Director Michael Apted's "Up" series of documentaries premieres its eighth installment on Oct. 14 on PBS with POV's "56 Up." The franchise has chronicled the lives of 14 British children from vastly different class backgrounds every seven years since 1964, when the kids were 7.
Now that the films have spanned nearly half a century, Apted says that he has no plans of stopping.
"I had two criteria for continuing," said Apted on Tuesday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in Beverly Hills. "If a lot of people dropped out of it, or if it got bad ratings and people weren’t interested anymore, we would stop. But that hasn’t happened, so we figured that we'd keep going as long as we were above ground."
It's that waning window of being above ground that Apted feared he would find his subjects dwelling on as he prepared to film "56 Up," but he was surprised to find that wasn't the case. That finding was in keeping with the trajectory of the films themselves, which Apted described as an organic process of change. The narrative reveals itself to him, and he goes to great lengths to not project any preconceptions on it.
"I thought this film would be depressing, that people would be concerned with their mortality," said Apted, who has achieved mainstream success with Hollywood films such as "Gorillas in the Mist" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" since he began working on the "Up" series. "There was an optimism to the film — something unexpected that I didn’t think would be there. It was a much warmer film than I thought it could possibly be."
Optimism and warmth incarnate sat beside Apted in the form of one of the stars of the series, Tony Walker, a tiny London cabbie with a great, big smile and an outsized personality who has participated in the films from Day One.
When Apted first met Walker in "Seven Up!" (for which Apted was a researcher, he took over as the director of every film after that) he was a disadvantaged kid whose parents were on Social Security. The thrust of the original film was that the British class sytem was so rigid that a kid like Walker couldn't break out of it. Yet break out of it he did, eventually going on to raise a family and earn a solid middle-class income as a gregarious London cabbie.
When pressed about whether being a participant in the "Up" series changed the trajectory of his life, Walker said no.
"It's never been contrived," he said. "Whatever comes along at that particular window of time is completely honest and true, and for me and I wouldn’t want it any other way."
Ultimately, the series evolved alongside its subjects — not only as a forerunner of reality television but as a mirror of the mellowing effects of age. When Apted began work on the films, he was 15 years older than the 7-year-old subjects. These days the age gap is no longer significant. Deep friendships have been forged, and the destinies of the cast have become further entwined with each new film.
Throughout it all, however, Apted says his subjects have remained recognizable to him.
"His 56-year-old face and his 7-year-old face — they both have that same twinkle," said Apted, looking at Walker. "It’s the same with all of them. I don’t think that a person's central personality changes very much. That’s the big truth I got out of this. Personality is embedded from the beginning, later on it will define itself, but it's always there."
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