October 05, 2006

49 Up press conference at the 44th New York Film Festival

Photo by Martin Tsai. 49 Up director Michael Apted, Tony Walker and Film Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Peña at the Alice Tully Hall in New York City on Oct. 4.

By Martin Tsai

In 1946, Michael Apted got a glimpse of the lives of 14 seven year olds when he worked as an assistant on the landmark British documentary Seven Up! He has been documenting those lives ever since, following up on them every seven years with a new installment. The latest, 49 Up, also happens to be the first to hit American shores.

Apted said the series is the most important he has ever done, and its success has launched his career. His subjects also find themselves household names in England and experience the downside of celebrity. Tony Walker, one of the subjects, said he was surprised when someone stopped him in Central Park and sought his autograph.

“A lot of people had asked me about my marriage problems, which I can honestly say is intrusive. But I accept that because that’s what was happening in that particular time,” Walker said. “That’s why I give a true reflection to Michael. He wanted my honesty, so I try to give him a truthful personal interview.”

With the exception of two, all of the subjects continue to participate in the series. But some of them are also quite cautious about the series’ presentation of them and now demand editorial control. The new film includes a scene in which the subject Jackie Bassett frankly questions Apted’s ulterior motive.

“I’ve always felt that documentaries sort of get off the hook of it. There are some pure depictional problems in that I think documentaries can be as manipulative as anything,” Apted said. “And I always have been aware. I’ve tried to correct it in some ways. I’ve always been trying to avoid projecting my own middle-class insecurities.”

Apted said he does accommodate his subjects so that he can go back and interview them again. For his part, he doesn’t revisit the older films before making a new installment or ask follow-up questions during the interviews.

“They each have a different voice. They each have a different tone to them,” he said. “It is kind of surprising. That’s one of the adventures of doing it. You never know what it’s going to be about until you put it together. So the criterion is what is happening with them now rather than making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s a powerful thing to do, but being able to just think about it is a good exercise to do instead of retread the old stuff just so we can get some answers and make some nice cuts.”

The director said the project began as a reflection on the English class system and the generation that was born in 1956, but now the system isn’t as claustrophobic or suffocating. It has taken him a while to realize that he isn’t making a political film, and there are more personal and universal ramifications like relationships, children, money and sex.

“The real kind of tragedy for Tony and everyone else is that they cannot reinvent themselves. There they are,” Apted said. “I would like to see what I was like when I was seven years old, but if I got caught on the film you would have seen that I was a shy, reserved, cowardly boy … I could do a revisionist history of my life, and I had this vision of me as a seven-year-old boy that is total bullshit that probably you would see as sort of an aggressive alpha male who would go on to make a Bond film.”

© Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.