‘Back to Black’: How Sam Taylor-Johnson Crafted 5 Key Scenes in Her Amy Winehouse Biopic

[Editor’s note: The following interview contains light spoilers for “Back to Black.”]

How do you capture a life — a famous one, a big one, an incredibly well-documented one — on the silver screen? Take it moment by moment. For her Amy Winehouse biopic “Back to Black,” director Sam Taylor-Johnson traces the rise and fall of the beloved British singer and songwriter (played by Marisa Abela), telling a well-known tragic tale through a series of iconic images.

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We still remember so much about the Grammy winner: the swoop of her eyeliner, the tease of her hair, what she looked like performing on stage, what she looked like relaxing in a park with her husband, the fear in her eyes when the paparazzi tailed her. And the relentless documentation of her life that made all of those images possible is also what makes telling a “new” story so hard. And while many early reactions to the film’s casting and very existence were negative — along with critical reviews, as the film currently holds a 38 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes — the film has already proven to be a hit in the U.K. Interest in the singer, it seems, remains high, as does a hunger to see her story told in a new light.

For Taylor-Johnson, putting together her latest film hinged on finding the line between the information we already know and the revelations Matt Greenlagh’s script hopes to impart to audiences. Along the way, the director inevitably had to recreate a number of events that remain burnt into our collective consciousness, plus intimate scenes we were never privy to before.

Taylor-Johnson walks IndieWire through the process of building and shooting five key scenes in her Amy Winehouse biopic, including everything from meeting the great, doomed love of the songstress’ life to an iconic performance near the end of her run, and much more.

The Creative Process, Winehouse Style

BACK TO BLACK, from left: Marisa Abela, director Sam Taylor-Johnson, on set, 2024. ph: Dean Rogers / © Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection
Star Marisa Abela and director Sam Taylor-Johnson on the set of ‘Back to Black’©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

Early in the film, we watch a young Amy enjoy a family dinner at her beloved grandmother’s, sing a few songs with her relatives, and head home to her mother’s house. Before she gets there, however, she gets into a tiff with her father, Mitch (Eddie Marsan), which seems to unlock something deep within her. Soon enough, she’s holed up in her room, scribbling lyrics, trying out some chords on her guitar, and putting all the pieces together.

Before production on the film began, Taylor-Johnson said she met with both of Winehouse’s parents to hear their stories about their daughter, which helped inspire a number of the quieter scenes in the film, like that early sequence, in which Amy eventually retreats to her bedroom to write a song that will become “Stronger Than Me.”

“I spoke with her family and I met them a couple of times,” the filmmaker told IndieWire. “To be clear about that, when I went into [the film], we had all the rights and I didn’t need to involve them, but I wanted to, out of respect. I also wanted to hear their stories from them and not [get them] sort of second- or third-hand.”

Taylor-Johnson said that “Stronger Than Me” scene was inspired by the ways in which Winehouse’s own family described her process.

“Mitch was really the one who told me about how she was actually very private about her writing,” she said. “He said she’d be talking about something and then, in the middle of the conversation, she’d be gone and into her room and writing. … She would just go off to her room and she would just sit and write and he’d hear her play guitar and he’d say, ‘Oh, come out and show us,’ and she’d be like, ‘Absolutely not.’ He would show me all her notebooks, show me literally the scribbles and the doodles and everything.”

For the director, spending that early time with Abela in character, but without all the other, expected Winehouse trappings — the big hair, the retro costuming, the on-stage persona, all of which would come later — was key to getting audiences on board with her star.

“It’s like a three-minute-long one-take,” she said. “And I wanted to sort of give it time, so as an audience, [if] we [are] questioning whether Marisa was Amy, with that three-minute take, I feel like you slowly fall into her in a way. She takes you on the journey of belief. I needed to have that time so that we could just feel like we were participating and watching the process of her writing, thinking, and creating.”

Blake Wins Amy Over with The Shangri-Las

BACK TO BLACK, director Sam Taylor-Johnson, on set, 2024. ph: Olli Upton / © Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson on the set of ‘Back to Black’©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

If you’re telling the story of Amy Winehouse and the creation of her seminal album “Back to Black,” there’s no getting around the Blake Fielder-Civil-shaped elephant in the room. Jack O’Connell plays Winehouse’s ex-husband in Taylor-Johnson’s feature, and it’s fair to say their tortured romance comes to dominate much of the story, just as it did with Winehouse’s own life, career, and public persona.

And there’s this: People don’t like Blake. They didn’t back then, and they still don’t now. So, how do you introduce such a disliked figure and make it so we understand why our heroine loved him so much? For Taylor-Johnson, that meant recreating Winehouse and Fielder-Civil’s first introduction — in a local pub, a true story — with some musical charm.

“I felt like I had to make this movie in her perspective, because her whole life had just been sort of picked apart through the [Asif Kapadia-directed] documentary,” Taylor-Johnson said. “I’m not saying that in a negative way, because I actually love the documentary, and I think Asif did an amazing job. The press had [also] always dissected her life in real time. … It was just that feeling of everyone had so much judgment around who is responsible, and who is to blame.”

When Amy hits the pub — The Good Mixer — after a rough work meeting, she’s not looking for love. But there is Blake, chatty and brash, a little drunk, shooting pool with his mates. The pair talk a bit at the bar, but when Amy follows him over to the pool table, things really pick up.

“I felt like, if I’m in her perspective, I need to sort of feel like this is without judgment, because she loved her father, she loved Blake, and if I’m true to making this through her eyes, then she’s not going to judge any of them in the same way that we have,” she said. “So that scene, I had to create a scene where we were with her through her eyes and understanding why she fell in love with this person that we all have opinions about. We have to believe the love story in order to go on the journey of, that’s what created ‘Back to Black,’ one of the greatest albums of our time, and who she was.”

That’s also why Taylor-Johnson needed to be able to spend significant time shooting Amy and Blake’s initial meeting. Despite being a “fast-moving production,” with 56 locations in 45 days, the filmmaker was willing to spend extra time for this key sequence.

“I said, ‘I really need time, even if on the page it just says, They play pool, they listened to music, they chat, of all the scenes in the entire movie, I really need that time, because if this scene doesn’t make you believe the love, then the film isn’t going to survive,” she recalled. “Because you have to believe the love to then enjoy ‘Back to Black,’ because you understand it in a different way.”

And then Blake starts playing some of his favorite songs for Amy on the pub’s jukebox, including The Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack,” which O’Connell sings and dances to, capturing Amy’s heart as he goes.

“Jack O’Connell is incredible, and he was the person I had in mind for this from the beginning, because I felt like — and maybe he won’t like me saying this — I had to have a guy where, if you have a friend running towards him, you’re like, ‘No! … but I get it,'” Taylor-Johnson said. “That feeling of, she’s running towards the bad boy, but you can see what the attraction is. I felt like Jack is unafraid to play a character that people don’t like. He has no issues around any of that, but he plays it so brilliantly on a knife edge of, you see he’s an addict, you see what his issues are, they’re big and familiar, but you also see the love that she has for him and why she falls for him.”

Even knowing what happened between the real Amy and Blake, it’s hard to disregard Blake’s charm and Amy’s obvious awe. That’s exactly what Taylor-Johnson was going for.

“We’ve all had relationships which are less than perfect with people who are less than perfect, and I think that it’s so important to show all the jagged edges of a romance that was toxic, but was very real,” she said. “When I met with Janice, Amy’s mom, I said to her, ‘Do you like Blake? What are your thoughts?’ and she said, very honestly, ‘I don’t like Blake, but I don’t dislike him either, because I have to be grateful for the fact that, in Amy’s lifetime, she felt like she knew what it is to feel love. … It was apparent from early days. It was unstoppable. I don’t think most people experience that in their lifetime. To him, I am grateful for that.'”

That stayed with the filmmaker and helped influence the ways in which she wanted to portray the pair’s doomed love story. “I thought, for the mother of Amy, who obviously went on a very painful journey [to say that],” Taylor-Johnson said, “that shows such humanity and forgiveness, and it was such a lesson for me making this film.”

The Paparazzi Descend on Amy and Blake

BACK TO BLACK, from left: Marisa Abela, as Amy Winehouse, Jack O'Connell, 2024. ph: Dean Rogers / © Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection
Marisa Abela and Jack O’Connell in ‘Back to Black’©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

Winehouse was already a particular paparazzi favorite before she met Fielder-Civil, but the pair’s relationship only further intensified the fervor around the star. In 2005, the couple made their official — and unwitting — debut when a series of photos were snapped of them on a date in a Primrose Hill park. Even now, the pictures — the pair loved up, Winehouse swigging from a bottle, both of them puffing on cigarettes — are deemed “iconic.” Taylor-Johnson had to re-create them.

“Because I lived right there by that park, I had an awareness of Amy and Blake in my neighborhood,” Taylor-Johnson said. “I never met her, but I always caught just the tailwind of her, like she’d just left [before I arrived]. We had friends in common, and we went to similar places. I remember that day in Primrose Hill, because the next day, all those photographs were in all the newspapers.”

To bring the Primrose Hill park date to life, the filmmaker had a wealth of photographs to pull from, for better or worse. “I went back and looked at those pictures and it’s young, early love, and they’re sort of out in the park and there’s somebody just documenting the whole thing,” she said. “And we mirrored a match to each one of those pictures. … That’s when I first became aware of the two of them, like the rest of the world, and then they became these sort of obsessive, iconic figures.”

Of course, the paparazzi play a major role in “Back to Black,” and the horrific, invasive nature of the Primrose Hill outing serves as something of an introduction to them. It’s awful to watch unfold in the film, which is the point.

“I wanted to kind of create the paparazzi as a character, because when I was researching the movie during a sort of particular time period, I could Google any day of her life and find pictures of her from five, 10 different angles, which made me realize, obviously, that she had five, 10 burly men with cameras always with her when she was out and right in her most vulnerable, self-destructive days,” she said. “It made me obviously so very sad to feel that she never had anonymity when she was struggling with addiction, she never had that chance.”

Amy Gets Her Distinct Look, Care of Her Grandma

BACK TO BLACK, from left: Marisa Abela as Amy Winehouse, Lesley Manville, 2024. ph: Dean Rogers / © Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection
Marisa Abela and Lesley Manville in ‘Back to Black’©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

We meet Winehouse’s beloved grandmother, Cynthia Winehouse (played by Lesley Manville), early in the film, and her influence on Amy is obvious from the start. Even before Abela’s Amy takes on the iconic Winehouse look, she proclaims her hip grandma to be her “style icon,” a music-loving Londoner who embraced the swinging ’60s in all their glory. So when the movie version of Amy finally makes the choice to tease her hair into her signature beehive, it’s literally Cynthia who makes it happen during a loving scene between the two actresses.

“It was rooted in the truth of hearing stories from the family about how she was such a strong figure in Amy’s life,” the filmmaker said of the backstory of the scene. “She was always playing jazz, and she was always kind of feeding that sort of energy to Amy. When her parents broke up, that was a safe haven and a place where she could be, her grandmother’s sort of love of ’60s soul music and jazz music, and their shared love of Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughan. The energy around that and the sort of style of Amy, really, we could draw a line through from looking at pictures to Cynthia.”

The scene comes at a crucial time: Cynthia has told Amy she is ill (the real Cynthia passed away in 2006), Amy and Blake have broken up, and Amy is about to head to New York City to record “Back to Black.” She’s in need of a new look, but also one that speaks to the things she loves the most, like her grandmother and her influence.

“So Cynthia and her relationship being so bonded and tight, it just sort of made sense that they kind of created that energy together,” she said. “When I was talking to Lesley Manville early on, she was like, ‘I don’t know if there’s enough on the page for me to do,’ and I said, ‘The thing is, Cynthia is the fabric of Amy Winehouse. She’s the fabric of her iconic look and who she became in that way.’ So, from there, Lesley came on board and we talked about how she and Amy create that look together.

Amy Wins a Grammy

BACK TO BLACK, Marisa Abela, as Amy Winehouse, 2024. © Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection
Marisa Abela in ‘Back to Black’©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

Of all the scenes in “Back to Black” that look most true to life, it’s Taylor-Johnson’s take on Winehouse’s 2008 Grammy wins for Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist that feels the most eerily accurate. Winehouse didn’t head to Los Angeles for the February 2008 show but stayed in London, where her family, friends, and band joined her for a live watch party and performance at Riverside Studios.

Taylor-Johnson immediately pointed to her “incredible collaborators and team” for making this key portion really sing, especially production designer Sarah Greenwood, who had “just come off of ‘Barbie’ and who was so excited to going to get to the urban grit of Camden.'”

“We went through every single picture and YouTube clip, and just really knew that we had to recreate it as close as physically possible, because she has such a strong fanbase that people are just going to look and compare,” Taylor-Johnson said. “Marisa being as brilliant as she is, really took every small detail of a finger movement, of a hip swing, of her head movements. So your eyes are so drawn to the familiarity of that performance and seeing Marisa pull it off so brilliantly, but [then we are] also able to sort of fill the room in the same way as it was with her family, her friends, and industry.”

On its own, the sequence is striking. Within the context of the greater story Taylor-Johnson was telling about Winehouse and the way her life was dissected and documented by seemingly everyone, it takes on another cast. Real, but not quite.

“Going back to the fact that she was literally the most documented, followed person [at the time],” Taylor-Johnson said. “I mean, in one of the tabloids, they had a page called ‘Wino Watch,’ and it was an everyday column with new pictures of her. They really hunted and hounded her daily, and that was just such a kind of important thing to get across. But it also meant I had so much documentation of every single day, [and] just trying to make sure we matched each detail.”

Focus Features will release “Back to Black” in U.S. theaters on Friday, May 17.

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