for having some very radical opinions about Margaret Thatcher, the state of English education, and what scumbags politicians were. He was a teacher at that point and the tabloid press got hold of this and said, "How dare someone like this be teaching our children?" They really gave him a bad time. I think he opened the papers the following morning and said, "Fair enough; I'm out of here."

You come from a lower middle-class background. Do you feel your history has motivated you to keep going with this?

I was very lucky. I had very caring parents who sacrificed a lot for me and my brother and sister to get a good education and all that. So I'm powerfully moved by people who don't have luck. I think some people can be born into an environment where they don't get many breaks. That seems to me to be unfair and unjust. I suppose it's that feeling that has kind of kept me going, kept me wanting to make the films.

Do you show the subjects the segments before release?

Well, I don't have a choice. I prefer not to, but some of them insist on seeing the rough cut of it. There's not much I can do. I mean when you're doing this kind of longitudinal television, you're totally at their mercy because if you mess them up or don't do what they want, then you won't be going back. That's what's so unique and difficult about this kind of work. So I don't really have a choice. So if they want to see it, and if they want changes made and I can't argue them out of it, then I have to make them.

Has that ever significantly affected the way the film came out?

Oh, yes, sure it has. But there's nothing I can do. I just have to suck it up.

Can you say what has been changed?

No, because that would defeat the purpose of cutting it out.

Right. Just thought I'd ask.

Good try.

Any regrets in the choice of subjects or anything else about this whole project?

Not in the people I chose, but I think I should have had more women in it. The women issue was unfortunate, but that was the times we lived in. If you'd said in 1964 there'd be a woman prime minister in England twelve years later, people would have thought you were stark, raving mad. It's hard to say this to you and it's hard to even hear myself say it, but it's true that in the early '60s, in England anyway, it was considered unbelievable that women would have real power in the land. As I said, my assignment was really to move in the margins of society and women weren't regarded as a power resource in those days. So, those are the two regrets: the lack of women and that I would have liked to have had more of the middle ground of the class system in the film.

That's also interesting because it seems like a lot of your feature films [

I find them more interesting than men. I think the drama of a woman's life is extremely powerful. The fundamental choice between a career and a family is a real high-wire some women have to work. In some ways that's underneath all the women that I've made films about, whether it's Dian Fossey or Loretta Lynn. At the heart of it, the price a woman has to pay to have a career or have a family—I find that drama very powerful.

Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, Nell

, etc.] have a female central character, which is not the norm. Just out of curiosity, what's behind this?

It seems like a lot of your films—Me and Isaac Newton, Gorillas in the Mist—have science underpinnings. Are you interested in science?

I am interested in it, but I don't know a lot about it. I wish I did. Me and Isaac Newton is a companion piece to something called Inspirations, where I was very interested in the creative process and what made people artists. I thought it would be interesting to do a companion piece to it about people who are scientists and what the different mindset was. But obviously science touches everything. Although I don't understand much of it, it does interest me on a general and sort of philosophic level.

Neil admits to having mental illness problems. Was he ever diagnosed with anything specific?

Well, I think he's schizophrenic, but he would never in his life go to a doctor. We were worried we were having a bad effect on him, and so we took medical advice because he was very keen, always, to be in the film. He enjoys doing it. So we asked medical people whether we were doing the right thing by hounding him every seven years and doing this. Their question was, "Well, does he like it? Does he enjoy doing it?" We said yes, and they said, "Then he should do it."

It seems like this film has possibly helped him.

It might be. It certainly gives him a voice, and I think it gives him self-esteem and all that. He never sees the film. We had a screening with all of them [the subjects] for this one. We brought everybody in to watch it together, which you can imagine for me was torture. But he wouldn't stay. He came for the reception, but he wouldn't watch it. I don't think he's ever seen it, but I think the process to him is invigorating.

What else happened at that screening?

Jackie gave me a big kiss. She was very pleased that I put that stuff in. I think she thought I wouldn't put it in. Generally they seemed pretty pleased with it, but mainly they have been, over the years. I mean I've never had complaints from them. Certainly the people that have dropped out have never dropped out because of the way the film treated them.

Has anything surprised you about how any of the subject's lives have turned out?

I think if anything comes out of it of any general notion, my opinion is, there is a certain core personality here. I think you can see a seven-year-old in those adults. Sometimes they move away from it; Neil moves away from it. Then I think in this last one he sort of comes back to it. There's a sort of twinkle in his eye that he had so clearly at seven.

I think it's surprising that Tony seems to be the only one who embraces being in the series and seems to wholeheartedly enjoy it.

Well, he makes a fuss about it. I think some of the others like it. I think the girls like doing it.

Really? Because it doesn't come off that way.

Well, no, but in a more quiet, English way. I mean Tony is a piece of work. I mean I love him and he's very supportive, but he's a real showman so he wears his heart on his sleeve. But I think Bruce enjoys it. I think Bruce likes it and I think Nick enjoys it, too. I mean I think they're both very articulate men and like the exposure, to be articulate.

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