Being unstoppable

Michael Apted on growing up, Wild Strawberries, Coronation Street, Paul Almond and getting to 63 Up

by Anne-Katrin Titze

63 Up director Michael Apted will be doing a Q&A with Anne-Katrin Titze at Film Forum in New York on November 29 following the 6:20pm screening.
63 Up director Michael Apted will be doing a Q&A with Anne-Katrin Titze at Film Forum in New York on November 29 following the 6:20pm screening. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In the second instalment of my in-depth conversation with Michael Apted at BritBox in New York, he talked about his family, going to school in London after the Second World War “a city that was building itself again”, the impact of seeing Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries by chance as a teenager, the Up happenstance with director Paul Almond, Granada TV, Mike Newell (Cormac Newell) and Coronation Street, being authentic “whether it's James Bond (The World Is Not Enough) or whatever”, and feeling like an 'unstoppable' filmmaker (with Gorillas In The Mist, Coal Miner's Daughter, Enigma, Gorky Park, Extreme Measures, Amazing Grace).

Tony - 63 Up
Tony - 63 Up

Michael Apted and Martin Scorsese earlier this month received Visionaries Tribute Lifetime Achievement honours from DOC NYC and the 63 Up director was given the Critics Choice Documentary Landmark Award for his Up series of TV documentaries.

We begin where Michael and I left off with his early childhood and end with a Prince Guard memory of mine, that for him recalls Suzy, who regretted not being in 63 Up.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Who were you at seven?

Michael Apted: Who was I? Very quiet. I was the oldest of three children. Lived in a bungalow in Ilford in Essex, Redbridge, to be precise. Had a sister and a brother, and I was quite good at school. My father had gone to a good school in London, City of London School.

So I got in when I was 11. That meant that I had to travel up to London every day of my school life, get on the tube, the Central Line, and go into central London to Blackfriars and get off there and go to school. And so I learned a lot about the world.

Jackie, Lynn and Sue at age seven
Jackie, Lynn and Sue at age seven

AKT: Watching people!

MA: Watching people in a great city at work. A city that was building itself again, you know, after the Second World War. So that was a rare childhood. I remember at the age of seventeen, sports had been cancelled, so we were sent home.

And I was walking down Oxford Street and there was this cinema, and it was playing Ingmar Bergman. I thought "What's this?" So I went in and I thought "Oh my god, this is something".

AKT: Which film was it?

MA: I'm getting senile. I've said it a thousand times. Wild Strawberries! [He gives himself a drumroll].

AKT: There you go.

MA: It was like night and day. Because I liked going to the movies sometime, more often than not to stare at girls. Because I was far too shy to talk to girls or anything like that.

63 Up has the US theatrical premiere at Film Forum in New York
63 Up has the US theatrical premiere at Film Forum in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Do you feel that this is all still you? You are asking this question to the people in your film - is this seven-year-old boy still you? For Tony, the jockey/taxi driver, whom you start with in 63 Up, it's so clear. The horses are there and the answer is still very much “yes”.

MA: I didn't really choose the kids. They asked a Canadian director, Paul Almond, to do it. Paul was Canadian. He died last year. He really didn't get it. I was only 22 but I got it. You know, the class thing. My mother was very socialist and she took me into that world.

My father wasn't particularly political, but she was. She wasn't a professional woman. She was a woman with three children, which she had about five years apart. So she was a busy woman, who from birth was very left-wing. When I became aware of politics, I became very left-wing. She defined my politics.

AKT: The class structure is one part of the program. There is another, almost magical aspect to it as well. Every seven years they emerge and present themselves to you and the camera. Some want to show themselves on holiday in New York, others present themselves in a zoo in Australia. Again. Because in the first one, the kids were in a zoo.

MA: I started in documentary. My secret was to become a movie director. I didn't tell anybody that.

Michael Apted on Prince Guard Anne-Katrin Titze: “There you are. You look like an airline pilot. You're the Suzy, the posh girl, who wouldn't appear in this one.”
Michael Apted on Prince Guard Anne-Katrin Titze: “There you are. You look like an airline pilot. You're the Suzy, the posh girl, who wouldn't appear in this one.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Every time I see a new Up film, I think about what people are wearing. And how a costume designer would have a …

MA: … nervous breakdown?

AKT: No! Actually a field day for accuracy. It's so perfect how you capture the state of clothing at a certain time and place and class. If somebody wanted to be really precise about costumes

MA: … just watch these films!

AKT: Yes, as the perfect resource of not having clichés. Do you ever use them [the Up films] this way for your own fiction films?

MA: Whatever I've done, whether it's James Bond or whatever, I've always tried to be authentic about it. That's the residue of starting out doing documentaries. After Seven Up! was done, I went to Granada and said "I want to do Coronation Street."

Mike Newell, had been on holiday. I took over his and it worked out quite well. Then I went back to documentaries and Coronation Street and other things. And from then on I was unstoppable.

AKT: In the most recent Up instalment, it becomes clear how much happened in seven years. Brexit is there as a question, the taxi driver has problems because of Uber cars. So it's also a little snapshot of time.

Michael Apted on Suzy, who is not in 63 Up: “She drove me mad for years and years. And then she always turned up. This time she didn't.”
Michael Apted on Suzy, who is not in 63 Up: “She drove me mad for years and years. And then she always turned up. This time she didn't.”

MA: Which is also why I only see them every seventh year. I don't have a relationship with them outside the shooting of it. I really don't see them because I don't really want to know. I only want to find out what's fresh in the 7-year gap. I need to know what they've been doing in the seventh year.

AKT: This time around many of their parents died, which is natural.

MA: If you were to break down every year of their lives, you couldn't possibly be doing this. Unless it was spectacular, like they got married or something like that, then I'd shoot it. Other than that, I'd only shoot in the seventh year.

AKT: Thom Powers honoured you with the DOC NYC Lifetime Achievement Awards - congratulations!

MA: Ah, yes.

AKT: I asked Thom about the first documentary he ever saw. He said, he didn't remember, but what he did remember was seeing 28 Up. You're his Wild Strawberries!

MA: Ha! There you go.

63 Up poster at Film Forum - Friday, November 29, 6:20 Q&A with Michael Apted, moderated by Anne-Katrin Titze is SOLD OUT! online
63 Up poster at Film Forum - Friday, November 29, 6:20 Q&A with Michael Apted, moderated by Anne-Katrin Titze is SOLD OUT! online Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I have something to show you, too. This is a picture of me at age seven, that I found online only last month, and I never knew existed. I was in the Prince Guard. I'm in the top row, fifth one from the right. I had no idea that this photo existed.

MA: How did you find it?

AKT: I stumbled upon an article about this children's ballet and Prince Guard. So I clicked on it and I see this picture and I find myself in it. It was right before seeing your film.

MA: That's fantastic. I could make a film about you journalists who come and see it.

AKT: And how we were then. My arm up and all serious and dressed up.

MA [puts on his glasses]: There you are. You look like an airline pilot. You're the Suzy, the posh girl, who wouldn't appear in this one [63 Up].

AKT: Suzy?

MA: She drove me mad for years and years. And then she always turned up. This time she didn't. And the next day I got a phone call saying "I should have done it." I said "Absolutely, you should. It's too late now."

She always thinks she was a fool, but she wasn't. She wasn't remotely foolish. Just because she came from that background. She had a voice in the film, no female voice was like it in the film. Can you do a copy of that [photo]?

Michael Apted on seeing Wild Strawberries: “I was walking down Oxford Street and there was this cinema, and it was playing Ingmar Bergman. I thought ‘What's this?’ So I went in and I thought ‘Oh my god, this is something’.”
Michael Apted on seeing Wild Strawberries: “I was walking down Oxford Street and there was this cinema, and it was playing Ingmar Bergman. I thought ‘What's this?’ So I went in and I thought ‘Oh my god, this is something’.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: You want the Prince Guard photo of me?

MA: Yeah.

AKT: Take it. Keep it.

MA: Is this the only copy in the world?

AKT: It isn't. This one is yours.

Read what Michael Apted had to say 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.”

16 days of 63 Up at Film Forum in New York runs from Wednesday, November 27 through Thursday, December 12.

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