Chasing Amy: Asif Kapadia on his Amy Winehouse documentary

Asif Kapadia's latest documentary charts the rise and premature demise of controversial soul singer Amy Winehouse. We talk to the sharp-eyed director about the film’s genesis and challenges ahead of its UK premier

Feature by George Sully | 29 Jun 2015
  • Amy

Asif Kapadia is a man fast becoming known for powerful documentaries, though to say that with only two under his belt is testament to his talent. Like his widely feted F1 feature Senna before it, Amy, which tells the story of soul singer Amy Winehouse’s life and career, is an unflinching and engrossing journey, delicately assembled and teeming with never-before-seen archive footage.

It’s certainly a tough subject. As lauded as Winehouse's music was (five Grammys, three Ivor Novellos, a Mercury nod and a Brit award), her insalubrious persona rubbed people up the wrong way. “For me that’s the big challenge,” Kapadia explains. “To pick a subject that you think you’re not interested in and try and get the audience to buy into it and find it interesting.”

Indeed, those who praised Senna often did so despite confessing a lack of interest in the sport. For Kapadia, this was partly the impetus. “The aim was to get people who don’t like sport, or Formula One, who think the most boring thing on Earth is people going nreeoww round and round in circles for two hours, to watch the film.”

This mentality was especially relevant to Amy. The impression many have of the troubled star is one skewed by sensationalist tabloids. In the years leading up to her death, she was frequently caricatured by comedians and journalists alike, her bulimic frame (her brother has claimed the eating disorder was a contributing factor to her death) and substance abuse the butt of endless mockery. Her still-warm body was even lampooned as a Halloween costume. Dehumanised by the media, she was rendered a guilt-free bull's-eye. “Everyone bought into it; everyone thought she was a waste of space.”

Without getting too preachy, the director suggests Amy is a kind of mirror. “The audience and journalists who have seen the film do think a little bit about how complicit they were in what happened,” he says. “People who watch it think it's about her, but then they realise, it’s actually about us.”

So how did the film come about?

Senna quickly became the highest grossing UK documentary of all time, scooping BAFTAs for best documentary and best editing in 2012. “I got offered a lot of films about sports people,” Kapadia laughs. “I just thought, 'I don’t want to do another sports film.' So it was a question of trying to find the right subject.”

The right subject, it turned out, was quite unexpected. “James [Gay-Rees], who produced Senna, had received a call from someone at Universal Music who said, ‘We really loved it. Would you be interested in doing a film like that about Amy?’” Gay-Rees called the director the next day: an instant yes.

Kapadia, a Londoner himself, was drawn to the star’s background in the capital, especially since he was working on a film for the London Olympics at the time. “I happened to be thinking about the city, so the timing was kind of perfect.”

Reuniting his Senna dream team, Kapadia had no idea what shape the picture would take. “With Senna, I had a writer on the film – Manish [Pandey] – who knew everything; read every book, seen every race, had a photographic memory,” he recalls. “On Amy, there wasn’t an expert. Different people were there for different periods of her life.” There were gaps to fill, in other words. “The toughest thing was just figuring out: what is the story? What are we saying? What is the movie about?”

The answers lay with her friends and colleagues, but winning them over would not be easy. Remarkably, help came partly in the edit of the film itself.

Senna, applauded for ditching the tired talking-heads format seen in countless other documentaries, used purely audio interviews as a counterpoint to its wealth of vivid archive video. This was Chris King’s method, Kapadia’s editor (also known for cutting the Banksy doc Exit Through the Gift Shop). Maintaining this characteristic approach for Amy was not only a stylistic choice, but pivotal in earning the trust of certain key players.

“Because everybody was so nervous about talking, or they’d never spoken publicly before... I just wanted to make them feel comfortable,” explains the director. “Putting a camera up in front of people’s faces doesn’t make people particularly comfortable.” This interview is also being filmed; Kapadia cocks his head at The Skinny’s cameras with a wry smile. “Especially if you’ve only just met them!”

“People who watch Amy think it's about her, but then they realise, it’s actually about us” – Asif Kapadia

He would meet them in a private studio in Soho, mic on the table, nothing else. “The lighting was particularly bad in this space, so I used to turn the lights off – pretty much dim them right down, almost to the point where we were sitting in the dark – and they’d open up. They just felt more comfortable. They’d speak about very personal things, and they’d cry, and it’d be quite heavy, quite intense.

“In the end I spoke to about a hundred people like that, and some people more than once,” he concludes. “Really, that’s when we realised... this is what the movie’s gonna be. It’s all going to be constructed out of this audio, which to begin with was just research, but actually it became the film.”

Trust was key, and earning it came in gradual victories. “The film really comes out of the trust of most of these people, because they then supplied me with the photographs, the home movies, the videos, the phone calls...”

Some of the most arresting footage comes at the beginning: candid tour videos courtesy of Nick Shymansky, Winehouse’s first A&R manager. “Nick was really the first person to trust me, and that was like the opening of the door. That’s when I thought, OK, maybe we’ve got a film.” It is often quite mundane snippets, just her being “silly, and playing pool, and hanging out, and doing her makeup in the loo... ordinary things,” but made all the more poignant knowing the hassled megastar she’ll become. Thanks to Shymansky, similar breakthroughs eventually came with Winehouse’s childhood friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, who provide clips from her youth and heart-wrenching anecdotes about her later decline.

Accumulating this trove of recordings, the next task was forming a coherent structure. “On Senna it was very easy to track the narrative, because you have this guy’s measurable journey [through the sport],” producer Gay-Rees comments at the Q&A that followed Amy's UK premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival. “This was a much more ephemeral story, because she was much more intangible.”

One visually engaging aspect of the film is the use of on-screen typography to bring her heartfelt, funny, and deeply personal writing to life. “It seemed quite clear, from very early on, that the songs were gonna be key; the spine of the film,” Kapadia explains. “The lyrics were Amy at her most eloquent.”

In a clip included in the film, Winehouse herself says “I wouldn’t write anything unless it was directly personal to me, just 'cause I wouldn’t be able to tell the story right.” Kapadia agrees: “[Her lyrics] really give you the roadmap to her life. She had it all written down.”

The tragedy, when it comes, is a gut-punch, and though no outright responsibility is laid at anyone’s door, culprits are there if you seek them out. Winehouse’s father, Mitch – as has been exhaustively documented in the press – doesn’t come across well. Her turbulent relationship (and drug use) with ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, and the media at large, both play clear roles. But when pushed on the question of heroes and villains, Kapadia stresses objectivity. “It’s not about pointing the finger in one particular direction. It’s much more complicated than that.”

To round up, we suggest a kinship between Senna and Amy’s titular tragic figures. Is there something about these two otherwise very different people that drew him to commit them to celluloid? “I suppose I’m interested in the outsider or the underdog. I find those stories much more interesting than heroes. Classical heroes – boring.”

But the 43-year-old, whose work began in fiction and whose current project is the period romance Ali and Nino, doesn’t want to be put in a box, saying that the films’ thematic similarity was serendipitous. “I think it is a coincidence, they just sort of came along. There was something there that grabbed me, at that moment in time.”

So what’s next? More documentaries or dramas? “I just like making films. I don’t really worry about if it’s a fiction, short film, feature film, whatever it might be,” he says. “I like the freedom of just wandering, tripping over a film – ‘Oh, I’ll make that one.’ It’s quite random. There’s no master plan.”

Amy had its UK premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival and is released across the UK 2 Jul by Altitude