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An Interview with Michael Apted

Moving On Up

Michael_Apted_Photo.jpgAs 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.

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