“Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man” reads a Jesuit maxim, and in 1964, a group of British documentarians set out to see if it’s true. Michael Apted’s first job was as a researcher on "7 Up!" and he helped to find the 14 schoolchildren profiled in it.
The filmmakers followed the youngsters through their homes, schools and neighborhoods, and recorded their thoughts about their lives, their hopes and fears, their plans for the future. Since, then, the film crew has visited those same children - Nick, Neil, Tony, best friends Jackie, Lynn and Sue and the rest - every seven years to chronicle their changing lives.
The series has aged with the children - the cheeky teens of "Seven Plus Seven" had barely graduated to adulthood in "21 Up!"; adult responsibilities weighed in with "28 Up!" and "35 Up!"; both middle-aged resignation and self-reinvention were setting in by the time of "42" and "49." Meanwhile, Apted continued his own life trajectory, becoming an acclaimed director, and revisiting the series and its subjects every seven years.
The latest installment, directed by Apted, is "56 Up!" Those youngsters we first saw in black and white, playing on England’s streets and playgrounds, have weathered the slings and arrows of fortune - marriage, divorce, children and grandchildren, homesteading and homelessness - the stuff of everyday life, examined with a long lens.
On how the "Up Series: became what it is today:
"It started out as just one film with a group of 7-year-olds about England in 1963, -64, we never intended to go back, but the film was successful. It still took us about 5 years to figure it out, but we did go back and from that moment on we could see that it was a big idea. No one had ever done this sort of thing before, so it wasn't brain surgery to keep it going. I had a sort of epiphany with 28 Up when I brought that to America, I thought I was doing this little documentary about the class system in the UK, but I was persuaded to bring it here and show it at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Americans got it gang busters, and despite all the technological language about the class system they understood it, and I understood it for the first time … It had universal truths to it."
On criticism of the series by some of the subjects:
"It's always been difficult to keep Susie aboard and I was thrilled when she agreed to come back. She announced at 49 that this was the end and they I got her to come back. A lot of them complain about it, but all of them always show up. They have a lot of fair complaints, the choices I make, how much of the material I use, what I don't use and all this, but someone's got to do it. And in the end I think it's got todo with trust between me and them, and them and me, and that's what's kept us together all this length of time."
On how he's managed to keep almost every "Up Series" subject to agree to come back:
"I think I must have got them right even if it's only in real short hand because they've stayed aboard. That's what I say to them 'Do you feel you've been misrepresented?' They have some control over it too. Doing these longitudinal documentaries, as a filmmaker, you've got to behave yourself. You can't deceive them or lie to them or do something you said you wouldn't do because they simply won't come back next time. They get a chance to see it before it comes out, and they get a chance to say no I'm not going to talk about that…so they're not exactly innocents, as it were, pray to the wolf Mr. Apted."
On the biggest lesson he learned while shooting with cab driver Tony:
"When I met him when he was 7, I thought I need to have this in the program. He's survived as the great character. All of his family are cab drivers, so it was in his blood. I made a big mistake, a number of mistakes along the road, but one with I'm when he was 21. He was running money at the dog track and things, and I thought he was going to end up in prison. So I did a sequence of him driving around the East End of London looking at all the great crime spots, expecting that at 28 I'd be visiting him in prison and I'd be able to show background to it, but I was wrong. He never did. He got his life together and he is well, so that taught me never to try and play God, never to try and anticipate what will happen to people."
On how important family has become to the subjects in "56 Up":
"I was worried that it was going to be depressing, that people would be worried about the future, about the economic crisis, looking back on live that hadn't achieved all they wanted, but nearly all of them had found a real solid base with families. Those that had invested their time and their energies into their families at an early age, this was a real encouraging sense of a payoff to that. I compare that with my life, when I was more interested in building a career and being ambitious and coming to America at the expense of my family and I think I paid a price. So it's a lesson to me in a sense watching this film as much as to anyone else who is watching it."
On how they relate now that they've grown older:
"I am 15 years older, but it has made a huge difference. Now we're much more collegial, It's much more intimate, It's much more emotional. I was big brother, I was an adult figure, but now we're all in the same boat together so I think the programs have gotten better, the interview had got better and I think there's just more stuff in it now because we're closer."
On the biggest surprise about the group he chose for the film:
"We only really wanted stereotypes from the different class system. Then you look 49 years later and here are these real great personalities and we didn't vet them particularly, we didn't audition them which leads me to believe that everybody has a story. They were arbitrarily picked, and they've all turned into these very interesting storytellers."
On who would take over production if he no longer could:
"Claire Lewis who's my producer on it has been with me since 28, and she's got a few years younger than me, so if I lost my marbles or passed away she could probably carry it on. But I don't know whether anybody could come in from outside the family. I've had the same photographer since 21, the same editor since 28, the same sound man from 21, we're all extremely old and incapable people, but nonetheless it gives a familiarity and a warmth to the whole proceedings. I love it, it's the most important thing I've ever done."
Michael Apted, director of "56 Up"; his previous films include "Coal Miner’s Daughter", "Gorillas in the Mist" and "Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader"
The latest installment in the groundbreaking UP SERIES opens this weekend at Landmark's NuArt Theater in Los Angeles. Special Post-Screening Q&As January 18th-19th with Director Michael Apted and Variety Senior Editor Pat Saperstein following the 4:45 pm and 8:00 pm shows.