Making Amy: how we created our Winehouse documentary

Director Asif Kapadia, producer James Gay-Rees and editor Chris King reveal the research, patience and tough decisions that informed their film about the best British singer of her generation.

Lou Thomas
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Amy (2015)

Amy (2015)

Some 20 million people own a copy of Amy Winehouse’s second and final studio album, Back to Black. Aside from its incredible commercial success, the record marked the creative zenith for the north London singer with the staggering jazz-soul voice and hilarious, yet often searingly honest, lyrics. Listeners can hear one of their own and respond to the truth. When Winehouse died of alcohol poisoning in July 2011 at the tragically premature age of 27, a gnawing, helpless and frustrated wave of sadness washed over fans, from outside her home in Camden Square and right across the world.

Now Asif Kapadia, the Hackney-born director who lived in and around Camden for 10 years, brings us Amy (2015), a documentary about the woman whose blend of talent and troubles seduced so many of us. The film is by turns as honest, heartbreaking and amusing as the singer’s best work and is certain to elicit many tears, thoughts of contemplative regret and laughs from its audience. Within the picture, recording studio scenes show how some of her greatest songs were created, while elsewhere the scars of alcohol, crack and heroin abuse are laid bare. The paparazzi, meanwhile, are shown to be as ghoulishly unscrupulous as they are in Nightcrawler (2014).

Producer James Gay-Rees and editor Chris King have reunited with Kapadia for Amy, having worked together on Senna (2010), the poignant documentary about Formula 1 racing driver Aryton Senna. For Amy they have assembled a comprehensive range of new audio interviews from key figures, including Amy’s mum, Janis, and dad, Mitch, and musicians who worked with her, including producer Mark Ronson, Tony Bennett and Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def). Candid testimonies about all aspects and stages of Amy’s life are coupled with archive interviews with the singer herself. Visually, the story is told with a broad selection of professional and amateur video and photographs, which include everything from Amy’s hilarious responses to banal interview questions to never-seen-before shots of her wedding day. Arranging such a wealth of material into a coherent narrative must have been no mean feat. Kapadia, Gay-Rees and King take up the story.

Amy (2015)

Amy (2015)

Asif Kapadia, director

Was anyone reluctant to take part?

They were all reluctant at the beginning. One person I wasn’t able to get to was her brother. She had a brother who was a bit older, but the only way through to him was via the father, but the father said, “He doesn’t want to meet and he doesn’t want to speak.” I really felt he would’ve been an important person and would have had a lot to say but for whatever reason I wasn’t allowed to meet him.

The thing about doing the film quite soon after Amy had died was that none of them had spoken to people outside of their inner circle, so it really is the first time they’re speaking to strangers. The interesting thing about doing it as a doc instead of as a drama is that it would have taken years to get a script together. So it was interesting not to have a script, not to have to worry about financing, to just go off and interview people. You get that raw reaction which you hear in the finished film. One of the things I find frustrating about drama is that the process can somehow kill spontaneity.

Do you think there’s anything particularly “London” about Amy’s story?

I do. There’s something about her style visually. The fact that she looked original and that her writing style really stands out. It’s full of humour and twists and feels very much of the place. It’s not trying to copy American-style writing, all of the lingo she slips in there. It’s a bit hip-hop, it’s a bit jazz, it’s a bit soul, but it’s very Londony. She is a girl from the suburbs who moved to Camden and she’s a bit of a chameleon. And all of that gang, none of them are actually from London, they’re all from outside of London. Blake’s [Fielder-Civil, Amy’s husband from 2007-2009] not from London. They all put on this accent, and they want to be something. There’s a lot of that going on in the story as well, people from outside of town wanting to be more Londony than the Londoners.

I’m sure it’s always been like that.

But that scene at the time, Camden was the particular place. It was really edgy, There were lots of bands, there were lots of drugs going around it was just very happening and cool but dark. I used to live there at the time and it was the place to be.

Amy was constructed in a similar way to your last film, Senna. Is this method something you think you’ll pursue?

It suited these two films. I like the process but it’s quite frustrating at times. I think I’ll probably do a variation of it. It just depends on the subject. Senna was a particular guy, he was not around to interview and he happened to be in a sport where there was a hell of a lot of material. I just thought, ‘this is nuts, it’s all here, why has no one thought of it?’. It was the most obvious thing in the world: just cut the footage together and there’s a great movie. Amy came out of the audio interviews. The first thing was really doing these hundred audio interviews and then figuring out what we’re going to show, so it was actually the other way round.

Amy (2015)

Amy (2015)

Do you have a filmmaking philosophy that links your work?

One of my tutors at film school looked at some of my shorts I made years ago and said they were all about outsiders and I’ve continued to be about outsiders who are taking on a system or being pushed out by a society around them, which, weirdly enough, seems to be a theme that runs though a lot of the films. Even Senna – he felt like an outsider, and Amy became something like that.

When I’m doing a film I quite like to find some way of pushing myself, whether or not there is some kind of stylistic thing to push the medium or to do something different. Senna was the whole idea of not having talking heads and this is my musical, which is somehow making the songs come out of the narrative.

James Gay-Rees, producer

Amy’s father Mitch was in the news earlier this month threatening legal action because of his portrayal in the film. Do you have any comment?

It’s unfortunate that our end product doesn’t necessarily match up to what he was anticipating or expecting. But there are a number of reasons for that. One – which is really significant but is not political at all – it’s a sheer logistical thing. When you’re trying to collapse 10 years of a life into two hours you have to make big editorial decisions. I think he would have liked it to have been an extended montage of all the fun times they had together, of which I’m sure they had many. We do allude to that, and we do imply that they were very close, but we have to look at the bigger picture.

Did you have any moral dilemmas about what you kept in?

I had a few dilemmas about the film, full stop. There was a point when Asif and I were in New York and interviewing people. It was quite early on and I remember thinking that all the interviews we were doing there were just incessantly heavy. I think the scale of the heaviness dawned on us. I think the actual reality of what was going on was much darker than what we put in the film. I think if you put it in the movie it would be too unwatchable.

Is there a message to the film?

For me, the media forgot about the talent and just focused on the downfall, and the dysfunctionality became this very easy gag and punchline. So what’s really pleasing about the movie and the reaction we’ve had so far is that people feel that they’ve seen a different side to her and they are re-evaluating her. She deserves that re-evaluation because she was a world-class talent and a unique human being. I think the tragedy is when these people are gone, that’s it. 27 is way too young. If, in some small way, people think of her in a different light, that’s good enough for me.

Amy (2015)

Amy (2015)

Chris King, editor

Were there any particular challenges in this film that you hadn’t come across before?

I think 90% of our rushes were digital files and in the most dizzying array of formats. The majority of them were amateur so on a technical level it was more complicated. At the back end, both Asif and I added layer after layer of effects, so [the challenge was] to try and unite it all and create something that felt like a single film, rather than a collection of random clips.

Were there many different versions of the film?

There were rough cut screenings where we’d been cutting together a new section which could be another two years [of her life], and that was sometimes 2008 and 2009, when things were particularly bad in terms of her addictions.

We’d invite the guys from Universal to watch it and the lights would go up afterwards and we’d see ashen faces. We realised we have an ethical and a moral responsibility to make sure it isn’t just misery porn. That was our biggest challenge, to stop it becoming overwhelming.

We were absorbing it over two years bit by bit, and we know there’s an audience out there that are going to go into a cinema and get it all in two hours. If that was too harrowing, they would forget the lovely, brilliant, bright woman we were trying to exemplify and just be browbeaten by how awful addiction is. We want people to come out of the film thinking, “Wasn’t she amazing?” and I hope we’ve achieved that.

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