Keeping his word

Michael Apted in conversation on 63 Up

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Michael Apted with Anne-Katrin Titze at BritBox in New York on Granada TV head Denis Forman and a World in Action show leading to 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up, 56 Up, and 63 Up: “He said ‘Have you ever thought of going back to see these people?’ I said ‘That's an extremely good idea.’ It was so obvious that we were on to something.”
Michael Apted with Anne-Katrin Titze at BritBox in New York on Granada TV head Denis Forman and a World in Action show leading to 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, 28 Up, 35 Up, 42 Up, 49 Up, 56 Up, and 63 Up: “He said ‘Have you ever thought of going back to see these people?’ I said ‘That's an extremely good idea.’ It was so obvious that we were on to something.” Photo: Vince Johnson

At the Critics Choice Documentary Awards on Sunday, at BRIC in Brooklyn, Michael Apted, the director of Gorillas In The Mist (Oscar nominated Sigourney Weaver as Dian Fossey, second unit director Simon Trevor - White Gold); Coal Miner's Daughter (Oscar winner Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn, Tommy Lee Jones, Levon Helm); The World Is Not Enough (Pierce Brosnan as James Bond); Enigma (Kate Winslet, Dougray Scott, Saffron Burrows, screenplay Tom Stoppard); Gorky Park (William Hurt, Lee Marvin, Brian Dennehy); Extreme Measures (Hugh Grant, Gene Hackman, Sarah Jessica Parker), and Amazing Grace (Albert Finney, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Gambon, Ioan Gruffudd, Romola Garai) received a Landmark Award for his Up series of TV documentaries.

Sissy Spacek won an Oscar as Loretta Lynn in Michael Apted’s Coal Miner's Daughter
Sissy Spacek won an Oscar as Loretta Lynn in Michael Apted’s Coal Miner's Daughter

Michael Apted at BritBox in New York gave me some insight on the evolution of his multiple award-winning Up series of documentaries, the importance of Denis Forman at Granada TV, being on a “tightrope” with the participants over the years, going into Virginia Woolf territory, and why seven is a “magical number.”

The director of 63 Up joined Martin Scorsese (Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese) in being honoured with Lifetime Achievement Awards at the fifth annual Visionaries Tribute event on November 7 at the tenth anniversary of DOC NYC.

Anne-Katrin Titze: There is nothing like the Up series, I think.

Michael Apted: There is not. I can vouch for it. There is nothing like it.

AKT: Also for audiences. You never meet people every seven years, forget about them, and are then thrown back together with them after seven years.

Sigourney Weaver on the White Gold red carpet at MoMA in New York
Sigourney Weaver on the White Gold red carpet at MoMA in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MA: We realised that. I mean, I realised it about three days filming into the second show, number two. This is number nine.

AKT: Two was when they were 14.

MA: Yes, 14. I remember saying to Granada, because I was on the staff of Granada then, "If we're going to do this, I want to do it." I said, "I don't want to particularly work in England for the rest of my life. I want to go to America and work and blah, blah, blah. But I guarantee to you that if we do this every seven years, I will be there." They took me at my word, I delivered my word and here I am. 105 years old and still doing it.

AKT: Ha! You started with 14 children. Are they all still there? I saw 63 Up. Are there 12 participating or mentioned?

MA: One of the three girls is dead.

AKT: Lynn.

MA: Lynn died. I think that's it. One left fairly early, at 21. One showed up for 28, he's still alive. The irony of that was, he went into our business.

Sigourney Weaver was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Dian Fossey in Michael Apted’s Gorillas In The Mist
Sigourney Weaver was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Dian Fossey in Michael Apted’s Gorillas In The Mist

AKT: Well, he preferred to be behind the scenes.

MA: Maybe, but he got a real mouthful from me. I couldn't believe it. I mean, no one knew how long-lasting it was going to be, but clearly it had a chance to be something. If enough people, Granada, and, I suppose, me, decided that we wanted to keep it going, then it would. Because the first one was phenomenal. Then it took five years before anybody said "Should we go back and look at them?" I said "Yes, that's a great idea."

And it was a great idea. And that's when I put my deal with them, that I would show up every seven years as long as I was alive and well. It's been quite difficult to keep them all together. Some are great and love it and can't wait, some are a pain in the bottom, but on the whole I've got all of them.

AKT: It's immensely invasive.

MA: I never lie to them. We're very open about that. If they don't want to talk about something we don't do it. Sometimes I think we should do it. Sometimes they change their mind and sometimes they don't. And also they get the last look at the cut.

White Gold director and Gorillas In The Mist second unit director Simon Trevor
White Gold director and Gorillas In The Mist second unit director Simon Trevor Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

So when we actually have the cut that we're going to broadcast, they can see it. And if they've got any more trouble then they can fight it out with me, or if they're right and I wasn't a man of my word, then I would have to take it out.

AKT: Some people you provoke quite a bit.

MA: Yes.

AKT: Commenting to Neil, for example, "At seven and 14 everyone loved you." Implying - what about now?

MA: It's a nice little moment, because he never questioned it. I mean, he knows he's led an anti-social life. In fact, his life early on - it was tough because his parents were tough. I mean, I'm on a tightrope, because if I lie to them, they won't come back.

And to me that's the most important thing. It's that they come back. Even if I have to lose something that was really central to it, whatever. I still think it's better to keep their good will.

AKT: More sugar than whip?

Michael Apted with the 63 Up poster at BritBox in New York: “When we chose seven we didn't think it was going to be any more than one film.”
Michael Apted with the 63 Up poster at BritBox in New York: “When we chose seven we didn't think it was going to be any more than one film.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MA: Well definitely.

AKT: For your circus animals.

MA: You're a tough one, aren't you? [joking to the PR person at the other corner of the room] Can we get rid of her? Shall we open the trap door?

AKT: Like Lubitsch, you mean? Heaven Can Wait?

MA: Just call and say "When is she arriving?" No, anyway. We've been together so long, over 50 years. On the whole, it's been very very well-received and considered as being decent and they haven't all rushed to the press and said blah, blah, blah. Because I do keep to my word. I'll fight them if there's stuff I think we should have in.

If they put their foot down and say "You can't do it," then I won't do it. Because I'd rather have you say what you say now and have them all aboard. I'm sure there's more stuff, violent stuff, cheeky stuff that we didn't deal with. I'd rather have that than lose them. That's the power of the thing. Now I've got nine of them.

And I think I've got 12 of the 14. One died. I'm ahead of the game. I haven't got like three people left. There are things that happened that they don't want anybody to know about and I have to honour that.

AKT: Of course.

MA: It doesn't do me any good.

Michael Apted on getting to 63 Up: “I couldn't believe it. I mean, no one knew how long-lasting it was going to be, but clearly it had a chance to be something.”
Michael Apted on getting to 63 Up: “I couldn't believe it. I mean, no one knew how long-lasting it was going to be, but clearly it had a chance to be something.”

AKT: The series says so much about time. When you edit the older programs into it, it becomes this strange kaleidoscope of living in time. Almost circular time. I'm thinking of Virginia Woolf territory. You present all of their selves at once.

MA: She's clever, isn't she? This is the most informed interview I've ever done on this. Seriously, and I'm not being sarcastic to you. People know that I'm not lying because there it is on television.

What you just said is interesting and I always felt, well, if it's that important then she or he is never going to give it to me. So be it. Sometimes people change their mind. If I don't get it this time, then I go over it again next time or the time after that and then I'll have something.

AKT: It also at times feels like a Rip Van Winkle story.

MA: Yes, that's what we want it to be, honestly. It is a look at the background. I wish it could be bigger.

Tenth annual DOC NYC, dedicated to DA Pennebaker
Tenth annual DOC NYC, dedicated to DA Pennebaker Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Have more people?

MA: No, I think it's a good number. You can't watch it all the time. You can't expect a company, Granada, or whatever they're called now…

AKT: Bigger in which sense?

MA: Well, more people. I don't want to start over again. I had no idea how popular it would be. The first one was revolutionary. The miracle of the first one was that it created a discussion in the media, not just on television. I was kind of surprised, it never occurred to me to make another one, I have to confess to you.

Then the head of Granada, Denis Forman, who was managing director of it, came to see me five years after. I was still working at Granada, and he said "Have you ever thought of going back to see these people?" I said "That's an extremely good idea."

AKT: Then it was clear.

MA: Then it was clear. The first week of shooting 14, I rang him up and said "This is great. But I'm going to tell you, if this is going to go on, I have to do it." It was so obvious that we were on to something.

AKT: Also the number 7 turned out to be great, all because of the Jesuit maxim [Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man]. It turned out to be by chance the perfect number. Not just The Seven Year Itch.

MA: You're right, it is a magical number.

AKT: The seven days of the week, the seven dwarfs. Folktales are filled with sevens.

MA: I think they realised that too. When we chose seven we didn't think it was going to be any more than one film. We were suggesting in our ignorance, or innocence perhaps, that seven was an important number to put it on.

AKT: Who were you at seven?

MA: Who was I? Very quiet. I was the oldest of three children ... (to be continued with Michael Apted)

63 Up opens at Film Forum in New York on November 27.

The 10th DOC NYC runs through November 15 at Cinépolis Chelsea, SVA Theatre, IFC Center.

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