Michael Apted began his media career in the early '60s as an investigative reporter and spot producer for British television, while simultaneously directing episodes of the soap opera Coronation Street. Through his career as a feature filmmaker and documentarian, the 60-year-old has followed that pattern, alternating probing sociological journalism with mainstream entertainment, although his seemingly breezy movies do often have a political edge. He's had hits with such overt social dramas as Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas In The Mist, and Nell, but his best fiction work may be mature genre pictures like Class Action (a legal drama featuring a blunt critique of corporate largesse), Thunderheart (a taut action mystery with a hefty subplot about the American Indian Movement), and Extreme Measures (a pulpy thriller featuring a fairly intriguing discussion of medical ethics). Even Apted's stab at the James Bond franchise (1999's The World Is Not Enough) took a left-wing stance on energy scarcity. In the documentary world, Apted is best known for the Up series; he began working on the project as a researcher in 1962, then took over as director in 1969. Every seven years, Apted and his crew catch up with the lives of a handful of British citizens, who were first interviewed in 1964, at age 7, for the British TV special 7 Up. The series began as a study of the rigidity of the British class system, but has since evolved into a portrait of the anxieties of modern life, as shared by people of all classes. Apted's latest installment, 42 Up, was completed in 1998, and has just been released on home video and DVD. Michael Apted recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the history and future of the series, and about the strengths and limitations of his process.
The Onion: A lot of DVDs have commentary tracks, but yours is unusual in that 42 Up actually has narration.
Michael Apted: Yeah, it was strange. That's why I tried to talk around it. There's nothing much to say about what you're looking at. In a documentary, you can't talk about what they're thinking about, because you're interviewing them. I thought the idea more generally is to talk about the process and the history, the revisions from film to film, and the theme, which are things that I think would be interesting to hear about.
O: At one point in the commentary, you mention a TV station in Australia that ran all the Up films in succession over a number of nights, and you say, "There's an idea for DVD." Was any thought given to creating some kind of super-edition?
MA: Yeah, but I can't get anybody interested in it. I've been trying to do it for a decade. I would think it was a no-brainer. There's a lot of interest in the films in educational circles, as sociology. It wouldn't be a huge seller, but it's guaranteed to sell a certain number. But there's no interest. Not enough money in it, I suppose.
O: In the beginning, the project was specifically about the class structure in the U.K., but you've said that the focus has changed over time, and that each film is different. Are you aware when you're making an installment what the focus of that installment will be?
MA: No. I mean, I know that the focus is not so much on politics as on humanities issues, but I never know what the focus of each particular episode is going to be until me and [co-producer] Claire Lewis and [editor] Kim Horton start to assemble it. I'd say each film is about 80 percent different from the one before.
O: How do you decide how to sequence the film, which interview to put where?
MA: I suppose I just go from up to down. Because people vary from generation to generation, some can be very interesting in one generation and not in another, so I suppose I just try to keep the interest going by putting people who are strong against people who are weak. Those decisions change. I usually start with Tony [Walker] and end with Neil [Hughes], but in between it's based on who's very interesting and who's not so interesting. I just try to keep a balance, so that I don't shoot all my bullets in one section of the film.
O: Do you feel constrained at all, if you have someone who had a really boring seven years?
MA: I think at this point that that becomes interesting in itself, but I still try not to give them a lot of screen time. It's become so hard to contain this film to the two-hour, 10-minute format that I've set for myself, that if someone's had a boring seven years, I try to keep their section to the barest minimum.
O: You stay in touch with your subjects during the intervening years. Do you have some idea what
they're going to say when the interview begins?
MA: No, no, no. I don't want to leave that stuff in the ether. I want to get it on film. So, though I keep up with them as much as I can, I don't make a point of checking in so often that I know everything that's going on. Even those I see a bit over the years, I certainly don't get into it with them.
O: Do you find yourself having certain hopes for some of them?
MA: I think I do with all of them, yeah. We've all been through so much together, that, yeah, I feel slightly parental or big-brotherish about them.
O: Even though it might make better drama if something terrible were happening?
MA: Yeah, there's always the classic model of what happens if one of them goes before me. It'll make fantastic drama, but I don't wish that on any of them.
O: You talk in the commentary about how some of the participants and some of their family members have objected to what they see as sort of unfair implications in the editing of their sections. Have you tried to be less judgmental in the editing as the project has gone on?
MA: I think so. I've tried not to judge them in a cheesy way, yeah. I try not to anticipate things. As I say on the DVD commentary, it hasn't done much good to try to judge what's going to become of them in the future.
O: Do you think the original 7 Up had an air of that judgement?
MA: No, because I think the original project was only interested in the politics. So it may have been judgmental about the politics, but it wasn't judgmental about the people. I think that's why it's such a popular film series. That's why it's transcended its kind of English roots. It shows something essential about life, because the people are ordinary, and their problems are very understandable.
O: Have the films gotten more expensive as the subjects have grown up and scattered around the globe?
MA: No, it's still very cheap programming. The last one cost not much over half a million.
O: Any chance you'd shoot on digital video in the future?
MA: Very much so, yeah. I'm doing a documentary now on digital, and having grown up on film, one of the things I like about digital is the possibilities with interviews. You can go, like, 65 minutes without stopping and losing that momentum. If this works out well, we probably will make the next one on DV.
O: What's the documentary you're working on now?
MA: I've embarked on another long project, on nine marriages of people getting married around now.
O: That sort of sociology has been the focus of your documentaries. It seems that a lot of the film projects you've chosen—even the ones that would seem on the surface to be light entertainment—still have an element of your political and social awareness.
MA: Yeah, I think that's who I am. Even with doing something like Bond, my first instinct was to get out to Azerbaijan, to get out to the Caspian. Whatever I do, that tends to be my instinct, the instinct formed in the cradle of the documentary. Sometimes I think that's why I get asked to do stuff. That's sort of my calling card. It's what gives me my individuality.