'Why did nobody stop it?': Director Asif Kapadia on Amy Winehouse documentary
"That’s said to be one of her best."
I told director Asif Kapadia -- director of Amy Winehouse documentary "Amy" -- about the sole time I'd seen Amy Winehouse perform live. It was her first U.S. performance, a nail-biting wonder.
"That’s the one that Jay-Z was at."
"Yeah, there was a lot of industry," I said. We went on.
I feel a small amount of pride and tittering excitement whenever I've seen a show that has gone on to become a thing of legend, even on an insular scale. When it comes to artists who have died, those memories can transcend into nostalgia. And when I think of Winehouse's death, those good rememberances burn with pain and shame. Because at points -- even in my career as a reporter -- I've felt complicit in the obsessive nature of celebrity, pecking at low-hanging fruit, or using reductionist language in discussing entertainers who are struggling with their very humanity.
That's what "Amy," as a film, achieves: the same emotional awe, which can transition into contrition, personal loss and empathy. Using home footage, photos, news footage, TV appearances, new interviews and film/pics shot by Winehouse herself, the story of the singer/songwriter's early career and even her early childhood kickstarts the conversation of her undoing and her death. It's full of the music that made Winehouse a worldwide phenom, but also the same gross stuff that complicated her audience's relationship to her, and artists/celebrities/talent who struggle with substance, mental health issues and fame.
"We’re the audience who watched it, laughed at it, commented on it, shredded it. We’re all a part of it," as Kapadia said during our chat.
Below is an abridged interview with the helmer, who responded to recent comments made by Winehouse's dad Mitch, who has distanced himself from the film that features a lot of his own commentary. We also talked on celebrity, ownership, Winehouse's intuitive talent and audience reactions to Winehouse's downward spiral.
"Amy" is in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York on July 3, and goes wide July 10.
HitFix: How did you find your way into her material and her life?
Asif Kapadia: I’m a North Londoner. She was like a local girl. So I was just aware of her. I heard her records. I had “Frank.” I had “Back to Black”. I had the songs. I knew the songs but I’ve never seen her live. I used to go to the Jazz Café which was in Camden quite, she was like a sub genre to that. So I knew of her and I knew that she was local as a kind of pride of someone local who kind of becomes successful, there was a bit of that.
And then it was just I lived in Camden. I used to walk through there all the time and that scene that was happening at the time was just a very peculiar period of time. Where there’s a lot of drugs and a lot of music. There’s a lot of creativity going on but it’s very dark as well.
You could not walk from here to that door without about ten people selling you drugs. It was just so open out there. Whatever you wanted was available on the street. It hadn’t totally regenerated with nice apartments, normal ordinary people still lived there. A lot of shootings happened there. So it was still kind of rough. You could not not know about Amy if you lived in North London.
Taking pride or championing means something that is familiar to you, like we own a piece of them. Here, it kind of implicates the audience and what happens to her because we feel like we all kind of own her because we know of her.
The subject of films I make are about people I don’t know that much about. I learn [along] the way, right. I go into film quite ignorant and I’m very open – I don’t know anything. I have no idea what this film’s going to be. But somehow it works.
What’s interesting is the difference in fiction from documentary. In fiction film you come up with great characters, you have a script. You raise the money and you cast that. And it becomes how are you going to end it.
I’ve done these two documentaries, both of which the ending is the same – the hero died. So we know the ending. The idea was, well, why? That was the big question here. It’s the journey. And that was the thing that interested me the most because I just don’t understand how this happened in front of our eyes. Why did nobody stop it? Why is she performing? I don’t get it. I don’t get it. Look at her.
That question was the big thing for me. The revelations along the way became – like, I didn’t even know if I really knew she’s wrote her songs. And then once I’d knew that and then you start looking at lyrics you go, “My god,” the lyrics are amazing.
They really spell her out.
Anyone could sing it but I thought the lyrics are just incredible. And again they’re not trying to copy Americans. They’re not copying people here. They’re not just silly words that rhyme. They’re much deeper than that, but it’s got like a kind of London humor in there. There’s a twist and again for someone that made it kind of unique.
And she preceded Adele and all these other girls that became big after her who looked different. It wasn’t a dumb thing then. It was very much bubble gum kind of music or talent shows that were big everywhere, and boy bands and girl groups. And then this girl comes along whose like doesn’t care about being famous, doesn’t care about being rude on camera or on tape and to say what she thinks. And she’s actually such a strong woman character, a strong personality, yet she became known as the opposite and this weak person. And it happened in such a short space of time.
And she’s just funny, really funny. Really, really sharp. Really intelligent. And I had no idea. Especially when I saw that footage of a young girl, I realized that’s who she really was.
During my screening there was a lot laughter. But there were also people audibly tsk-tsking her or harrumphing at the things that were being said by people close to her…
The things that other people do and say around her, you start noticing they don’t believe her.
Yeah, really kind of in a way kind of abhorrent reaction or whatever.
Because we know the ending. That’s the thing. You think “oh my god,” there’s so many bad decisions made along the way that all end [making] the person.
Mitch wanted to disassociate himself from the film after it first screened. What has been the reaction from other people who helped contribute and what has been your reaction to their fears?
I’ve been working my way through trying to show the film to everybody because it’s like we owe that to them. So everybody – not everybody but most -- have seen the film or people have seen their section to which they contributed.
And it’s painful. The film is difficult for people to watch. You and I find it difficult, and you saw her [perform] live, once. And a lot of people who never met her find the film quite tough at times. Imagine what it’s like to be in a room with people who knew her, and who loved her, and were around or tried to help, or tried to do something.
So it’s really difficult for them but everybody, even though they find it difficult, everybody has said, “That’s the real Amy. That’s the person we knew at the beginning. You’ve shown the world in a way who she really was.”
But then they also say it’s an honest representation of what was going on. Obviously it’s a film. It’s only two hours long. You can’t put in every person who’s associated with her, because you’d have 100 people in it. If you’re an actor the first thing you watch a film you’re looking at your own job. “Well why did he cut it that way….”
So I think people are looking at “Why did they not use my quotes? Why did they not put my perspective in?” But the main thing that overwrites all of that is they just have to go by her truth. So everyone else has said they’re really happy.
There are very few people – very few people – who said “Oh, I don’t like it.” But even they I think if you look at the interviews, there’s a lot of stuff in there – that’s the main thing.
What did Mitch take issue with specifically in the film?
I don’t know. I think the film’s made out of archives so that stuff went on TV previously, and it’s a real story. He was on TV. He was on the radio. He was very present in the media in the UK while this was all going on. And even at the time, people were saying “Well that’s a big strange...”
Honestly you’ll have to ask him. You’d have to ask him, because the film is honest, and an essence of Amy’s life and what was going on at the time. And we’ve had to condense it. We’ve made choices. It is edited. It is directed. But it’s using material I had.
As a film I almost felt like I wanted an epilogue like “Where are they now, what is Blake saying right now or what is Mitch saying right now…”
They’ve seen the film and said it’s totally honest.
Blake’s voice was so quiet in the film. Seeing him see that must have been wild.
He’s just seeing a person that at some point he was in love with. What’s really hard to understand is: that early footage? Nobody’s seen it before, apart from the people who were around for it to begin with. And even they hadn’t looked at the footage because it’s too painful. And then, to piece it all together, everybody is watching a person that they kind of vaguely remember.
But on the big screen it’s pretty intense. It’s a pretty intensive emotional experience. They were all kids when this was going on. They were very young. They were in their low 20s or teens and now they’re touching 30. They’re very young still. I think it was a very difficult period. A lot of them had issues. A lot of them had kind of addiction problems or whether it’s drugs or alcohol or whatever. And most of them have come out of it and now are having normal jobs and families and things like that.
But the one who didn’t make it is Amy and I think that’s still coming to terms. Some people have [come to terms], and I think maybe people who are shouting aloud [at the film] are maybe people who also haven’t quite come to terms with it all yet.
During the scenes where there’s paparazzi and reporters, there were times you amplified these hyper-colors, claustrophobic, loud cinematic feelings to your documentary, after we’ve been seeing warts and all like home videos. There’s a real oppression to your film when it focuses on celebrity-dom. Were you trying to make this a teaching moment for the audience about our relationship to fame and celebrity? What did you want us to come out of it with?
Yeah, because it got really out of control. I’ve seen so much footage now and honestly you’ve got a kid, Amy, in the middle of it.
I don’t know why those people are allowed to live outside our front doors. I don’t get it. I don’t know why they were able to get away with taking those types of pictures, and then print them, and then they’re the most popular newspapers in England, you know. And because of this switch from the kind of old fashioned physical daily newspaper to the digital versions, every morning there’s more and more content. And now it’s all out in the open.
That story was taking place around a time when a lot of people’s phones are being hacked. There’s a lot of stuff we haven’t shown, like trains or vehicle chasing after her whenever she’d go somewhere. They’re trying to get in front of the car. She’d arrive somewhere and [paparazzi] were already there.
So how did they figure that out? Somehow there was phone hacking going on or people on the inside are selling her stories. It’s dark. It was really dark and it somehow became normal. And everyone was in on it and it’s only now it’s come out in England.
She was in the middle of that as a normal human being. It was a very peculiar period of time. I feel like it’s changed but I spoke to Joe and he said no, it’s exactly the same. There’s all that stuff going on now. You’re just not aware of it.
So I think at some point it did become apparent that we had to deal with that. There is a moment when her life was lived through this kind of very insane kind of hurricane of need and attention and paparazzi and everyone’s consuming it. So whether or not it’s the journalists, whether or not it’s the paparazzi… then we’re the audience who watched it, laughed at it, commented on it, shredded it. We’re all a part of it. So there was never an intention of pointing the finger at any one person but you just felt like the story became bigger than that.
Before I started a film I had lunch with a prominent film producer who, when I mentioned I was doing the film, said “Why would you want to make a film about a junkie?” Well that’s exactly why I’m going to make this film. Another lunch, an exec who said a similar thing about another young person from right now who looks like they’re out of control. They said “Oh, we’re just waiting for him to die.” He’s a kid. How can you say that? Do you have no kind of empathy for this? They stop seeing him as a human being. It’s just a joke and it’s really not funny.
And I think that made me think, “Rather than waiting five or 10 years to make this film because it’s ‘too soon,’ let’s make it now” which we couldn’t do with a fiction film because we’d still be writing the bloody script. Or we’d still be waiting for that actor or actress to read it. We’ve got to make something now because it’s about the world we live in now. It’s very specific to London but actually it translates to everyone.
So then did you feel any ethical quandary then about using paparazzi footage, paying for it?
I was aware of it. I knew what we did. I knew that it would come up in conversation but it felt like actually my job as a director to tell the story is bigger than kind of this ethical issue of “no I shouldn’t do that.” Why? Because that makes me a bad person because I’m paying them? Actually I think the point of the film is more important than where the footage came from.
And I think there is a period when her image kind of only exists through paparazzi camera. Her face is so expressive. Her eyes tell you what’s going on. So really the story is also about at the end of the day, it’s about a kind of point of view.
You start off with her younger year footage where she’s really happy and smiling. Then you have friends like her first manager filming her and it’s a joke, saying “Oh come on, let me see your face.” And they’re playing and they’re joking. And then she takes the camera and she films herself. And she’s so comfortable with it. So happy.
And then she starts going on TV and she starts performing. And then her husband starts filming her and then other people start filming her. But then you can see she’s getting more afraid of the lens. And then by the ending these paparazzi photographs were literally she’s hiding. I think that became a part of the story. That was a part of her story told visually which is why we’re making a movie. We’ve got to be on a big screen. So I think I had to kind of use the best footage to tell the story.
One of the most terrifying sequences for me are the selfies that she took when she’s really in a bad way. That’s what she really looks like underneath the beehive and the makeup, that’s what Amy Winehouse looks like. But it’s a mask. Everyone wearing a mask. Everyone wearing a wig. People were dancing to "Rehab" dressed up as her and the reality is a very lonely girl who was really sick. And I think the whole thing was a cry for help, waiting for somebody that cared to stop it. But it just went on and on and on and on and on. And then when people did try to stop it finally it was too late because she pushed those people away.
So it’s a very complicated character. She’s very complicated. A complicated story.