Revealing “the girl behind the name” in “Amy”

Ahead of the theatrical release of Asif Kapadia's Amy in the U.S. on July 10, producer James Gay-Rees tells realscreen how the team behind the all-archive doc overcame challenges to create their portrait of the late singer-songwriter.
July 3, 2015

The Amy Winehouse the world came to know in the first half of the 2000s – a troubled singer shuttled between limousines and appearances, surrounded by paparazzi and battling addiction – is difficult to reconcile with the good-humored artist who, in Asif Kapadia‘s all-archive documentary Amy, playfully mugs for the camera and happily takes the stage at UK jazz clubs.

Since the film’s debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the long-anticipated offering from the team behind 2012′s BAFTA award-winning Senna - another all-archive effort around Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna – has been met with critical acclaim and controversy in equal measure.

Billed as the story of “the girl behind the name,” Amy - produced by Krishwerkz Entertainment, Playmaker Films and Universal Music – traces Winehouse’s career from days singing for a close-knit group of friends, to scoring a record deal, being catapulted into fame, and learning to cope with the pressures of celebrity through drugs and alcohol.

home video of winehouse in "amy"

Home video of Winehouse in “Amy”

Much like Senna, there are no talking heads in Amy, which instead illustrates commentary from sources including Winehouse’s best friends, her father Mitch and ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, with an array of archival footage such as Skype calls, home video, cell phone videos and even voicemails left by the singer.

Ultimately, the film – produced by James Gay-Rees and edited by Chris King, both of whom also worked on Senna - pieces together a star previously unknown to the public: Amy‘s Winehouse is wickedly funny and surprisingly forthcoming about her vulnerability to the pressures of fame. “The more people see of me, the more they’ll realize that all I’m good for is making music,” she tells a journalist in an early interview.

Since the film’s premiere, however, Winehouse’s father has criticized the team and at one point threatened legal action concerning his portrayal in the film, although an interview with The Guardian in May quotes him as saying there will be no legal action taken against the finished film. Also, some critics have noted the documentary’s presentation of the singer as a victim throughout her career.

Ahead of Amy‘s theatrical release in the U.S. on July 10, its producer James Gay-Rees (Exit Through the Gift Shop) – who previously worked with Kapadia on Senna - talks to realscreen about the team’s response to the criticism, how they filled the tricky archive gaps of Winehouse’s latter years and why it was initially difficult to get her close friends on board for the project.

What is the genesis of Amy?

I was approached by David Joseph, who’s the chairman of Universal Music UK. I was making another movie at the time, and I got a text out of the blue from David. He was a massive fan of Senna and he was really very supportive of it. He basically said, ‘Would you be interested in making a feature doc about Amy Winehouse, full access, in the vein of Senna?’ And I pretty immediately thought ‘yes’ and got really excited without even really knowing much about the story. I was living in the U.S. at that time for a lot of when it happened. And I spoke to Asif and he was really keen to make a movie [with] a strong London central theme, and he felt very familiar with her because he comes from the same part of London and he was kind of happy that it was ‘a girl from my neighborhood,’ [that] kind of thing.

The next call was to Chris King, who’s the third member of the team, but he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it but only if we can really do the right movie.’ Not be coerced into making something that is too official or company-approved, as it were. So we very quickly got assurances from [Universal] that we would be able to make the movie we wanted to make.

Did you always know that it would be all archive? Is this the approach you always wanted to take with this?

Yeah, I think so. We’re not fans of talking heads. The Senna thing came down to a couple of reasons: one, there’s just so much footage that we really wanted to make it in the way of archive because everything was so well covered and we thought, ‘Let’s see if we can do it.’ Everybody’s like, ‘Nobody can do it, nobody can do an all-archive movie. You’ve got to have narration, you’ve got to have talking heads in order to tell the story,’ but obviously we proved it can be done. And then it’s partly just a function of the fact that we didn’t want to have everybody interviewed apart from Ayrton Senna because it’s basically a huge hole if he’s not here. So it worked for that one and we decided to go that route with Amy because obviously she’s not around. We just wanted it to be her story. It’s kind of a really effective way of making docs more cinematic because often you just don’t break the moment.

ayrton senna

Ayrton Senna

How is it different from Senna? Did you have similar difficulties getting the footage? 

The family had a bit but not that much, and we just got it from a real variety of sources. Obviously the more official channels like the BBC or Associated Press and Universal had quite a lot as well, but it was the friends’ stuff that we really wanted. That was difficult because none of the friends really wanted to be involved in any way at all because they’d taken this vow of silence after she’d died, not to participate or to get involved with the media, because of the way [Winehouse] had been sort of treated by the media and the misrepresentation and general madness around the story. So it was a really tricky situation because they [were saying], ‘You’ve got to make the right movie,’ and we’re like, ‘Well, we do want to make the right movie but we can only make that movie if you participate.’ So it was a bit of a weird catch-22, but we slowly got them over the line.

Was there one particular individual you knew you needed to secure in order for others to follow?

Nick Shymansky was the guy that basically (a) had a lot of the early footage and (b) was trusted by the others. And he’d been a big fan of Senna. He’d thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if [the BBC] made a film about Amy one day,’ but I think he did imagine it would be much later. So yeah, he was really instrumental in getting the girls [Winehouse's female friends interviewed in the film - Ed.] over the line. It did take about 18 months to get them comfortable and they’re only just comfortable with the film now, and I understand why. Because they were so disturbed and sad about what happened.

As you were putting things together, were there ongoing conversations with them about the narrative?

We showed them a cut about 75% of the way down the line. The cut we showed to pretty much everybody. The family and the management and the friends and the label. Everybody was allowed to basically be involved – I think that was always going to be the way – but we were given final cut. So we listened to people’s comments and sometimes they kind of sided with our thinking and sometimes they didn’t. It was fortunate. We ended up wanting to make roughly the same film as most of the people involved [wanted] anyway, so there weren’t that many battles.

Did you come across any major voids where you didn’t have corresponding footage? How did you resolve those holes in the narrative?

It’s just really scary [making a film this way]. It’s unbelievable how stressful it is. For certain points in time – there was just no footage for 2005 – and then suddenly you unlock it and somebody’s got exactly what you need. The thing about all-archive docs is they do take an enormous amount of time to cut. And Chris is a fast editor as well, but it’s just such a huge mosaic. Obviously a huge amount of work has gone into it but it gets very scary sometimes because there’s just virtually nothing to work with. We didn’t have any photographs in Senna but we had to have some photographs in this because there just wasn’t any footage [for certain periods].

What were some of the moments in this film that were particularly difficult to capture?

Really, the challenge became later on in her life when she was being hounded by paparazzi because obviously the last thing people wanted to do when they got inside the house was to then whip out the camera and be filming and having a laugh, because she was just getting a camera stuck in her face all the time. So that becomes a challenge, but then we wanted to sort of highlight that. Some people criticized us for using the paparazzi footage but I think it’s okay because (a) we wanted to illustrate what it was like to basically be besieged by them but (b) you are seeing it in context. You’re seeing the “before” and “after”, you’re not just seeing it in isolation, which is how you normally see it. So it’s not just to get your attention, it’s not just to shock you. It’s basically to give you some understanding of the situation. So that was the challenge really, for the last third of the movie. There was so little behind-the-scenes footage at that point in time, so you have to be very creative with how you put that together.

winehouse at the 2008 grammy awards.

Winehouse at the 2008 Grammy Awards.

There’s a voicemail in the film that Winehouse had left for Shymansky. Had he preserved it? How?

I think for some people in the music business who are into sound, I think it’s more natural for them to kind of keep sounds. I think it was an incredibly intense relationship for him…and I think he just wanted to keep everything he could possibly get his hands on because it was a memory of her. They were incredible close.

Were there any points where you were surprised that people still had this footage?

Not really. Remember, they’re friends. I mean, I’ve got video of my friends somewhere if I really dig it out. Put it this way: a lot of them didn’t want to give it to us; it’s not like they were trying to sell it to the highest bidder. They really didn’t want to part with it because it was sacred and once it’s gone, it’s gone. Basically it’s out there, so it’s not really personal to them. So it wasn’t like they were trying to hoop it around town particularly.

What is your reaction to some of the criticism that the narrative takes agency away from Winehouse and portrays her as a victim?

I don’t know if she is. I mean, I think Amy has to take some responsibility for what happened to herself as well. There’s a keep of people who were more in control of the situation and maybe should have done things differently, but I think she has to take some responsibility for it as well. She was also fairly unmanageable at times. I don’t think she was like this little girl who was entirely corralled from one thing to another: I think she was an incredibly contradictory person, and she would say yes to one person and no to another. And I think that made life very difficult. I’m not saying that therefore all responsibility lies on her and that everybody else is blameless; I think it’s just a really incredibly complicated situation.

How about the reaction from her father Mitch? Was that surprising? 

We interviewed him twice for the movie but obviously we had his permission to make the movie… We didn’t know what the movie was going to be when we sat down with him. We had no idea what the story was. We had a totally blank piece of paper so maybe he had another movie in his mind that he thought it was going to be.

What are your goals for your production company, On the Corner, and what are your future projects? 

We’ve got a deal with BBC Worldwide so we’re doing TV drama as well. We’ve got a show with Showtime here in the U.S. and something with the BBC and ITV. The TV factual thing just seemed to make sense because we’ve got such a strong track record in documentaries, so we’re just going to try and parlay that into the factual space. We’ve got a couple of key hires hovering. Here in LA, I’m talking to people about an epic, archive-based 12-hour documentary series, which is really exciting.


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