As filmographies go, director Michael
Apted’s is among the more bewildering—or healthily diversified,
depending on how one looks at it. In his role as the film
festival’s first “guest director,” Apted the fiction film director
will present his new film Amazing Grace and his
1992 film Thunderheart. Also to
his credit are films as varied as Coalminer’s Daughter,
Gorillas in the Mist, Gorky Park and even a James
Bond flick, The World is Not Enough.
Still, the film—or ongoing series of films—he will go down in
history for is a radical project
involving the word “Up.” In 1964, the British director made a
television documentary 7 Up, studying the
lives, thoughts and feelings of a varied group of seven-year-olds
from London’s East End. Every seven years since then, as if
provoked by an itch and now by a process that refuses to stop,
Apted has revisited the same people and checked in on their
Up, which screens 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, and also
questions about the probing, existential nature of the project
they’re all caught up in—Apted included.
We caught up with Apted on the phone from his office in L.A.
recently. His conversational manner, which fans of the Up
series know, is warm and engaging, but resistant to easy
You have had a very diverse filmography. Has its twists
and turns along the way surprised you?
I’ve always struggled to keep the two strands of it going, with
the documentary and the fiction side. But otherwise, I’ve just
rolled with the punches. I’ve tried to do stuff that I want to do,
rather than stuff that financially I need to do. I can’t think of
many occasions when I’ve had to suck it in, think of England, and
When I’ve made decisions, they just seemed natural, whether it
was to come to America and stay in America, or do a James Bond
film. That’s one of the more startling entries on my C.V., but I’ve
just always been on the lookout for things that I haven’t done
before, that are challenging and keep me learning rather than
I wonder if that isn’t a healthier way to go about a
career in film, as opposed to being a cunning careerist with set
I don’t know how people have set goals, because it’s such a
volatile business. If you do set yourself goals, I don’t know how
you cannot be disappointed by that. As far as I’m concerned, I
think I had a pragmatic decision about the way it would go.
Your new film is Amazing GraceWilliam
Wilberforce, about the 19th
century British abolitionist . What led you to become interested in that
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 that 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
This project came to me in a slightly different form. It came to
me as a biopic on William Wilberforce, with very strong religious
connotations. Wilberforce, other than being a great politician, was
also an evangelical Christian. That didn’t hold much interest for
me, but his politic history did, and particularly his campaigning
against the slave trade. Here was someone who was a man of great
principle, who managed to keep his principles but also operated in
the political world, in the world of give-and-take and compromise,
and liaisons and whatever.
I thought it would be interesting to have a look at that. That’s
really how this was born.
In the States, he is now well-known…
No. That’s putting it mildly.
I wonder why that is. He seems like a fascinating
I don’t know. I suppose it’s not seen as that important. The
sugar industry and the slave trade as a huge part of English power
and society. The actual passing of the slave trade was just a step
in the final abolition of slavery as we understand it in America
and the Caribbean. I suppose there are more important things in
American history, as people started addressing destroying slavery
rather than just the slave trade.
He’s definitely a very crucial figure in English history, but
you’re right—he’s barely known here at all.
This film could take steps to correct that, couldn’t
Yeah, if people warm to the film, then it will put him and what
he stood for on the map. It’s a good story. One of the other
interesting things is that he and his mate William Pitt, who worked
hand and hand with him, were incredibly young. Pitt was Prime
Minister at the age of 24, which is hard to imagine. Wilburforce
was in Parliament in his early 20s, too, so this was a real Camelot
story, a real Kennedy story. It’s the young men taking on the older
generation and stuffing it to them.
It’s interesting what you were saying about wanting to
deal with politics, but not in the modern age. Is that because the
stories are still in flux, or that it’s hard to find heroes in the
20th century forward?
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 that it’s moreso now. I don’t remember when I was growing
up in the ‘60s having that feeling about the Kennedys. I think
there have been moments when people felt positive about politics,
but maybe Watergate changed that. I don’t know.
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
fifteen 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 a confrontational scene between yourself 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: it’s
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
I’ve always felt that, that it’s easier to manipulate people in
documentaries than in fiction sometimes. 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
While you were talking about your career and rolling
with the punches, this series has provided a structured grid in
your life, hasn’t it?
Yes. It was also a colossal piece of luck for me. It happened by
accident. The whole series happened by chance. It was only going to
be one film, made in 1964. But it proved so popular and so resonant
that it was decided we’d go back and see how they’re doing seven
years hence. From then on, I think we all sensed that we were onto
something, something fresh and unusual. I fell into it, really. It
was a pure piece of luck.
I suppose my contribution to it has been to keep it going.
Although I haven’t lived in England for a long time, I manage to
get at it every seven years and keep it alive. But it was a
colossal piece of luck to at least fall into that.
Have there been moments when you wanted to get off the
Not really. Definitely, for a couple of weeks after this one, I
thought “I can’t go through this again. It’s too much.” But I got
over that, and now I’m as anxious as ever to keep it going and see
what happens. I will keep it going. As long as I have my marbles
and can persuade enough of them to be in it, it’s certainly worth
carrying on with. It would seem a pity just to sort of stop it.
We’re getting into a fertile area now, obviously with mortality
and grandchildren and health and those kinds of things. It speaks
to the drama of life, and to what we all have to live through and
And it also says something about the uniqueness of the
medium. What, beside film—and television—could convey what this
series does, in the linear sense?
Yeah. Someone said to me a few days ago that it’s the history of
film emulsion (laughs).
The early ‘70s documentary series An American
Family was shot here in Santa Barbara, chronicling the
adventures of the Loud family. Your project set the stage for that,
Yes, I suppose, unwittingly, yes. I’m also accused for 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, because reality television wasn’t something that existed in
the 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?
These were the questions that, in a sense, provoked them to be
so verbal about being in the film.
Reality television is a radically different beast than
cinema verite, wouldn’t you say?
Indeed, which I took great pains to point out to my subjects. I
think I persuaded most of them.
Do you feel that the Up series has had a notable
influence on your fiction work?
In a broad sense, I think that 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 trying to invent something. Also, the way I shoot and the
people I put in films—it’s all informed by the documentary
As you say, because the Up films are the grid of my
documentary life, I suppose it’s had a huge effect, and vice-versa.
There are lessons in structure that you have to learn to do fiction
work, and they are very helpful when you do something like the
Up films, where you’re trying to present characters from a
huge amount of footage and complicated people in a very short time.
The structural lessons you learn are very valuable.
So it’s a two-way street, which is one of the reasons that I
enjoy keeping those two strands of the career going.
What are you involved in at the moment? I see soccer
projects on your recent resume.
Yeah. I’ve done a couple of documentaries about soccer. One was
something I’ve been plotting for a long time, which is to do a film
about the impact of the game on the planet, the idea being that
football probably penetrates more cultures than religious or
political ideas. I found a way to do that via the 2006 World Cup,
by taking stories from different parts of the world, and bringing
an element of each of them to Germany during the World Cup.
While I was doing that, I also did the official DVD of the World
Cup, in my spare time.
I don’t get the sense that you have ample spare
I do like to keep at it. I’m usually happier when I’m busy
working. But it’s not always easy to find good stuff to do.