The TIFF Doc Conference kicked off on Wednesday (September 16) with a keynote chat with the director behind one of the year’s most popular and buzzed-about documentaries.
In a conversation with the festival’s documentary programmer Thom Powers titled “In Documentaries Begin Responsibilities,” filmmaker Asif Kapadia explained the delicate process of convincing the closest friends of late singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse to share their memories – and footage – for his all-archival documentary Amy, which was released theatrically over the summer.
The A24-distributed film is the year’s highest grossing documentary, having earned more than US$8.1 million at the domestic box office. In the UK, the film is that country’s second-highest grossing documentary of all time, settling in just behind Michael Moore‘s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) – which grossed around £6 million (US$9.2 million) – with £3.4 million (US$5.4 million) in tickets sold.
Amy earned rave reviews when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, but since then some critics have lamented that its focus on Winehouse’s descent into drug and alcohol addiction detracted from her musical genius. Her father, Mitch Winehouse, has harshly criticized the film as a misrepresentation and vowed to produce his own film in response.
Winehouse’s rise to super-stardom between 2006 and her death at age 27 in 2011 from alcohol intoxication coincided with an explosion in celebrity-focused online news outlets, which made the unfiltered star a prime target for relentless paparazzi.
During the talk, Kapadia explained his personal motivations for agreeing to take on the project after an executive at Universal Music who had seen Senna, his all-archival film about Brazilian Formula 1 racer Ayrton Senna, approached him with the idea.
He wasn’t familiar with Winehouse’s music while she was alive but they both lived in the same North London neighborhood so Kapadia knew who she was thanks to the entourage of paparazzi that trailed the singer around town.
“There was something about her being a local girl that intrigued me,” he told Powers, adding later that he partially saw the movie as a film “about where I’m from and how we live now.”
To do that required convincing Winehouse’s disparate groups of friends and collaborators to talk to him even though most of them were not speaking to each other. Unlike with Senna, there was no go-to expert who could provide a succinct summation of what her life story might look like.
Winehouse’s first manager and close friend Nick Shymansky and her childhood friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert ultimately provided the backbone of the story, as well as home-movie footage from their personal archives that would become some of the most memorable scenes in the film.
Kapadia spent nine months persuading Ashby and Gilbert to open up. “They were ready to explode. They felt so angry and so scared. The process became like therapy,” he said. “My biggest role as the director was to earn the trust of these people.”
The way he did that determined the all-archival style of the film. Since Winehouse’s friends were reluctant to talk, he told them he would do audio interviews and said they didn’t have to sign release forms unless they were comfortable doing so.
It was a gamble – Shymansky didn’t actually sign a release until days before the Cannes premiere – but it paid off.
Powers asked Kapadia several times about navigating the relationship with Mitch Winehouse, but the director largely evaded the questioning and instead deferred to the singer’s personal lyrics, which figure prominently throughout the doc.
“These were her diaries that she turned into songs,” he said, admitting later that the friends and family screening ahead of Cannes was “pretty heavy.”