Producer James Gay-Rees and director Asif Kapadia have now partnered for two remarkable documentaries. Senna, released in 2010, used interviews and archival footage to recount the life of Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna. Amy brings a similar approach to the life of Amy Winehouse, from her north London beginnings to her death at age 27. Simultaneously sympathetic and unsparing, it uses first-person accounts to reconstruct the events behind her rise and fall, while considering the larger role the media, and those who consume it, played in her life. While in Chicago, Kapadia and Gay-Rees spoke to The Dissolve about the painstaking process of putting the film together, and how they concluded that now—just four years after her death—is precisely the right time to tell Winehouse’s story.
The Dissolve: When did you first hear Amy Winehouse sing?
James Gay-Rees: I had been living in the States, and I came back just as Back To Black had been taking off, and all my friends were playing it. And I was like, “What is this, this kind of retro rubbish?” I didn’t get it at all, and they’re like, “No, no, you’re wrong, it’s fantastic.” And I was like, “Oh. All right.” I couldn’t get my head around it all. That would have been 2007.
Asif Kapadia: I think I saw her on Later With Jools Holland. I’m pretty sure I first became aware of this person on this BBC TV show where great musicians come on and perform live. And he just goes from one stage to the next, and there’s always this really eclectic mixture of artists. I have a vague memory of seeing her and just thinking she was really unusual. She had an amazing voice, and that whole idea of what you see and what you hear not matching up. And someone—my brother-in-law, I think—gave me Frank. So I had Frank. I had Back To Black. But I never saw her live. I’m mad that I never saw her live. I was living around the Camden area for about 10 years. So I kept thinking at some point that in the footage, I would see her walk past me on the street. I’m still looking.
The Dissolve: She was portrayed in the tabloids for so long in a particular way, in America, but especially in Britain. What steps do you take to get past the tabloid impression people have?
Gay-Rees: It became my raison d’être to deconstruct that latter tabloid-junkie image she basically had. She became better known for her issues than her music, sadly, in the U.K. I don’t know if you know, but the U.K. tabloid press loved her. She was an easy headline, and kind of cheap gag. Obviously, she was in a very bad way, so what we try to do with the movie is inform people of the real Amy. That’s why we show a lot of the early footage, because it shows a side of her that people don’t really see, and remind people how big the talent was, and where it came from.
Kapadia: How funny she was. So funny. She was an amazing, bright-eyed girl—an ordinary girl—with friends and with a life, and just minding her business. She would just pick up a guitar and sing, and I think that was a big revelation. In terms of the press, I think it was really bad luck in so many ways that so many things happened at the same time for Amy. She’s sort of like an analog person who became digital. She’s that kind of crossover. She’s one of the first people where, if she did a bad concert, it was on YouTube, and it was on Facebook, and people were sharing and commenting on her all the time toward the end. And also, a tabloid war was going on. We now know about the phone hacking, we now know that certain news and media organizations were using it. You need more and more photos, more and more information about her. She sold papers, and she got clicks. So if you had a photo of Amy doing something bad, more people are going to watch.
Gay-Rees: It becomes self-perpetuating, then.
Kapadia: She was one of those people, unfortunately, who would read it. It was all very confusing, but there was a big blow-up of information—new media. That happened all that time she was in London.
The Dissolve: As you say, she’s so young, bright, and clever, and that becomes a striking part of the film. Did you have any sense of who she was before you started making this documentary?
Kapadia: Not at all.
Gay-Rees: That was the revelation.
Kapadia: I didn’t even really know she wrote the songs. I don’t think I was aware of that, not consciously at least. How brilliant they were, how well-written they were. That became a big idea. She’s an amazing artist. Writing is the most difficult thing, how personal they are. We started as big fans. It’s one of those things where you learn that, and you think, “Well, I think we’ve got a movie.” How does that girl at the beginning become that person we all saw onstage, falling over and being such a mess? And you’re thinking, “One, she wasn’t always like that, because that’s simply a perception: ‘She gets what she deserves,’ like it’s her fault.” And then you realize, actually, something happened in a very short space of time to change her from the amazing, intelligent… Everyone I’ve spoken to said she was the cleverest person they’d ever met. Everyone said she had an amazing personality—journalists, deep friends. They say, “Everyone fell in love with her. It’s something about her, they all fell in love with her.” And yet you could never imagine that person in the latter years. That’s why we’re making the film. We all fell in love with her. She was great. People wanted to hang around her.
The Dissolve: Were you surprised at all by the amount of material you had from her at a young age?
Gay-Rees: Yeah, we were lucky, because Nick Shymansky, her first manager, recorded a lot of stuff, as did some of her early band members. So we accessed a lot of that, which is a major coup in itself. That took a lot of trust generated, to get that material. It was a bit of a chain reaction after that. Once we got Nick to participate, he said, “You have to speak to Lauren [Gilbert] and Juliette [Ashby], her friends.” They were really skeptical. They weren’t fans of her journey. And they weren’t fans of the people who promoted the journey. It was a very slow process of attrition. We had to convince these people to be involved, even though we knew they didn’t want to be involved. We had to say to them, “Listen, we are going to make the right film.” Their great fear was very understandable. It was like, “How do we know you’re not going to either project someone else’s agenda, or just get her wrong?” Ultimately, she’s a really complicated, multi-dimensional person. We tried to create that movie. It became a case of those people saying, “We don’t want to do this, but we have to do this, because if we don’t do it, you’re not going to get the whole picture.”
Kapadia: Yeah, and they wanted the real Amy to come across. They said, “Please show the real Amy. The real Amy was the one in the beginning.” But her friend Lauren was really key, because they were essentially sisters. They grew up together, and there was plenty of childhood footage. The opening scene, Lauren actually shot herself. A very good operator, Lauren is, thank God. There’s that one funny scene where they’re on holiday together, where Amy is showing her new apartment. That’s Lauren, so she was there all the way through. Then they had this sort of breakup when Amy was not well. The two of them fell out, so it’s really emotional for her, because Lauren did not see Amy for the last few years, and has never spoken to anybody. Even now, it’s a very painful process. Only two weeks ago, we got our first message from Lauren where she just said, “It’s been really good for me to talk.” They have trouble watching the film.
The Dissolve: How did you convince people to talk to you, after all that happened in the press, and the way the story has been told before?
Gay-Rees: Slowly, slowly, basically. The way Asif and the whole team approached this is, we begin with a completely blank canvass, absolutely no agenda or pre-set narrative at all. We made a point of literally seeing every frame that’s ever been shot, which is obviously a vast amount of material. There’s thousands and thousands of hours of material. Then we spoke to absolutely everybody who is central to the journey, and then cross-referenced everything—all the intel, all the information we get from these people, corresponding with the footage. You start to build up this massive timeline, and sometimes it’s conflicting points of view and contrasting opinions about everything, but just trying to get a through-line through the middle of the narrative that’s completely objective. In this particular instance, when it’s been such a sad unraveling, and such a sad end to the story, lots of people have a different take on it, and try to justify their points of view, or their position. You’ve got to try to take everything completely impartially. And I think that’s what we have filmed. If you’re going to take that approach, though, it does slightly become, “Well, we’ve spoken to them. What’s your part in the story?”
Kapadia: It’s really about trust, though. We’d just meet with them, and say, “Look. I don’t bring a camera.” I don’t film them the first time. And also, we’re not in a rush. Senna took about five years to make, so I was expecting this to take a long time, and it did. It took two and a half years. Some people, it took a year to get them to talk. Salaam [Remi], Lauren, Juliette—it took probably up to a year from the initial contact to actually meeting them. And it was like, “If you’re not ready, that’s fine.We’re not going anywhere. But I do know, you’re really important in the story. I can’t make it without you, but whenever you’re ready, get in touch.” And then they’d get in touch, and they’d cancel. And they’d get in touch and cancel, and it would be fine.
Gay-Rees: There’s absolutely no shortcuts in the movie. Attrition is basically just patience.
Kapadia: And I think that’s why they respect us afterward. They know we could have just ignored them, but we didn’t, because we knew they were important. There’s payoff with all of them. I guess I’m 10 years older than most of the people in the story. They’re all nearly 30 now. They were kids. They were teenagers and late-twenties when this was all at its biggest and its messiest. Honestly, [at that age] you think you’re really grown up and you think you know what you’re doing, but you don’t, you’re a kid. I kept thinking it was like kids having a fight on a school playground. They’re having a fight and waiting for the teachers to come stop it. And the grownups just didn’t come to stop it, so I think there was a lot of anger, “Why did this all go on? We were children. We really didn’t know what we were doing.” Or they did ask people to help, and people didn’t help.
Talking to them, it became kind of a therapy process, just coming into a room. It’s a microphone, it’s just the two of us sitting in the room. There’s a mixer somewhere else, no cameras. Turn the lights down, sit in the dark, and just chat about anything you want to chat about, for as long as you’re willing to stay. Sometimes it would be a 10-, 20-minute conversation that became two, three, four, five hours later. Sometimes five hours later, we’re still talking, and we realize we haven’t gotten to the halfway point. They’ll come back again tomorrow.
And every single one of them felt a bit better having spoken about it, and having gotten something off their chest to somebody who knows nothing about the music business, and had never been involved in any way. We were really impartial, and I think, one by one, they just trusted us. I think trust is a big thing, and secondary to that was the footage. Initially, they would say, “I don’t know anything. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And then after we’d spoken, they’d go, “Actually, I’ve got these photos, or I’ve got this answering-machine message, or I’ve got this song, or this bit of video. Somewhere at home on a hard drive, I’ve got something.” And just retrieving the material could be about six months. Three things were happening: One, we were editing whatever material we could get hold of off YouTube, or from the label, or what people had given us. Two, we were doing interviews. Three, we had a team of researchers who worked on Senna who were searching out other people and other material. These three things all happened at the same time.
The Dissolve: Watching the film, it’s possible to have contradictory feelings. She had these demons her entire life, and what eventually did her in was there for a long time. But there are so many points along the way where things could have gone differently, if her father had made her go to rehab, or she’d never met Blake Fielder-Civil. Are you comfortable with people having conflicts after watching the film?
Gay-Rees: Yeah. These ultra-complicated journeys are really not black and white. Addiction is a massively complicated issue, and it differs from one person to another. Families are complicated—we all know that—and I think we try to basically posit the key factors in her journey, but not be judgmental. We observe, but we want you to conclude what you want to conclude from it. It’s not really our place to say, “And that’s why she died.” It’s not that simple, and also, you’re asking for trouble if you go down the road. Especially with someone like her. One thing that did come up in research was that she would present differently to everyone. Somebody would go, “I knew her. She was the most maternal person I’d ever met.” And somebody else, like Pete Doherty, would go, “She was hardcore.” So you’d be like, “Which is it?” And they say, “It’s both.” And she presented differently to her first friends. She presented differently to her grandmother. She was this incredibly fluid, complicated character. I think you have to take that into account, and not be too one-dimensional.
Kapadia: The problem is, when people do drama, it would be really simple. That was a moment when their life changed with that person or whatever. With real life, it’s bloody complicated. And it’s 50 things that happened all at the same time, which if you did it as a movie, you’d be like, “It’s a bit of a coincidence.” But actually with her, everything came to a head in that gap between the two albums, and then suddenly just as things are sort of working themselves out, the album becomes a big hit. Blake comes back. Other people come back. There’s money, there’s fame. Everything gets mixed up. There were too many things going on. There’s other things we know that we couldn’t even fit into the film. It’s more complicated than the film you’re seeing, and I think that’s more honest. We wanted to give you as much as we could do, as much as we could show, as much as we can explain or back up and say, “All of these issues were going on in her life.” It was so messy.
Gay-Rees: It was always going to be that type of film, because she inherently was an incredibly contradictory person. She had a very conflicted approach to fame. On one hand, she was in the business. She wanted the respect of her peers, but she didn’t want the machine that comes with that. She had very conflicted views about family, friendship.
Kapadia: She’s really shy, but she’s a show-off. I was talking to Nick the other day, and he was telling this story about how when he first met her, he spent hours on the phone trying to say, “I hear you’ve got a great voice. We need to put something down on tape.” And she said, “no.” And then he got a Jiffy bag covered in stars. She’d obviously spent hours making it. So on one hand, she said, “I’m not bothered, I’m not interested. No, no, no.” And then she did it, recorded a cassette tape, sent it to him, and spent hours on just the envelope. And that sums her up. She would say “No,” and that she’s not going to do something, but she’d do it. She’d do it her own way, and then really go for it. That was her all the way through. She pushed people away, but wanted them to come back to her. She’d say, “No, no, no,” but she meant, “Yes, yes, yes.”
The Dissolve: As with Senna, you keep all of your interview subjects off-camera. What were the advantages to that approach?
Gay-Rees: She’s not here, so there’s no point having basically everybody else now talking about her when she can’t contribute. The thing with Senna was, we had so much footage, we realized that for the first time, we could make a documentary without the use of talking heads, and breaking that moment. It feels much more like a movie.
Kapadia: The footage in Senna is amazingly well-shot. Why would you want to show… Plus, time has passed. They got older. They look cool when they’re young and racing around. They’re in their prime. It becomes TV. These are movies. We’re making movies and here—I just want to see her. I don’t care what everybody else looks like. Then there was a whole thing of people are too shy. Lauren and Juliette did not want to be on camera. And they had a really heartbreaking experience that only just happened. I don’t need to stick a camera in their faces. I think that was a big change from the old documentary way of doing it. The old way was, “Oh, I need to see their eyes, because I need to know if they’re telling the truth,” or whatever. We’re kind of going against that. We’re just like, “Listen and think and feel, and look at Amy.”
Gay-Rees: And look at them at the time as well, because you’ll be able to see what’s really happening. Everybody in hindsight remembers things differently.
The Dissolve: What differences did you run into telling a story that only concluded four years ago vs. one that was further in the past with Senna?
Gay-Rees: Obviously, this was rawer for people. Actually, the Senna family, even though it was 20 years ago, it was pretty clear that they hadn’t really delved into this. Every family is different. With Amy, it was so recent, and there was a lot of debate about whether it was too soon to make it, but we partly want to make it while people remembered how badly she was treated by the media. That was a big thing for us, because inevitably, it will be somebody else next year. We wanted to make sure it still resonated while people still remembered who she was. The wounds being fresh was a reason to do it, as opposed to a reason not to.
Kapadia: It’s the first time these people have spoken about it. As we were making it, it seemed more and more important. We talked about this a lot because one of my first instincts was, “It’s too soon, isn’t it?” And when we started talking to Lauren and Juliette, they said “Too soon.” Nick said, “It’s too soon. Leave her alone. Let her rest in peace. Why don’t you just leave her alone?” But then, the more you dig into it, the more you realize, “Yeah, but this is the world we live in.” We’re all a part of this story. The answer is really now, when we show the film, everyone says, “How comfortable are we about our part in this? How complicit were we?” People who went to her concerts who claimed to be big fans, but knew she was messed up. What are you doing buying a ticket to watch someone who you know is messed up? Do you want to see them before they die?
People who were clicking on those YouTube videos, sharing those videos, commenting on them… Journalists I’ve now met who met her said that they had Halloween parties at work, and they’d dress up as Amy Winehouse. There’s this weird thing that went on where everyone stopped treating her as a human being. The easiest joke on TV, comedians who think they’re so clever, but you’re basically making fun of someone with a mental illness. How hilarious is that? That’s the reason we felt like we should be doing this now, not waiting 10 years, because then there will be another issue. Something else will have changed.
Gay-Rees: I will say, the testimonials wouldn’t be as fresh, because time does do that. People get bits, and they reposition those. They’re inclined to be forthright the longer time passes.
Kapadia: The more we worked on the film, the more important it was to do it as soon as possible. And it’s exactly the problem of fiction films, which is, we’d still be working on the script. We’d still be trying to raise the funds. We’d still be waiting for someone to read it, this actor who’s going to play so-and-so. I do both, and I find the process of drama so frustrating sometimes. What was great about this is that as soon as we started talking about it, we just got on Avid and started working on it. There was no script because there was no agenda. Literally, we were like, “What are we going to make? Just leave us alone. Give us a couple of years, and we’ll come back with a film.” We had a meeting with people who said, “We love this film, how are you going to do it? Show us something.” “We don’t know, but we think it’s going to be good, because we know enough. You think you know the story, but actually, it’s the opposite of everything you thought.” Very early on, we were like, “That’s what it is. She isn’t that person everybody thought she was.” That’s why we had to make it as soon as possible.
The Dissolve: What’s the most surprising reaction you’ve had to the film?
Gay-Rees: I had a really amazing conversation with Blake the other day after he’d seen it finally for the first time. We’ve been trying to get him to see it for ages, but he lives in a different part of the U.K., so it’s been hard. I was kind of worried about showing it to him, because it’s a pretty honest representation of the events. His reaction really surprised me, because he was like, “Holy shit. I needed to see that, because I’d been avoiding the bigger issues here at work.” He wasn’t taking entire responsibility for what happened, but I think just in terms of the way he’s been processing what happened, and his relationship with her—I think he had a real moment about what’s gone, what he has lost.
Even though they weren’t together, they were still very close, and soul partners on some level. I think he hadn’t really admitted that loss to himself, because it’s too much. He was incredible. He was like, “It’s an honor to be a part of it.” He goes, “You’ve done it. You’ve nailed her.” It comes back to that. It’s just people basically saying, “You’ve really got her.” That was the big revelation for me. It was really heartfelt. It’s been a massive labor of love for the last couple of years. You want to be honest, but you want to try have a positive net effect with it.
Kapadia: I met these kids, and they’re in so much pain. Hearing them is really good for the soul, to know you’ve kind of helped someone, and actually, they feel better. And on the other side of it, everywhere we’ve showed the film, people see the real girl. That was a really nasty thing that happened, that went on in front of us all. And where I lived, it was going on just down the street. Nobody stopped it. I think it could have been stopped. I think this idea of making us all think a little bit about our part in it… You dream that’s going to be the reaction to the film, and it seems to be the way it’s perceived everywhere. People are just thinking twice about their part in what happened.
Gay-Rees: If the situation presents itself again, who knows. Hopefully, it will impel some thought process somewhere that maybe changes the outcome. People like this don’t come around often. They’re incredibly talented, high-strung, vulnerable, and they need an enormous amount of management and TLC. I think the problem is that as soon as the music business—which is, let’s face it, a very brutal business—realizes there’s a lot of gold in those hills, it’s programmed to basically get that gold as quickly as possible.