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Michael Apted – How Sweet the Sound

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

Michael Apted

How Sweet the Sound

by Jay S. Jacobs

In 1963, when a twenty-two-year-old researcher for Granada Television in England was sent out to find a representative sampling of British children for a special program on how seven-year olds saw the world, he never realized that assignment would completely change his life.

Forty-four years later, Michael Apted is one of the most respected film directors in the business. However, the children who appeared in Seven Up have been a huge part of his world and career ever since. Apted and his crew have returned to those children every seven years and in the process have created perhaps the most fascinating sociological experiment ever committed to film – the Up series. The seven films, so far, in the series (the most recent installment was 49 Up in 2005) traced the developments of these fourteen children as they went through school, marriage, family, divorces, the loss of parents, illness, changes in financial and political status – all without the sensationalism of the so-called reality television that followed in their wake. This was just a group of smart, surprisingly well-spoken human beings ruminating on their world and beliefs.

Of course, Apted’s accolades have reached far beyond that series. He has directed such acclaimed films as Coal Miner’s Daughter with Sissy Spacek, Gorillas in the Mist with Sigourney Weaver and Nell with Jodie Foster. The leads of these films all were recognized with Best Actress nominations for their work with Apted. He has also done many mainstream films, including one of the best recent James Bond films (The World Is Not Enough), a superior courtroom drama (A Civil Action with John Travolta) and Jennifer Lopez’s spousal-abuse melodrama Enough. He has recently signed on to helm the third film in The Chronicles of Narnia series.

During this time, the driven Apted also continued with his documentary work. He even did one of the best rock-concert films of the 1980s – Sting’s Bring on the Night. Apted has also directed quite a few episodes of television series, most recently for HBO’s acclaimed Rome. If that all wasn’t enough to keep Apted on his toes, he is the current President of the Directors Guild of America.

Apted’s latest film was Amazing Grace, the true story of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), a 19th Century British lawmaker who was instrumental in the abolition of slavery.

The day before Amazing Grace was due to be released on DVD, Mr. Apted was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to discuss his career.

I have to admit that as much as I liked Amazing Grace – and I promise I will be asking you about that – the real reason I was excited to talk to you is because of the Up series, which I feel is one of the most important film projects ever. In 1963, when you were a researcher for Granada and tracking down the children for Seven Up, could you have ever imagined that you would be involved with them and the project for the rest of your lives?

No. Not at all. It wasn’t even in our radar. We just had this rather… probably cute… idea of how we could find a way to talk about what was happening in England at that time. It was a pretty exciting time, with all the cultural events and the rock and roll, fashion and London being sort of the center of the world for fifteen minutes or something. There was a lot of discussion. Is British society changing? Are the swinging 60s anything more than something cosmetic or is it really effecting society? It was this terrific idea really. Rather than yank in a load of professionals or experts on the subject – sociologists, politicians, journalists, or whatever – let’s just get a group of kids in from different kinds of backgrounds and see what they have to say. Of course, it paid off like gangbusters, but I have to say that even after it came out and it was very, very successful, the penny still didn’t drop that this might be something worth carrying on. It wasn’t until three or four years afterwards that someone sat me down and said, ‘Why don’t we go back to see how they’re doing?’ There was implied promise in there, because the original film said tune in in the year 2000 to see what’s happening.

Now that it is past the year 2000 and you have seen how far they have gone in the past forty-odd years, do you believe in the Jesuit quote ["Give me the child until seven and I will show you the man."] that inspired the whole enterprise?

A little bit, I believe in it. I believe there is an innate personality that is evident at seven that doesn’t really seem to change. I mean people’s whole lives change and they develop as they grow up and you can’t say ‘Here is the man’ at seven years old, but I still think there is some innate sense of personality – which may be a kind of banal thing to say – but it seems to me with all of them, you look at them at seven and you look at them at 49 and there is something you recognize in them.

I recently re-watched all of the Up films and one of the children I thought would be most interesting – Charles – stopped making the films after 21 Up. Peter also stopped and John and Simon have taken off films, but are you pleasantly surprised how many of them have stuck it out?

Oh, yeah. I’m always just mortified when people drop out. I was obviously disappointed with all of them. Charles and Peter are incredibly interesting. I understand why Peter dropped out. After 28 Up, he got a terrible pasting by the British press for all his very anti-government left-wing views. They said, “Why is this person teaching our children?” I think he thought, “Jesus. What have I done to deserve this?” So, he kind of yanked out of it. But then he had an incredibly interesting life. Since then, he completely changed tack – became a lawyer and remarried and had kids. But Charles is a mystery, because, you know, Charles became a documentary filmmaker. So, I couldn’t ever really get my mind around that. He does the job, and yet won’t participate.

In 49 Up, John compares the series to reality series like Big Brother. While I don’t buy that, as a filmmaker how strange is it for you how much TV documenting real people has changed since you started?

Yeah. It was the gorilla in the room, really. It was new since 42 Up. Clearly, I didn’t lead them down that path. They just wanted to talk about it. It’s always been sort of jokingly said that I invented reality television – now it became sort of serious. I think a lot of the participants in my stuff were saying, “What are we? Are we a documentary or are we just a junked-up reality show? Should we be making hundreds of thousands of pounds?” I was at pains to express what I think is a distinction – without being critical of reality television, which I am most of the time – but as an idea, reality tends to put people in contrived or unusual circumstances and see how they respond. A documentary attempts, I think, to catch life as it is. To show a reality rather than show how people react in alien circumstances. Which can be very interesting, but I think there is a difference. Reality lends itself to more exploitation really than a documentary does.

Thankfully, none of the people from the films have died – but unfortunately, we know it will be inevitable that eventually someone will. Have you considered how you are going to handle that eventuality?

Not really. No, it’s a very chilling thought, one that I’m sort of in denial about. I’m hoping that I go first. I really don’t know how to handle it. It depends on the circumstances. If I knew someone was terminally ill and they weren’t going to make it to the next, would I…. This all sounds really terrible, calculating it. I just don’t know how to deal with it. I suppose it would depend on the person and what they wanted to do. I think it would depend entirely on what they wanted. (sighs) If they knew that things weren’t going well and they wanted to do something, then…. I mean it’s just a shocking thought. I don’t know why I’m so worried about it, but I’ve known them over 40 years. We are like a family. Of course, people feel a little ill. Some of us are close. Some of us aren’t close. But that’s an issue that I really dread having to deal with.

I know it wasn’t your first feature film, but the first movie to make a real big splash internationally was the Loretta Lynn biography Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Yes, that was my first American [film]. I’d done a few films in the UK, but needless to say, they didn’t make much impact outside the UK. So, Coal Miner’s was my first international film, yeah.

Were you surprised when it took off like it did?

Oh, yeah. There was nothing ever said to encourage it. I never forget that Universal sold it to the airlines before it opened, so you could actually see it on an aeroplane before it [played in theaters]. (laughs) So then we had a couple of previews of it just before it opened and clearly, we were onto something. Then it did take off and was very successful, but I don’t think anybody knew – me, anybody – what we had until suddenly it went out there. And it’s all luck, you know? It was the right time. It was a time when country music was entering the popular culture, with Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson and all of them. And Loretta. If it had come out a couple of years earlier or a couple of years later, it might not have had that impact. I’ve had good timing and bad timing with movies and that was a bit of good timing.

You have made a lot of films with strong female leads – in fact Sissy Spacek, Sigourney Weaver and Jodie Foster were nominated for Oscars when they worked with you. What do you enjoy about working with female characters and actresses?

I like the subject matter, actually. I sort of missed the boat in the Up films about what I think is one of the great social-political dramas of my lifetime – the dramatically changing place of women in society. The real drama of women with careers and women with families – how do you deal with that? The social impact of that and the economic impact. I’ve always been drawn to women’s stories. I was brought up by a strong and independent mother who was before her time. I think that left a mark on me. I’ve always been interested in that dilemma. I think it’s a real emotional dilemma. All these movies you talk about do reflect that in a way. They reflect women pursuing their lives or their identities and coming up against the conventions of society that try and stop it, in a way…

Even your Bond film – The World is Not Enough – was very female oriented – the antagonist was a woman and Q had a more significant role than usual. What was it like to come in on and play a part in such an iconic series?

That was why I was brought in, I think. They wanted to do one where the villain was a woman. They had Dame Judi Dench and they had a lot of good women in it. I think they wanted to get away from the high-testosterone element and bring some other ingredient in. It was overwhelming at first. I had no idea that I could ever get through it. But once I started getting the hang of it, it was good fun.

Was that the reason you only did one Bond film? Lots of the other directors do more than one…

I would have done another one, but there was a change of studio and all the upper management of the studio. It got complicated. Then I did another film. I enjoyed it. I would have done another one.

You have done a lot of biographical films – like Agatha Christie, Loretta Lynn, Dian Fossey and of course here with William Wilberforce. What is it about true stories that intrigue you as a filmmaker?

Well, I like them. I like that they are true stories. A true story can be very inspiring. People like Loretta and Dian Fossey and William Wilberforce – I think they can be inspiring to young people and to audiences today. There’s something sort of untouchable about the fact that it’s true. There are a lot of problems making those films. They’re not easy to make by any means. I just like the idea that you can turn around to people who look at Amazing Grace in disbelief and say, well, sorry to disappoint you, but the whole thing is true. I kind of like that.

While Amazing Grace is very much a story that deals with specific problems of that era, I did seem to notice some political aspects of the movie that did seem to be commenting on or mirroring the current political climate. Was that something you were conscious of when developing and making the film?

No, I didn’t want to sort of hammer it. I wanted people to… if they wanted to make resonance to today, that was fine by me. I was more interested in the bigger issue of the power of politics – the redeeming power of politics – and the character of Wilberforce. The spiritual and the political man leading side by side. His great stubbornness and persistence and courage to keep it going. I thought, as you say, there are similarities with Iraq, and you can take it or leave it. It was there if you wanted it, but if you didn’t come away with that, that wasn’t a lofty concern of mine. I was more interested that people came away with bigger issues the film deals with.

As a director, what is it like to make period films? Is it interesting to immerse yourself in a different time and place?

Yes. It’s a challenge. Also, you don’t want to just make a period film. That’s more what I think the difficulty is. You don’t want to be shooting hats and costumes. You want to be shooting energy and life and issues and drama. I think the trap with period films is you get caught up in the paraphernalia of it. You want to honor the periods, but you don’t want to get trapped in it. I think that’s the exciting challenge – giving them a kind of vitality where you in the end don’t notice the costumes. You don’t notice the buildings. You’re just involved in the people and the story. That’s very difficult to do. Not many people can pull it off. I’m not saying I do… that’s not the point I’m making. I think it’s very difficult when you see a film that has real vitality to it.

Music is also something you have often explored in your films. While the movie is not actually specifically about the song, “Amazing Grace” does suffuse the story and play a big role. How vital was the song to the tale you were trying to tell?

It was a gift, really. It gave us a title and… again, the same thing I was saying about something being true – the fact of the Albert Finney character and his relevance to Wilberforce and the existence of the song. The existence of the words of the song and the existence of the title was all very serendipitous. It wasn’t like we just stuck it on and said, well here’s a title, etc., etc. It was organic to the movie. It was just too big a gift to turn your back on it. The problem was not to overdo it. Not to overuse it. I’ve used [the song] a couple of times already. I used it in Coal Miner’s Daughter. At Loretta’s father’s funeral – so I’ve exploited it myself. But it was just so great to have it as part of the story. Also, to just, in a sense, shine a light on that famous piece of music. That’s what its roots are. That’s what it’s about.

You mentioned it was a little intimidating to jump into the Bond series. I see you’ve signed on to do the third Narnia film.

Yes, I’m just in the middle of preparing it now. This is even bigger than Bond and even more scary.

How did you get involved with the series?

It was a bit of amazing grace. One of the two companies doing it – Walden [Media] – did Amazing Grace. So, there was a relationship there, so here I am.

How do you think your film will be different than the one that came first and the upcoming sequel?

Well, they are different. They’re kind of fun. They’re a bit like Bond but not like Harry Potter. They are completely different stories. Mine has only got two of the original characters in there, so you have to create different worlds with each of the books – which is the strength of what Lewis wrote. I think it’s quite a challenge. It’s a lot more fun, really, than coming in and just developing the same ground, using the same people. It’s a kind of built-in challenge. I don’t have to struggle to leave my fingerprints on it, because I’m confronted with a whole different challenge from what they had when they did the first two episodes.

You are in sort of a nice position as a director where you can do lots of things that interest you. You do big blockbusters like The World is Not Enough and Narnia, more artistic films like Amazing Grace, your documentaries – you can even take some time to do TV series like Rome. How satisfying is it to have hit a position in your profession where you have that kind of freedom?

Well, it’s not as easy as…. I know you’re not saying it’s easy, but it’s not quite as comfortable as you might [think]. It’s just hard to get good jobs here. To get good, challenging films. Frankly, I’ve kept my door wide open. Kept my documentary career going. Made myself available to do television. Do indie films. Do blockbuster films. Really, the idea is just so I can get a larger choice of material and do more things that interest me, rather than just have to do stuff to earn a living. It’s been a deliberate policy. It is incredibly stimulating to me that I can have a go at different sorts of things. Exercise different muscles. Have different challenges. It’s always a struggle just to find a piece of really good material, but because my career is fairly broad-based, I just think I have more options than other people. More options to find interesting stuff. It’s still a struggle to get things going, but I just think I have slightly more options.

Beyond your feature work, your television and documentaries, you are also the head of the Directors Guild. Do you ever get time to sleep?

(laughs) I know it always sounds very impressive. It’s just, I suppose, merely managing your time. The Directors Guild is very well run. When I’m off doing a film, they look after me and make it easy for me. Then when I’m not shooting, I do a lot. I think the Directors Guild is very keen to have someone like me as its president, because they want to suggest that working members can run the Guild. It isn’t people who are retired or don’t have a career. They make it work for me. I believe there are 140 full-time employees working for the Guild, so it’s a big organization.

Well, being so involved in the Guild, how is the Writers Guild strike affecting things for you and has it made things more difficult in Hollywood?

Very difficult, yeah. We have to decide soon what we’re going to do. We’re preparing to go in for our own negotiations, so the timing of that is the next big decision. We don’t want to undercut the writers, but if there is nothing going on with the writers and producers, we’ve got our own business to deal with.

Copyright ©2007 All rights reserved. Posted: November 15, 2007.

Photo Credits:

#1 © 2007. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox / Walden Media. All rights reserved.

#2 © 2007. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox / Walden Media. All rights reserved.

#3 © 2007. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox / Walden Media. All rights reserved.

#4 © 2007. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox / Walden Media. All rights reserved.

#5 © 2007. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox / Walden Media. All rights reserved.

#6 © 2007. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox / Walden Media. All rights reserved.

#7 © 2007. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox / Walden Media. All rights reserved.

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