When Asif Kapadia began working on a documentary about Amy Winehouse in 2012, few people had a good opinion of the troubled British singer, who had passed a year prior. “‘Why the hell would you want to make a film about a junkie?’” the Senna director remembers being asked. Despite an initial lack of visuals, Kapadia eventually won the trust of Winehouse’s inner circle, and secured everything from Skype screen caps to voicemails left by the singer. He hoped Amy would be the rare breed of archival doc set firmly in the present.
“Archive doesn’t have to be black and white footage,” says the director, who’d never made a documentary before his BAFTA Award-nominated doc about race car driver Ayrton Senna. “It can be about something that happened yesterday; it’s just whether or not it gives you a more honest way in to tell the story than any other way of doing it.”
The director hoped, too, that a contemporary subject would get more young people into the theaters to watch a documentary.
“The idea is to make films in such a way that they can choose to see that franchise movie that cost $200 million or they could go and see Amy,” he notes. And see Amy they did. In the UK, the film is the highest-grossing British documentary of all time, and was recently shortlisted for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar.
Prior to Senna, how much work had you done in archive?
Hardly anything. My background previously was in writing and directing fiction films. The way Senna was originally set up before I started was 40 minutes of archive, 40 minutes of talking head interviews, 10 minutes miscellaneous. And I said we didn’t need 40 minutes of interviews, we can take that budget and put it into the archive. It was a gut feeling and I think it came also from the fact that I made narrative films and I know how to tell the story with pictures. My instinct has never been, as a filmmaker, to start with a talking head interview and find footage to cover it over. I work the other way: I start with the footage and then think, ‘Where do I need to hear a voice?’
Who are your influences in documentary, particularly among archive-focused directors?
I’m a sports fan, so when I did Senna, one film that influenced me was Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings. Because I want to see Ali being Muhammad Ali, I don’t want an actor pretending to be Muhammad Ali.
Raging Bull was as much an influence at times with Senna because it’s a film about a boxer, but how many fights can you actually show where they have seven or eight key moments and each one is unique? With Senna, there were only seven or eight races and each race has to be visually different and has to move the narrative on, and it was the same with Amy‘s performances. You can only have a set number of songs.
The doc feels so contemporary, particularly with its use of Skype and old voicemails. How much thought went into using these mediums?
Archive can make me feel like these are things that happened in the past. Senna was like that – the story took place 15, 20 years ago from when we made the film. Amy is a story about something that happened almost yesterday. The archive process and the audio interviews gave us the opportunity to tell this story about London, art, creativity, the media, success and fame. But it’s also about bulimia, drink and addiction, and falling in love. It’s very much about the here and now. Manori Ravindran
ANDREW JARECKI AND MARC SMERLING
Filmmakers, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst
Whether or not you were a fan of HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, its chilling denouement was virtually impossible to ignore last winter. Directed by Andrew Jarecki and produced and shot by Marc Smerling, the six-part series exposed new evidence around New York real estate heir Robert Durst’s connections to the murders of his first wife, Kathleen Durst; his former best friend, Susan Berman; and his neighbor in Galveston, Texas, Morris Black.
The result of seven years of research by the filmmakers, the Emmy Award-winning docuseries captivated audiences with hyper-stylized re-enactments of the 72-year-old’s troubled past, rare documents and photos, and an absorbing interview with Durst himself. But few could have foreseen the incidents of March 15, 2015, when hours before the last episode aired, Durst was arrested in New Orleans in connection with a murder investigation. Durst’s notoriety subsequently exploded when – after being confronted in the finale with a sample of his handwriting that matches a letter sent by Berman’s killer to the police – a live mic catches him uttering, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
Though concerns have been raised about the series’ skittish timeline, few docuseries have infiltrated pop culture as incisively as The Jinx. Now, with Durst facing a new trial in 2016, and Jarecki and Smerling set to serve as potential witnesses, this story is far from over.
Did you ever conceive that your interview with Durst and the investigation could lead to this confession?
Andrew Jarecki: The confession is Bob’s reaction to the power of the evidence that we uncovered, so while I think it’s dramatic and certainly makes for good television, for us the focus was on having found the letter and envelope that matched the ‘cadaver’ note which was written by the killer of Susan Berman… I think we did consider that, because Bob reached out to me and so he obviously had something to say, and I’ve always thought Bob had something of a compulsion to confess. At the time he called me, it was obvious he was filled with things he wanted to describe publicly, and Bob’s style is to be very open about many things that the average person would not be open about if they were trying to protect themselves.
Some members of the doc community have questioned the presentation of your timeline and some of your re-enactments. Did you anticipate those reactions?
AJ: On balance, I thought the reaction was very strong and positive. There are always going to be people who say docs shouldn’t have any re-enactments in them. Re-enactments, certainly in The Jinx, are blatantly stylized. I think it’s appropriate for the medium and I think we’re quite careful about not being misleading.
With respect to the questions about when we informed the police [about the similar handwriting], we’re very clear about that and very straight-forward about it: we informed the authorities about the evidence we had a couple of years before the show came out. The question – did we withhold evidence from the police in the service of having a big opening – the answer to that is no.
Marc Smerling: You make an edit in these stories to repress time, to create momentum in the storytelling, to make the story better for the audience. That’s the only reason you’re editing usually. There’s no other reason to edit them. If the audience has the stomach for watching the film from camera start to camera finish, we would be doing that, but that’s not what the audience wants. And everybody wants their doc to be seen.
As far as the re-enactments are concerned, [Errol Morris's] The Thin Blue Line was an amazing film and we owe a lot to it. I think you have to figure out a way to tell some of these stories – especially these historical stories – [in a way] that [audiences] can get excited about. I’m not going to say every re-enactment is okay, but I think if you’re sensitive to the issues and you’re sensitive to the characters, re-enactments bring the audience to a place where they can enjoy watching a doc.
What are your next steps? Will your next project follow the trial or are you looking forward to a Durst-free future?
AJ: I think we’re always interested in what’s happening, and we’re at some level always trying to document what’s happening in the case. We don’t have a concrete plan at the moment but we’ve captured some interesting material that obviously wasn’t in the series because it didn’t fit or extended beyond the boundaries of the series, so it remains to be seen what we will do with it.
MS: I was thinking about where we fit in the world of the trial, and I’m not really sure what the right thing to do is yet. I can see that definitely doing nothing is an option. MR