Interview With Asif Kapadai, Director of 2015 Amy Winehouse Documentary <i>Amy</i> | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Interview With Asif Kapadai, Director of 2015 Amy Winehouse Documentary “Amy”

Kapadai's Amy Winehouse Documentary Was Recently Nominated for a 2016 Academy Award

Jan 22, 2016 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

While researching his intimately haunting documentary about Amy Winehouse, Asif Kapadia's editing suite looked more like the workplace of a detective than that of a director. The 43-year-old documentarian, lauded for his work on the film Senna about the titular Brazilian motor-racing champion, was taking an equally exhaustive approach with Amy, his new project, devoting an entire wall of the studio to photos and Post-it notes that outlined the Grammy winning singer's rise to fame and tragic descent into addiction and overdose. While he meant for that timeline to help him forge the film's plot, it eventually became far more indispensable than that.

"We invited anyone from Amy's life that I wanted to interview to the studio to meet the research team, my editor, to see my editing suite, to help ease the tension," Kapadia says, during a recent interview with Under the Radar, of the loved ones who'd grown deeply wary of journalists because so many had exploited Winehouse during her most debaucherous, vulnerable moments. However, those doubts were quelled for Nick Shymansky, the singer's first manager when he saw the detailed timeline Kapadia had pieced together on the suite's wall. Kapadia says the chart was "a visual way for me to look at the story, with a list of names, my way of working things out. But it also looked like a bad cop movie, where they are trying to connect all the dots. But Nick told me afterwards that was a big turning point for him, when he realised the proper time we were putting into it."

Below, Kapadia tells us more about encouraging Winehouse's loved ones to open up, how telling her story wore on his psyche, and more, on the film recently and rightly nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2016 Academy Awards.

Tell us more about why Amy's family and friends were so reluctant to speak with you initially.

Because the press had hounded her before she died. And her loved ones just assumed I was another one of those people, coming along and trying to exploit her. It was a really long journey to earn people's trust and explain to them "I'm not here to take anyone's side, I'm not here with an agenda." I had an opportunity to make this film and it intrigued me. There's a story there that hasn't been told properly, so I wanted to get into it. But going into it I didn't know anything. It took a long time, some people took a year to speak to me, others a year and a half. I'd made it clear the film would not be complete until they had spoken to me.

That degree of patience and meticulousness is pretty unique. But what else sets Amy apart, aside from the arduous process it took to get it made? How does the final product stand out?

Well, I used what I call a true fiction structural style for both Amy and Senna. That's because, for me, making films is about being as cinematic and visual as possible. So you don't take the audience out of the movie. Anything that's done that makes you aware you're watching a film, or feels fake, takes me out of the film. And I feel like documentaries are the same as fiction in that way. So cutting to a talking head, during this amazing achieve footage I've found, is problematic. I couldn't talk to Senna, in the same way i couldn't interview Amy. So everyone I interview will be speaking about her, whereas I want to make the film from the lead character's point of view, looking out so you see what they see and feel what they feel. Other people may add to it, but it's not about them. Also, I don't want the audience to think about anything but the present, particularly with a story like Senna or Amy, where the story ended tragically, some people might know the end, but I don't want people to think about that, I want them to enjoy the high points and the lows, and if you don't know the ending I don't want to give it away. It's about what's the best way to tell this story, and if the best way is from archive footage, that's what i'm going to use.

With Amy, this was a slightly different process than Senna. Nobody wanted to be part of the film, so I decided only to do audio interviews at first, because I wanted them to trust me. And once they trusted me they'd understand that actually this film could be something quite positive. It was a way of getting all the pain out. Because her loved ones are carrying all this anger and guilt and frustration about what happened. So this is a way to talk about it, once they feel safe about it. So once they trusted me, they let me know: "You know what, I got some home videos, some photos," and other material that had been very personal to them. They'd been protecting it from anyone else's eyes, and only after they'd spoken to me over a long period were they happy to share it. I didn't even know it existed when I first interviewed them.

Once you convinced them to take part, you wound up doing 100 interviews, and editing them for 20 months. You've said before that, after awhile, you were almost correcting interviewees and realising they had been lying or misremembering things.

Yes, that happened with both Amy and Senna. I'd think: "Ok, I now find myself listening to someone and they are talking about a person or event, and they have their wires crossed a bit." I'd trust them that they're not doing it on purpose. Some people might have. But most of the time it's jus that your memory gets fuzzy, you remember something and it doesn't add up with what the other nine people told me about that event, or what the footage tells me. So I would find myself correcting them.

But, with the people that knew Amy, there'd be people I trusted who had a massive distrust of somebody else I'd met, they just assumed they were the bad guys enabling Amy and giving her the bad stuff. Then I'd meet this other person and realize they all had so much in common, they all cared about her, they all wanted to do the best for her. But for whatever reason, at no point was there a proper intervention that brought everyone together. They were all too busy fighting amongst one another, and Amy was in the middle. And maybe that's something Amy facilitated. The nature of it was that she kept everyone apart, she had lots of different compartments that she had everyone in. And in each compartment everyone felt they were her best friend. In the end, people were arguing amongst themselves so much they forgot to help the person who needed it in the middle.

Is that part of what made the story so compelling for you?

It's what made it so stressful. It was really, a quite tough and very psychologically difficult film to be making, because of all the pain people were under. It's a pretty dark story, the film's pretty heavy. The highs are really high and the dark stuff is really dark. But, for the people I spoke to, the experience was like therapy. I could see when I met them that they were really in trouble, and their lives were getting ruined. They're all quite young still, only hitting 30 now. And they all said just the experience of meeting someone who let them say their peace and talk to them, meeting someone who wanted to reveal who the real Amy was and what had actually gone on, suddenly meant they felt free to come to terms with what had happened.

I also met with, and have been interviewed by, a lot of journalists that had covered her at the time. They're a bit older now, and they look back and say: "I can't believe we acted like that, we got caught up in this stupid machine." They felt bad about their part in pushing that paparazzi lifestyle which, ultimately in her case, lead to her dying.

If the film was so psychologically taxing to make, then how did you cope?

I'm a bit older than most of the people I was talking to for the film. A lot of people told me "The movie will never come out, they'll never let you release it." I kept thinking: "That might be true, but I know the people I'm talking to look better when they walk out of the room. And maybe that'll just be my role."

It felt important, the more I heard the more I thought this was an important film that should be made because it's about my city. I live around there. I've been there all my life and that particular part of north London, Camden, I know really well, I know every street. This is a film about my hometown, about a person from my area who became famous and was destroyed, and I'm not cool with that. I wanted to make a film that talked about: "Are we happy with the way we were? And why didn't we stop it?" We may not feel like we made it worse, but you know, when we listened to those comedians that made fun of her, when we watched Youtube videos that showed her in a really bad way, I even met people on Halloween who went out dressed up as Amy Winehouse, it all became part of this idea: she's not human. She deceivers it, she's rich and famous so you can treat her like crap. And I just wanted people to think a bit: "What are we doing?" Next time this happens, will we act the same way?

So yes, it was tough, but i don't think there's any easy film out there to make. They're always tough in one way or another. this one was tough, but it felt like we should do it because we have the opportunity, we've got access to the music and the publishing, I've now spoken to all these people, I now know too much to not make the film. Once you get to a certain point you feel like you have to get it out there.

Has one of the toughest aspects been how Mitchell Winehouse, Amy's father, has objected to the film?

We knew that as we were making the film, as we were hearing everything people were telling us, and from what we saw in the footage, we knew that was one of the challenges that was going to happen. A lot of people had experienced things and heard things and seen things but didn't feel strong enough to talk, or didn't feel like anyone would listen. So, in a way, our film is as much about just showing you who Amy really was. But it's also showing the kind of people around her, who from time to time making decisions that were not great for her. They made choices to keep the band wagon going, thinking all the publicity was good when in reality it wasn't. As you watch, you keep thinking: "Why don't people around her just give her a proper break from the business, rather than doing something that lead to the next performance? Get out of town, get out of London, out of Camden." That was my thing as well. You can't be in the middle of that and feel like you'll have a normal life. I'm a big one for travelling and actually getting away, and seeing how we are all tiny, how no one cares much who you are in most of the world, there's so much more going on. And I think that would have been a healthy thing for her.

Have the challenges involved in working on this film made you a better artist?

I don't know if anything makes me a better filmmaker, but you learn by doing. People can talk about filmmaking, they can write and read books, but in the end you just have to do it. And you have to realize that each film is a big gamble. Each film should be pushing you into a world where you have no idea if it's going to work or not. You're walking a tightrope every time, and you might fall off. And what was interesting, making this film, was there was no document, no script, no treatment or pitch. I had the opportunity to make a film, and thought: "Ok, I'm just going to start interviewing people. I'll make the film out of what I hear and what I see."

It was a bit of an experimental film on my part, I thought it was a bit heavy and wasn't sure how the audience would go for it. So it's been a pretty pleasant surprise, how well it's done, it's high box office around the world. It's touched people, because it's about Amy, about this singer and what happened to her. But what I found is that, during the film, it's more about us and our part in this story, and our complicity in what happened. It's about our part in this business, how we got most of our information about her from tabloids, how we judged her, and thought we knew her when really we didn't. And the film is just trying to address that balance, I suppose.



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