Although film producer James Gay-Rees (“Senna”) had never met musician Amy Winehouse before, something told him that when her record company, Universal Music UK, approached him and “Senna” director Asif Kapadia to make a documentary about her life, he had this “strong, immediate feeling” that they should do it, although he wasn’t sure why.
“Maybe it was because I had a feeling there was more to [her story] than met the eye,” Gay-Rees told me during our phone interview last week to talk about his new film “Amy.” “We really went in with a completely open mind. We wanted to get into her story and see where it went.”
Where the documentary goes is into a heartbreaking direction when Kapadia and his team capture the life of the incredibly talented Winehouse, who died in 2013 from alcohol poisoning, through never-before-seen footage and interviews with the people closest to the eclectic jazz singer.
During our interview, Gay-Reese talked to me about the challenges a documentary like “Amy” presented, especially since many of her friends were hesitant about sharing information with filmmakers, and why he thinks Amy connected on such a deep level with her audience. We also talked about Amy’s father, Mitch, who Gay-Reese sat in the same room with when he saw the the film for the first time and voiced his displeasure of the final product.
Talk about going into a film like Amy and why you wanted to tell her story?
To begin with, we really didn’t have much to go on. I didn’t know her. I had never met her. I had never seen her play live. We spoke to as many people as we possibly could. We looked at every frame of footage we could possibly get our hands on. It was a very organic, time-consuming research project. The final film is a product of that intense labor.
Since it was Amy’s record company that approached you to produce this film, did you feel any pressure to make something that would present a story they wanted or did you feel like you had free reign to work without someone looking over your shoulder?
There were no restraints put on us at all, I’m happy to admit. We went in with our eyes wide open. [Amy] was a very, very complicated young woman who compartmentalized her world and her life. We would get very different opinions of her from different people. It was just a matter of marrying those opinions together to see what we had. But there was no predetermined plan or script. It was a constantly evolving piece as we got to know [Amy] more and more. People would come and go from her life quite a lot. So, not many people were there the whole time. We had a great overview of [her life] at the end of the day because we covered it from beginning to end.
You mentioned a lot of research was done for this film. What is going on in your mind when you saw some of this amazing, never-before-seen old footage come across your desk of Amy at different stages of her life?
Yeah, in the digital age there are thousands and thousand of hours stuff out there. What you want is the footage that is going to give you an insight to the real person behind closed doors. It was interesting because it was a bit of a Catch-22. All of her friends sort of took a vow of silence after she died and said they were never going to speak to the media again. They just wanted to be left alone. It was very hard to get them to participate. They were the ones that had the footage that we wanted. On one hand they were saying, “If you’re going to do this, you have to do it right.” They wanted us to tell the official version and real version of who she was. They told us they would participate if we told the real version.
Which is what you wanted to do from the beginning, right? I mean, personally I thought the film was very objective and balanced.
Yeah, we told them, “That’s the version we want to tell, but we can’t do that without your help!” We needed their footage and their photographs. I think they were hesitant because once that footage is out there, it’s out there and it’s not sacred anymore. It was a really tough process of trying to get the right people involved. I’m happy to say that they all finally came on board and they all love the movie, which is great.
Director Asif Kapadia does the same thing in this film as he did in his last documentary, “Senna,” when it comes to recording interviews. All we get as an audience is the audio of the interview. I think 99 percent of “Amy” is voiceover interviews. As a producer, was that something you were completely on board with on both “Senna” and “Amy” or were you worried that technique might not work?
You know, it was a real eureka moment on “Senna” because one of our executive directors on that film is a very well established filmmaker named Kevin MacDonald (“The Last King of Scotland”). He said because we had so much footage on “Senna” that we should make the film with just voiceover interviews. Because [Ayrton] Senna and Amy were both dead, they obviously couldn’t tell us what was happening. We couldn’t use their words to take us through the story in real time. We had so much footage [for “Amy”], so we decided to try and manage it with just voiceover.
Were you present when Amy’s father Mitch first saw the film? Reports, of course, are that he was unhappy with it.
I was there when Mitch saw it and he wasn’t happy. He had problems with it. I totally understand. I’m very respectful of his opinion [of the film]. He’s her dad. [Amy] wasn’t my daughter. I didn’t know her. Who am I to tell her story? But at the same time, we didn’t have an agenda when we went into making the movie. The sad reality is that he probably had a very different film in mind from the onset. Another thing to take under consideration is that we had to take 10 years of someone’s life and condense it into two hours. So, we had to make some pretty hard choices and leave a lot of stuff out.
Do you feel like the documentary points fingers at specific people and blames them for Amy’s death?
I don’t think we were trying to be judgmental. Everyone from Amy to the world we live in right now played a part in [her death]. She was the wrong person to get on that train because it was clearly not going in a direction she could handle. It was a perfect storm, really. What we tired to do is put all the elements of that perfect storm out there and let people digest them and let them make their own opinions. We could’ve made a much more judgmental movie, but we chose not to go that way. It’s incredibly complicated to get to the bottom of addiction and make a film out of it. I really hope it doesn’t come across as being too judgmental because I think that would’ve been naive of us.
Where do you think most of his anger toward the film stems from? What didn’t he like about it?
I think he is upset that we didn’t include things he would’ve liked to have seen in the film. There is a lot of other stuff we would’ve liked to have put in there, but there was no time to do it. I think we were in a bit of a lose-lose situation with him. If we had made a film about how much they shared a love of Frank Sinatra and didn’t get to the bottom of why a 27-year-old girl drank herself to death, then we would’ve been hammered by critics.
Why do you think Amy connected so well to her audience through her music? What was it about her as a performer that made her so beloved?
I get goosebumps right now even thinking about it. I think why she connected to people and why this movie works is because she wasn’t a manufactured pop star. She was a classic jazz artist in a sense that she had to experience something to write about it. If she had settled down and had two kids and lived next to a golf course, I don’t think she would’ve been writing the same music she had been writing. I think she had to look into the abyss in order to create this work of art. Great jazz artists like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone had to do the same. That’s the way these people operate. They need to explore the further reaches of their emotions. That’s why [Amy] connects. When she’s singing about [her life], she’s being completely honest. In an age where you have 50 writers writing a Beyoncé song or a song for some other star, sometimes that side of the business becomes manufactured. To have an artist like [Amy] come along and really pour her heart out was brilliant. Obviously, there was a very high price to pay for that artistic output. It was just too close to the bone.