It’s been four years since Asif Kapadia wowed audiences with his hugely successful, BAFTA-winning sports doc “Senna.” Following two shorts, he’s now back with “Amy,” a documentary portrait that tracks the rise and fall of the late and great singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, who passed away at 27 of alcohol poisoning.
“Senna” made for an exhilarating experience, defying expectations of a traditional project composed of archival footage and interviews. Kapadia takes the same approach with “Amy,” and the end result is “heartbreaking and extraordinary,” as Kaleem Aftab raved in his glowing Indiewire review following the film’s world premiere at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. The film is playing out of competition at the event. A24 opens it in July.
Indiewire sat down with Kapadia in Cannes to discuss the making of “Amy.”
Have you managed to see anything other than your own film here?
I saw “Carol,” and that’s it. That’s the first one I’ve seen in many a month actually, because I’ve been working.
Did you like it?
I did, yeah. It’s always great to be able to go to a premiere with the actors there. And I know the producers and I know a couple of people on it, so I’m very happy for them. I met Rooney [Mara], actually, for a project a while ago. I met to talk to her and then I missed her at the party. We talked while I was making this and she was making numerous films, about another project. She was like, “I really want to see ‘Amy,’ I really want to see it.” I was like, “I’ll make sure to invite you.” She was in Cannes; I should have invited her.
Since you brought Rooney up: You come from a narrative filmmaking background; what do you think that foundation has brought to your work as a documentary filmmaker?
For me primarily, I’ve never been a fan of talking heads. You notice it — even my fiction films, there’s very little dialogue in it. My first feature is a film called “The Warrior,” and it has just seven minutes of dialogue. My interest in filmmaking was always very much the visuals and images. I would say, if I’m being honest with myself, there came a point where I almost became too obsessed with the images and worrying about the look and the framing and the color and locations. Maybe, if I’m being hard on myself, the film suffered from that. So then “Senna” comes along, and it was almost like a kind of reset. Let’s just forget about the image, and work with what you find and go for the emotion. Go for the story, go for the emotion and actually, if it’s true and if it’s honest, then the image works.
And also, my fiction films had nonprofessional actors — had a kind of documentary element. I’ve always been interested in that space in the middle. And with this movie, it’s kind of become an idea of playing with freeing myself up sometimes, and going with it and actually being open to material, but using all of the tricks and the ways to make something as cinematic as possible that come from fiction. For me, talking heads are ‘bummy’ — not for other people, other people do it very well — and essentially feel like TV. It just so happens that these two features that I’ve done, I can’t interview the main subjects anyway. So suddenly there’s an issue.
With “Senna,” it was really hard. Everyone said, “Go and interview someone.” “Where’s the shot of their face? If it’s a doc, you have to [include that].” I refused to do it. You know, a director’s job is often just to have “What’s your take on the material? What’s your angle? What’s a simple idea that seems so obvious?” But no one else did it, which was “Just stay in the moment. Stay in the present. Tell his story.” Even though they know the ending, forget it.
With “Amy,” it was kind of a continuation. I had done a film for the London Olympics in a similar style. Weirdly enough, I live in London — was born there and have lived there all my life — but I hadn’t made a film in London for a long time. I hadn’t found the right subject. I liked going away, to some far flung place. I got a call on “Amy” around the same time as [I was] making the Olympics film, and it was like, “Okay, finally a subject about my city.” With “Amy,” there wasn’t a battle. Everyone was just like, “Okay, go for it.” When you start the film, you have no idea if the material exists to do it that way. You have to trust your instincts and your guy and say, “Let’s see. Let’s be strong enough.” Your job as a director is to have an angle and be strong enough to follow it through. If it doesn’t work, you change it and be strong enough to change it. With “Amy,” I knew there was a lot of middle and end. I just didn’t know what the beginning would be, and it wasn’t until I met her first manager, who showed me on his laptop this amazing video that he shot when she was young, that I thought, “We’ve got a film here.”
In the scene, they’re in a cab. She’s flirting with him, but with you, the audience, as well. What was really interesting in this film was the amount of point-of-view footage. Because it starts with photographs and friends, they always look down the lens. And then it becomes like a manager filming her. And then she takes the camera. I thought that was really powerful when I saw that. She’s talking to herself with nobody else there. She’s talking to us, and I thought, “There’s something really strong here.” That idea continues to her boyfriend filming there — her husband and the camera crews from there. And then she’s performing and looking at it, and then the paparazzi are filming her. Then she’s kind of hiding from the lens. She was a show-off, and from that, she becomes someone who feels like she’s under attack. That point-of-view idea became a strong visual idea.
Not everyone going into “Senna” knew that he had passed away, so the ending came as a surprise to many audience members. With “Amy,” that’s not the case. Her death was pretty recent. How did that factor play into the making of “Amy”?
It sort of takes away some of the stress of telling the story; it frees you up. The biggest problem in fiction is, “I don’t know how you’re going to end it.” What do you want the audience to feel? Here, you know where it’s going, so that’s one element that’s a given.
I pretty much go into all of these films with a blank piece of paper — I don’t have a script, I don’t have an agenda, I don’t know anything. That’s my style of directing: I know nothing. I stumble through and then things happen, and then I’m like the audience, like, “Oh, that’s interesting, that’s not really interesting.” With this, you see that early footage: She was funny; she was happy; she was healthy; she has amazing eyes. Straight away, you can see this journey. How do you go from there to there in such a short space of time? That was a big part of it, and then another big revelation were the lyrics [of her songs]. Like, the answer was there in front of us the whole time. We just didn’t bother to listen carefully enough. Sometimes that’s really helpful: The audience doesn’t have this question mark of, “How are they going to finish this?” They’re not trying to second-guess it. They’re going with you. They know where it’s going, which actually brings more tension. It makes it heavier. Because you know, when you see her happy, where it’s going to go. For a shot moment, hopefully, you forget and then you go, “Oh, here we go.”
What’s fascinating with Amy’s story is, in the U.S., her first album didn’t get a release. So people only know “Back to Black.” For me, from the work that I’ve done and the research that I’ve done, sadly, the girl who released “Back to Black” is kind of the shell of the human being that she was before. The person that we all knew isn’t really even Amy. That becomes the story; that becomes the revelation. Everything you know is kind of wrong, or a skewed version. That’s not really her hair. That’s not what she really looks like. That whole iconic image is basically unwrapping. That becomes quite powerful, that they know the ending, because actually, you’ve already got a given.
With “Senna,” it was this idea that you fall in love with someone and you lose him — the shock of it. It was a shock, it was an act of God; it was this weird accident. With “Amy,” people knew. It was a slow, drawn-out death.
So then with her, I felt a slightly different emotion. I felt angry. I wanted people to be angry. It wasn’t a simple, “Oh, isn’t it sad.” There’s something else going on here. This says something about the world we live in. That’s kind of why it’s not a period film. It’s very much a film about London and a city that I live in, but also a lot of media-related cultural places. You’re going, “Whoa, I was kind of a part of that? I shared that. I saw that, and I laughed at that.”
That’s what I’ve heard from people who have seen the film. They all feel that they are complicit.
Do you feel the same way in any way?
Whether we admit to reading tabloids, everyone’s opinion was formed by that version of events. Because the images made it so clear to us, we thought, “It’s so simple: Just stop.” It’s easy, isn’t it? Just stop. You’re a millionaire — what’s the big deal? What problems have you got? Secretly, we’ve all got lots of problems. Everyone in our family’s got issues. But you know what? No one else is allowed to have it. I think you’re right. I think there is an element of complicity and there is something that I’ve found, with everyone I know who’s seen it: It’s personal. It’s about her and you feel for her, but it’s also the personal thing where you go, “My God, I’ve done this. I’ve done that the other day. I saw something and I thought, “That’s funny. Aren’t I clever when I commented on that thing or I liked that thing or I shared that thing.”
You managed to score interviews with all the major people in her life, from her parents to her best friends to her managers. How did you gain their trust?
My biggest job as a director was to get the trust of these people, and to talk to them and for them for feel, “Okay, it’s time to speak up and say what was going on.” One by one, they all needed it more than I did. They needed to talk. Many people have done interviews, but there were certain kinds of breakfast TV things — they hadn’t really had a detailed, get-it-all-off-your-chest conversation. Some of these people were really locked in. You could see they were quite ill. I meet them and I’m going, “Wow, you’re really young but you look twice your age. There’s something going on here.” They’re really carrying this pain. It was just like nobody’s really asked them. Nobody listened. Nobody wanted to know what was going on.
For some people, it took a year to get them to speak. Other people, once we met, some of them had seen “Senna” and that helped.
Salaam Remi took a long time. This guy is huge. He’s done hip-hop and reggae for ages. He did The Fugees’ albums — he’s like a big CEO at Sony. He doesn’t need to be part of these little documentaries. So I was chasing him in Miami, New York and all over, and he came to London and was like, “I haven’t got time,” but he, like everyone once I started talking to them, saw a pretty down-to-earth kind of guy. I meet somebody, I talk to them and they understand where I’m coming from. They understand that I’m not a tabloid-y kind of guy. I’m also not one of those people that’s knocking it out on TV, where it’s going to be on tomorrow. I saw him in London after trying to lock him down for a year. He said, “Give me half an hour.” Half an hour became five hours. I actually had to say, “Can you stop talking?” But he had to talk, and everybody universally loved her and knew who she really was. Nobody recognized the person that everybody else was talking out. For that reason, it became private.
Some people were almost embarrassed to say they knew her because of the image she became. Salaam took a lot time. But he’s got recordings, he’s got photos, he’s got stuff — he had a lot. He would show me something and say, “You can’t have it. It’s my private memory.” That was the other level of it — once they started speaking and opening up, then you had the issue of, “I’ve got this one photo of me and her together. That’s mine, that’s a private memory. I can’t give that to you.” Eventually they’d give it to me, and I’d have to say to them, “Are you sure? Because this is not private anymore; once it’s out, the world will have a piece of this.” But by then, I think everyone wanted the real Amy to come out. They wanted people to know she was so funny, so intelligent, so amazing, so lovable and healthy. That’s who they remember. If you spent enough time with her, she was still there, even later on. She was still there. So Salaam took a long time, the friends took a long time — but for all of them, it became quite a therapeutic process. There were a lot of tears.
Did her parents take a long time?
Parents were different. They were on board at the beginning.
They were remarkably honest, especially her mother talking about Amy’s bulimia. I was surprised she went there, because it makes her look a little complicit in her daughter’s demise.
I don’t want anything said about the mother because she is really sweet and very honest. She came in and she said very straight-up how she feels. A lot of it without any prompting. It was like, “Are you sure you want to say that?” She said that she didn’t really have a mother that was motherly to her. So therefore she didn’t know. She wasn’t able to… it was difficult for her. It was very difficult, and Amy was a difficult kid.