'Natural Sociologist' Snags ASA Honor

The winner of the 2008 ASA Award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues is the prolific filmmaker Michael Apted. Within sociology he is best known for his riveting Up films, which vividly chronicle the life histories of 14 English children, originally selected in 1963 and re-interviewed at seven-year intervals ever since. 49 Up, the most recent film in the series, appeared in 2006.

Michael Apted is scheduled to receive his award at the ASA Annual Meeting in Boston and participate in a special panel and audience discussion on Saturday, Aug. 2 at 2:30 p.m.

On behalf of Contexts, sociologists Michael Burawoy and Ruth Milkman spoke with Apted about the Up films’ unique, long-term study of class and social mobility in England.

Contexts: The Up films have been a huge hit in the world of sociology, not only because of their insights into class and social mobility, but also because of your interviewing method and your longitudinal analysis. We think of you as a natural sociologist, but do you have any training in this field?

Michael Apted: No, just a kind of nosy interest in the human condition. I had studied history and then I studied law at Cambridge. For me this was a political film. I was very angry about the English class system, the waste of people, the prejudging. Every society has a class system, but the English one is different, in some ways more easy to spot. I have always had this romantic liberal idea of equal opportunity. If people show gifts at an early age, that should be encouraged. And it’s so wasteful when it isn’t or when people just don’t get an opportunity. So that emotion has always propelled the film.

C: It began as a political film, but then over the years it became more of a human drama. What happened?

M.A.: It was organic. As the children got older, we got involved in the drama of their growing up, and we got less interested in the political context. Also by then the political context had less meaning because England was changing. I came to understand that the power of what I had was in the interviews, in the close-up, the people’s faces as they grew up. It’s a snapshot of a generation.

C: C. Wright Mills once characterized sociology as the intersection of biography and history. How did history come in?

“I came to understand that the power of what I had was in the interviews, in the close-up, the people’s faces as they grew up. It’s a snapshot of a generation.”

M.A.: I have taken some punishment for never putting it in a real historical context. I tried it once or twice, and it was catastrophic. It didn’t really fit. In the end, their lives are the political statements, not their opinions about external political events.

C: The politics may have receded, but the sociology remained central. The epigram for the original film, repeated throughout the series, is the old Jesuit maxim, “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” But there is an ambiguity in that claim: Is it about personality or about class background?

M.A.: It is both. But more importantly about personality. Looking at the films, and looking at my own children, too, you get a feeling that the personality is there from very early on. You never know how people are going to develop, how their muscles are going to develop, but there’s a personality that doesn’t change. If you’re an extrovert you stay extroverted, if you’re introspective you stay that way. It doesn’t tell you much about how they are going to cope with things in life, but that inner personality seems to be there and stay there.

C: You took children from both ends of the class spectrum, but all of them were incredibly reflective and articulate—not to mention funny. How did you find those 7-year-olds back in 1963?

M.A.: We had only three weeks to find all the kids before we started shooting, so it was pretty arbitrary. We went to the cities, to the city of London for example. We went to the educational authorities and we told them what we were looking for. We went to working-class schools and private schools, and I would speak to the teachers and say, “Bring me your finest 7-year-olds.” And they would bring them in and I would look at them. I knew nothing, but I did think that if they wouldn’t talk to me they have no chance of talking to a film crew…In fact, whenever I do documentaries that are character-driven, [I’m] looking for people who can present themselves, who can be articulate, who aren’t kind of stuck for words.

C: What possessed you to do it again, to interview them seven years later? In sociology that would be an ambitious project, first to find them and then to persuade them to be re-interviewed.

M.A.: I wish I could say that it happened immediately. 7 Up, when it came out, was a huge cultural event. The political issues were in the wind, and now they were suddenly dramatized in this incredibly accessible and entertaining way. The response was enormous. I didn’t direct the first film, Paul Almond, a Canadian did it; I just found the kids. It took five years before the guy that was head of Granada Television, Dennis Forman, sat down with me and said, “Why don’t we go back and see how they’re all doing?” You could see that we were on to something, here was a big idea.

C: Now you’ve interviewed them seven times, and you presumably are planning to do another, 56 Up. You’ve only lost two of the original 14 people, and even they may return. How do you persuade them all to subject their lives to such public scrutiny?

M.A.: There’s no formula for it. We keep in touch, we talk to them, and send Christmas cards. It’s like a family. Some you see a lot of, some you never see at all. Some I am close to, some I am not close to. Some I know don’t like me very much, some do—it’s exactly the dynamic of the family. But one of the horrors of the longitudinal documentary is that you are completely at their mercy. Some of them insist on seeing it before I finish it and give me notes on it. They argue the notes like a studio would argue the cut of a film with me. And there is nothing I can do if they don’t let me use stuff.

C: How have your relationships with them changed over the 42 years?

M.A.: It doesn’t get easier, it’s harder, because there’s so much more emotion involved in it, on all sides. There’s much more connection between us, much more sharing. As they get older, I am older; I have lived through what they’re living through. It’s more vivid but it’s also much more stressful to do. When I finished shooting 49, I thought, “I don’t think I can do this again, it’s wiped me out.” But you get over that.

C: It is emotionally draining for you, but what about the effect of the films on the lives of the 14 of them?

M.A.: I can’t really analyze the deep psychological effect it has on them. But I know they haven’t got jobs from it, they haven’t found partners because of it; it hasn’t driven them mad. Still, it must be a tremendous load to bear. I don’t know if in between times they think about it very much. All I do is ask the question you asked me, which I can’t answer. I just don’t know what it must be like every seven years to put your life up for this intimate public examination.

C: Your career has been amazing. The Up series may be what you will be most remembered for, but you’ve directed so many other films, from box office hits like the James Bond film The World is not Enough (1999) and the spy thriller Gorky Park (1983). Then there are the more socially conscious films like Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980) and your recent Amazing Grace (2006). How does making a documentary compare with making a feature film?

“It’s like a family. Some you see a lot of, some you never see at all. Some I am close to, some I am not close to. Some I know don’t like me very much, some do.”

M.A.: It’s an unusual career I’ve had. Not many people go backwards and forwards the way I do. I remember when I left Cambridge in ‘63 and Granada was recruiting, everyone wanted to be a drama director. Hundreds of us applied and 30 went up to Manchester. I took a look around and I could see all these people who wanted to be in drama. Although I had done plays at school I thought maybe I should be a bit different from the rest of them. I was interested in social issues from my mother’s womb, she’d been a socialist and I was very influenced by that, too. Reading law made me very interested in social issues as well. I was the only one who did that, which I think is one of the reasons they recruited me. Granada then was a very left-wing company, they completely rewrote the laws of television journalism.

C: You are at heart a documentarian, how does that affect your feature films?

M.A.: I approach fictional work with a documentarian’s eye and emotion. I gravitate to those subjects, especially biographies, where you can actually do real research, films like Amazing Grace. And even in a crazy way when I did the Bond film, it was about getting gas and oil out of the Caspian, so I said, “Well, let’s go see how they do it,” and they all thought I was crazy. So I dragged them all out to Azerbaijan…because the Russians had built this massive city in the middle of the Caspian. So we shot some stuff there and that became a wonderful design for a section of the film. It was that impulse to take the real thing and try to build the fictional thing out of it.

I remember when I did Gorky Park we got thrown out of Moscow. This was pre-[Mikhail] Gorbachev, it was [Yuri] Andropov, and they found out we were researching and they slung us out. I felt naked; I couldn’t find out what Russians have for breakfast and things like that, all the things that I love to find out, that whole territory was closed to us. I was incredibly unhappy throughout the entire making of the film because I was cut off from a source of information.

That taught me how dependent I am on that documentary spirit. It’s a whole set of different muscles. With documentaries the difference is being lighter on your feet, catching what you can, knowing what isn’t going to work and moving on, and knowing what might work and continue with it and then building it and writing it when you have harvested the material, and then writing it when you’ve started editing it.

C: Sounds like you’re a natural sociologist, in many ways. You’re not insulted by that label, are you?

M.A.: No, I am flattered by it.

C: Several spin-off series are now underway that have copied your method, in Russia, South Africa, and here in the United States. Did it make a difference that the directors knew from the start that these would be longitudinal projects?

M.A.: Yes, it’s a different thought process. Then you do sit down and say “What’s going to happen in America in the next 50 years?” For example, we wanted to look at the breakdown of the inner cities, so we did Chicago. And we wanted to look at the ethnic makeup of America, so we did Los Angeles. We found a couple of gifted children in New York and a couple of Southern children and we did a Midwestern child. Actually, we’re having some trouble with the American one. More people have dropped out of it, which surprises me, because everyone in America wants to be on American Idol, that’s the DNA of the country.

C: And the Russian one is fascinating, as it began with the break-up of the Soviet Union. Right?

M.A.: The Russian one actually started as the Baltic states were seceding. We looked at the map of the Soviet empire, because you could already see it was going to disintegrate. So we chose them geographically, we went everywhere, from Kazakhstan to Siberia to the Baltic states. And the South African one is breathtaking, if for no other reason than that three of them are dead. I can’t tell you how powerful it is. All three of them are brilliant pieces of film making, very ambitious, very imaginative.

C: By comparison, 7 Up was more improvised, done more from the seat of the pants. Yet that is the one that everyone knows about across the world. Why do you think it has been so successful?

M.A.: The more they go on, the better they get. The others may get there, too. But the other reason that the Up series has been so successful is because of Granada Television. They’ve been there for us every seven years. The American 7 Up started out on CBS, then it went to Showtime, then it went to Discovery. Network television doesn’t draw the eyeballs anymore, there’s too much stuff going on. You have to fight for exposure. If it doesn’t bring in the kind of money people might like, they say, “Oh, maybe we don’t want to do it again.” With Granada, the fact that they were there, and that it was broadcast on network television, seven years after seven years, was critical. So I was given a solid financier and solid exposure and these films may simply not get that. I just lucked out with Granada, I lucked out with the instincts I had about the film. And the people who did it turned out great. Nothing’s perfect, but you look around at the train wreck of your career and you think, this one actually did work out, it survived. I am very proud of it.