Academy Award winner (Amy) Asif Kapadia speaks with Megan McLachlan about Diego Maradona.
You don’t have to be a soccer/football fan to appreciate the film Diego Maradona. The documentary follows the rise of superstar Maradona, specifically when he played for Napoli in the 1980s. But the film also capturing his lows, which include cocaine addiction, infidelity, and connections to the mob (sounds like a Scorsese film, right?), while addressing conflicting commitments to his team versus his home country Argentina and how fans turned on him.
Director Asif Kapadia takes an innovative approach to documentaries, by removing the “talking head” techniques and focusing on the action, making it seem like you’re always in the moment. The strategy pays off, and you feel fully immersed in the story of Maradona.
I had a chance to speak with Kapadia about how the project came about, what he thinks the film says about fan culture, and the question no one has asked him about that huge time jump in the end.
Awards Daily: Are you a huge soccer fan? How did this project come about?
Asif Kapadia: Yeah, I am English, so I am a fan of soccer and football, and I watch it and I play it. Maradona has always been very well-known around the world. He’s a massive star, and of my generation, he would have been the best player, but also interesting mainly because of the craziness of his life off the pitch. What he stands for, what he went through, where he played. The drama—so really that’s the thing. There are lots of great athletes and players, but the reason why I was interested by Diego Maradona from a very young age was because of this.
AD: I saw you speak at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival about how this was a different kind of project for you since you were dealing with someone who was alive. What was it like working on this film as opposed to Amy or Senna?
AK: That was one of the reasons why I was attracted to it. One, he is famously quite a challenging character and difficult. Two, I had no idea what he would be like. I had no idea if he would be collaborative. Would he get angry and attack me? His reputation is so complex and larger than life. If I’m going to do a film, I like the challenge of making a film with somebody’s that potentially really difficult to work with. What the hell? Why don’t we at least try, because I don’t think many people have gotten close to him over the years, particularly the period we ended up telling the story about. He’s really famous, but the period in the film is probably the least well-known section of his life, because it’s a period of time before the internet. International newspapers didn’t exist, so people may have known him from Argentina, Italy, or the World Cup, but no one ever pieced it all together. I hoped to do a film where by meeting him and talking to him and getting everyone around him, I’d try to explain that we really don’t know who this guy is. What happened to him, because he becomes this legendary figure later in life? I think Napoli is the period that changed him from the young kid to the legendary, controversial person he is now.
AD: Many documentaries include talking heads, but you never do that in this film. You stay in the action. What was the creative decision behind that?
AK: This is the third film where I’ve done this technique. I guess it’s a bit of a filmmakers’ background. A lot of filmmakers may come from a documentary background, whether it’s observation or doing interviews first, and once you’ve got an interview, you’ve got your access and you then think about how to visualize that. I come from a background of directing feature films, making films with very little dialogue and telling the story with images. So I made quite a few feature films before I made Senna. So one of the reasons I use that style is for me the image comes first, and I would rather not say anything if the pictures tell you the story. I’m hoping this is a more cinematic way of getting lost in that moment. I’ve always been slightly weary of cutting from somewhere in the past to somebody talking now. I like to stay in the moment. My intention is try to get the audience to feel like they were there, as opposed to my opinion or feeling about what’s going on.
AD: It feels like you’re watching a narrative film, that these are actors.
AK: That’s the dream! To make it feel like a movie. My intention is to get people who maybe don’t like football or who might like football but don’t go to the cinema—to go to the cinema. These are really amazing, intelligent, charismatic, brilliant people, who I think should be on the big screen. Rather than someone pretending to be them, it becomes more worthy to have the real person up there. That’s always been my intention to elevate the real person. Diego Maradona is quite a crazy character, and he’s a real guy, his heart is good, but he’s done some really bad stuff, and that’s interesting to me. I think he deserves to be seen in a cinematic way.
AD: You also have so much footage. It’s kind of amazing the amount of footage you have. How did you decide what you wanted to include and not include?
AK: That’s why the film takes so long. I had a brilliant team on this film of archive research, who literally would fly halfway around the world and have to find anything. They’d literally dig into cupboards and get to know people. A lot of it is detective work, this process. Having an idea of what a story might be and the idea comes out of the interviews I do, which are audio only. I don’t take a camera. I talk to a lot of people, and I listen to them, and then I think about what they’re saying and cross-reference what they say. And then my job is to say, ‘How do we show that?’ At the same time, we’re doing archive research, and the footage may come in that has no meaning, no depth, or no weight, and then you hear something that someone says, and then you look at that footage again and think, that’s that moment they’re talking about. Then you connect the things suddenly and it’s a real moment. It’s home movies, it’s not that special, but if you understand what’s going on, then the movies actually have greater significance. The intention is to find a way to understand the story of someone but not from a book, but actually talking and getting first-person interviews. I think it would be much easier just to interview someone on camera, but it’s part of the challenge of creating a universe. That is the intention, to throw you into that time and place as much as possible.
AD: As much as this about Diego Maradona, it’s also about fan culture. I love how one minute he’s the most beloved man in Napoli and then he goes on to become the most hated person in Italy. What do you think your film says about fans?
AK: Good question. I think that’s where the film is about us and how we treat people. I think in a way all three of them [Senna, Amy, Diego Maradona] are a bit about fame. Diego Maradona loved to play football and loved that relationship he had with the ball. He’s a guy from the street from a poor place who ends up in a poor place. Everyone loved him, it’s great, they spoil him, but then they own him and suffocate him with love, which means he can do whatever he wants whenever he wants and no one turns a blind eye. He was quite young. That’s what’s interesting. When I look at his face and eyes, I see someone who’s quite lost and a bit lonely and confused. I never realized that at the time. The fans turned on him because that’s what fans do. They get rid of you and want the next person. This was a complicated thing cause the relationship between Naples and Maradona and Naples and Italy, whether you play for your country or whether you play for your club. And that’s a very specific thing you get in European soccer/football, something you don’t get with American sports. You have the Olympics, which are not the same thing. It’s tribal nature. That’s something the film does deal with, as well as dealing with family.
AD: Your film makes a huge time jump, going from the 1990s to 2004. What made you refrain from capturing these years?
AK: The big jump. We did have a version where we had some details [from this period]. It felt like we were just explaining. It felt like we were doing it because everyone was expecting it. At some point, we just played with the idea, ‘What if we just did it in a cut?’ How much can you tell just by saying: he leaves, he looks messed up, he admits he has a problem, everyone around him says he has a problem, and actually this is where he ended up? We tried to be brave. I’m glad you mentioned it, because a lot of people don’t mention it.
AK: Yeah, you know people obviously notice it, but I think you’re actually the first person to ask me about that specific choice. The editor and I would say, ‘This is really bold. I think we should go for it.’ But you come to realize this guy is suffering from addiction, and so he goes from being this really healthy, fit, sports person to someone who was in a mental institution. That’s where he ended up. That’s a big leap. When you fill in the blanks, you realize that other films would just be made about that period. We decided to not do that because that becomes you explaining everything. Part of the challenge of making movies is you have to make the tough calls. I’m hoping it’s quite a shock when we make that cut.
AD: It is a shock.
AK: I’ll be honest, there are very few moments where you will see Diego genuinely vulnerable, where he breaks down, and he does that [in the jump]. A big part of it was to show that he does crack.
AD: Do you ever feel like you might know more about your subjects than they do about themselves?
AK: In a very specific moment of time, almost yes, because the nature of humanity and our brains—you can’t remember everything, because your brain would explode. Each film, I think there’s a tipping point, where I feel like we’ve done our homework. On Senna, I interviewed a key character. I didn’t really know the story and everything he told me I found interesting. Then I interviewed him a year later, and this time when he’s answering, I was finding myself correcting him. ‘It wasn’t then, it was then.’ I spent years looking at the material. With Maradona, it’s a lot of material he’s never seen. I’ve asked him questions that people who’ve known him all his life didn’t have the nerve to ask him, because they don’t want to upset him. I’m an outsider. I don’t worry about that. It’s my job to do that, as a journalistic filmmaker, to ask tough questions.
Diego Maradona is streaming on HBOGo.