Amy Winehouse's name alone conjures images of beehive hairdos, extreme cat eye makeup, and untimely death at the unfortunately-common-for-musicians age of 27. With feature-length documentary AMY, BAFTA award-winning director Asif Kapadia (Senna), aims to uncover the woman behind the weave. Opening July 10, AMY tells the six-time Grammy-winner's true story using Winehouse's own words, as well as taped insider interviews and never-before-seen archive footage. The poignant film puts you inside the troubled Rehab artist's padded walls, as she grows from starlet to superstar, before quickly succumbing to mental illness and alcohol poisoning.
SF Weekly cut it up with director Asif Kapadia about the making of the film, his connections to Amy Winehouse and to mental illness, and standing up to Amy's father, Mitch.
You've said that you always felt a connection to Amy Winehouse, not only because you have all her albums, but also because you both lived in the general Camden area that she called home.
Yes, she was someone local. She was someone down the road. I lived around Camden for 10 years and walked through Camden almost every single day, so you get a sense of that area in that moment in time.There were a lot of bands coming out of there. A lot of students and tourists would go there. There was a big market for vintage clothes, and a lot of bars. You could drink there and you could get drugs there. There was a lot happening.
Where did you conduct the interviews with her inner circle for the film?
We sat in a recording studio in the middle of London. We'd put a mic on a table, and it would just be the two of us. The mixer was in another room. I'd turn down the lights and sit there in the dark and have them talk about whatever they'd want to talk about.
I read that it it was rather difficult getting Winehouse's intimates to open up to you.
I think it was because it was all still very raw and painful, and they hadn't come to terms with everything that happened. It was quite soon after her death that the project started. So it just took a while. Since outsiders had never contacted her inner circle, when somebody does contact them, they're very weary.They were weary of the press, filmmakers, TV people, everyone, because they thought you're just gonna exploit them again.
Her first manager, Nick Shymansky was the first to sign on?
Yeah, pretty much. He was the first, and that came from his seeing my previous film Senna, which he liked. Weirdly enough, as he came out of the screening with his girlfriend, he said, “Wouldn't it be great if someone had made a film like that about Amy?”
How did you develop trust with your interview subjects?
It was my job on this film to meet people and talk to them and say, “Feel free to say whatever you're comfortable saying. If you're not, I'm not gonna make you say it. If you're not happy, don't sign the release form.” I know my intentions were good, and I trusted myself. I didn't have an agenda. I don't know the music business; I don't know Amy. I wasn't around. “You tell me whatever you feel comfortable telling me,” I said. We'd keep meeting, and once they trusted me, they'd feel comfortable to give me the photos and their answering machine messages, because they wanted the real Amy to be shown.
Who was the hardest person to interview?
There were a couple. On one side, it was Lauren Gilbert and Juliette Ashby, her friends who were really suffering and in pain. On the other hand, professionally, it was Salaam Remi, her producer, who's high up at Sony, who doesn't do interviews. But I knew he was important and that we can't do the [film] without him. The film would be missing a huge component of Amy.
At what point did Winehouse's friends and colleagues say they knew that she had a substance abuse problem?
Nick Shymansky used to say he'd get phone calls in the middle of the night, and Amy'd say, '”'m in trouble. I don't know where I am. Come get me?” Some of these calls happened when he wasn't even her manager anymore. They could all tell there was a problem. She wasn't in control of the situation. She was getting into situations that were dangerous. That's when they knew there was a problem.
Between all the archive footage and taped interviews, the film feels so intimate, as if we're finally going beyond the '60s beehive and cat eye makeup.
For me, it was all about getting away from the cliched image — the image of her with the beehive, eye makeup, drunk, messed up on stage, not talking to anyone. You realize that's not who she was, and everyone close to her said that's why they were in such pain — because that is what was going on in public and that was not who she is. So it became about who is the real Amy? It became about that early footage and the intelligence and the humor and the bright eyes. She was a great kid and really intelligent. And the humor stood out to me. Who knew she was that funny? Then there were the lyrics. I knew the songs but no one really paid attention to what she was saying.
Watch a 14-year old Amy Winehouse sing “Happy Birthday” to a friend in this exclusive clip from AMY:
Sometimes it's the simplest things. These films are about finding the essence of the idea in the story, and my job as director is to figure out what that is. For me, one layer was everyone goes on about the singing, but no one talks about the lyrics. The writing is dark, the words are slangy and she's making a lot of disses. So with the lyrics posted onscreen, you realize that she said everything. It was all there.
Some critics have already described AMY as depressing. How do you want audiences feeling when leaving the theater?
I hope it's not depressing. I think there are moments that make people laugh. She's funny. There are moments when she sings, and her voice rises and you're like, “Wow, she's amazing.” There are other moments that are moving. The scene with Tony Bennett, or when she looks at herself. I want it to have a range of emotions and I want it to be memorable.
There's a point in the story when you start looking at the media's representation of her, the paparazzi, and then of course the public who took it all in and clicked on it, and laughed along and said, “What an idiot. Well, I've written a nasty comment. I'm so clever.” You start thinking about our part and how complicit we are in her downfall. She had a mental illness. Let's be honest: She was sick.
What did you learn about yourself in making this documentary?
When I was at film school years ago, my tutor looked at my films and said they were all about the same thing. I said I thought they were all clever and original, and he said, “No, they're always about outsiders.” The funny thing is, I'm always drawn to the person, trying to figure out why everyone is picking on them. And it doesn't seem fair at times. So you make a film about a singer and then realize it's something else. I realize that I'm making the film, because there's mental illness in my family; my mom had it. So there's something personal about making a film like this. You have people with illnesses who get treated a certain way and you think, “I'd like to talk about it and face it,” because I have the opportunity to make films and stand up for Amy and stand up for all those people who felt something awful had happened, like a terrible crime had taken place, and they didn't feel strong to take on the people that shout louder than anybody else.
Amy's father, Mitch has spoken out against your movie and how you portray the Winehouses.
When someone says, “Here's the money to make the film,” and I have all the music and the access to all these people, do I make this film or not? Do we do a washed-out, cleaned-up version or say, “This is what went on, it was wrong and someone has to stand up and put it out there, so deal with it.” Now that I know all this stuff, am I going to get scared and not tell the story? It might not be comfortable for people, but we felt we had to do it.
So you stand by everything that is in the movie?
Yeah, it's got my name on it. Absolutely. It's the essence of everything that went on, and everything I've heard and saw.