"reality" television might negatively



Jesuit theory: "Give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man." Starting in 1964 with Seven Up, director Michael Apted

In 1962, Apted began chronicling the lives of fourteen English children, all aged 7, and from sundry walks of life. Then, a researcher at Granada Television with a background in history and law, Apted got his break when the project's intended director, Mike Newell, went on holiday and Apted asked if he could take Newell's assignment.

The "children" of 7 UP are now 47 years old and the documentary series

(14 UP, 21 UP, 28 UP, 35 UP and 42 UP) chronicling their lives is going strong. Apted sees no finality to the series, verbalizing his enthusiasm for the project at the DGA's Special Projects screenings of the series that culminated in a Q&A between Apted and director Taylor Hackford.

In Apted's opinion the only reason to stop would be if it got boring or if too many of the participants dropped out. Over the years some of the participants have dropped out, only to reappear again in a following segment. The casting, done so many years ago, was quick and arbitrary. Nonetheless, even with the skewed cast, it's an excellent study on human behavior told from an observer's point of view.
A documentarian and successful feature director himself, Hackford talked about not only the skill of getting subjects to open up but also guiding them to show more than just their best side. "It's hard to get people to be truly honest when making documentaries," Hackford said. "So it's important to have the skill of asking good questions and getting them to reveal themselves. This translates as well to dealing with actors. Directors who work in documentaries tend to go after more realistic acting."

Apted replied, "I always thought at the end of the day whether it's a documentary subject or an actor, the quality of what you do depends on the trust you build with the subject. That's the heart of it. While certainly the way you approach a documentary subject or an actor is different, they're both about telling a story, building a structure, knowing what is and is not going to work.

"I think it's a process of wearing them down and a process of interviewing through silence," he added. "I just shut up and let them talk and don't give them artifice and am prepared to roll with the silence."

Having given the fourteen subjects of 7 UP the worst kind of celebrity — fame without money or power — Apted felt a certain responsibility to them. Yet, most of them have resented Apted at one time or another. The director said it's sometimes hard to get the participants to go in front of the cameras every seven years to have their lives reexamined by the world.

In the summer of 2004 he'll be ringing them all up again asking to be allowed to film them once more, something he is not exactly looking forward to because persuading his subjects to be filmed every seven years is the hardest part.

But there is a sense of duty on everyone's part with the 7 UP series, as it is history in the making. An objective for Apted is seeing how far he can push the envelope with his different subjects. Having known them all for so long, he's learned whom he can push, how he can push them, their breaking points, and whom to back off from.

Apted confessed that he has become caught up in many of their lives, just as many of them are caught up in his. Some have gotten savvy over the years and even ask to see Apted's final cut before giving their approval. Apted gives them carte blanche not only because if they don't like what he films they won't come back next time but because they're more than documentary subjects — he cares about and even loves some of them. These people are an extended family to him and just like in any family, he's closer to some than to others.

Initially, Apted was reluctant to bring the series to America feeling Americans would not understand the innuendoes of the English class system. All the same, it was brought here for 28 UP and Americans not only understood, they embraced it. It was then Apted realized he wasn't making the documentary he thought he was in attacking the English class system. Instead, he was making a rather simple film about growing up, about dealing with all the things that all classes have to deal with, and in turn Apted had a change of attitude toward the project.

With an anathema for today's "reality" television and the often absurd and sensationalistic face it puts on the medium of "real life" documentaries such as 7 UP, Apted worries about how as "reality" television continues to grow it might negatively impact real documentary filmmaking.

All 7 UP interviews thus far have been shot on film, but Apted plans to shoot the next round, 49 UP, on tape or digitally, in order to shoot more footage less obtrusively and with fewer breaks. meno This, he hopes, will make it easier to disarm the participants. A boxed home video set of the 7 UP series is currently being negotiated.

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