Interview: Filmmaker Asif Kapadia talks about “AMY”


When you`re famous everyone wants a piece of you: and no one cares much if you are half dead or very much alive. But when you`re become a troubled person using drugs, alcohol, there is no one there for you to rescue: only judgement and jokes you hear towards your persona. Asif Kapadia, a BAFTA winning director introduces us the story of AMY, unseen archive footages the way we never seen her before… or maybe not enough to realize that we literally lost a huge talent, an incomparable voice, whose pain and disappointment we will never hear again… through her music.

It was indeed a great pleasure to have the chance of attending the round table interview with Asif Kapadia in Toronto, to discuss his well-received ‘AMY‘. 

MOVIEMOVESME: Whichever people you talked to, were they hard to get involved or eager to get involved? 

Asif Kapadia: They wanted to talk. Right at the beginning, the way the film came about that my producer James, who produced Senna, got a call from someone at Universal Music and said, “Would you be interested in making a film about Amy Winehouse?”. James was like, “Maybe yeah.” So he calls me up and I say, “Look we can only do a film about a musician if only we’ve got all the permission on board. So before we even start thinking about it we need the music, the publishing, the estate, basically everyone on board.” So actually the estate and the family, all of them had agreed to the film in the beginning. We have to interview everyone, speak to everyone because we all know the ending, everyone knows how it turned out. It didn’t turn out well, we know she was in a bad place for a long time before she died. It was obviously going to be a heavy film, we’ve got to deal with the issues, we’ve got to ask all the questions. That included talking to Blake, included talking to her friends, and included talking to all the management and everyone. So yeah, that was how we laid out the deal to begin with and I spoke to like a hundred people in the end.

MOVIEMOVESME: How hard was it to find the starting plate of the film given that there was so much material to draw from?

Asif Kapadia: The starting plate for the film was always going to be her songs for me. From very early on when I started looking at the lyrics I was like, “Oh my God, it’s all here like a map, we just don’t know what order it’s in.” So really the songs were always going to be the spine and in my mind it was always to be a musical. From quite early on, of all the performances, I really liked her acoustic performances, just her and her guitar more than her record. I just love her voice and the guitar and I liked her playing the guitar in her own weird way. The spine and structure were always the songs and then it was just unravelling what every song was about. The whole film was like detective work, I was trying to just understand who she’s talking about, what does this mean, where’s this, who’s that, then talking to people and cross referencing back to the songs. It was just that kind of following where the story takes you.

MOVIEMOVESME: What was your relationship to her music when you started the project?

Asif Kapadia: I knew her and her music but I’d never seen her live. Never met her, she was a local girl whereas Senna was a guy from another planet, a superhuman, Godly, spiritual man. Amy was like someone at the bus stop, she was just another person from down the road. Even though I never met her, it was like trying to make a film about someone you might have gone to school with. It didn’t make sense how someone I could’ve grown up with had that latter period, which was happening half a mile from my front door. The other side issue was that when I first got the call for the film, I was making a film for the London Olympics and it was the first time I was making a film about London. So when James called I thought finally I found a subject that I can make a film about where I live and about here and now. I think she had only died a year ago, so my instincts was that it was too soon to make this film. Then the other side of me said, Senna took five years, this could take ten! So when I started doing the research, the more I saw of her early and young, the more I liked her. It’s about the world we live in and what we do to people who are weak or sick or mentally unstable, how much everyone took part in making her worse really.

MOVIEMOVESME: Your filming in this style and obviously coming through hours and hours of archival footage, was there a point where you thought, “Okay I don’t know if we have a movie” and then boom, “No, we can do it?”

Asif Kapadia: Most of the time it was like: it’s an absolute disaster, because it’s freeing and also scary because I don’t have any script or any agenda at all. But by now I kind of trust myself that I’ll work it out. I know what the ending is, we got that, then we got to hear all her songs when you realize she’s got a great voice and the lyrics are very good. So it’s the pieces that start to come together. I’ve got a really good team around me, great researchers and editors, so we gonna work it out. Then I start interviewing people. My job as a director was more about getting to talk to people, getting them to trust me to open up, to tell me what was really going on. One by one, close to hundred people from all over the world. Once I started speaking to them, much as they hated the fact that’s someone asking them questions, they needed to talk and get it out. It’d be like a 10 minute conversation become a half an hour, two hours, three hours and five hours later we’re still talking. So Nick, the first manager, the first person to talk to me was the one who shot all of her early footage. Nick said you’ve got to talk to Juliet and Lauren and he said I’d put in a word for you. They were really bitter about what happened and it took about six months for them to open up. Another person was Salaam, the producer. He’s really big, a big guy at Sony, big time producer who doesn’t need to take part in a small documentary. But I knew how important he was in her life and I chased him all over the world to tell him that this film could not be complete without your voice because I know how important you are. He doesn’t talk to anyone, I know a lot of music journalists but no one has ever got an interview from Salaam, but eventually he spoke.

MOVIEMOVESME: In the documentary you’ve highlighted Amy’s relationship with her father. Based on your research and analysis what do you think could’ve been done to prevent this tragedy?

Asif Kapadia: The people I’ve spoken to said although it’s not guaranteed to work but the earlier you try and help someone the more likely it could work. That kind of initial incident or series of incidents is what Rehab is somewhat about. The incident you’re talking about is in 2008 when she was in St. Lucia but it’s like 2004-5 is when her friends felt she needed help. At that point she wasn’t mega famous, she wasn’t known in the North America at all. That’s what people have said was the best chance to have helped her clean up. My theory has been she had to get out of London, go and see the world, go to India, go and climb up a mountain. There’s a lot more to the world than that part of London, which I like, but is also a bit shitty to be honest. Get out of there and realize you’re a tiny part of the universe and the world doesn’t revolve around you. I just wish someone would’ve got her out of there, out of the entourage. This is really important, the big picture. The film’s Amy, it’s about Amy. The problem is that in her life it all became about other people at various points. Everyone wanted to get their piece of her. So my job was to make a film about her, be true to her. You’ve got to be aware about that. She is the one who ended up suffering, she’s the one who needed for a short moment to think about her and not about themselves. I’ve said to him I know a lot more, there’s a lot more, you did this this and this. His main gripe with the film isn’t the film if you look at what he’s said, it’s about that we don’t deal with the final two years then she died. The film isn’t about the final two years because she didn’t write anything then, no creativity going on, so it’s true it’s not about that but the same way I had loads of other stuff I didn’t have time to put in the film.

MOVIEMOVESME: One of the things that’s interesting about the film is that we become complicit in some ways in the tabloidization of her character but what the film does do is employ lots of this tabloid footage. Can you talk about purchasing the footage, using it and the challenges as a filmmaker using something that contributed to her death to tell her story?

Asif Kapadia: I think it’s all about context. It’s about what you do with that material. Are you using it to say something that makes a bigger point, which I hope is what it does. If I just had a talking head and then lots of tabloids photographed, that’s really horrible. The point is to kind of feel how awful it is to be in that situation and that’s the point I’m trying to make here. The bigger idea is there is a whole film actually weirdly all the way through she looks straight at the audience. You start off as a very innocent kid with her friends singing happy birthday, seeing into the camera. Friends taking photos of each other looking in the camera, she’s happy. Her first manager films her, she’s talking directly to him, she’s always talking to us, she flirts with him, she’s flirting with the audience. Then she films herself talking to us. Then she becomes famous, she performs to us, really happy and enjoying it. Her husband starts filming her, she’s making out with him. Then it kinda turns darker and then it’s him saying, sing Rehab, sing Rehab. You know it’s us asking her, Go on sing Rehab. Later on we’re the paparazzi, we’re the ones photographing her. She’s attacking us, she’s fighting against us. So there’s a bigger picture which is we are complicit because all the way through we are watching her, she’s talking to us and in a way the audience become different people in the story relating to Amy. In terms of the big picture, this is heavy stuff in which we all somehow played a part in and those journalists have seen it and they have to  think about their part in it because they’re like in the shot! I’ve met some of those guys now and they say now you’re making me wonder. The other side is the audience who click on those videos and the most popular websites are those gossipy ones. The fans who click on them, they don’t know what they’re doing. The fans buying tickets thinking she might die so let’s go and see her quickly.

MOVIEMOVESME: You mentioned about the detective work you did in the lyrics. Was there any question that went unanswered or you couldn’t find out its meaning?

Asif Kapadia: Where does it all start, what is the root cause of everything? Everyone has a theory but she’s so complicated. Her own part to play in her story, why does she make these choices, does she feel she needs to suffer or does she know what she’s doing. Everyone I spoke to told that she was the cleverest person they’ve ever met. It’s just so many layers in there.

MOVIEMOVESME: It was interesting the way you put the archive footage, you show her first that she forgot the lyrics and she couldn’t sing, then you move into the next scene where the audience was laughing. Nobody really cared about what kind of issues she had.

Asif Kapadia: Yeah the audience went like, “Sing or give us our money back, sing.” I’ve seen a lot of concerts like that, the one in Belgrade is the one we used because that’s the infamous final one. But it happened in Dubai, in America and all over where people were egging her on to sing Rehab knowing she got a glass of wine there.

MOVIEMOVESME: How do you think the media is responsible for what eventually became of her because we actually didn’t give her enough space?

Asif Kapadia: It’s kind of wise to say that is the point. I think those journalists, the media and a lot of people who wrote about it, there is a point where you have to think about your own part. You can’t help it.

MOVIEMOVESME: When you listen to the songs now how different are they?

Asif Kapadia: Have you tried listening to them? They’re totally different! I mean you almost can’t listen to them. They turn up in a random place and people are dancing to Rehab and I’m thinking, “Idiots, do you even know what the song’s about?” It changes everything, they’re a lot deeper. I think there’s so much going on in the lyrics that we just didn’t pay attention. The other thing is that she is kind of old school, she’s into jazz, very well read, knew the history of music. One of the motifs for me was that if I bought a record, an LP, final record is to read the lyrics! I knew what they were saying and then I knew where it was recorded and I knew who played on this record and I knew what the references are. I like the idea of reading the lyrics and understand what the person is singing about. She had something to say and it was such an obvious thing. It was all there, she was telling us about her relationship with men, her family, her parents. The other thing I never thought about is she was like a method singer. Every single performance is different depending on her mood at that point in time. Jazz musicians change what they’re gonna play day to day because they’re in a different mood which pop stars are not allowed. So the challenge for her was to sing the bloody song. That was interesting because she was caught up becoming something she was not actually comfortable being. She wanted to experiment and she wasn’t allowed to change. The number of music execs I spoke to said that she would really annoy them because she would never sing a song the same way.

MOVIEMOVESME: If she had lived it might be interesting to see what she’d be doing now. My guess would be something completely different.

Asif Kapadia: I’ve thought about it quite a lot, just having a commercial failure is always good. Failure at some point in your life really frees you up. You then think, well now I’ve freedom to do something else. The other thing, she was a brilliant writer.  There’s a lot of great musicians who just write quietly, get on with life, have a family. No one knows who you are and real money’s in publishing anyway. She could have been privately writing for other people that would’ve been a good way to be creative and not have to worry. She wanted to do that, she tried to set up a publishing company right at the end.

MOVIEMOVESME: You spoke about interviewing hundreds of people including her family and friends. What did you find most shocking?

Asif Kapadia: I don’t know, I’ve heard a lot of bad stuff to be honest. Unfortunately it kinda all adds up. One thing after another after another. What were they thinking, couldn’t they see what was happening to her? I can’t think of one of them top of my head. It was just everything added together where people kinda lost sight of her. I’ve been talking to a few music producers actually and all of them know about their artists and what they do. Some people get away with it but they didn’t with her. Somehow she died and I’m hoping people will see the film. It’s uncomfortable for some people but hopefully it will change it a little bit because this industry seems to just not care about their artists.

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