"If you look at the body of work I've made, I'm never afraid of a challenge," the filmmaker Sam Taylor-Johnson says with a knowing chuckle. "I seem to make my life as difficult as possible."

Taylor-Johnson made her feature directorial debut with 2009's Nowhere Boy, which cast her now-husband Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a teenage John Lennon. She followed suit with 2015's Fifty Shades of Grey and 2018's A Million Little Pieces, projects that caused plenty of commotion long before they arrived on the big screen. However, none of her films have generated quite as much noise — backlash, decrying, objecting sight unseen — than Back to Black, a biopic of the great, troubled Amy Winehouse.

The movie casts rising British actress Marisa Abela as Winehouse and tracks her rise to fame and the creation of her triple-platinum sophomore album, Back to Black. In doing so, it dramatizes her tortured romance with Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O'Connell) — which inspired most of the album — as well as her close relationships with her father (Eddie Marsan) and grandmother (Oscar nominee Lesley Manville), her struggles with addiction and bulimia, and ultimately, her tragic death at the age of 27.

"In England, there was a lot of fear and anxiety and negativity around the movie. So, I felt like a lot of [the release] was me having to not be too defensive but try and state what my intentions were," the English filmmaker explains. "The atmosphere around it is very different in the U.S. It's more inquisitive, from a really interested perspective, rather than just a place of fear."

Back to Black opened abroad before arriving in theaters Stateside, and controversy be damned, "I'm proud of it. I'm really, really proud of it," Taylor-Johnson tells A.frame. Her sweet spot is working from the eye of the storm. As she considers what film she will take on next, "I'm like, 'Come on, Sam, don't give yourself another challenge that's too intense!' But I will. That's who I am."

A.frame: This is one of those projects where I feel like my first instinct would be that everything about it — the difficulty level to get it right, the pressure, the expectations — says, "No, don't do it." But it's also a dream subject and a dream opportunity. Were you at all conflicted about whether you were going to do the movie? And what made you say, "Yes?"

I mean, if you look at the body of work I've made, I'm never afraid of a challenge. [Laughs] I seem to make my life as difficult as possible. But I definitely said, "Yes," to this with excitement. I think I thought about the music and what she meant to me before I actually processed the responsibility. And filmmaking is always difficult — let alone when you have a huge fan base decrying their panic about what you're going to do. But I felt like if I could do this in a way that didn't further victimize her but actually celebrated her that it was worth doing. If I could make it in her perspective and through the lens of her and her music, then it could only go well. I'm sort of telling it the way that she is dictating, in a way.

So, making any film is overwhelming and complex. Making a film about somebody who there's so much emotion surrounding her and her legacy from varying different courts and camps— It's complicated. But I tend to zone it out and very quickly become quite myopic with it, and I don't listen to anything or anyone. It's a certain skill set I have, which is to just shut out the noise.

Was there something you learned making Nowhere Boy, which obviously centered around a real icon in John Lennon, that proved invaluable to how you approached Back to Black?

To be honest and fair to myself, I think every film I've done has informed this. The short film I did, which was called Love You More, was about the Buzzcocks. It's a young couple losing their virginity as this one song plays on repeat for 15 minutes. So, that in itself is an understanding of music and how it can inform a scene and scenario. And then Nowhere Boy, absolutely. I mean, if you think I've dealt with Amy and a huge fan base, try the Beatles fans! [Laughs] I had not taken into account that I would be dealing with such a huge fan base for my first film. But what was interesting and important to carry from that to this is, who is the creative soul behind the music that we love? That was absolutely what that film was trying to get to, and what was the story that created some of this incredible music?

I think Fifty Shades [of Grey] taught me a lot of lessons I didn't want to learn. And what it did do was teach me the lesson of I'm never going to compromise again. So, even in bad lessons, there are good lessons. And then James Fry's A Million Little Pieces was the last film I made, which was really difficult and I shot it in 20 days. And, of course, it is dealing with really contentious subject matter. Also, Little Pieces was very much understanding and looking at addiction as a disease and trying to look at it without judgment. So, I think the complexity of all of that fed into this and each one informed this. Which is the long answer to your question.

Beyond that, what did your research process look like? Especially when there are so many disparate accounts of who Amy was. The only thing we actually have from her is her music, and then there is the documentary [Asif Kapadia's Oscar-winning Amy] that looms so large for the conversation. Where did you begin?

It became quite clear quite quickly as I started the research her how her life had been so picked apart during her lifetime. How any given day of her life was documented by 10 or more paparazzi. Then in her death, everyone's picking apart why, what and who's to blame. Similarly, the documentary is looking at things forensically and, again, where do we place our judgment of people in her lives? And I think Asif did a brilliant job with that documentary, but I felt like I had to make this where we came back to the music and came back to her voice and, in a way, using her words and using her music to dictate the through line of the movie.

Back to Black, the album, really dictated how we told the story. Because essentially, that album is a story of her love and heartbreak. Therefore, that told me the story I had to tell and all of the research was around there. When we were set up at the studio, it was just walls and walls and walls of pictures. Some walls I'd walked past, it was so hard to look at, because it was the walls where she was really in a terrible, terrible place. Yet there were documented pictures, meaning there was paparazzi always with her at that time. So, it was endless research, but at the same time I just kept coming back to the music and that made things very clear. The music was the North star in a sense that I just had to listen to that to guide me through the telling of the story, and that really was the best way to do it.

It's not lost on me that the paparazzi and public attention and the pressure that put on you while you were making this movie was, in certain ways, what Amy dealt with and what you show her grappling with in this film.

We had some crazy moments. I haven't told this story much, but there was one day where I was filming a scene — the scene outside the chemist, where they go in to get the pregnancy test and they come out and there's a lot of paparazzi — and we'd had problems with paparazzi trying to get on set and trying to stop us filming. We shot 56 locations in 45 days, and it was really intense. We were trying to move quickly and sometimes the paparazzi would physically slow us down. They'd try and fly drones over to stop us filming. It was really difficult.

But there was one day where I said to our actors playing paparazzi, I said, "Look to your left and right, make sure you know who's standing next to you and let me know if you don't know who they are." We do a couple of takes and then one of them goes, "I don't know this guy..." I look and he's got a 2022 Nikon camera and we're in 2009 or whatever, and I'm just like, "Okay, cut. Excuse me, you have to leave set." And he said, "I have every right to get that picture like they do." I'm like, "They're f*****g actors!" I'm like, "And what picture are you getting?! That is not Amy Winehouse!"

I don't know whether to laugh or be horrified.

It was so insane. But also, kind of shocking when you think that's what she went through, the aggressive demanding of, I have a right to get a picture of you falling down on the street! And this guy was aggressive. He was really aggressive, and it makes you realize how frightening that is. That obviously informed a lot of the intensity of some of those scenes. I mean, it's funny but awful at the same time.

Director Sam Taylor-Johnson with Marisa Abela on the set of 'Back to Black.'

How do you even begin the process of casting Amy Winehouse?

Firstly, you work with a brilliant casting director like Nina Gould. She's amazing, and we'd worked on my first couple of films together. I said to her, "Look, neither of us wants somebody who's going to impersonate Amy." I felt like we said the same thing when we were casting Nowhere Boy. We needed someone who can inhabit, not impersonate. So, that actually cuts away a huge swathe, because then you're getting into someone who's very instinctive in the way that they work. And when I first met Marisa, it wasn't apparent at all. She was very sweet, very shy, not at all energetically similar to Amy. Then she came back in for the read-through, and if you know what you're looking for and your eyes are tuned to finding it, it was simple. I looked through the camera, she looked back at me, and I didn't see Marisa. I saw Amy. I looked to the side [of the camera] and I saw Marisa, and I looked down the lens and she looked back at me in a challenging sort of way and I just thought, "It's her." It was before she even said any words or read anything. It's just a weird instinct that you can pick up on, and luckily I was right.

I know she went through a rigorous "Amy Winehouse bootcamp," but there are moments in the movie where it's almost uncanny. It's not even just the way she looks, but in the way she carries herself and her facial expressions.

She and I talked right at the beginning and I said, "You've got to learn how to sing, even though you're not going to sing." Because she said, "I can't sing. What are you going to do?" and I was like, "I'm going to figure it out as we go along. But I need you to learn how to sing so that I can see your face change, so you can copy how Amy's jaw moved and how her tongue moves." Marisa went on that journey with a movement coach and looking at all the footage, it was an incredible transition as I watched her grow into that role to a place where she started to be able to sing like her, which was... I mean, it was off the charts! I would never have had that expectation.

We both joked in the audition process, "Well, of course no one's going to sound like her, so of course we're going to have to use her voice." But what actually became apparent as we went along on the journey is that I could see that as she physically started to be able to sing, it didn't matter. Although she gets incredibly close, it didn't matter if she was identical to Amy. You believed her, because she was telling that story. You transition into hearing Marisa's voice as Amy's and allow it, because she is declaring her love for Blake and there is no greater love. You needed to hear the wobble of that in her voice, rather than the studio recording. Emotionally, it felt like we had to connect to her in that way, and that dubbing in Amy's voice wasn't going to work in the same way.

The creative process is not an easy thing to convey on screen, because it can be so internal or it's someone sitting down and writing and you can only watch that for so long. But Amy's creativity and her creative process was her genius. How did you want to approach showcasing that in the film?

It's difficult. Before I was making films, I was an artist. I still am — I still make work — and I know my internal process, and I know that I can't share or show what that is. I wouldn't know how to film it, because so much of it is internal. But it's also the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories that are around us in those moments that inform creatively. So, for us, I think the best way to reflect it is to hear a song that we know well, and you feel like you know the story because you know the song. But you sort of forget the story, because it's told in a particular way. But as you're seeing events around the creation of the song], you are connecting them with the song. So, you're seeing the creative process through the telling of that story. If that makes sense.


I want to ask you about the ending of the movie, because I found it quite intriguing. You thread a tough needle where the film ends both triumphantly and tragically, and maybe that's the perfect way to end a movie about Amy Winehouse's life. Was the ending always what you had imagined, or how did you find your way to it?

When I first sat down with Matt Greenhouse, who wrote it, I said, "I want the film to be like the song 'Tears Dry on Their Own.' Because when I listen to that song, I immediately feel my heart swell, I feel my feet tapping, it makes you move, it makes you feel happy, and then you listen to the words and they kill you. It's the most heartbreaking, devastating love story. I wanted that to be what our movie is. I said, "That song is the song that we need to end on." In a sense, the entire movie has told the story of "Tears Dry on Their Own." So, it was always going to be that song in the end.

I didn't quite know how I was going to do it until on the day, actually, when I was there with Marisa. I filmed it various different ways, and then I said to her, "Look down the barrel of the lens, and I really want you to sing this right into me, through me and out the other side." You know the tragedy that's coming — there's that horrible feeling of expectancy of what you're going to see — and you go through that moment, but then when this comes in, it's like saying, "But I'm still here, and my music will live on." That was the intention. But it was difficult. I mean, we spent over a month on the last three minutes, I think. It was so difficult.

The last three minutes of the film proper, before the title card? [The last scene of the movie is Amy Winehouse sober, with an ending title card revealing that she ultimately relapsed and died of alcohol poisoning.] Or the title card into the credits performance?

Before all of those cards. Her singing to herself in that room. We had a lot of footage in that room, and it was such a difficult scene to shoot because we actually shot it on our last day. Marisa and I, we were super deeply connected and very connected to Amy, and it was also the day where we were going to have to let go of the process, and let go of each other. 'Cause we had a really good experience making the film, but letting go, we couldn't f—king hold it together that day. It was a really difficult day to shoot. And also, we're saying, "This is Amy's last day." So, it was really, really tough, and that fed into the emotion of that scene in many ways. But when it came to editing, it was a fine balance to not make it feel like we were just being emotionally manipulative. We weren't glamorizing this as a last moment. We wanted to acknowledge it, respect it, take a distant look at it. There were so many different ways in which that could have played out. It took us weeks of going back and forth to create probably three minutes.

Whose reaction to the film has meant the most to you?

Oh, my God... I don't know, is the answer. Obviously, the family have seen it and their reaction was important, but I wasn't there for it because I just couldn't be there. I didn't know what that would be like, and I felt like to be in the room only heightens their experience and mine. I wasn't there for it, but I think their reaction was, let's say, emotionally complex. And then further down the line, their reaction was positive. But, I think at first it was difficult. I guess that would be the obvious answer. But I think when Aaron said to me, "I think you've made your best film yet, and it is really been a labor of love and you've pulled it off," that was definitely somebody who's lived with me through it day in, day out. There's so many complex answers to that. Amy's reaction, well, I felt... [Laughs] You know what I would say? As the fans are coming to see it, I know there was a lot of trepidation and fear around it, but I think as the fans are starting to see it and starting to realize it honors her, not further exploits her, that's one of the most important things to keep hearing back. That's not one person, it's more of a collective.

By John Boone


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