Reel life: The mesmerizing saga of "56 Up"
In-between those seven-year intervals, Apted's been busy making other movies -- blockbuster movies. He directed Sissy Spacek in her Academy Award-winning performance in "Coal Miner's Daughter." He directed "Gorillas in the Mist," too - nominated for five Oscars. He even did a James Bond film, "The World Is Not Enough."
But it's these relatively small-budget, seven-year retrospectives that Apted considers his life's work -- and tough work it is.
After all, it's not just weddings and birthdays that he marks. Take Neil, for example.
Neil at 7: "When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut, but if I can't be an astronaut, I think I'll be a coach driver."
By the time Neil was 14 he was planning for college, but by 21 he had dropped out and was working on a construction site.
When Apted found him at 28, Neil was homeless, wandering the English countryside. Apted was sympathetic, but he pressed ahead with sometimes piercing questions.
Interviewer: "Do you worry about your sanity?"
Neil at 28: "Um . . . other people sometimes worry about it. . . . As I said, I can sometimes be found behaving in an erratic fashion."
"It's very tough," Apted told Cowan. "Sometimes I've asked questions, and I've watched the film with an audience and the audience gasps, and I think, oh my God, sometimes I think I may have gone too far."
In the end though, Neil found his footing. By 42, he ran and was elected to his town's council. By 56, he had even become a lay minister in his church.
But having his life's stumbles exposed hasn't been easy for him, or any of the "Up" series participants.
Interviewer: "Do you have a girlfriend?"Form the start Niuck was a bit reluctant. At 14 he didn't even look at the camera. By the time Nick was 21, he told Apted on camera he didn't much like the interrogation every seven years: "It's just that the limitations of such things as what the audience requires, and the time, don't allow it to be a real study."
Nick at 7: "I don't want to answer that, I don't answer those kinds of questions."
Still, Nick has never backed out. Over the years we've watched his move to America, become a professor at the University of Wisconsin, get married, have a son, get divorced, and get married again.
Apted's sometimes uncomfortable questions never stop.
"I mean, he's not deliberately setting out to be mean to us," Nick told Cowan. "But you know, making good TV is absolutely his top priority."
"Have you told Michael how painful it is?"
"Oh, he knows!" Nick replied.
As he looks back, does he regret doing it? "No, I don't. I mean, it's interesting. I mean, you know, it would be kind of pathetic to opt out of it. Even if it's painful, it's interesting and it's important."
Not all of them dislike the process. From the beginning, little Tony seemed to relish it.
Tony at 7: "I wanna be a jockey when I go up! Yeah, I want to be a jockey when I grow up!"
He was a rough-neck kid from London's East End, who did indeed become a jockey. But by 28 he had traded his horse in for a London cab, which is where we found him.
"I'm very lucky to have that documentation of my life," Tony told us.
Not that he's had an easy go of it. In "42 Up," he admitted -- on camera -- to having an affair.
Tony at 42: "I'm not proud at all to say this, but situations that arise that I've had regretful behavior at various times."
Wife: "You got caught and that was it."
"My wife wasn't very happy in the fact that, you know, it came out," Tony said. "And I was wrong. But my wife and I are now real strong again."
Apted says he'll keep the series going as long as everyone is willing, and healthy. The thought of anyone dying, he says, is too much to bear.
"People say, how will I deal with it? Well, I just don't know. I don't know how I'd deal with it until I have to. Hopefully I won't have to deal with it. Hopefully I'll go first."
His goal: to keep doing it until his film family are in their 80s. Apted will by then be nearly 100.
"I figured out when I do 84, I'll be 99. So that could be a nice swan song, shouldn't it?" he laughed.
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