Asif Kapadia on Front Row
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Fact. Fiction. Celebrity. Documentary. Oscar-winning director Asif Kapadia has gone beyond these labels to create his own genre of storytelling. In films such as Senna, Amy, and Maradona, he has given us an insight into blazing talent, triumph and failure. His unique approach to documentaries makes him an auteur whose work you just can’t miss. Here are some exclusive bites from his session on FC Front Row – about his creative approach, collaborating with his subjects, directing episodes of Mindhunter, and his relationship with Irrfan Khan.

  1. How He Approaches His Documentaries 

Because I came from a background of drama and fiction, and films that had very little dialogue, and very little talking heads, I wanted to do something different when I made Senna. And it was very hard to explain because everyone just assumed that this is how you make a docu. Also documentaries are very much personal, it’s going to be your story, you may be in the film because it’s about your life – And I was like ‘Well it’s not about my life, I never met him’. But I am interested in character and storytelling, so it became an excuse to come up with a term to explain what it was. It was a hybrid of fiction. I wanted it to play like movies. We still have that baggage of ‘I don’t like documentaries, they’re telling me stuff, I want entertainment’. Well, Senna is entertainment. The idea is to take the audience on a journey with characters the same way as I would do in a fiction (film). But it is all based on research and truth.  

  1. On His Approach To Consent In Documentaries, and Amy

Traditional documentary directors are very protective of their films, they don’t want anyone having a say in it. I’ve always wanted to be collaborative, so for me, if someone is going to open up to me, I don’t push them to sign a release straight away. A lot of other people I work with or know, want a release because it’s their film and they should do what they want with it. But I’m like, just talk to me. Speak as openly as you can and when I make the film I’m going to show you your section, and if I’ve got it wrong, I’d rather you tell me before it comes out than after, and then we’ll have a conversation about it. Every conversation that goes ‘Why does this person have 5 lines and I had 3 lines’, ‘She never really loved him, I did’ – those things I want to do privately and not over social media. 

The only person who has ever done it is the person you mentioned (Amy Winehouse’s father), but if you’re dealing with a narcissist, that’s what they do. Their whole job is to make it about them– before, during, and after. And that’s what the film is about. That’s the route of the film, it wasn’t about her, it was always about someone else, they cared about themselves. And they forgot that she was really not well. 

  1. On How He Ended Up Directing Episodes of Mindhunter 

The job (directing episodes on Mindhunter) came partly because of Amy. It was in its award run, and David Fincher had seen it and liked it. Sometimes you have to be in the right place, the stars align– Charlize theron was the executive producer on Mindhunter. She was travelling with Mad Max: Fury Road and had seen it and liked Amy and told David. David had heard of me from his friend Brad Pitt, and Brad Pitt had been given a copy of Senna by Irrfan. Brad Pitt sees it and likes it, goes to David Fincher’s house, ‘Knock. Knock. You gotta watch this’. Then they go to Steven Soderbergh’s house who is a big fan as well. So, Brad Pitt, David Fincher, and Steven Soderbergh are sitting there, supposedly, watching Senna. Soderbergh is also a big Amy Winehouse fan so somehow that made them aware of who I was. They’re all brilliant filmmakers, all of them, but David Fincher said he couldn’t quite get his head around how I made that film.

  1. On his Relationship With Irrfan Khan

I can still remember the day he walked into the hotel (in Mumbai) very clearly. And he just had this look. And I had a really bad photo of him that I took, that I sent to his wife after, and she said he was wearing his lucky kurta… He looked good in the way that 99 percent of the actors I met in Bombay didn’t look good because they just looked too bloody clean-cut. And he came in and I thought ‘that’s a killer!’ That’s who the character was. And when I met him, he had a real interest in world cinema. He knew world cinema, and films, and directors, and that was totally unusual. Most people, if they were doing the film in any way, were doing it as a favour to me because they were really busy… I had to work around their schedule and they didn’t want to leave Bombay because that was their bread and butter. Irrfan was up for shooting anywhere.

The other important thing – that I learnt from our conversations – was that he was on the verge of quitting acting because he just couldn’t get any roles. And he was still young then and he wasn’t pretty enough… The only thing we had to do was toughen him up a bit because he didn’t look like he could harm anyone. So the challenge for him was that he could do the emotional stuff, and we just had to toughen him up a bit… My phone would ring in the middle of the night and he’d say ‘Oh Asif, I was just thinking of you, I was missing you’. He was very open about his emotions – ‘I miss you, I love you, and I just wanted to tell you’. Irrfan never changed or became someone else, no matter how successful he got. The thing for me that was always sweet was, he didn’t know I was watching, but he always made it a point to mention The Warrior

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