In his early 20s Michael Apted began assisting on a film called Seven Up!, little realizing it would turn into the most ambitious documentary project ever undertaken. It focused on a group of seven-year-old British schoolchildren from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, and became such a sensation on British television that producers decided to return every seven years to see how their subjects were faring.
Apted served as a researcher on that first film in 1964 and has directed every installment since. Now with the new film 63 Up, which finds the original kids approaching retirement age and coping, in some cases, with mortality, the monumental series may come to a close.
“No one can outdo me,” Apted, 78, says with a wink, a humorous nod to the improbability of anyone else attempting a project of such scope. He ascribes the endurance of the series to the period in which it was conceived—a moment of flux in British society when the rigid class system, perhaps, was beginning to loosen.
“I became aware quite quickly that we were in the right time to do it,” Apted tells Deadline. “We were trying to sort our social society out. There was a lot of change.”
63 Up opens today in Los Angeles before expanding to theaters nationwide next week. It’s in contention for the Oscars this year, one of 159 films to qualify in the Best Documentary Feature race.
The original conceit of the series was to explore whether a person’s birth—into the upper class, working class, etc.—determined their possibilities in life.
“I think we’ve gone beyond that now,” Apted observes. “You can’t put a formula to it. It’s so complicated, their lives.”
Determinism versus free will remains an important question in Up. But in some ways the main theme has become the series itself—what it means to open your life up to examination every seven years, to have to account for yourself, and have your fate as a public person determined for you at age seven when you were plucked out of a classroom to star in a documentary.
Most of the characters have made an uneasy peace with it.
“It’s an incredibly hard thing to be in,” cast member Nick Hitchon comments in a scene from 49 Up that is included in the new film. “I can’t even begin to describe how emotionally draining and wrenching it is just to make the film and do the interviews.”
Another cast member, Suzy Lusk, observed, “I suppose I have this ridiculous sense of loyalty to it, even though I hate it.” She was an ambivalent participant in 56 Up and chose not to appear in 63 Up.
John Brisby, one of the apparently upper class boys of Seven Up!, turns out to have been a scholarship student and not quite to the manor born. At an IDA screening of 63 Up earlier this week, Apted revealed Brisby will no longer speak to him, so a producer had to conduct that interview, but most of the other characters evince a touching rapport with Apted achieved over a lifetime. The filmmaker is aware he has represented many things to his subjects over time, from father figure to therapist.
“All of that. Policeman, teacher, pain in their ass, I think,” Apted muses. “I suppose for the first three films I was just another generation. I was 22 when I did the first one and they were seven. They were X number of years behind me, as it were. [The age difference] doesn’t hang around too long. It disappears in a way. You don’t feel that you are some super-duper adult teaching these people the wisdoms of life.”
What was Apted like at age seven?
“Very, very nervous and quiet,” the director shares. “I was very shy, I really wouldn’t talk to anybody and stuff like that.”
What changed his destiny, Apted suggests, was attending the prestigious City of London School at age 10, where he was exposed to film and the arts. He recalls, “I [grew up] lower middle class in one of the London suburbs. It was pretty tight and there wasn’t much money around,” which normally would have put that school out of reach, but he got in because his father had attended.
“I could see that there was a lot more going on than I’d ever thought of. I was definitely moved by that,” Apted notes. “We did exciting things because we were taken to theaters and to cinemas and all this stuff as part of our education.”
In his interviews in the Up series, Apted often asks his subjects whether they have regrets in life. Deadline put that question to the thrice-married director.
“I have regrets about my marital attempts,” he answers wryly, “which have been f**king disastrous.”
As to whether there will be a 70 Up, Apted appears philosophical.
“It all depends on the maker,” he told the IDA audience, referring to the proverbial “man upstairs.” He shares with Deadline, “I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t get another two in, I wouldn’t live longer than that. The only worry I would have—forget me—is half of them [the subjects] dying and then it becomes incredibly macabre. I’m not sure that that’s what the nation needs to see.”
Of the prospect of the series continuing he adds, “I don’t know. Probably. I’ve got an open mind to that.”
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