July 26, 2013
Guests: Tig Notaro - Michael Apted
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. When Terry spoke with comic Tig Notaro in 2012, it was only months after Tig had been diagnosed with stage two breast cancer. We're pleased to report that her cancer is in remission, and she is healthy and doing well. But days after she got her diagnosis and was facing surgery and an uncertain outcome, Tig was onstage at the Club Largo in L.A.
She threw out her planned material and did a standup comedy act about having just received the bad news. Louis C.K. also performed at the club that night and raved about her performance. For a while, an audio recording of her set was available exclusively on Louis C.K.'s website, but now it's been released, along with some extras, as a Tig Notaro CD titled "Live."
Before we listen to Terry's 2012 interview with Tig Notaro, let's hear the opening of Tig's set that night at Largo. Imagine her walking out right after her diagnosis, facing an audience who didn't know about the cancer.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY PERFORMANCE)
TIG NOTARO: Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you? Hi, how are you? Is everyone having a good time. I have cancer. How are you? It's a good time, diagnosed with cancer. Feels good. Just diagnosed with cancer. Oh my God, it's weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy. I am just at tragedy right now. That's just where I am in the equation.
Oh, it's fine. I'll - here's what happened. I went - I'm gonna get - it's very personal. I found a lump. Guys, relax, everything's fine. I have cancer.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Tig Notaro, welcome to FRESH AIR. And first, how are you?
NOTARO: I'm doing great. They - I had a double mastectomy. They got all the cancer, and it did not spread like they had feared.
GROSS: That's wonderful, so I'm really happy for you.
NOTARO: Thank you, I am, too. I'm thrilled.
GROSS: So I'm so sorry that this has been such a rough patch of your life, but I'm so grateful that you've managed to make something so remarkable from all the horrors that you were going through. So let's start by talking about this set. If I were in the audience, when you walked out and did this whole hello, good evening, I have cancer, I don't know that I would have had any idea how to interpret that, whether I would've thought you were serious, or whether I would've thought, like, this is some really weird, like, performance art piece.
And I keep thinking, like, who are those people who were laughing?
GROSS: Because you're saying I have cancer. So how did you get the idea of starting that way?
NOTARO: Well, I originally was picturing myself going out, and I never sit on a stool when I do standup, and I was picturing myself being kind of that comedian for the night where I pull up a stool, and I say, hey, you know, it's been a rough few months, bear with me, I'm working on some material that's a bit of a detour from my regular stuff.
And then I was taking a shower about an hour and a half before the show, and I was thinking I can't do that, that's so lame. And I don't want to make excuses for my show before I get started, regardless of what I'm doing onstage. And my brain just popped out with this idea that I walk on stage and say thank you, I have cancer, thanks for coming. And it just made me laugh so hard just in the shower.
And then I was thinking oh, gosh, even though that's funny to me, I was scared of offending people and confusing people, and, you know, thinking about people that maybe did have cancer in the audience or had somebody that they loved that had cancer. And then the reality hit me that I have cancer.
NOTARO: Like this is my story. And I just kept thinking about it and picturing it, and it just kept making me laugh so hard. And so I just decided to do it. I was really nervous, though.
GROSS: So what was...
NOTARO: But it seemed to be the way to get in.
GROSS: What was it like when you walked on stage, and you did the whole good evening, I have cancer, and people laughed? I think other people were just astonished and shocked. But everybody - I think everybody was completely with you no matter what their reaction was. What were you feeling at that moment?
NOTARO: I was very nervous. I was rattled, and I felt raw, and I felt very vulnerable. Even though I had been diagnosed maybe a week prior to that, it was only maybe the day before the show that I had met with my doctor, who told me that I had stage two breast cancer and that the tumor on the left side was invasive and that because the cancer was not contained, their fear was that it had possibly spread to my lymph nodes.
And so they didn't know where the cancer had spread or if it had or how far. Like, they just didn't know. And I was just in a very vulnerable, raw place, and I had no idea what was in front of me.
GROSS: So Tig, you know, when I was listening to this set for the first time, I think I really didn't know how to react, and I was, like, laughing and then thinking, like, I shouldn't - this is not really funny. This is really tragic. It's horrible. I shouldn't be laughing.
But then I was thinking no, no, but what's she's saying isn't funny, but the way she's saying it is very funny, and she's a comic. She'd probably prefer it if I laugh. It's probably better if I laugh. And I was so almost distracted having this internal debate with myself about whether it was approp - I was listening alone in my car, you know, and laughing and having this debate with myself.
And then I'm listening to the audience respond on this recording, and some people are laughing, and some people are shushing the people who are laughing. And you also hear - you can kind of like hear the silence of some people.
GROSS: Like what response made you feel best during - you know, as the set kept going, and people are kind of getting more and more attuned to where you're heading, and some people are laughing, and some people are shushing them, and some people are just astonished?
NOTARO: Yeah, it was a lot to take in. You know, I feel like the 300 people that were in that audience that night were the exact perfect people that should have been there. They were just so tremendous. And, you know, like you were saying, there's just so many different reactions. There was laughing and silence, and it was the first time in my career where I've looked in the audience and seen people crying.
It was a very intense experience, and there was a point where I wasn't sure if things had gotten too dark, and I had considered and suggested that maybe I just call it a night. And this guy, you know, he spoke up: Absolutely not. And the crowd just burst into this supportive - I don't even know. It just - it was so emotional. I almost started crying.
NOTARO: It was - yeah, I just thought oh, please, don't cry. Just - you can't walk out here and tell them all this stuff and then start crying onstage. You know, I just would have felt so defeated. But it, it just - I just wanted to - I don't know. I wanted to feel and seem strong. And I had to pull myself together before I spoke again.
BIANCULLI: That's comic Tig Notaro, telling Terry Gross about the set she performed last year at the Club Largo in L.A., right after she was diagnosed with cancer in each breast. Comic Louis C.K. was there. He also performed that night, and he got the word out when he tweeted this, quote: In 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets. One was Tig Notaro last night, unquote. We called him up to get his recollections of the evening.
LOUIS C.K.: I went in, and there was Tig, and we're standing in the dark next to the stage, and she's getting ready to go on. And I said hey, I heard you're sick. I'm sorry. And she said actually I have cancer. And I was like what? And she said yeah, it's really bad, and it's my whole chest, and it's going to go my lymph nodes, and I'm not going to make it probably.
And she started telling me this stuff, and, you know, my eyes filled up. I couldn't believe it. And she said I'm going to go talk about it onstage. And she had this handful of paper. And it was a lot to learn all at once, you know. And then she went onstage, and I stood on the wings of the stage and watched the whole set.
GROSS: OK, so she comes out, and she says, and no one in the audience knows about the cancer.
GROSS: And she come out, and she does the whole good evening, thank you, I have cancer, thank you.
C.K.: Yeah, and she kept saying it's OK because everyone was upset. People were gasping and crying. And she said it's OK, it's OK, I have cancer. I've never seen anything like it. She was using I have cancer as a soothing thing to say.
GROSS: Yeah, it's like she's soothing the audience.
GROSS: And telling this like horrible news. So one of the reasons why this performance got such a huge reaction outside of the people who were there was because of your tweet, the tweet where you wrote in 27 years doing this, I've seen a handful of truly great, masterful standup sets, one was Tig Notaro's last night at Largo.
From a comic's perspective, what made the set so good?
C.K.: Well, you know, for comedians you see everything. We know all the tricks so it's hard to impress a comedian with comedy. But some people have a sound that's just theirs that's patented. It's kind of like horn players. There's probably times that Charlie Parker would tell John Coltrane, you know, I saw this guy in Chicago you got to hear him. I mean, nobody's doing what this guy is doing. Tig has this really beautiful sound on stage.
She has this way of dropping her jokes that are - they're wonderful, deadly jokes. And they're about small things usually, like bees and drapes, but they're incredible. So here she is applying it to something really big. It was an incredible example of what comedy is good at, which is taking people to the scary parts of their mind and making them laugh in those scary places.
That's a great gift. You know, she did something about looking at a picture of herself when she was five and saying to this cute little picture, you're going to get cancer. And we're all going, oh my God. And I never - for me, I kept - I was crying and laughing the whole time and hearing the audience lurching back and forth, exploding, then hushed - totally hushed - and then exploding again. It's like I never saw anything like it, the way that she controlled it.
GROSS: So did you ever see a set that tried to do something similar to what Tig did? In other words, tried to take something very personal, very confessional and very frightening and bomb, you know? And so instead of it being this kind of like miraculous set where, like, people are experiencing, like, laughter and grief at the same time and are processing what's being said on a very deep level, it's just, like, not working at all, even though the comic's just, like, bleeding on stage.
C.K.: Well, sometimes comics will go to dark areas, and they'll either go there by stripping away the real sentiment and just playing with the really refined darkness of the situation, and they'll purposely edit out any emotion about it. And that's something you can do to get laughs about a dark thing. Other people will really delve into the pathos of something, and then the crowd just goes quiet.
I've never seen somebody try it for a whole set. That would be hard. But I've seen people go to - stray into, you know, sad, dark territory where it gets quiet and it stops being comedy for a minute. And some people do that, and it's OK. I saw a guy once have sort of - reenact a nervous breakdown onstage to show everybody what it was like, and it was just - it was very hard to watch, and it didn't connect for the audience.
The thing that Tig was doing was something I haven't seen, which is telling you what it feels like to just have learned this, and she's not complaining. She's just observing. So, you know, I was proud of the way she was processing her tough news, and I was also proud of the way she was giving it to people, something they're going to get from it and that audience got, especially, and I got, which is if you have this funny explosion of laughter in the scariest, scariest depths of your fears, next time you see that fear again, you're going to remember the laugh. It's going to be there for you.
BIANCULLI: Louis C.K., remembering Tig Notago's comedy set about being diagnosed with cancer. We'll get back to the interview Terry recorded with Tig Notaro after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening back to Terry's interview with comic Tig Notaro about the comedy set she performed right after being diagnosed with cancer. We're happy to report that she's now in remission and feeling well. That set was recorded as is now out on CD. It's called "Live."
GROSS: So at this part in your set, you're talking about how you were trying to - like, one night you were just so depressed you were trying to drown your troubles with food, but the problem was because of still recovering from the C. diff, there was very little that you could eat. So, like, you were binging on Triscuits because they're basically like wheat flour and water.
And so this is...
NOTARO: That's rock bottom.
GROSS: Yes, rock bottom, absolutely. So this is that part of the set.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY PERFORMANCE)
NOTARO: I just, I was trying to drown my emotions in something. That's all I could do. It's like that's it, I'm going to the store and I'm buying Triscuits. It's like through all of this, like getting diagnosed, like, oh, I'll call my girlfriend. Oh, we broke up. I'll call my mother. Oh, my mother died. Oh, I'll go buy some food. Oh, I can't eat anything.
Guys, who here is just wishing I would tell bees going down the 405?
NOTARO: I just can't. I'm sorry. But you know what's nice about all of this is you can always rest assured that God never gives you more than you can handle. Never. Never. When you've had it, God goes: All right, that's it. I just keep picturing God going: You know what? I think she can take a little more.
NOTARO: And then the angels are standing back going: God, what are you doing?
NOTARO: You are out of your mind. And God was like: No, no, no, I really think she can handle this. But why? God, like, why, why? Oh, I just, you know, just trust me on this. She can handle this. God is insane, if there at all.
GROSS: And that's Tig Notaro from her set recorded at Largo in L.A. in August, and that set is now available exclusively on Louis C.K.'s website. Did finding comedy within the tragedy help you get through it, or did it at least make you feel, like, well, I'm good professionally. I can, I know, I know how to make this work onstage, and I'm good at that? What did you get from the performance?
NOTARO: I got so many different things on so many different levels at so many different times. It was just the bursting-at-the-seams, cathartic moment onstage of just being held up by these - this sold-out theater. And then I went to bed that night, and I'm not on Twitter, and I don't follow blogs.
And I woke up the next day, and my phone when I turned it on just kept beeping, just so many voicemails and text messages, and I didn't understand how the whole world knew I had cancer. I was so confused, you know. And then to go from the 300 people that night to the world knew, and I've just been lifted and carried and supported. And I have amazing friends and family, and my first thought when I was diagnosed was, oh, I have to keep this a secret, I don't want to lose work. And then that just blew the roof off that.
GROSS: Good point.
NOTARO: Everything negative has birthed amazing and positive things, and enlightening things for me. And people tend to think oh, poor Tig, she's alone and I just - there's just no - nobody should be concerned for me. All is well. And the cancer has just been this - just explosive. I'm typically more private and this is something that is pushing me so far out there in a way that has never been. I have no complaints. My life is tremendously wonderful.
GROSS: Well, Tig Notaro, thank you so much for talking with us. And congratulations on your great prognosis. It's just wonderful news.
NOTARO: Thank you. I'm so excited. And thanks so much for having me on.
GROSS: My pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Tig Notaro, speaking to Terry Gross last year. Tig Notaro is now in remission and feeling healthy. The recording of her now famous comedy set is now out on CD. It's called "Tig Notaro: Live." Tig Notaro also appears in the new film "In A World," is now at work on a road trip movie for Showtime and is one of the hosts of the Professor Blastoff podcast. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. You know the sensation of looking back at photos or videos of yourself over the years and seeing how you've changed? Imagine getting that kind of feeling by watching movies made, over the years, of people you don't know. The documentaries known as the "Up Series" have that affect on many people.
The series began in 1964, when Grenada TV in England broadcast the documentary film "Seven Up!" about the lives of 14 children who were seven years old and from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Every seven years since then, filmmakers have returned to the people from the original film to document how those lives have changed.
The new edition, the eighth in the series, is called "56 Up" and catches up with its subjects at the age of 56. It's now out on DVD.
Our guest Michael Apted was a researcher on "Seven Up!" and has directed all the subsequent "Up" films. Apted is British and lives in America. He's directed many fiction films, including "Coal Miner's Daughter," "Gorky Park," "Gorillas In the Mist" and the James Bond film "The World is Not Enough."
Terry Gross spoke to Michael Apted last February.
MICHAEL APTED: The idea of the film was to examine the British class system in 1963, '64, to see whether it was changing, see if it was reflecting the very cultural upheavals that were going up in the United Kingdom from the Beatles onwards. So instead of getting professionals in to talk about it, the idea was that we would get seven-year-old children from different backgrounds - from rich backgrounds, from poor backgrounds, from rural backgrounds like Nick Hitchon, from people who were removed from their parents, to get within about 14 children and have them talk about their lives, their ambitions, their dreams and whatever, and see whether that told us anything.
And of course it did, because it was both very funny and also chilling. Showing that, in fact, the class system was very active and that people in certain backgrounds had a real vision of their future, and others really didn't know what day it was. And so, you know, it made that point, and then the rest is history.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:So this was supposed to be just a one-shot, and then you stepped in, and you wanted to do another one and eventually make it a series. Why did you want to do that?
APTED: Well, I wish what you said was true because then I could claim credit for it. But no, the film went out. It was a huge success. And it was funny and chilling. And it took us five years before someone actually piped up and said, well, why don't we go back and see what happened to them? And we all thought oh, that might be good.
So we did go back. It wasn't a very interesting film because they were monosyllabic, spotty and just general teenagers, but, you know, you could see the beginnings of a great idea. We all got behind it, and we decided let's keep going back as long as we could and let this thing grow and see what happens to it.
GROSS: So what's it been like for you every seven years to drop in on these people's lives and, you know, ask them about the landmark events that have happened in the seven-year interim?
APTED: What can I say? I mean, it's the favorite thing that I've done, the thing that I'm most proud of. It's nerve-wracking because you always think you're going to blow it, and you'll wreck the whole thing. It seems fragile. And I've learned a lot of lessons about it. I've made mistakes on it and had to correct those mistakes.
You know, particularly I got into a situation, I think, early on when I became judgmental about people, that if they didn't agree with my standards of success, failure, happiness, whatever, then, you know, that I would feel that they were lesser for it. And also I tried to play God. I tried to predict what might happen to people and sort of set it all up for that.
And I did that, and that was an embarrassing mistake. And I think what I've learned all the way through is the less I do, the better, that the more I let them speak for themselves, I in a way try and become like a blank slate and start all over again and have a conversation with them about their lives and try not to lead them anywhere I think they should be led and let them do the leading.
GROSS: That's Michael Apted, the director of "56 Up," the latest film in the "Up Series." We'll hear more from him in a few minutes. Nick Hitchon, who has been profiled in all the "Up" films, now lives in the U.S. and is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
Here he is in a clip from "56 Up," showing how he responded in earlier films at age seven, 14 and 28 to the question do you have a girlfriend.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "56 UP")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Do you have a girlfriend?
NICK HITCHON: (as child) I don't want to answer that. I don't want to answer those kinds of questions.
(as 28-year-old) I thought that one would come up, because when I was - when I was doing other one, somebody said, what do you think about girls. And I said I don't answer questions like that. Is that the reason you're asking it?
(as an adult) The best answer would be to say that I don't answer questions like that, but, you know, it was what I said when I was seven, and it's still the most sensible. But I mean what about them?
GROSS: Nick, I'm sure you've seen "56 Up" once or more times.
HITCHON: No, I haven't.
GROSS: Excuse me, you haven't?
HITCHON: No, I haven't.
GROSS: Really? That's a statement. Why not?
HITCHON: Oh, it's I mean, I think this is a wonderful project, but it's a profoundly uncomfortable thing for me. I don't willingly watch myself.
HITCHON: It feels to very, very uncomfortable.
GROSS: Is it uncomfortable because you just don't like watching and hearing yourself, or is it uncomfortable because you don't want to see your life played out in front of the camera in seven-year increments?
HITCHON: Both of those things. I don't like the sound of my own voice. I think I look ridiculous. And if I say that I am uncomfortable with this, it doesn't mean that I don't like the project, and it doesn't mean that I am mad at Michael, but I am deeply uncomfortable doing the interviews.
There's something really disturbing about the process for me. Some of it is just the issue that I'm really scared that I'm going to get on there, and I'm going to hurt other people that I care about by something I say. So it's just profoundly worrying to me.
GROSS: Do you also feel a certain pressure that even seven years your life sort of had, like, an incremental change where, like, you've climbed the ladder of success or accomplished something wonderful in your personal life or, you know, found a new measure of happiness or - do you know what I mean - so that you could demonstrate something to yourself and to those of us watching?
HITCHON: Actually, no. I mean, some of the people involved do feel that way. I never have. And you see, I've been insulated from that because I've always been portrayed as somebody who started out quite disadvantaged. So anything that I did was always, you know, oh look how clever he was, you know. He came from a background where it was going to be hard for him to get up in the morning. So, I always look good.
GROSS: Right because you grew up on a farm, you went to a one-room schoolhouse, and now you're a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. So yeah, you've accomplished a lot. So how did you get into this in the first place, considering how uncomfortable you are with the whole project?
HITCHON: Well, I was - hey, as far as I knew, they put a camera in front of me and asked me some questions, and I love to talk to people. So these people were talking to me. I chatted to them perfectly happily.
GROSS: Well, thank you for talking with us.
HITCHON: You're welcome.
GROSS: That was Nick Hitchon, one of the subjects of the documentary "56 Up." Let's get back to my conversation with the director of the "Up Series," Michael Apted.
So you heard what Nick Hitchon had to say about being in the series and how he really respects the series and really likes you, but it's just painful to be a part of it, and it's hard for him to watch it. Does it make you wince at all to hear that?
APTED: No, I don't think so. I mean, he's very willing to be in it. There are others who feel the same as he do, that don't watch it, but it doesn't particularly worry me. I mean, it would worry me if they didn't want to do it, or I was dragging their ankles to the fire and all this sort of stuff.
But no, it doesn't worry me that he feels like that. He's a great contributor and has some of the most, you know, intelligent and interesting things to say about what we're talking about.
GROSS: I'm interesting in hearing some of the ground rules, so to speak, that you've set for the "Up Series." I know, for instance, like you've paid the interviewees in the movie.
GROSS: Was it that way from the start, or is that something that you instituted in subsequent films?
APTED: I started paying them at 28, you know, when we became, as it were, more international. Once it came to America, the film, and 28 was the first one to be shown in America, you know, then there was sort of some money around in terms of, you know, royalties and things like that. And so, you know, there was that money going around, and we would give them their share of it.
But I also thought they should have a fee for being in it. It was very, very small, but it's increased over the years, not that the films make money, but, you know, I feel they should be paid for it. And so I juggle the budget around, you know, so I can pay them a bit more each time because I think what they do is courageous, and not many people would do it, so why shouldn't they get some material advantages out of it.
GROSS: And when you ask a question, and you know that that question is making the person you're interviewing uncomfortable and maybe pushing them to speak a little more privately than they'd care, how do you balance your desire to be protective of them because they've become people who you care very much about with your desire to get the best film possible, which probably means pushing them a little bit past their comfort zones?
APTED: Yeah, what you have to understand is there's a set of rules when you do longitudinal films. You know, you have to behave yourself, as the director, as the interviewer, because you want them to come back. I mean, if they say they don't want to talk about something, and I ask them the question, and I embarrass them or unsettle them, and then I insist on using it, then they'll never come back.
So I do have these moments. I have moments when, you know, I know there's a question I've got to ask them, and I know there's a question that if I don't ask it, the audience will say why didn't he ask that, and I know that question might be hurtful. Now, to some of them I wouldn't ask it because it would break them down. Others I think are more resilient, and I ask it.
And sometimes they get upset about it, and then we have the discussion about do I use it, or do I not use it. And that, you know, that happens in "56 Up" sort of fairly graphically. And we had this discussion, and, you know, we used it in the film. So it's that sort of process. But it differs from what you do, in a way, because you have me here once, and you can use whatever you want because you probably won't want me back again. But with these people, I want them back.
APTED: No, I'm not being childish, but I want them back, and so, you know, I do have to behave myself.
GROSS: So can you give us an example of something that you actually, you know, talked about whether to use or not, use that was...?
APTED: Yeah, I mean, it was with Tony, the jockey, you know, the - we just, we've had long discussions over the last three or four films about the changing racial profile of the East End of London, which he left and he left because, you know, he regarded it as being invaded by Bangladeshis, you know, by people from particularly Asian communities, and the East End of London has changed dramatically.
You know, and he has had things to say about that. Sometimes I wondered whether he was pushing it too far, what he was saying, and so in "56," I just came out with it and said, you know, you sound to me, Tony, as though you're being racist. And he answered that, and he was very indignant about it and upset about it. And I thought he answered it very well.
And so I put it in the program, and then, you know, he knew I'd put - he asked had I put it in, and I said yes, and he said how is it, and I said, well, I think you should look at it. So he looked it, and he said I don't know what to do. And I said, well, I think you answered it well, that's my opinion. And so he, you know, he took some advice from family and whatever and decided to keep it in.
But that was an example of the process that can go on between us because we all have a commitment to, as it were, staying on the same page.
BIANCULLI: Michael Apted, speaking to Terry Gross last February. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's conversation with film director Michael Apted recorded last February. He's directed all but one of the series of "Up" documentary films, following the same group of people every seven years of their lives. The latest in the series, "56 Up," is now out on DVD. This excerpt from film recaps how one of the men, Neil Hughes, talked about the possibility of having children, starting with his response at age seven.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "56 UP")
NEIL HUGHES: (as a child) When I get married, I don't want to have any children because they are always doing naughty things and making the whole house untidy.
(as an adult) I always told myself that I would never have children.
HUGHES: (as an adult) Because - because - well, because children inherit something from their parents. And even if my was were the most high-spirited and ordinary and normal of people, the child would still stand a very fair chance of being not totally full of happiness because of what he or she will have inherited from me.
GROSS: Do you expect the people in the "Up" series to keep you updated as to where they are so you can find them every seven years? And I'm thinking especially here of Neil, who is somebody who seems to have struggled most of his life with depression and...
GROSS: ...like really serious depression, and maybe other issues as well. And there was a period - an extended period where he was homeless. And I don't - I don't know how you track down somebody like Neil when they're in that part of their life.
APTED: We did lose track of Neil a bit at 28. And so we did have to try and, you know, get through some piece of bureaucracy to find him. He's always been very willing to do it and he's incredibly articulate, as you know if you've seen them.
APTED: But, you know, what a rollercoaster he's had. And it hasn't ended badly. It's not - you know, in his 20s we did think whether we would lose him, literally. But he was, you know, he recovered himself in his early 40s and 42, 49, 56, you know, there's - again there's a sort of solid ground there. But, you know, you get the sense of a very fragile personality, but a very intelligent and articulate man.
GROSS: So do you have to grapple with feelings of responsibility for the people whose lives you're documenting during those periods of their lives when they're in trouble?
APTED: Well, I would, yes, and I have done. Yes. I mean, you know, I've given up any notion of objectivity. I mean, you know, I care about them all if they need help and I can help or they need advice and I can give it, then certainly I do. Yes, I don't shut myself off and say, look, I'm a documentarian here and I have to be objective, so please be quiet and I'll see you in seven years. It can't exist like that.
GROSS: Are you saying there are times you actually like helped people out?
APTED: Yeah. Sure.
GROSS: What kinds of things - if don't mind my asking - and if you do, that's fine.
APTED: No, I don't mind. I mean I've lent money to one or two of them if they've needed it and they've always paid it back. But, you know, if they're in trouble with stuff, I've always been prepared to help. And, you know, on a brighter side, a cheerful side, I mean if people come out to California, they come and stay with me. Bruce was here this summer with his wife and two kids.
And Nick's been out with his son and stayed with me. And I love all that. And if I have a movie opening in London, I always, you know, hire a theater and invite them all and their neighbors and friends to show it. It's great for me to be able to do something for them without me asking for stuff in return. I mean I'm always the supplicant asking them to do things, and it's nice when I can do things for them.
GROSS: You started "7 Up" long before reality television.
GROSS: And now in the area of reality television, many of the people in those shows are there because they have outsize personalities. They're willing to do things that are ridiculous or shameless even, and are willing to be ridiculed because that's how a lot of people watch reality TV, to ridicule the people who are in it. Do you find ever that people are watching your "Up" series in the spirit of reality TV, which is not the spirit that the movies are intended to be in?
APTED: I honestly don't think so. I mean, it was a big issue for us, especially when we did "49 Up," because reality television has really got a grip of - in British television. So my participants are saying are we another cheesy reality show? And if so, why are we being paid tons of money like "American Idol"? And I had to try to explain what I perceived was the difference between a reality and the documentary.
With the reality they take people out of their comfort zone, out of their homes, as it were, and put them into other situations. And sometimes that's very interesting and rewarding; sometimes it's cruel and unusual. What we try and do is in a sense every seven years get a - as truthful as we can - snapshot of what these people's lives are.
And we are not driven, you know, by having to have high drama. This is like a Victorian novel when characters move half an inch every seven years. But since it's all so familiar to us, we're tracking that, and in the end that's much more dramatic than watching, you know, cops and robbers or whatever, because it's something you really relate to.
So, you know, I don't feel I have to beef it up like reality. I don't feel I have to compete with reality because in another way I think this series of films exists on a different plane from reality, and not an unpopular plane. I mean, we do very well in terms of crass, you know, numbers in business and all this kind of stuff.
GROSS: Michael Apted, thank you so much for talking with us. And congratulations on yet another in the series of "Up" movies.
APTED: Well, thanks. Nice to talk to you.
BIANCULLI: Michael Apted speaking to Terry Gross last February. His latest film in the "7-Up" series of biographical documentaries, "56-Up," is now out on DVD. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new Woody Allen movie "Blue Jasmine." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: At the age of 77, Woody Allen hasn't slowed down. His latest movie opens this week. It's called "Blue Jasmine" and stars Cate Blanchett as the ex-wife of a convicted investment securities tycoon who goes to live with her sister, played by Sally Hawkins. The cast includes Alec Baldwin, Louis CK and Andrew Dice Clay. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Another year, another Woody Allen picture, and few agree on whether that's a good thing. For some, he hasn't made an interesting film since "Husbands and Wives," maybe even "Hannah and Her Sisters." Others think more recent morality plays like "Match Point" and comic parables like "Midnight in Paris" prove the old dog still hunts.
I'm in the middle. I'm amazed he makes films like "Blue Jasmine" seem fresh and lively when he works in such a closed creative ecosystem - in which no music seems to have penetrated his consciousness in any meaningful way since the jazz of the '50s, no theater since early Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and no movies since Ingmar Bergman's "Cries and Whispers" in 1972.
More damaging to his work is his congealed worldview. Long ago Allen concluded the universe was godless, justice-less, and meaningless. The best we can do is eke out our hopeless lives with, as he titled one of his movies, whatever works. Here's what still works for Allen: Filmmaking. He continues to refine his technique. His movies are lighter, leaner, more fluid. "Blue Jasmine" is sour and derivative, but he sells it beautifully.
He does read newspapers, and in interviews expresses strong opinions about the unscrupulousness of Wall Street titans. In "Blue Jasmine," he makes his protagonist a kind of younger Ruth Madoff, wife of swindler Bernie, and sets her down in an updated "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, once wealthy and ensconced in New York society, now broke and forced to travel to San Francisco and live with her working-class sister, Ginger, played by Sally Hawkins. They were adopted, and there's quite a gap in their styles.
When Jasmine isn't insulting Ginger's blue-collar boyfriend, played by Bobby Cannavale, she swallows tranquilizers and going in and out of fugue states, babbling to anyone and no one while Allen whisks us back in time to life with her ex-husband, played by Alec Baldwin.
I don't think Allen identifies with Jasmine the way Tennessee Williams did with Blanche. He clearly hates her. She didn't know her husband was defrauding investors, but only because she didn't want to - not with shopping and Pilates and all those charity events. Calamity hasn't made her a better person. As she lies on a couch opposite her sister, she still can't face reality.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLUE JASMINE")
SALLY HAWKINS: (as Ginger) Didn't I heard Eddie say he knows a dentist looking for help?
CATE BLANCHETT: (as Jasmine) Oh, forget it. Jesus, it's too menial. I'd go nuts. I want to go back to school. I want to get my degree and become, you know, something substantial. I can't just do some mindless job. Ugh. I was forced to take a job selling shoes on Madison Avenue. Oh, so humiliating. Friends I'd had at dinner parties in our apartment came in and I waited on them. I mean, do you have any idea what that's like?
HAWKINS: (as Ginger) No.
BLANCHETT: One minute you're hosting women and the next you're measuring their shoe size and fitting them. Erica Bishop comes into the store. She saw me and was so embarrassed for me. She slipped out thinking I didn't see her. I saw you, Erica.
EDELSTEIN: That Blanchett played Blanche DuBois onstage is a mixed blessing. I found her too theatrical, too external: I wanted a grittier actress. But Blanchett does carry scenes that would trip up a less able performer, and she's a terrific physical comedian. In flashbacks, when Jasmine is living high, her posture - the up-tilt of her head, the precision with which she holds her designer purse - is amusingly studied, as if she'd trained to be an Upper East Side trophy wife.
If you know Allen's work or "A Streetcar Named Desire," you can predict almost every turn and twist of "Blue Jasmine." But Baldwin and Michael Stuhlbarg as a schnooky dentist and Andrew Dice Clay as Ginger's ex-husband, add deep and surprising shadings to their stereotypes. And you can never predict Sally Hawkins, best known as Poppy in Mike Leigh's "Happy-Go-Lucky."
She's Blanchett's opposite - raw, goosey, spontaneous. Her best scenes are with a persistent suitor played by Louis C.K., a sensitive actor even with lines he didn't write. But I wish he'd re-written them: They end at the point where in his own TV show, "Louie," they'd mushroom into something more poetic and cringe-worthy and revelatory.
In interviews, Louis has said he'd like to co-write a film with Allen, and I say go for it. I don't think Allen is too old to re-learn what in his best work he showed artists like Louis C.K.; that even ordinary people have the capacity to transcend their worst instincts and awful surroundings. And that you don't have to settle for whatever works.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: You can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org, and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair, and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.