How Asif Kapadia Managed “A Master Of Diversion” While Making ‘Diego Maradona’ — Cannes

Eric Schwabel

Asif Kapadia has directed two incredibly compelling documentaries about the lives—and untimely deaths—of Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse. He returns to Cannes to complete the third part of his unique trilogy with Diego Maradona, this time detailing the brilliant and troubled life of the still very much alive soccer icon Diego Maradona. After winning the Oscar for Amy, all eyes will be on this similar-but-different doc, which pulls unseen footage from the 1980s as well as new interviews with the people around the star, and Maradona himself. But how has meeting his subject changed things for the British filmmaker?

Is Diego Maradona of a piece with your previous documentaries Senna and Amy, or is it a different beast?

It’s a good question, because I’m almost the worst person to ask.

Obviously, there are similarities. I think Maradona himself, in many ways, has lots of elements which are similar to Ayrton Senna, a Latin American hero. He has similarities to Amy Winehouse because he had issues with addiction and lots of problems. But he’s a whole other beast in that he’s alive, he’s around, he’s still doing things constantly, whenever you think you’ve got an ending.

People who’ve seen it, people who are impartial, feel it’s almost a more complex film than the others. There’s a lot of other issues going on. So I think it has similarities and it does feel like a part of that universe, but he’s a very different character, and he has bigger issues at play, I think.

You didn’t start those films as a self-described fan of their work, but I know you’re a big football fan. What was your relationship to Maradona?

I am a big football fan. I think that’s a bit different, because I probably knew a bit more about Diego than the other two when I started those films. I’d actually read books about Maradona while I was at university, which I’d never done with Senna or Amy.

So I knew more about his life, and it always felt like, “Wow, what a crazy life this guy has led. What a character.” And the feeling like I wanted to make a film about his life predates me making Senna and, probably at the time, I was thinking about it in a fictional sense; casting an actor to play him.

How did it come back around?

One of the producers, Paul Martin, contacted me. At that point Senna was coming to the end of its run, and I thought the idea of making another doc straight away about another sporting hero just didn’t seem right. It didn’t fit the timing. I always thought Senna would be a one-off and I’d go off and make movies again.

So the idea went away and came back however many years later, and when it came along, the challenge seemed interesting, because, tragically, Senna and Amy both died young, and this character is still going and still creating chaos. I felt like I had to talk to him and meet him. So what interested me was that the challenge felt similar but different.

He doesn’t speak English. I don’t speak Spanish fluently in any way or form. The idea of having a lead character who I had to find a way to build trust with was what interested me about the challenge of it.

Did you feel you had to unlearn what you’d learned about him all those years ago?

Well, to be honest, with my memory that was quite easy. There was enough in the back of my mind to know, “This is an interesting character.” Then it was about working with what I could find; studying lots of research and reviewing material with my brilliant team, and starting to put it together and assemble sequences to find the story.

Then we start interviewing people, and that always feels like starting from scratch because you quickly realize you don’t know anything. And even if you read a book in the ’90s, it’s 2019 now and the story has shifted. The dynamics are different.

I’ve hopefully made a film that is very different to other films that have been made about Maradona, or the books that have been written about him. We’re coming in as recently as possible.

But we also have this footage… Like with Senna and Amy, we have this material from the time shot with personal camera people, because this team was going to make a film about Diego Maradona in the ’80s. So it’s unseen footage shot in the early ’80s and we put it together in 2019.

Tell me about building up to meeting him.

I did the same thing I did on the other films. I spoke to his kids, I spoke to his ex-wife, to friends of his, his trainer, all of his core team that have been around him. Ex-teammates, managers, coaches, everybody.

Diego, being Diego Maradona… Sometimes—how can I put this?—he might not be the most reliable witness to his own story. He has a way of creating his own myth, and then you talk to someone else and they’ll say something different. That becomes part of the fun, I suppose, and the challenge. How do you tell the story when the essential character has a different version of the story to what the footage is showing?

But also, he’s done a lot. A lot has happened in his life, so why would he remember exactly what happened in 1984? We’re the ones studying it and obsessing over it, but he’s moved on. He’s had so many different lives since then.

The people I talked to remembered the moment because they were in the orbit of Maradona. They were close to him. Diego, sometimes, doesn’t even remember any of these people at all.

How quickly did the relationship form? I’d heard that he saw and liked Senna.

He was a very big Ayrton Senna fan, because they were both huge in Italy at the same time. That was the interesting thing about doing research, is that you’d open the newspapers of the time, flip to the sports pages, and on one page you’d have Ayrton, and the other would be Diego. Diego won the championship in 1990 in Naples, and that was the same year Senna won the world championship.

It was interesting how their lives crossed, but they never met. I kept expecting to find a picture of the two of them together, but Diego insists they never met, and he’s even been to Senna’s grave to put flowers down. He was going to name his second child—if it had been a boy—Ayrton. He was a big, big fan.

So yeah, he saw the film and liked the film, which was great. He’d also seen Amy and liked that. We were doing the deal for the film when, after we won the Oscar, someone told me, “Have you seen Facebook? Diego just posted a picture of you winning the Oscar and the line, ‘This guy’s next film will be about me.’” We were still trying to get the deal signed [laughs].

Physically meeting him was a challenge. He was in Dubai, and getting there and getting to meet him was difficult because you never really knew if he would keep the meeting. If he would feel up to it, or if he would be in the mood. That first meeting took quite a few days just to physically meet. We shook hands, took a couple of pictures, and then it was, “I’m not feeling great, come back tomorrow.” By then we’d been waiting for a week, so I said, “I’m going to fly home and get on with the film, and we’ll do this again.”

It was a short meeting but it was a good taste of, “OK, in the end I just have to make the film, and when I know what it is, I’ve actually got questions to ask him.” The pressure then did become similar to Senna and Amy, because I was putting the film together from footage and interviews with other people.

I knew when I went back to talk to him our time would be short and precious and I’d have to really know what I was talking to him about. I didn’t that first time. But then, as we went along, I suppose I got a bit pushier or tougher with the questioning, to make sure we dealt with all the important things and told an honest story.

Was he resistant in those moments?

Really, no. I think you’ll have to be the judge of it, but I’m hoping it’s honest.

But also, all these films are made with love. You make a film like this and you’re going to feel for the characters. You understand them a bit better. You understand the psychology, and you understand why they react and do the things they do.

It’s complex because you’re dealing with charisma as well. You’re dealing with people who have a gift and a talent for something. They click their fingers and everybody does what they want, and it’s quite hard for those people to hear the word ‘no’. So that process was important, and I hope the film gets there.

I did ask him questions that maybe other people haven’t asked, or were wary about asking, but it wasn’t easy. Sometimes it meant going back and asking him again, and sometimes it meant realizing, “OK, now’s not the right time to ask, I’ll do it next time.” But next time might be six months away, because it was so tricky to get access.

He did say something, at some point, during what I felt was probably going to be the final interview, and so I really had to deal with a lot of the serious issues. He looked at me and said, “You know, I’ve got to give you one thing. You’ve got a nerve asking me these questions to my face. Most people would say it behind my back, but not to my face.” And there was a bit of a pause, and he said, “But, for that, I respect you.”

I was like, “Cool, OK, great. So now, let me ask you the question again.” He’s a master of diversion. You ask him one question and he’ll answer about something else. That something else is really interesting, and he’s really got a brilliant turn of phrase and knows how to throw a bomb in there so a journalist would have a headline. He knows that’ll make the journalist happy, and keep him happy. But I would say, “Yeah, but that’s not what our film is about. It’s about this. Come back to the point I was asking you about.”

Doing all this through a translator was really hard for me. When do you interrupt? When do you go, “Have I misunderstood the answer?” And it was hard to try and lighten the tone when someone else is trying to translate your gag.

Each of your documentaries to date has found that dichotomy: that an honest story, dealing with the darker sides of life, can also be a loving story. They make us re-evaluate the way we framed them at the time.

I think that’s the thing. People have an image. When you talk about Senna, you’re talking about someone most people didn’t know, and if they knew of him, they knew the ending. With Amy, they knew she was messed up, but no one really knew the young Amy, so that idea was of showing her when she was brilliant and funny and beautiful.

Diego, most people have a memory of the latter Diego Maradona, who was not in a good way, very big, lots of bad jokes about his addiction issues. I don’t think that’s very funny unless you understand what that person has been through. One of my aims in making these films is, hopefully by the end of them, people who watch them will not make those cheap gags anymore because they realize they’ve no idea what that person has been through.

But I’m not going to excuse the things they’ve done. I’m going to let you make up your own mind. That meant picking our battles. We had to pick and choose what went in, because there’s so much with Maradona. He’s nearly 60 now and he’s had a long life. The challenge of squeezing that into two hours was important to me, because I still wanted it to be seen collectively and condensed in a way where it captures the essence of his life. If you want more, it’s out there. I don’t enjoy it at the time, but I like the battle of having all the depth and richness of his life in a two-hour time frame.

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