His feature films (Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist) may be better known, but British director Michael Apted's most revelatory screen adventures transpire far from the Hollywood mainstream. Starting in 1963 with 7 Up, a British TV program on the lives of 14 English schoolchildren, Apted has revisited his subjects every seven years to produce an engrossing series about the mysteries of growing up. While the second and third installments were well received in England, Apted says the series ''only got really good'' with 28 Up, the 1984 award-winning documentary released on video this week.
The project began when Apted, straight out of Cambridge University (where he studied law and history), got a job as a researcher, assigned to knock on doors of public and private elementary schools and look for suitable 7-year-olds to interview for 7 Up, a deeply critical look at the inequalities of the English class and education system. Seven years later, at a friend's casual suggestion, Apted turned the one-shot 7 Up into an ongoing experiment, this time not as researcher but director. By now, Brits have been following the lives of 7 Up's cherubic youngsters for the past 28 years (the latest installment, 35 Up, was broadcast in Britain this year and has not yet found theatrical distribution in the U.S.).
Reached by phone on the set of his feature Thunderheart, a contemporary thriller set on a Native American reservation, Apted recalls the special resonance of his latest visit to his subjects in 35 Up: ''What moved me the most was that a lot of them had children the same age as when we started, so you see the circle completed you can see them handing on the wisdom that we've watched them acquire.''
While tracking down the subjects is relatively simple (''England is a fairly small country''), cajoling them into sharing their personal lives with the camera is not so easy. ''It's such an invasion of privacy for them,'' says Apted, 50, who lost three of the original 14 participants after they refused to be filmed.
Meanwhile, the seed of Apted's original brainchild has been planted in other countries: An American version of 7 Up, directed by Phil Joanou (U2: Rattle and Hum) and produced by Apted, will air on CBS next season, with plans for ongoing updates. Like the original British version, Joanou's documentary (called Age 7 in America) shows children from all walks of life along with three little girls from an Upper East Side private school, a young boy living in a shelter for the homeless is profiled but it is decidedly more ethnically diverse. ''I'm sorry there wasn't more ethnic diversity in the English one,'' says Apted, whose only black participant, Symon, refused to be filmed in 35 Up. ''I'm sorry there weren't more women in it as well.''
A similar project is also under way in the Soviet Union (with Apted serving as a consultant), and there are tentative plans to launch Japanese and German versions. What's giving directors the seven-year itch? For Apted, the appeal is simple: ''It's a very entertaining, personal, and accessible way of dealing with change.''