'7 Up' Is a Lifetime in the Making

Director Michael Apted talks about his documentary series that catches up with the same 14 subjects every seven years

Filmmaker Michael Apted has directed many shining stars, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Liam Neeson, Natasha Richardson, and Sissy Spacek. But some of of his most popular screen characters have no last names - they're the children featured in his short documentary "7 Up."

During his career, Mr. Apted has made a score of feature films, including the acclaimed "Coal Miner's Daughter" and the big-budget thriller "Extreme Measures," but it's "7 Up," the project he worked on fresh from England's Cambridge University in l963, that has earned him the most recognition. Apted's honors for the film include a British Academy Award and an international Emmy.

For that first "7 Up," an hour-long show on England's equivalent of "60 Minutes," Apted recruited l4 seven-year-olds from different backgrounds to discuss their hopes and dreams. After its success, he took over the project, returning every seven years to probe their lives in hopes of providing some answers to the eternal question of how much our future is determined by our childhood.

The acclaim that greeted the original British series has inspired American and Russian versions, which the director will update this year while revisiting his original subjects for "42 Up."

Although Apted first saw "7 Up" as an attack on the English class system, audiences in other countries have been fascinated simply by the series' expanding portraits of unfolding lives. Every seven years, excerpts from previous "Ups" flesh out subjects' growth, joy, and compromises.

Apted now says he was wrong in thinking the series was primarily an attack on the English class system, "the unfairness of it all - the accident of birth. I really wasn't making a political film at all, but something humanistic, about real issues - family, success, failure, and loss. Anyone can relate to that."

The series, available in video rental stores, has been called a nonfiction soap opera. Because life goes on, there is no closure. While some subjects follow predictable paths, others do not.

Nick, who at 7 wanted to find out "all about the moon," is now a nuclear scientist. Andrew, happy at 7 that poor people couldn't afford his expensive private school, is now a smug corporate lawyer. John, another son of privilege, simply says, "I can't change what I was born into."

Some of the less fortunate explore new alternatives; some of the well-to-do use their advantages to help others. Tony's pursuit of athletic and acting fame takes many turns. Bruce, an idealistic upper-class youth, becomes immersed in charitable work. John reconnects with his Eastern European roots to organize aid for orphans.

Critics and viewers have applauded the series' candor. Apted poses tough questions and doesn't leave tart replies on the cutting-room floor. He asks people whether they'll stay with their spouses. He tells Tony that despite his efforts in various fields, "You didn't pull it off. You haven't really made it." He asks Neil whether he ever worries about his sanity.

In return, he gets such volleys as Neil's, "Why are you always asking me if I'm worried? I'm not worried," and Suzy's, "The only time I think about privilege is when you come around to ask the same question every seven years."

Gil Noam, a Harvard psychology professor who arranged Apted's recent visit here, calls the series extremely valuable to educators and psychiatrists who study development because the director "leaves a lot of room for people to reflect on their own lives. He has an incredible sensitivity, persistence, and intelligence."

Apted gets the "7 Ups" to discuss their problems openly by using the same, familiar production crew for every series, by surprising them with his questions, and by keeping quiet.

"I try to discipline myself to use as few words as possible. If there's a gap, let them fill it. If there's silence, let the silence play."

The toughest part of his job is presenting honest portraits of people he has to revisit. "I let them, though I fight them, take material out. I have to keep in their good books, to keep going back."

Sometimes, this is difficult. "I bitterly resent the series," says John. Three of the original l4 subjects dropped out of "35 Up," but Apted hopes to have them back for "42 Up."

The director says he has no idea what this year's interviews will produce. "You never know what documentaries are about until you shoot them." Then, the film emerges in the editing room, where he winnows five hours of talks with each subject into about 10 on-screen minutes. "42 Up" will be released in 1999.

Apted has just finished a documentary on creativity, focusing on what inspired six artists. He squeezes in such work between feature assignments and finds that one genre feeds the other. "Documentary work gets me lots of jobs," he says. "It's such a jungle in Hollywood that you need a calling card." His is the ability to get a nonfiction feel into features.

He was hired for "Gorillas in the Mist," for example, because his documentary and feature experience was right for the story of animal-rights activist Dian Fossey. Similarly, the producers of "Nell" wanted a "documentary feel" to the plight of a barely verbal backwoods girl brought into society.

Apted has even presented two versions of the same event - a long-disputed murder on an Indian reservation - with the fictional "Thunderheart" and the factual "Incident at Oglala."

"I do what's there at the time," he says. "Fiction can work on a more complex level, while a documentary is rawer. On both you make creative choices. Documentaries keep me honest. They keep me in the real world."

With no current features on his plate, Apted is launching into more British, American, and Russian installments of the "Ups" series. "It's the first job I ever did, and I'm going to keep on doing it."

* Michael Apted's 'Ups' films are not rated.

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