At first blush “Amy” is a searingly depressing documentary. Something about the way London documentary filmmaker Asif Kapadia edits his multi-media portrait of Amy Winehouse, which debuted well out-of-competition at Cannes, is profoundly disturbing. We know going in that we’re going to see a train wreck, and maybe we feel a tad guilty about wanting to look at it. We all carry media images, clips, moments that we have witnessed online that form our own image of the gifted but troubled singer.
And we also are all-too familiar with the trope of the talent who heads down the wrong path, unsupported by family and loved ones, distracted and destroyed by drugs, exploited by the people who want to make money off them. Again, Kapadia (“Senna”) skirts these shoals and digs deeper to deliver more.
Yes, I was disturbed by Kapadia’s use of paparazzi footage of the singer. Was that really justified? Yes, the filmmaker argues, he was trying to get closer to her POV, to give us a sense of what her world was like after fame hit.
We talked on the phone about “Amy,” which A24 will release in theaters Friday.
Anne Thompson: Explain your compiling, researching and editing process. Where did this material come from?
Asif Kapadia: We had a core team of 10-12 people who worked on “Senna” and “Amy,” the same group. On “Senna” we were experimenting and working things out. On “Amy” we could plug into the office, everyone knew the system.
What was the difference this time?
The process was different because the producer James Gay-Rees contacted me. “We’re making an Amy Winehouse documentary. He contacted the head of Winehouse’s label, because the only way to make a documentary about a musician is to have the music publishing—otherwise it’s just not going to work. He came back and said, “we have all the music, it’s all fine.”
Did they have control over the final cut?
The only way I’d do it: James went into a meeting and said, “leave us alone, let us make the film, there is no agenda, it’s a blank piece of paper, we will talk to everyone, we’re not experts, no one person knows everything.” We had a long list of people we thought were key elements in Amy’s life. We’d try to talk to them—if they would give me the time of day to listen—one by one. The film began with audio interviews and we did research on YouTube on the computer. We’d rip YouTube videos, work with those to begin with, to see what’s out there. We don’t know. The editor and me and his assistant started compiling.
How do you find the paparazzi footage?
The paparazzi stuff was all online. If you know where to go, someone used it somewhere or there’s a news clip. It’s all out there—the trick is to find out who shot the original. Our archive research team gets online to see who originally uploaded the videos and took the photos. It’s their job to find out who has the master, get permission from them, go through a long process. If that shot makes the final cut, they find where the master is and the highest quality version.
You also did interviews.
I would then meet people and talk to them at our recording studio in Soho Square, which mainly does voiceovers for animation, it’s cheaper than going to a film place. I sit in a room at a table with a microphone and a mixer in another room who is not looking at them or us. The lights are down, we sit in the dark, it’s like a radio talk show. I ask questions, they start to talk: “When did you first come across Amy?” We’d start like that until we ran out of things to talk about or someone had to go.
It was cathartic for them?
They were in a lot of pain, angry, guilty, under a lot of stress, paranoia, and distrust. They all felt that they did their bit, that other people let it happen. It got quite heavy. Everyone would cry, in the dark. And one person would lead to the next person. We interviewed 100 people. Once they trusted, me, they’d say, “I had photos and home videos from when I was on holiday with Amy. It’s on my laptop, in Miami, I’m in LA.” They gave us little clues to the material. We spent six months —asking them if they found the hard drive with the photos. It was just a lot of detective work, unraveling clues. Like a bad cop movie, we had a wall covered with information.
Nick Shymansky, her first producer, he came in to meet me, he liked “Senna,” said that he didn’t want this film to happen, but at least he’d come in and talk. He walked into the edit suite, there are no secrets where I work, he saw the wall with the names and the people: “No one had ever done that before.” I only found out yesterday that was the main reason he talked to us.
What new discoveries did you glean about Winehouse?
I think really the simplest things are new. We had never seen her young, in the footage before she was famous. Seeing that she was really funny, an amazing natural showoff and performer was really moving. When we showed the film to her friends, women were crying at the beginning: “We’ve never seen her happy before.” We live in London, we knew of her, but no one can remember seeing her happy. Back then she had girlfriends. In the latter years all she had around her were guys. Where were the women? There were lots of girls and people who cared about her at the beginning.
On the professional level, the most obvious discovery were the lyrics. We know the songs, but we didn’t know how brilliantly she wrote them. We read the lyrics, and saw she was talking about herself, her husband, her dad. Every song told you something about her character, it was all there in front of our eyes. Even big fans didn’t realize that “Rehab” was a documentary of an incident, a person who tried to get her into rehab, Nick Shymansky, that’s a diss on him—“hip hip, you tried to help me, screw you!” When she says “no” she means “yes.” It’s a kind of: “What if I do this, will you stop me? What if I do this?” Nobody stopped her and it went on and on, until it was too late.
When did you decide to do subtitles?
Early on. We were originally subtitling the original clips that were not of good quality. Whatever the language, English, we’d subtitle it. We don’t have a master yet, so we subtitle it. And we got a totally different reading. I worry when the audience is reading that they’re not immersing, but I tried a screening without the lyrics and it didn’t make sense. It was important. You can’t help yourself but to start going with the music.
I was born in London, but my background is Indian Bollywood —they start with the music and songs. The movie songs will be released and become hits. When people go to see the movie sometime later they already know the songs, they want to see the songs, they have a massive fan base who know what they are about. So in my mind, the songs are the spine of the narrative —they are the story, even though they’re long, if they get cut out, the story doesn’t make sense. We start the film structure around the songs. The question is which performance is the right performance, which tells her story? Once we have the story, I prefer the live version to any record. They feel overproduced. I like hearing her raw with the guitar.
This movie was going to be raw, not slick and beautiful, I wanted it to have texture. She’s someone who became famous. But she was very London and ordinary. The songs are the spine and the lyrics explained everything, all the detective work helped to unravel the meaning of the songs—the singing, it’s all narrative, it’s all storytelling. It felt natural, one came out of the other. The film is a lot of little pieces that come together to form the story. It’s a big mosaic of footage.
This way you get to see her point-of-view.
She was holding the camera filming herself, talking and singing and looking straight down lens at the audience. I had not seen that, not seen people do that, there was always someone else present. It was very strong, her image looking down. We begin with Amy and her friends taking photographs. On “Senna” we used no photos, but on this one we do use still pictures, all kinds of people were taking pictures, or talking into the camera in a home movie. Nick was filming her playing pool, in the restroom putting on makeup looking into the camera, talking to us.
It’s textural. There’s a moment when she takes a cab. She flirts with Nick as he’s filming it. It’s not for journalists. Guys, girls, fell in love with her, after they met her once. I wondered how to get that across in the movie, and found that footage; Nick forgot he had it, he’s never looked at it. He’d film everything, and never look at it. She’s messing with him in the cab, they’re running late, she’s flirting: “maybe you’ll marry me.” She switched on and off, and makes a joke out of it. We see her flirting with the audience. Some of the saddest material are selfies she films herself on the computer when she looks really bad, out from under the wig, out of the makeup, that’s what she looks like.
By the time she was doing TV shows, she was more famous. It gets dark, the relationship to the lens is her being attacked, her husband filming her at rehab, the paparazzi photos are part of that. She’s hiding from the glare of the flashbulbs, when she attacks the camera, she’s attacking us. It’s a very interesting visual device. What we don’t do in fiction is look down the lens, we are voyeurs watching her, through her eyes. We become the consumer, watching while she is being hounded.
I always knew: if we do that, it will come up. We thought about it. My job is to be a storyteller in the best possible way, to get across a bigger picture of this thing that happened, how and why we let it happen. If we did not use that footage, would we reenact what was shot on the iPhone? We’d have to tell the story, to find a way to show her life caught by the lens of paparazzi —we had to use that to fully explain where she ended up—without that footage there was nothing else to show. I felt I had to do it. It was a tricky thing, shaped by the context of how it was used.
So you paid for it?
That’s the nature of documentary filmmaking. You have to own the rights of the footage, you can’t just take it, that’s how films are made, you have to make the decision, again. Some of the paparazzi who have seen the film are uncomfortable with their part in it. Some of them are older, some people in Cannes had interviewed her. A lot of people feel guilty about what they were doing, when they wrote those articles. We used to dress up like Amy Winehouse, none of us thought about it or worried about it. We all somehow are linked to the story, we all locate into the story at different points. In London, we all bumped into her, everyone I know was one or two steps away from Amy, my friends drank with her —or stepped over her on the street. I know people who went out with her before she was famous. She had the most amazing voice we’d ever heard. In an interesting way, one realizes how we laughed when we were making fun of her.