Story before script: Senna and Amy director Asif Kapadia on his creative process

Amy poster design by Wonderland

Asif Kapadia is best known for his compelling documentaries about gifted and tragic figures. He received an Oscar and a BAFTA for Amy – a heartbreaking film about the late Amy Winehouse – and another two BAFTAs for his Ayrton Senna biopic, Senna. (The film tells the story of the late Formula One driver, who won the World Championship three times before he died aged just 34).

Both films eschew the traditional ‘talking heads’ documentary format for a more creative use of found footage. In Senna, Kapadia combined audio recordings from hundreds of hours of interviews with racetrack footage and home videos provided by Senna’s family. For Amy, he used videos, demo tapes and photographs of the musician as a teenager as well as lyrics from her songs.

Amy was criticised by Winehouse’s family (in particular, her father Mitch, who felt he was unfairly portrayed) – but it received widespread praise for its thought-provoking look at Winehouse’s life and her struggle with addiction and global fame.

Kapadia is currently working on a film about Diego Maradona and has been given access to unseen footage from the Argentinian footballer’s archive. The film is due for release in 2018 and Kapadia has confirmed he will be interviewing Maradona.

We caught up with the director at Marketing Week Live – where he spoke about the making of his epic Christmas 2016 film for Burberry – to ask him about his creative process.

With films like Senna and Amy – and your upcoming film on Maradona – you’re working with a vast amount of footage. What is your usual process and how do you go about shaping that into a compelling narrative?

In terms of documentaries, I have a particular way, which is crazy and frustrating and takes a long time, which is that I don’t start with a script. The script almost comes at the end – the first thing is to have an instinct that there is a layered story, that there is enough here about this character, this person, to make a movie.

I come from a background of do your research, do your homework, and when you know where the most interesting story beats are, then you write a script. In the case of these documentaries, I’m writing the script with the footage, with the archive, so you’re basically finding things. You read books and you talk to people and you know the kind of obvious [stories] that everyone knows, so my aim is always to find the stories that people don’t know, the kind of footage that you’ve never seen before, so that it becomes much more in-depth and forensic.

You have to treat it like you’re doing an investigation. It’s not filmmaking. It is storytelling, but it’s as much like you’re a detective, you’re talking to people who don’t want to talk to you, they don’t want to know, and you think, ‘well there must be a reason you don’t want to talk to me, there’s something there’. [You have to say], ‘I want you to trust me, I’m not going to screw you over, I’m not going to try and take advantage of you or make you say anything you didn’t feel like you wanted to say. If you want to talk off the record you can talk off the record’ … so it’s really like you are an investigator. You find out the story and then you say, ‘OK, now I know what the story is in-depth, what am I going to show? How do I tell this to an audience? What’s interesting to an audience?’

The other key thing with Senna, with Amy … I wanted to appeal to people who are not the hard-core fans. So if you’re talking about a Formula One film, for some people that’s the most boring thing on earth – it’s people going round and round in circles – so let’s make something that appeals to people that can’t stand the sport because it’s about character and his journey and he’s an amazing man who happened to be a Formula One driver. Amy was interesting as well because a lot of people didn’t like her. They may have thought she had a good voice but they didn’t think much of her as a human being. And we did our homework, and everyone said she was amazing, she was funny, she was very smart, and you realise, ‘that’s not the person I saw in the tabloids’ – so who was that person? And then you realise she was amazing.

That all comes out of not relying on books, not relying on what everyone else has said over and over again but to find your own story and to do that. Sometimes it’s two years of research – seeing everything, talking to everyone, talking to over 120 people – sometimes it takes six months to get someone in the room, but if you want to do [a documentary on someone], you’ve got to do it properly.

Senna, Amy, Maradona, they’re all fascinating people – what is it that drew you to them? That makes you want to make a film about someone?

Some people are just really nice and they’re brilliant … but that’s boring.   I’m much more interested in people who are slightly more difficult and challenging and divisive.

I’m personally attracted to outsiders. A lot of the films I’ve done, if you look at them, they’re always about people fighting against the system or an individual fighting against something bigger. Generally, they’re immensely gifted but troubled … and then you get into the psychology of why are people like that? What happened? I like those questions. I’m interested in people, and that becomes the journey. You tell their journey, you show why they’re brilliant and how they’re brilliant but also what made them brilliant, and what’s created this something in them that makes them slightly self destructive.

Amy Winehouse film poster designed by Wonderland
Amy Film poster designed by Wonderland

You’ve always avoided the traditional talking heads documentary format, preferring instead to make use of found footage, photographs and audio recordings. Why is that?

When I was very young, after university, I worked in television for a while. And it was very cheap, quick turnover TV, so you never really had time to make a film, you just interviewed someone and the interview went out on TV. Funnily enough, I hated doing that…. I’d come from a visual background and I wanted to tell stories with images and tell them in a different way and I wanted to be able to experiment a bit more. So then I quit, and I went back to film school and did a postgraduate at the Royal College of Art, and everything I made at the Royal College essentially had no dialogue.

Cinema is telling stories with images. It’s not just two people talking. TV has changed though, [shows] have become much more like long movies, but it was slightly my bad experience of working in quick turnover TV that made me want to make cinema in a very visual way. The films that I loved were European films, Asian films, films that were very much about making a mood, so when I got into the documentaries, I just had this instinct.

When I started on Senna, I did my research – and again it all begins with research – but there was so much incredible material, and I looked at it and there was a gut feeling that it’s already here. There is a way of telling this story in a very different way to the traditional way and also it’s about him, it’s about Ayrton Senna … but I can’t interview him, so how can I make a film about him, but never talk to him?’ And then I realised, through my research, that he gave loads of interviews, he was an amazingly eloquent speaker, so I’m going to let him tell his own life story even though he’s not around.

Amy became a continuation [of that idea] but with her, she didn’t give that many interviews. She had stopped talking and turned inwards, but you had her lyrics, so the idea was ‘we’ll use her lyrics’. With each film, you have to do your homework and think, ‘what’s the best way to tell this story?’ and each one will be slightly different.

Senna film poster, designed by Creative Partnership
Senna film poster, designed by Creative Partnership

Do you feel any pressure, or a sense of responsibility, when you shape all of this footage into a narrative? It’s impossible to tell the full story of someone’s life in a ninety-minute or two-hour film – is that something you worry about?

You always want to have the problem where there’s too much [footage]. The worst thing ever is when there isn’t enough and you feel, ‘I’m stretching this out’. You can write a novel that’s 500 pages long and if you try to adapt that novel, it’s going to have to be a few hours long, or a TV series, but the idea of filmmaking for me is trying to understand the key essence and motivations [of a person] and then you have to find one scene that implies 50. I may well have seen a certain thing over and over and over again … and there are some great [examples to choose from] but you’ve got to pick the one, and [decide] which one at which point is the right moment to tell that story about the character? That’s your job. You have to make choices. It’s about what you eliminate as much as what you show and that’s the job of the editor and the filmmaker, always…. You have to pick your points or else everything goes on forever.

And people will of course have their own version of a story. There was a lot of controversy around Amy, for example – particularly with her family. Is that something you have to put out of your mind when you’re making a film?

We were just trying to tell the story – just honestly trying to tell the story of her and the essence of what was going on around her and trying as much as we could to be honest with our research.

You’re working on a film about Maradona now. How did that come about and what stage are you at with it?

We’re deep in the middle of it, but there is still a long way to go. I was a bit of a fan of Maradona and before I made Senna I always thought I wanted to make a film about him. Then we did Senna, we did Amy and I thought actually there’s a bit of a trilogy here. There’s this amazing Brazilian racing driver and human being [Senna], and that was a very male story and then there was a female story with Amy, but both of them were about fame and how you manage it and the pressure. And then with Diego, the interesting thing about it is that Senna and Amy died young. Diego’s still around…. There’s something about him that he somehow always bounces back and continues to be the same divisive character that he was when he was 16 or 17.

I’m still deep in the middle of it, so I’m at that stage where you have moments where you think ‘this just isn’t working’, and then you think, ‘actually this could be great’ – but that’s part of the fun of it.

Teaser image for Kapadia’s upcoming Maradona film, shared by the director on Twitter (@asifkapadia)

Creative Review was speaking to Asif Kapadia at Marketing Week Live. See marketingweeklive.co.uk for details.

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