Film-maker Asif Kapadia: ‘Maradona is the third part of a trilogy about child geniuses and fame’
London-born director Asif Kapadia is known for his “true fiction” documentaries: 2010’s groundbreaking Senna, about the Formula One icon Ayrton Senna; and Amy, on the short life of Amy Winehouse, which won the Oscar for best documentary feature in 2016. He is currently working on a film about another troubled genius, Diego Maradona. Before factual films, Kapadia made narrative dramas. His first feature, The Warrior, will be screened this summer as part of a Bafta Debuts tour, which showcases a handful of Bafta-winning debut films from leading British directors, such as Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold and Steve McQueen.
The Warrior won two Baftas – for best debut and for outstanding British film in 2003 – but it’s been seen less than some of your other films. Do you think it stands the test of time?
I’ve not seen it! I genuinely haven’t seen it on the big screen for many a year, if not a decade.
It’s probably healthy that you don’t sit around endlessly watching your old films.
Senna is one of the few films that I’ve directed that I can actually watch. It’s something about him… It’s the one that I can get caught up in. Some of the other films, I can’t, I have to leave.
What about Amy?
I mean… I love young Amy, I love hearing her sing, but it’s a pretty heavy film, and I haven’t seen it for a while. But again… incredibly proud of it, and love her. I’ve been lucky enough to become a fan of Senna and Amy during the process of making the films. I wasn’t a blind fan beforehand. I hope that can continue, because when you pick a subject to make a film, you spend years studying them, looking at thousands and thousands of hours of footage; and then at the end of it you’re like, “I really love this person.” I’m not sure that will always happen.
The Warrior is in Hindi and the cast was mostly non-professionals, many of them street kids. It’s a wild idea: essentially a samurai film relocated to feudal Rajasthan. What were your realistic hopes for it?
My aim was to be different, to be original. You’re trying to make a mark in the industry, you just need to be noticed. You need to somehow become the kind of person where people go, “Oh right, they’re interesting. Let’s give them a chance to make another one.” I had come from short films, so it was a massive leap to doing this crazy epic in the desert and Himalayas.
And did it get you noticed?
Martin Scorsese saw it and he called me up to tell me what he thought of it. It was just unreal. Unreal! I was sitting in my flat in Kentish Town: I should have been writing a script and I was reading the Guardian, pretending to write. And the phone rings and it’s Martin Scorsese calling up to have a chat. That’s the kind of person he is. If he likes something he calls you up to tell you. It’s not his assistant sending you a message – he does.
Watch a trailer for The Warrior.
Do you see a connection between The Warrior and Senna and Amy?
In recent years, I’ve obviously become more known for doing docs, which are a very different side of my brain. But in my mind they’re all part of the same universe. They are all about stories from distant places and often outsiders taking on a corrupt system.
Your documentaries don’t have talking heads in them, which was a radical idea when Senna came out. Where did it come from?
I came from an art school background, I studied at the Royal College of Art, so the films I made there were not dialogue-heavy films. The Warrior had very little dialogue. So I suppose what Senna and The Warrior have in common is that the story is told through the images. And one of the reasons the producers asked me to do Senna was because of the spiritual arc of The Warrior. They felt that was going to be important for Senna’s story.
How’s the Maradona film shaping up?
I’m deep in the middle of putting it all together. It’s going well. The Diego idea actually came about a long time ago, before I’d made Senna. He was in the ether in my brain as a character. In my mind, this is the third part of a trilogy of child geniuses and fame, and the effect it can have, and what they mean to their country and what they mean to people. Again, another person in various ways who felt like he was fighting a system.
Does it make a difference that your subject is still alive this time [Kapadia had Maradona’s support]?
That part was a conscious decision, after the first two films were about people who tragically died young. To test myself with somebody who is still around and who has a longer life… And it’s a different type of story – of what happens when you get older if you’re a star.
What culturally – books, films, music – has inspired you recently?
I do like printmaking and I really enjoyed The American Dream: Pop to the Present exhibition at the British Museum. Walking through the show made me think for the first time that, subconsciously, Senna and Amy are my own attempt or version of pop art: we take footage – either sports, television, paparazzi or tabloid material – which already exists and give it a new interpretation, by slowing it down, zooming in, changing the colour… adding text, graphics, lyrics, sound, music, interviews, voices to create a mosaic. And I hope we’re giving a new meaning, perhaps something deeper and more aesthetic, spiritual, political, emotional.
You’re in Buenos Aires now, but have you been following the news cycle back home?
Yeah, it’s quite stressful just watching it from afar on the internet. Let’s just hope things calm down in London. I’m very much a proud Londoner and I feel like some people have to be held to account for what’s happened, particularly to the tower block. Not enough people have shown up and shown their face. They’re hiding. It’s a huge, huge situation but it is a microcosm of everything that can go wrong when people just worry about profit and cut, cut, cut. All summed up with what’s happened to those people in one of the richest places in the world.
Asif Kapadia will take part in a post-screening Q&A for The Warrior at Home, Manchester on 3 July, as part of Bafta Debuts, which runs until November