Do you show the subjects the segments before release?
Well, I don't have a choice. I prefer not to, but some of them insist on seeing the rough cut of it. There's not much I can do. I mean when you're doing this kind of longitudinal television, you're totally at their mercy because if you mess them up or don't do what they want, then you won't be going back. That's what's so unique and difficult about this kind of work. So I don't really have a choice. So if they want to see it, and if they want changes made and I can't argue them out of it, then I have to make them.
Has that ever significantly affected the way the film came out?
Oh, yes, sure it has. But there's nothing I can do. I just have to suck it up.
Can you say what has been changed?
No, because that would defeat the purpose of cutting it out.
Right. Just thought I'd ask.
Any regrets in the choice of subjects or anything else about this whole project?
Not in the people I chose, but I think I should have had more women in it. The women issue was unfortunate, but that was the times we lived in. If you'd said in 1964 there'd be a woman prime minister in England twelve years later, people would have thought you were stark, raving mad. It's hard to say this to you and it's hard to even hear myself say it, but it's true that in the early '60s, in England anyway, it was considered unbelievable that women would have real power in the land. As I said, my assignment was really to move in the margins of society and women weren't regarded as a power resource in those days. So, those are the two regrets: the lack of women and that I would have liked to have had more of the middle ground of the class system in the film.
That's also interesting because it seems like a lot of your feature films [Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, Nell, etc.] have a female central character, which is not the norm. Just out of curiosity, what's behind this?
I find them more interesting than men. I think the drama of a woman's life is extremely powerful. The fundamental choice between a career and a family is a real high-wire some women have to work. In some ways that's underneath all the women that I've made films about, whether it's Dian Fossey or Loretta Lynn. At the heart of it, the price a woman has to pay to have a career or have a family—I find that drama very powerful.
It seems like a lot of your films—Me and Isaac Newton, Gorillas in the Mist—have science underpinnings. Are you interested in science?
I am interested in it, but I don't know a lot about it. I wish I did. Me and Isaac Newton is a companion piece to something called Inspirations, where I was very interested in the creative process and what made people artists. I thought it would be interesting to do a companion piece to it about people who are scientists and what the different mindset was. But obviously science touches everything. Although I don't understand much of it, it does interest me on a general and sort of philosophic level.
Neil admits to having mental illness problems. Was he ever diagnosed with anything specific?
Well, I think he's schizophrenic, but he would never in his life go to a doctor. We were worried we were having a bad effect on him, and so we took medical advice because he was very keen, always, to be in the film. He enjoys doing it. So we asked medical people whether we were doing the right thing by hounding him every seven years and doing this. Their question was, "Well, does he like it? Does he enjoy doing it?" We said yes, and they said, "Then he should do it."
It seems like this film has possibly helped him.
It might be. It certainly gives him a voice, and I think it gives him self-esteem and all that. He never sees the film. We had a screening with all of them [the subjects] for this one. We brought everybody in to watch it together, which you can imagine for me was torture. But he wouldn't stay. He came for the reception, but he wouldn't watch it. I don't think he's ever seen it, but I think the process to him is invigorating.
What else happened at that screening?
Jackie gave me a big kiss. She was very pleased that I put that stuff in. I think she thought I wouldn't put it in. Generally they seemed pretty pleased with it, but mainly they have been, over the years. I mean I've never had complaints from them. Certainly the people that have dropped out have never dropped out because of the way the film treated them.
Has anything surprised you about how any of the subject's lives have turned out?
I think if anything comes out of it of any general notion, my opinion is, there is a certain core personality here. I think you can see a seven-year-old in those adults. Sometimes they move away from it; Neil moves away from it. Then I think in this last one he sort of comes back to it. There's a sort of twinkle in his eye that he had so clearly at seven.
I think it's surprising that Tony seems to be the only one who embraces being in the series and seems to wholeheartedly enjoy it.
Well, he makes a fuss about it. I think some of the others like it. I think the girls like doing it.
Really? Because it doesn't come off that way.
Well, no, but in a more quiet, English way. I mean Tony is a piece of work. I mean I love him and he's very supportive, but he's a real showman so he wears his heart on his sleeve. But I think Bruce enjoys it. I think Bruce likes it and I think Nick enjoys it, too. I mean I think they're both very articulate men and like the exposure, to be articulate.