As filmographies go, director Michael Apted’s is among the more bewildering. In his role as SBIFF’s first guest director, Apted will present his new film Amazing Grace and his 1992 film Thunderheart. Also to his credit are films as varied as Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey, Gorky Park, and even a Bond flick, The World Is Not Enough.
But the film work for which he’ll go down in history is a radical project involving the word Up. In 1964, the British director made a television documentary, Seven Up!, studying the lives and feelings of seven-year-olds from London’s East End. Every seven years since, Apted has revisited the same people and checked in on their lives.
The film 49 Up, released in 2005 and screening at the festival as part of Apted’s residency here, was one of the strongest installments yet, colored by the settling force of life on the brink of 50; it also questions the probing, existential nature of the project they’re all caught up in — Apted included.
Last week, I spoke with Apted on the phone from his office in L.A. His conversational manner, with which fans of the Up series are familiar, is warm and engaging, but resistant to easy sentimentality.
Your new film is Amazing Grace, about the 18th-century British abolitionist William Wilberforce. What led you to become interested in that piece? I’ve always been interested in politics and have always wanted to do a film about politics. I never could find one in the contemporary world, because they’re difficult to do. The reason I wanted to do one is because I felt politics had become totally discredited, which I felt was an unhealthy thing for it to be in society. I was interested in trying to find a story that was optimistic and positive. But it was hard to find one on the modern menu.
You said you wouldn’t want to deal with politics in the modern age. Is that because the stories are still in flux or because it’s hard to find heroes? Maybe every generation feels this way about politics, but there does seem to be an astonishing negativity about it, I must say. Politicians are simply viewed as liars and thieves. I have a feeling it’s more so now. When I was growing up in the ’60s, I don’t remember having that feeling about the Kennedys. I think there have been moments when people felt positive about politics, but maybe Watergate changed that.
Speaking of history — and history in the making — 49 Up seems to have reached a new height. Do you have a strong feeling about this one? It was the most emotional of all of them. It had a lot to do with my relationship with them. Sometimes, it gets volatile, but definitely we’re closer. I think the age gap between us, which is 15 years, gets smaller and smaller as we get older and older. So I sense greater bonding, and greater intimacy. Maybe through that, we get more emotional stuff out of it.
In the film’s confrontational scene between you and Jackie, she commented on your having the ultimate say in the editing room. This is true of all documentaries, but this one in particular is a massive and sensitive editing project, isn’t it? Yes, colossal. I remember having long discussions, sometimes violent and in public, with my friend Albert Maysles. He held the position that there was something pure about the documentary genre, rather than the fiction genre. I told him that was a complete load of bollocks. Editing a documentary is someone’s judgment call, unless you just point the camera at the Empire State Building for eight hours and say “that’s it.” You’re involved every step of the way.
I’ve always felt that — that sometimes it’s easier to manipulate people in documentaries than in fiction. You’re going into a documentary with a certain sense of trust in the audience that they’re going to see something real. It’s easy to abuse that trust.
The early ’70s documentary television series An American Family was shot here in Santa Barbara, chronicling the adventures of the Loud family. Your project set the stage for that, didn’t it? Yes, I suppose, unwittingly, yes. I’m also accused of setting the stage for reality television, although I think it might have happened without me.
That was one of the issues, really, and why there was so much interest with the people in the film to talk about being in the film. Reality television wasn’t something that existed during 42 Up, while it’s very much in evidence now. I think they were somewhat disconcerted by it all, wondering if this wasn’t reality television and if they were part of some cheap, sleazy form of entertainment, or whether this had higher ambitions. What really is the difference between reality television and a documentary?
Do you feel the Up films have had a notable influence on your fiction work? In a broad sense, I think documentaries have a huge influence on my fiction work. I think I approach my fiction work with a documentary soul. That’s the way I get some jobs, but it’s just the way I do anything — even James Bond. I believe the truth is stranger than fiction, and if I have problems with the script or something, I’ll be more likely to research the reality of it rather than attempt to invent something. Also, the way I shoot and the people I put in films is all informed by the documentary soul.