“Understated” isn’t a word you’d ordinarily use to describe a Jerry Bruckheimer production, but that’s surprisingly what 12 Strong ends up being.
In 1964, director Michael Apted interviewed a group of seven-year-old British schoolchildren for a BBC television documentary called "7 Up." Apted, now known for directing such features as "Coal Miner's Daughter" and "Gorillas in the Mist," has since returned to film these subjects every seven years. They are now 49. Roger Ebert, who lists the "Up" series among his ten greatest films of all time, interviewed Apted in London for the release of the latest installment, "49 Up," which will be seen in American theaters beginning in October.
Ebert: You were a very young man when you got involved in this project.
Apted: I was 22. I had just come from university and I joined Granada and spent six months on a general training course. But the great thing about Granada was that it was a very small company so you couldn’t really afford to train so you really had to do it on the job. The first job I got was as a researcher on this one-off documentary. It was just going to be one documentary looking at England in 1963, ’64. It was my first job.
Ebert: And now here you are. This was a project that would consume all the rest of your life and it still isn’t finished.
Apted: It’s, in a sense, the perimeters of my life. My work and life. It’s the first thing I’ll do and it’s still going on. Who would’ve thought that 40 some odd years later we’d still be doing it, still be talking about it.
Ebert: That’s the remarkable thing, to me, about the film because, and you can call it the film, or the films, because in a way it’s one work, and in another way it’s a work that’s still being finished. Some people come into it now and see it all at once. But for you making it and for me watching it, I’ve grown up seven years between each film just as the characters have and it’s become part of my life because as they grow older and they go through these things, so do I. And so do you.
Apted: It’s a different perception, isn’t it? People who see it now and catch up with it. It’s almost like reality television; it’s instant gratification. People who saw the box set come up to me and say, “When’s the next one? When’s the next one?” But it’s a whole different rhythm. Now, once you’re trapped in it, you have to sit and sit and wait it out. But it must be odd, you know, for people who see the whole thing basically in one big chunk. And what effect does it have on them? Is it as meaningful to them? I don’t know, but for those of us who’ve grown up with it, it becomes part of our lives. And also I think it gives us a strong political context.
One thing I’ve always avoided doing is putting big political signposts. I did it once in ’42 and it never worked. I cut it out. It was the year Diana was killed, so I asked them all about that, just to give it some sense of time, but it just seemed trivial. Not that the event was trivial, but I think the films only work when they’re about them. The politics of the film are their lives and the way their lives change. They dramatize politics. They don’t discuss the abstract of politics. They are political. Their lives are political statements. Like Tony wanting to leave the country, tired of Blair, tired of eight years of labor government. Fed up with it all. That’s a political statement. It isn’t him pontificating about it. When you’ve lived through the films as we have, you’re always in the political context. When you see it in a great bulk, it must be odd. You must feel like you’re in a time capsule or something.
Ebert: You know there was a person on the internet who got the box set and started to watch the first film and over the next 24 hours, although not consecutively, had seen them all. And then posted this notice saying that it was a metaphysical experience for him, that in a way he had seen not their lives, but life itself. Life flashing across the screen. Because that’s what it is, that’s what life is like.
Apted: And it’s your own life too. In some ways, you’ll see your own life flash past. If you sat here in Chicago, it’s a different power than if you sat in London. You know, you must be watching your own life go through, which is the power of film, I always felt. You know, everyone can relate to a little bit of it. The big view, the overview of it all, there’s something in it for everybody I think. A piece of memory, a piece of a relationship, something someone says, some response that someone has, something that connects everyone that watches it.
Ebert: The whole crowd in the "49 Up" film seem happier than they had been in general. Some of them had been happy before but there seems to be a reconciliation with life, an acceptance, a certain serenity in many of them.
Apted: It’s interesting. One of the interesting things about seeing all the films, about having them all in front of you and not having to wait seven years, is that they’re all quite different. The tone of them is quite different, I’ve always felt. I never know what the tone is until I’ve shot the film, until I start putting it together. For example, in 35 a lot of them are losing their parents, so there’s a sense of mortality, an awareness that life isn’t forever. Things leave you. Things go on. Things move on. And then at 49, there’s an acceptance, not in a negative way, but really the fact of being, of knowing who you are. I suppose the cliché would be being comfortable in your own skin.
Ebert: Which is used by one of the characters. For the first time she says, “I feel comfortable in my own skin.”
Apted: And then look at 28. It’s very, in a sense, overbearing in the way that they are so full of confidence. And indeed at 21… there’s a different atmosphere to each of the films.
Ebert: And at 21 there’s a lot of uncertainty too. Is it Susie who’s the chain smoker? From 21 to 28 it’s as dramatic as Neil from 35 to 42. It’s incredible because she flowers into a self-confident, charming woman who’s comfortable with herself. And at 21 she looked like she was coming to pieces.
Apted: She completely changed from 21 to 28. She’s a strange story because, from all accounts, I’ve lost her. At 49 she signs off and kind of says, “I’m not doing it anymore.” She’s one of the great stories of the series. People really like her. People really respond to her in ways that I don’t think she quite grasps.
Ebert: I like her.
Apted: She’s wonderful, and yet, she, I don’t know what it is, she finds it tremendously difficult to do, a great invasion.
Ebert: Yea, because this isn’t a documentary about these lives so much as it’s a documentary about life. And as you sense them at various ages you look at them physically, they’ve changed. You can still see the face of the child but nevertheless, hair falls out and their waistlines expand. At the same time, what the tone of their voice tells us is really more important than having another half hour of information about what they did biographically in the past years.
Apted: Yes, I agree. I’ve had an instinct about that too. I’m always trying to keep it crisp, to keep it moving, not to let it get more and more self-indulgent. You need to keep the thing moving. There’s a lot of information. You’re not just absorbing what’s happened to them now, you’re also absorbing what’s happened to them before, all those kind of impulses that you’re getting are being fed into your nervous system. It’s interesting, 49, now, with new technology, is the first one I’ve done digital, which is a huge advantage to me because I can conduct longer interviews. Before, all the way up to 42, we were doing them on film so every ten minutes you’d have to change rolls. It was very hard to keep focused, to try and get after them, get underneath them, when you kept having to stop and start. Now I can shoot for 38 minutes, and all using less equipment so it’s much more intimate between me and them. There’s not a large crew around. The change of technology has been very, very interesting and useful to me.
Ebert: You’ve said that a couple of things that you did that you regretted. There are two characters where you thought that you could predict what would happen in their lives. One of them you were right, the other you were wrong. Tony is a good way to start the film because he is so happy down in Spain with his swimming pool. And that little boy at the beginning of the film looks like Truffaut’s hero in "400 Blows. "He’s kind of peering out and baffled. And now he’s this 49 year old confident, expansive, happy man who’s got some complaints but has been able to solve them with his holiday cottage and he and his wife are working hard and it’s incredible.
Apted: But he embraces life, doesn’t he? He just attacks life with such…he’s hard work because he’s so enthusiastic, so full of everything, so full of ideas. You just have to say calm down to him. He tires me out sometimes.
Ebert: And yet when he was 21 you were convinced he was going to be a criminal.
Apted: It’s this terrible, terrible impulse to play God, which is one of the attractions of the film. It’s fun to indulge myself, and you can watch it and say, “Oh this is going to happen to him.” If I make the next film with some agenda, then it all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that is just what happens. I tried to predict what would happen with Tony. I tried to predict what would happen with the next marriage. Once I was right. Once I was wrong. But just the foolishness of doing that.
Ebert: You ask some questions occasionally, I guess you have an instinct for what you can ask these people because you asked Neil if he thought he was going mad and that’s an interesting question to ask someone and he answers it very seriously and says, “I think I might be.” And we’re afraid he might be, too. So we’re grateful for having that relationship where you can ask those questions.
Apted: There was one question, I think it was 35, 42, when I asked Tony when he was giving me another of what he was going to do with his life. But I said, “But you know you failed at everything,” and I remember watching it in front of an audience and they all gasped and I remember thinking that was a very tough question. Maybe too tough, and I hadn’t even realized it until I sat in a crowd of people watching the film. I think that’s key to really what the film is about. It’s my relationship with them and I know how far I can go with them individually. I know how much I can push them. I know what they’re emotional about. Not to push their buttons so much. But there’s a trust between us. I don’t think any of them have ever turned there back on me and said I’m unhappy with how it’s been going. No one’s ever complained about it. I think it’s because of this unusual relationship. I know these people better than almost anyone alive. I’ve known them for 42 years.
Ebert: No one else in their life has come to them every seven years and asked them how they are doing.
Apted: I think, because of that trust, I know what I want to talk about. They’re in a very powerful position because as a longitudinal documentarian you have to be on your best behavior. Because if they say I don’t want to talk about sex or I don’t want to talk about money and you use it, they don’t let you back in again.
Ebert: the first film very definitely sets itself up as being about the British class system. You have rich kids and poor kids, and you later said that you wish you had more middle class kids than you do. Then, as they years go past, has the class system persisted in their lives, to what degree have some of them moved outside of it?
Apted: I think that a lot of them have lived outside it. I think that kind of oppressive class barriers have diminished a lot. It’s a very deceptive film because a lot of people ask, is this a portrait of England? And I say well this is a portrait of people who were born in 1956. This is a portrait of that generation. Had I started the film ten years earlier or ten years later, I think it would have been different. It’s very hard to draw a definitive statement or view of English society. I think that was the great metamorphosis that the film and I went through. It definitely started out with a political agenda, for this very socialist, left-wing company, Granada Television, working on a very, very provocative program. And this was a film saying: this is the state of the country. Social barriers shouldn’t exist. They’re a great waste of people’s time and talent. And the humanity of the film, I think, came out after 21. We had kind of grown through that. Those arguments weren’t meaningful anymore. What was meaningful was the people.
Ebert: when you think back to when they were born in 1956, since that was still the old England, there were shortages of consumer goods, there was still poverty, the war wasn’t over yet in terms of economics. In 63, the year the film was shot, the year that Larkin said “Sexual intercourse started in 1963, a little too late for me…” The Beatles for many people, that year represents the difference between people wearing suits and ties and hats and everything since.
Apted: That wasn’t an accident.
Ebert: But when they grew up, especially East Enders, they were growing up in an East End that was the same as it might have been 20, 30, 100 years earlier.
Apted: It was no accident that this film was made in 1963, because people suddenly thought, is England changing? We had the theater. We had “Look Back in Anger.” We had music. We had fashion. So was English society changing? Everybody in England was waking. The war was finally over. People were having sexual intercourse. And this documentary simply came out of that feeling that maybe there was a brave new world. And of course this film had a huge dampening affect on her because it was all very well to have the Beatles album, Mary Quant, and John Osborne, but for everyday working people the class system was very much alive and well. It was the empowered and the unempowered, and the difference between the two was dramatic. The seven year olds hadn’t a clue about their education, where they were going, their parental support. They were at the mercy of the exigencies of their school, if it was a good school, if it was a compassionate teacher. The empowered knew exactly what they were going to do and did exactly what they were going to do.
Apted: And that’s what’s so thrilling about the film is that is that optimism in that generation it was possible to break through. It was my good luck to be at that time. I could document that awakening. I could record when Britain woke up in the 60’s. America woke up after Eisenhower and Kennedy. And I documented that generation who assumed adulthood in that period. It was a very dramatic, very vivid sense of social movement. I hit a period of time when life really did change very dramatically. A whole culture changed dramatically. Culturally. Politically. Economically. Every way.
Ebert: At the same time that their lives changed dramatically, their personalities didn’t much. The thing that struck me the very first one I saw, I think it was 14 up or maybe it was 21 up, in the faces of those children you see everything you’re going to see later, the personality, the slant on life. Now they may go through little dips and changes along the way. When they’re 49, there’s the child you saw at 7. Everything that’s happened by 7 is going to set the course. Is that true?
Apted: I think everything that you’re saying is pretty much true. The core personality you see at seven pretty much doesn’t change. I mean you can’t predict people’s lives you don’t know what is going to be thrown at people. Good luck, bad fortune, whatever is going to be thrown at them. If you see these films, especially if you see them in a great bulk, I think you can see a core personality. Maybe the Jesuits were right, show me the child until seven and I’ll show you the man. You can’t tell what the man is going to be doing but you can sense how he’s going to react. That look in the eye, that twinkle in Neil’s eye that disappeared for generations, is coming back again.
Ebert: Wasn’t he the one that at one point wanted to be a tour bus guide? He wanted to tell people what to look at through the windows. After his period of wandering in the outskirts of society, he gets back on board running the Village Fete in the Shetland Islands, which is, he’s making people look at, here look at this. He’s still a tour guide. And now as a politician, he’s also telling people what to do. He wants to be the supervisor.
Apted: It’s interesting one of the most socially mobile people is Bruce, who started out in a very privileged boarding school and then St. Paul’s School, and then Oxford and was teaching literature. One of the first things he said at seven was he wanted to be a missionary. There’s a kind of compassion in that seven year old face that is never going to leave him, that will be with him his whole life. That’s his essence and that essence was manifested somewhere.
Ebert: And even though he at the end is teaching at a school with a better salary and drives a better car, actually a teacher is a missionary no matter who the students are.
Apted: So people say what are the great lessons we can draw? Can you predict people’s lives. And I think there is something at the heart of this film that life is eternal and people’s spirit lives on.
Ebert: With one exception you’ve kept with the seven year rule. But what if you found out one of your subjects was dying?
Apted: I would be extremely worried, you know. It’s a question now we have to face. There’s no one in mind at all but it now becomes a part of the agenda.
Ebert: I think in 56 up I wouldn’t want to hear your voice saying so-and-so died. I would want to see them… this is going to sound so bad but I hope you understand the spirit in which I mean this… I would want to hear their thoughts when they realize the end may be coming.
Apted: So you think I should do it.
Ebert: Well, that’s the last chance they’ll have.
Apted: I think you’re right. This has been troubling me since the last twenty years how to handle it. I hope I’ll go first and they’ll all outlive me.
Ebert: If you should go first, shouldn’t someone else continue on? Shouldn’t this project continue on until everyone is...
Apted: I think it should.
Ebert: When I became a film critic, I had no idea you could do it for more than five years. And I certainly had no idea that I wanted to spend my life being a film critic. When I look back after 40 years, that’s what I’ve done. And so there’s reconciliation. And with these people…First of all, most of them are happy. Many of them have grandchildren. Do they all? Not quite. But they love their grandchildren and, basically, they’re happy with their children. They have a few worries with this one or that one, but essentially there is pride in their voices. And to return to earlier, they’re still striving. Now, it’s happened. They can see maybe that this film they were in was just really a wonderful opportunity for them that they didn’t necessarily love or embrace, but that it happened to them too.
Apted: That’s right. Because I think they behaved with dignity and they’ve been treated with dignity. One of them, Sue, the wife of Paul, I don’t think I was able to use her, she just had a wonderful expression about how every life is an act of courage and everybody has a story. And you know that’s what I love about the film. These are ordinary lives, ordinary stories, ordinary voices, and they’re told in such a dignified way that it elevates it to real drama and real dignity. I think they were beginning to realize that. I just got a sense that they took some pride in it.
Ebert: As I said, I feel that they’re happier now than they’ve ever been before as a group. And they’re wiser. They’re wiser about life. You do learn, as you get older, a few things.
Ebert: I’ve often thought that if we had any piece of film at all from the year 1000 or the year 500 it would be fascinating to see. Or those first films in Paris of the people coming out of the Metro, when they were inventing the cinema. We would just look at those people and think, “Well now I’m looking at someone who was alive in 1898.” This project, as it continues and finally concludes and becomes a piece of film, 56 Up, 63 Up, 70 Up, then 100 years from now, 200 years from now, how fascinating this would be, what a film to show in a classroom 200 years from now.
Apted: I think the big contribution that I’ve made to all of this is just to keep it going. It would have been easy to have stopped it, to have moved on and just carried on doing movies and all that. Sometimes you tear your hair up trying to get them all to agree to do it. It’s the most arduous part of actually making the film, that period of ringing them up and saying the time is coming up and they say oh well we’re not sure we’re going to do it. But you know we’ve hung in. Claire Lewis, who did the last four, and Margaret Bottom, who died, who did the earlier ones. We kind of just hung in and kept it going. People say to me, “You know, when, when are you going to stop?” I think it shouldn’t stop. We should just keep it going. As you said, when I go, someone else should take it over.
When the guys say they won’t do it, I say, “You don’t have to do it long. Just come in and count to ten. Just to look at you. Just to see your face.” Because both of them had such interesting lives, Peter and Charles. You don’t have to go through the arduousness of me interviewing them. You can do whatever you want. But just to see these people. Which is what you’re saying, just simple, simplest human history at its most simple. And film does that so brilliantly. Because it’s so complicated. Much more powerful, dare I say, than a book. It’s just there’s so much information coming at you out of the corner of your eye. The way their haircuts change or their clothes change or the backgrounds change just gives you a history. And it’s not a pushy history, a political history. It’s not trying to make points, it’s just dealing with these peoples’ lives. It dignifies the ordinary life. This great world of celebrity life which we’re living in, which may get worse as time goes on, who knows? But it does honor ordinary life. That’s what I think the most powerful thing about this movie is. I’m just happy that I could meet them.
Ebert: Oh, I am too. I think it’s the most notable use of film that I’ve been able to witness as a filmgoer. Noble in its simplicity and its honesty and its directness and its lack of pretension or grandiosity. Just the gaze of an interested observer coming into these lives and saying, “How you doin’?”
Apted: Also, it is a family, too. I’ve kept the same people. George Turner’s shot it since 21 and ….. has edited it since 28. Keeping people around, it sounds a little bit…..it’s like one big family. It’s tough stuff we talk about sometimes, but, nonetheless, it makes the people who are on it love it. You know and I think there’s a feeling of love about it. It’s transmitted. You could do it about anyone. You could take anyone. You could make a film of twelve people and show bad sides and laughter. I don’t think the films have ever been sycophantic. I think they kind of had a balance, but, nonetheless, underneath it all is an affection, which I think is important in any film. In any work of art there has to be a feeling. Out of feeling love comes, in any sort of art, I think.
Ebert: Well I’m just very happy that there’s going to be a "56 Up," and we hope a 63 and so forth. And I’m very happy to have had this opportunity to have talked to you about it, because I think that, if you’re going to devote your life to writing about films as I have, it validates that career choice of mine and all the different careers in the films, that there’s a project like this, which shows how film is a time machine and is an empathetic device like no other. The fact that you’ve worked on this and stuck with it and had great inconvenience and despite the resentment of your subjects on occasion, has produced a great work.
Apted: Well, I’m honored that you should think so.
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