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How Director Asif Kapadia Made A Heartbreaking Musical From The Life Of Amy Winehouse

Nobody wanted to talk to Asif Kapadia when he set out to make an Amy Winehouse doc. He talks to Co.Create about how he changed their minds.

When director Asif Kapadia got a call from producer James Gay-Rees, with whom he’d made the award-winning documentary Senna–about Brazilian Formula One star Ayrton Senna–asking him if he was interested in making a documentary about Amy Winehouse, he was immediately intrigued. He wasn’t intimately familiar with the gifted, jazz-riffing songstress, who rose to overnight fame with subversive anthems like Rehab and Back to Black, but he knew enough about her short-lived career–and life; she died, of course, at 27 from alcohol poisoning–to want to dig deeper. “It was my instinct that said, the thing about life with Amy is that it’s never boring,” Kapadia said over the phone from London, where he lives. “I did a bit of research and her life was either incredible or it was really bad. There was nothing in the middle. There was no mediocre with her. There was always drama. So there was that. That was the starting point.”

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Asif KapadiaPhoto: courtesy of British Film Institute

It was also the easy part. The hard part was actually making the film about a subject whose death was incredibly controversial and painful for the people who’d been close to her and who were key to helping Kapadia unlock the narrative of her life. Both Winehouse’s father, Mitch Winehouse, and her ex-husband and muse, Blake Fielder-Civil, were, among others, embroiled in a finger-pointing circus as to who played a part in her untimely end. “It became very clear that nobody wanted to be a part of this film,” Kapadia says. “Nobody wanted to talk, nobody was interested. It was too soon, too painful. There was lot of accusing one another of being to blame. Basically, there was an argument going on and I walked into it. There was a lot of distrust.”

But over the course of three years, Kapadia slowly worked his way through Winehouse’s story, gaining the trust and cooperation of key figures in her life; uncovering never-before-seen footage of her as an awkward tween–rebellious and mouthy as ever, but without the signature beehive and toothpick frame; and using her song lyrics, which Kapadia calls “Amy’s most eloquent voice,” as a road map to the violent, up-and-down thrusts of her life. The result is Amy, a film as un-boring as Winehouse herself, but with a sweet, surprising underbelly that dramatically offsets the tabloid freak show that the singer, or at least her image, became.

Kapadia spoke with Co.Create about his filmmaking process–how he wins over subjects through directness and patience; how he never sets deadlines; and how Winehouse’s songs helped him understand that what he really needed to make was a musical.

Photo: Nick Shymansky, courtesy of A24 Films

WINNING OVER SUBJECTS BY BEING FRANK AND PERSISTENT

Kapadia says he’s not the “abandoning type” and that he never considered not making Amy even with all the initial hurdles. Even as he had moments of thinking “Oh, shit. There’s no movie. This is awful,” he soldiered on, trying to get people to talk. The first major turning point was when Nick Shymansky, Winehouse’s first manager agreed to participate.

“When Nick agreed to talk, suddenly there was a story. This guy’s telling me things and saying what was going on, and it’s quite shocking. You realize this is gonna be a dark film. Suddenly, anything I’d seen of her started to make sense. Already, the picture became clearer. Nick was important on two levels. One, as a character in her life who trusted me and spoke. And secondly, he opened up his laptop. None of this happened immediately. This happened over months. He opened up his laptop and said, ‘Well, I did shoot some stuff along the way. And I’ve got these videos. You can’t have them, but I’ll let you see them.’ And then he showed me these films of her onstage doing her make-up, in the car, all that early stuff. The majority of the touring stuff came from Nick.”

Kapadia calls his process of warming up subjects “very low-fi. I just tell them, ‘Let’s talk. And if you trust me, I’ll be very simple and frank with you. And you be simple and frank with me. I’m not gonna bullshit you. I’m not in the music business. I don’t know anything about this story. I don’t know anyone in this story. I don’t have an agenda. But I am interested in her and I do want to see if I can try and unravel the truth. Because we’re doing this film. We’ve got the rights to the music, we’ve got the rights to the publishing, we’ve got everything onboard, we have the opportunity to make the film, and one way or another we’re gonna find a way to do it. It’ll be better if everyone is onboard than the opposite.’ I made it really clear: I’m gonna talk to everyone. Every single person I can around her. And that’s what we did. That’s essentially the process.”

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USING LYRICS AS A NARRATIVE MAP

Kapadia’s second major turning point in understanding the Amy narrative was through her music, specifically the song lyrics–all of which she wrote–that chronicled her life far more personally than Kapadia had ever imagined. In the film, Winehouse’s lyrics are displayed on the screen and are used as a kind of written, omniscient narrator that guides the story.

“After I’d done a little bit of research, I went back and listened to her records. I would just listen to them in the car driving around, and I looked at the lyrics. And it was like, oh shit, it’s a map! This is actually everything we’re looking for in the film. This is Amy’s most eloquent voice. There were very few interviews with her. Senna gave a lot of interviews and he just got better and better and better as the story went along. He just spoke amazingly about everything. Amy stopped talking after 2007. By the time the (Back to Black) record came out in the U.S., she’d stopped giving interviews. She may be present at an interview, but she never said anything. So it’s a bit of a problem telling a story from that character’s point of view. But then…Suddenly, the answer’s always been there, in front of all of our eyes, we just didn’t pay attention. It’s her songs.

“So I thought, okay, this is the structure of the film. The structure of the film will be her lyrics. It’s gonna be a musical. And it’s gonna be an old-fashioned musical where the songs are the narrative. This isn’t a concert movie. This isn’t a classic music doc where we’re gonna follow them on the tour. This is a narrative film with music in it. I realized that something happens in her life, she picks up the guitar and tells you what just happened in her life. And you go, Wow! I didn’t realize. We know these songs already. So suddenly they pay off. That’s kind of the big revelation. You go, I already knew that but I didn’t realize what it meant. So that was a big turning point I guess.”

AVOID DEADLINES

Kapadia isn’t just patient when it comes to trying to win over interview subjects; he’s patient with himself, believing that the best, most true art comes together at its own pace.

“I’m just a patient person. You must be. The film’s not gonna work without it,” he says. “I don’t have these crazy deadlines. I don’t have this, ‘Oh it’s got to be out tomorrow.’ I don’t like working like that.” Kapadia says he’s worked in television and in commercials, and the pace doesn’t suit him. “If I’m going to do something, I’m going to spend however long it takes to get it right,” he says. “I know the pressure you get when you’ve got to bang something out because it’s due tomorrow. So if you can’t get the real person, you get someone else. You end up with films about Amy with random people. Where anyone who will turn up and say something ends up in the film. Senna took five years, Amy took three years. You try and say, look, there’s no deadline. That’s important. Just saying, we’ve got to make the film. And once the film’s ready, it will be out there. It’s got to be that way round.”

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety.

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