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Remembering Michael Apted, Creator Of The 'Up' Documentary Series


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Michael Apted, the film director best known for a series of documentaries depicting the lives of a group of British citizens roughly once every seven years from childhood through their 60s, died last week in Los Angeles. He was 79. Besides his work on the so-called "Up" series, Apted made a variety of feature films, including "Coal Miner's Daughter," "Gorillas In The Mist" and the James Bond movie "The World Is Not Enough."

Apted was a young researcher at Granada Television in England when he helped pick the 14 7-year-olds featured in the 1964 documentary called "Seven Up!" - a film which explored how the British class system shaped kids' lives. Seven years later, Apted decided to reinterview the children to see how things were going, and a lifelong project was born. The New York Times called it the most profound documentary series in the history of cinema. Terry spoke to Michael Apted in 2013, when the eighth documentary in the series had been released.


TERRY GROSS: Michael Apted, welcome and thank you for joining us. Let me go back to the very beginning. When "Seven Up!" was first made, you were the researcher for the series.


GROSS: You weren't yet the director, which you became. So one of the things you had to do was choose the children. How did you go about choosing them?

APTED: Well, it was pretty arbitrary and very quick. It was part of a weekly series of programs, World in Action. I would ring the schools up. The schools - I said, would you help us make this film? And they would say yes or no. Then I'd go to the school and say to the teachers teaching the 7-year-olds, bring me your brightest and your best. And I would look at them, talk to them and then pick a couple. And the next thing that happened was, you know, there they were in front of the camera.

So it was done in a very arbitrary way because we weren't interested in the personalities so much. We needed children who could - weren't fazed by us, who could speak to us. But we weren't looking for any particular characteristics. We were just interested in their backgrounds. The idea of the film was to examine the British class system in 1963-64 to see whether it was changing, seeing if it was reflecting the great cultural upheavals they were growing up in, the United Kingdom from The Beatles onwards.

So instead of getting professionals in to talk about it, the idea was that we would get some 7-year-old children from different backgrounds - from rich backgrounds, from poor backgrounds, from rural backgrounds like in the kitchen, from people who were removed from their parents - to get within about 14 children and have them talk about their lives, their ambitions, their dreams and whatever and see whether that told us anything.

And of course, it did because it was both very funny and also chilling, showing that, in fact, the class system was very active and that people in certain backgrounds had a real vision of their future and others really didn't know what day it was. And so, you know, it made that point, and the rest is history.

GROSS: So what was it like for you? What's it been like for you every seven years to drop in on these people's lives and, you know, ask them about the landmark events that have happened in the seven-year interim?

APTED: What can I say? I mean, it's the favorite thing I've ever done, the thing I'm most proud of. It's nerve-wracking because you always think you're going to blow it and you'll wreck the whole thing. It seems fragile. And I've learned a lot of lessons about it. I've made mistakes on it and had to correct those mistakes. And, you know, particularly I got into a situation, I think, early on when I became judgmental about people, that if they didn't agree with my standards of success, failure, happiness, whatever, then, you know, that I would feel they were the lesser for it.

And also, I tried to play God. I tried to predict what might happen to people and sort of set it all up for that. And I did that, and that was an embarrassing mistake. And I think what I've learned all the way through is the less I do, the better, the more I let them speak for themselves because what's so interesting about the films to me is that they're all different. They all have a different tone to them. The "56" took me completely by surprise. And my feeling is if I'd gone in just to update "49" when I did "56" and ask the same questions and see what the response would be, then I wouldn't have got such an interesting film out.

I, in a way, try and become like a blank slate and start all over again and have a conversation with them about their lives and what's going on and try not to lead them anywhere I think they should be led and let them do the leading

DAVIES: We're remembering filmmaker Michael Apted, who directed the "so called" "Up" series documenting the lives of a group of British citizens from childhood through their 60s. He died last week. Terry spoke with Apted in 2013. She also interviewed Nick Hitchon, one of those followed in the series. Hitchon is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. They began with a clip from the documentary, showing how he'd responded at the ages of 7, 14 and 28 to the question, do you have a girlfriend?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Do you have a girlfriend?

NICK HITCHON: I don't want to answer that. I don't want to answer those kind of questions.


HITCHON: I thought that one would come up because when I was doing the last one (ph), we said, what do you think about girls? And I said, I don't answer questions like that. Is that the reason you're asking it?


HITCHON: The best answer would be to say that I don't answer questions like that. But - you know, it was what I said when I was 7, and it's still the most sensible - but, I mean, what about them?


GROSS: Nick, I'm sure you've seen "56 Up" once or more times (laughter).

HITCHON: No, I haven't.

GROSS: Excuse me. You haven't?

HITCHON: No, I haven't.

GROSS: Really? That's a statement. Why not?

HITCHON: Oh, it's - I mean, I think this is a wonderful project, but it's a profoundly uncomfortable thing for me. I don't willingly watch myself.

GROSS: Because?

HITCHON: It feels so very, very uncomfortable.

GROSS: Is it uncomfortable because you just don't like watching and hearing yourself? Or is it uncomfortable because you don't want to see your life played out in front of the camera in seven-year increments?

HITCHON: Both of those things. I don't like the sound of my own voice. I think I look ridiculous (laughter). And if I say that I'm uncomfortable with this, it doesn't mean that I don't like the project, and it doesn't mean I'm mad at Michael. But I am deeply uncomfortable doing the interviews. And - but I don't - I pretend while I'm being interviewed that it's just a chat. I pretend to myself that nobody else is watching. And I don't want that particular bubble burst.

GROSS: (Laughter) Has your level of discomfort changed over the years?

HITCHON: It actually seems to have got more so. And it's very hard to explain. Before the "49 Up" taping happened, Michael came and visited for a couple of days, and we just talked about what we might discuss. And after he left, I was just depressed for two days, and I couldn't figure out why. And I can't altogether tell you why. But there's something really disturbing about the process for me. Some of it is just the issue that I'm really scared that I'm going to get on there and I'm going to hurt other people that I care about by something I say. So it's just profoundly worrying to me.

GROSS: Do you also feel a certain pressure that every seven years your life sort of had, like, an incremental change where, like, you climb the ladder of success or, you know, accomplish something wonderful in your personal life or, you know, found a new measure of happiness or - do you know what I mean? - so that you could demonstrate something to yourself and to those of us watching?

HITCHON: Actually, no. I mean, some of the people involved do feel that way. I never have. And you see, I've been insulated from that because I've always been portrayed as somebody who started out quite disadvantaged. So anything that I did was always, you know, oh, look how clever he was (laughter), you know? He came from a background where it was going to be hard for him to get up in the morning. So you know, I always looked good.

GROSS: Right, because you grew up on a farm. You went to a one-room schoolhouse. And now you're a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. So yeah, you've accomplished a lot. So how did you get into this in the first place, considering how uncomfortable you are with the whole project?

HITCHON: Well, I was - (laughter) hey, as far as I knew, they put a camera in front of me and asked me some questions. And I love to talk to people. So these people were talking to me. I chatted to them perfectly happily.

GROSS: What have the ground rules been for you? Like, if you say something and you're sorry you said it because you think it might offend your mother or, you know, offend somebody else in your life and be misinterpreted, or it's something you decided was just too personal, you were sorry you said it, do you have the right to say to the director, Michael Apted, I regret I said that. Can we delete it? Can we edit it out?

HITCHON: Oh, yes. Michael's always been very good about that sort of thing. So yeah, that's - the problem comes when he says, I want to talk about this because it's interesting. And so I say, OK. We'll talk about it. I mean, these are important things to talk about. You know, he's not being sneaky about it. But there are just things that are hard that he wants to talk about. And I agree, maybe these things need talking about. But they're still hard.

GROSS: Well, thank you for talking with us.

HITCHON: You're welcome.

GROSS: That was Nick Hitchon, one of the subjects of the documentary "56 Up." Let's get back to my conversation with the director of the "Up" series, Michael Apted.

So you heard what Nick Hitchon had to say about being in the series and how he really respects the series and really likes you. But it's just painful to be a part of it. And it's hard for him to watch it. And he usually doesn't watch it. Does it make you wince at all to hear that?

APTED: No, I don't think so. I mean, he's very willing to be in it. And he's very, very good. He has very incisive things to say, you know, about himself and about society and about his life. There are others who feel the same as he do, that don't watch it. But that doesn't particularly worry me. I mean, it would worry me if they didn't want to do it or I was dragging their ankles to the fire and all this sort of stuff. But, no, it doesn't worry me that he feels like that. He's a great contributor and has some of the most, you know, intelligent and interesting things to say about what we're talking about.

GROSS: What did surprise you about "56 Up"?

APTED: Well, that people seemed happy. I mean, I thought they would be getting depressed, worried about age, very worried about the economic climate, looking back on their lives, maybe, sometimes with regret. But, no. I mean, what was so interesting to me was that, you know, a lot of them had found real kind of comfort in their families and their extended families.

I was of the belief in my life that you can't have everything, you know, that I had pursued a career. I was ambitious. And I paid a price for it. I wasn't as good a father as I - or a husband as I should have been. And sometimes I thought, well, maybe that's my way and maybe that's the right way. But then I saw the payoff that people who'd put their energies into their families and their loyalties into their families at this age in their mid-50s. You know, they've got real pleasure and power from it.

DAVIES: Film director Michael Apted speaking with Terry Gross in 2013. Apted died last week at the age of 79. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to the interview Terry recorded in 2013 with filmmaker Michael Apted, who directed a series of documentaries - roughly one every seven years - about a group of British citizens from childhood through their 60s. Apted died last week at the age of 79. Here's a clip from the latest "Up" film, "56 Up," with Neil Hughes, who talked about the possibility of having kids, starting with his response at age 7.


NEIL HUGHES: When I get married, I don't want to have any children because they are always doing naughty things and making the whole house untidy.

I always told myself that I would never have children.


HUGHES: Because - well, because children inherit something from their parents. And even if my wife were the most high-spirited and ordinary and normal of people, the child would still stand a very fair chance of being not totally full of happiness because what he or she will have inherited from me.

GROSS: I'm interested in hearing some of the ground rules that - so to speak - that you've set for the "Up" series. I know, for instance, like, you've paid the interviewees in the movie. Was it that way from the start? Or was that something that you instituted in subsequent films?

APTED: Yeah. I started paying them at 28, you know, when we became, as it were, more international. Once you came to America, the film - "28" was the first one to be shown in America - you know, then, there was sort of some money around in terms of, you know, royalties and things like that. And so we - you know, there was that money going around. We would give them their share of it.

But I also thought they should have a fee for being in it. It was very, very small. But it's increased over the years - not that the films make money, but, you know, I feel they should be paid for it. And so I juggle the budget around, you know, so I can pay them a bit more each time because I think what they do is courageous and not many people would do it. So why shouldn't they get some material advantages out of it?

GROSS: And when you ask a question and you know that that question is making the person you're interviewing uncomfortable and maybe pushing them to speak a little more privately than they'd care, how do you balance your desire to be protective of them, because they've become people who you care very much about, with your desire to get the best film possible, which probably means pushing them a little bit past their comfort zones?

APTED: Yeah. What you have to understand is there's a set of rules when you do longitudinal films. You know, you have to behave yourself as the director, as the interviewer, because you want them to come back. I mean, if they say they don't want to talk about something and I ask them the question and I embarrass them or unsettle them, and then I insist on using it, then they'll never come back. So I do have these moments. I have moments when, you know, I know there's a question I've got to ask them. I know there's a question that if I don't ask it, the audience will say, why didn't he ask that? And I know that question might be hurtful.

Now, to some of them, I wouldn't ask it because it would break them down. Others, I think, are more resilient. And I ask it. And sometimes, they get upset about it. And then we have the discussion about do I use it? Or do I not use it? And, you know, that happened in "56 Up" sort of fairly graphically. And we had this discussion. And, you know, we used it in the film. So it's that sort of process. But it differs from what you do, in a way, because you have me here once. And you can use whatever you want because you probably won't want me back again.

GROSS: (Laughter).

APTED: But with these people, I want them back

GROSS: Never (laughter).

APTED: You know, I'm not being childish. But I want them back. And so - you know, I do have to behave myself.

GROSS: So can you give us an example of something that you actually, you know, talked about whether to use or not use that was...

APTED: Yeah. I mean, it was with Tony, the jockey, you know, the - we just - we've had long discussions over the last three or four films about the changing racial profile of the East End of London, which he left. And he left because, you know, he regarded it as being invaded by Bangladeshis, you know, by people from, you know, particularly Asian communities. And the East End of London has changed dramatically. You know, and he has had things to say about that. Sometimes I wondered whether he was pushing it too far, what he was saying. And so in "56," I just came out with it and said, you know, you sound to me, Tony, as though you're being racist. And he answered that. And he was very indignant about it and upset about it. And I thought he answered it very well. And so I put it in the program.

And then, you know, he knew I'd put - he asked, had I put it in? And I said, yes. And he said, how is it? And I said, well, I think you should look at it. So he looked it. And he said, I don't know what to do. And I said, well, I think you answered it well. That's my opinion. So he - you know, he took some advice from family and whatever and decided to keep it in. But that was an example of the process that can go on between us because we all have a commitment to, as it were, staying on the same page.

GROSS: Do you expect the people in the "Up" series to keep you updated as to where they are so you can find them every seven years? And I'm thinking especially here of Neil, who is somebody who seems to have struggled most of his life with depression - and, like, really serious depression - and maybe other issues as well. And there was a period, an extended period, where he was homeless. And I don't know how you track down somebody like Neil when they're in that part of their life.

APTED: We did lose track of Neil a bit at 28. And so we did have to try and, you know, get through some piece of bureaucracy to find him. He's always been, you know, very willing to do it. And he's incredibly articulate, as you know if you've seen them. But he's been a worry. I mean, you know, what a rollercoaster he's had. And it hasn't ended badly. It's not - you know, in his 20s, we did think whether we would lose him, literally. But he was - you know, he recovered himself in his early 40s and 42, 49, 56. You know, there's - again, there's a sort of solid ground there. But, you know, you get the sense of a very fragile personality, but a very intelligent and articulate man.

GROSS: So do you have to grapple with feelings of responsibility for the people whose lives you're documenting during those periods of their lives when they're in trouble?

APTED: Well, I would. Yes. And I have done. Yes. I mean, you know, I've given up any notion of objectivity. I mean, you know, I care about them all. And if they need help and I can help or they need advice and I can give it, then, certainly, I do. Yes. I don't shut myself off and say, look; I'm a documentarian here. And I have to be objective, so please be quiet. And I'll see you in seven years. It can't exist like that.

GROSS: Are you saying there were times you actually, like, helped people out?

APTED: Yeah. Sure.

GROSS: What kinds of things, if you don't mind my asking? And if you do, that's fine.

APTED: No, I don't mind. I mean, I've lent money to one or two of them if they've needed it. And they've always paid it back. But, you know, if they're in trouble with stuff, I've always been prepared to help. And, you know, on a brighter side, a cheerful side, I mean, if people come out to California, they come and stay with me. Bruce was here this summer with his wife and two kids. And Nick's been out with his son and stayed with me. And I love all that. And if I have a movie opening in London, I always, you know, hire a theater and invite them all and their neighbors and friends to show it. It's great for me to be able to do something for them without - you know, without me asking for stuff in return. I mean, I'm always the supplicant asking them to do things. And it's nice when I can do things for them when I'm not asking for anything, just to give them something and to have a good time.

GROSS: Michael Apted, thank you so much for talking with us, and congratulations on yet another in the series of "Up" movies.

APTED: Well, thanks. Nice to talk to you.

DAVIES: Film director Michael Apted spoke with Terry Gross in 2013. Apted died last week in Los Angeles. He was 79. After a break, we'll remember two others who recently passed away, screenwriter William Link, who co-created the TV series "Columbo" and "Murder She Wrote," and Vietnam War correspondent Neil Sheehan. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.