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In 1964, director Michael Apted had a job as a researcher on Seven Up!, Paul Almond’s groundbreaking television documentary in which 7-year-old British children, from all social and economic backgrounds, are interviewed about their lives. Apted had no idea at the time, but he would spend the next 55 years of his life with those children, and that documentary project.
Seven years after the original film, Apted caught up with the original participants for 7 Plus Seven, which he directed. Since then, the British filmmaker has dropped in every seven years. He’s watched his subjects grow up and grow old and, along the way, taken a snapshot of British society, exploring issues of family and politics, religion and mental health. The Up series, which Roger Ebert has said “penetrates to the central mystery of life,” has has a massive impact on documentary filmmaking and inspired everything from reality TV to Richard Linklater’s Oscar-winning Boyhood.
Apted, who in between Up films has directed such features as Gorillas in the Mist, Nell and James Bond movie The World is Not Enough, is currently shooting the ninth film in the series, 63 Up, which will premiere on British television next year.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Apted at Rome’s Mia Market about the series’s enduring influence and his thoughts about James Bond — then and now.
What was your reaction when Boyhood came out?
He copied me (laughs). Well, (director Richard Linklater) was very nervous about it. He asked me, “am I stealing from you?” I said, “of course not.” Then he told me to come see it and it was pretty good. After he went on to ask, if I had any advice. I said, “yes, keep going.” But he didn’t.
Why do you think the series was so successful?
No one has ever done this in the history of film. It speaks to people in a way that very few things do. Of course, it happened at just the right time in England. It was only planned to be one episode but it created such a stir, we had to keep going. I mean, even Seven was an instant success. As they got older, it got more and more successful. It began to play all over the world. It’s such a fabulous idea and that’s why I’ve been doing it for 55 years.
It has been successful even in America. We did 14 Up in America, but 21’s production would have required 50 lawyers, so we just gave up. We got so wound up in the business of it all. You know, “who owned what” and “what copyright?” After the U.K., it was only really successful in two countries — Russia and South Africa.
Is it hard to keep the cast onboard each time?
Oh, yes. Now, I don’t know if they’d do anymore if I wasn’t doing it. They may have had enough of it because they’re all in their sixties now. I am having trouble with a couple of them but I always have trouble with them — they love to torture me. But only one person has permanently dropped out, Charles Furneaux, and it was after 21.
He just didn’t want to be followed anymore?
No, no, and the joke was, it was a bit my fault. When I heard he didn’t want to do it I rang him up and said, “well what are you going to do now?” He said, “be a documentary filmmaker.” So, I went berserk. He had a rather undistinguished career with the BBC. But how can he show his face in the documentary world when he won’t be in it? Maybe I’m being unreasonable.
Will this be the last one?
I don’t know. We’ll see how this turns out, because it gets a little morbid. People get old and pass away. Who knows if I’ll even be alive at that point? So, I’m not even going to worry about it.
When you see these beautiful young kids and then here they are in their sixties, it turns depressing for us all. None of us are getting younger, but I think the longer it goes on the more interesting it gets. It is really up to them.
What I’ve learned during the whole series is don’t go in with a list of pre-set questions. You have to find out what is going on in their lives and what they’re interested in, maybe even how they feel about the past.
Do you think this is the original reality series?
Well reality did not exist when we started. The reality phenomenon started in the nineties and (the Up participants) got quite pissed off about it, because the people in reality are paid an enormous amount of money. I had to explain to them that documentary and reality are really not the same thing. Reality is exploitive. Some are very entertaining and people love them. But documentary is not supposed to be exploitive, rather it is best when it is at its most truthful. It is all built on showing their truth and not hiding it.
And something completely different: Did you enjoy working on James Bond?
Yes, it was terrifying. I didn’t understand why they picked me to do (The World Is Not Enough). It turned out, they were trying to get more women to come and see it. So, we really wanted to do a Bond with a lot of women in it. I was right person because I’d done a lot of successful films with women in them. But they didn’t tell me that until right before we started. When I found out, I finally understood.
Who would you want to be the next Bond?
I don’t know. I’ll never do another one. The actor sets the tone and I think the current Bond is a great actor, but Bond has become very violent. There is so much violence in it now.
Do you think Bond could be played by a woman, Doctor Who-style?
I don’t think so. They could do another version with a woman but I don’t see how it could be Bond. It could be“Julia Bond” or something like that, but than it gets into the realm of stupidity.
What direction would you like the series to go in today?
It’s always going to be a bit formulaic but that is the tone. Certainly, other Bonds have brought a dose of humor to it, which I think I’d quite like now. It’s all very heavy, like the world we live in. They may need to change the tone to keep it fresh. Pierce (Brosnan) was relatively light-hearted and (Sean) Connery was very humorous. That’s what keeps the whole thing alive.
What was the role of women in your Bond universe?
Well we had a woman as the murderer (in The World Is Not Enough) and Judi Dench was featured a lot more. But it still did not bring more women in to see it. But it continued and went really big about two after me when Sony took it on. They starting pouring money into it, so they have many more special effects.
How do you think they can bring more women to the audience?
I honestly don’t think they can anymore than they have. We have really tried everything. At the end of the day, it is for the fathers and the sons. It is for the fathers to show their sons what they watched when they were their son’s age.
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