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Lunch with James Gay-Rees at Ember's Yard, London

26 January 2017

We meet the British film producer behind Senna, Amy and Supersonic for tapas at Soho’s Ember Yard.

James Gay-Rees has a job that’s easy to envy. The British film producer has been making documentaries for the past six years that focus on iconic and often misunderstood characters; and he has a subject list that reads like a who’s who of modern-day popular culture.

From 2010’s Bafta-winning Senna, to last year’s highly acclaimed Oasis documentary, Supersonic, by way of the Oscar and Bafta-winning Amy, Gay-Rees has a way of elevating his subjects out of their field and into wider consciousness. He wanders into the packed Ember Yard in Soho with a lo-fi style and carrying a backpack. It offers a glimpse of the indie kid about him and is a little incongruous with his current status in the movie business.

Gay-Rees is hard to pin down. He’s currently working on a project that involves Argentine superstar Diego Maradona, but for once he’s not working. He’s moving swiftly into holiday mode as his two teenage daughters are on a break from school.

No sooner has he sat down, he plunges head-first into a Kerouac-esque stream of consciousness, jumping from the joy at winning awards for Amy to his previous two wins for Senna, the documentary about the legendary Formula One driver.

Considering he only arrived from the US yesterday, he’s remarkably chipper, giving the distinct impression of a man who’s very happy with the way his life is going. Despite the usually low-key nature of the documentary genre, Amy was a huge success, both at the box office and with critics. The film chooses to focus on the rare talent of the artist, as opposed to the troubled icon depicted and hounded by the media. As you watch, it’s kind of hard not to fall in love with her.

It’s clear that Gay-Rees felt that, too, as his easy flowing patter gives way to a sadness-tinged rail against the media. Understandably, having two teenage daughters made Amy’s story even more poignant for him, and he remains visibly affected by her story.

“On a wider level we all made her life intolerable because of the media feeding frenzy. That’s why I spoke out at the Baftas. It’s pretty obvious to anybody that the girl was in real trouble. We probably all said, ‘Oh my God! What a train wreak,’ but to go out of your way to sell more papers or to gain more viewers knowing that girl had a strong chance of dying… I don’t care what anybody says, she was exploited by the media for commercial reasons. She wasn’t just having a bad day. She wasn’t putting on an act. It was totally brutal.”

Amy’s hard to watch and was a painful movie to make. Gay-Rees pauses, momentarily contemplating the doubts and difficulties that he and his colleagues went through making the film. In the process of their research the team interviewed more than 100 of Amy’s friends, family members and management, the majority of whom were still processing their role in her journey and death.

Most of those close to Amy felt that the film had captured her essence, yet the most notable opponent of the documentary has been her father, Mitch Winehouse, who describes the film as a “one-dimensional, miserable and misleading portrayal of Amy”. The film paints Mitch in a bad light and points to the fact that there were a select few around the singer who were doing very well out of her success and who, perhaps, dropped the ball in regard to getting her the help that she needed. Despite the backlash, Gay-Rees diplomatically avoids getting drawn further into the row. “I think in many ways he [Mitch] did what he thought was best for her; she was very difficult to manage. I’m not an expert but I believe they say that you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped.”

Unfazed by the negative feedback, Gay-Rees speaks with the unflinching confidence of someone free of self-doubt or guilt. “At the end of the day, any criticism we get doesn’t really bother me ‘cause I know for the large part we’ve opened people’s eyes to her again. Here and in the US she’d become, for the most part, a joke and now people are like, “You know what. That joke wasn’t funny and she was amazing.” The film has re-energised her legacy in the right way, and if certain individuals want to criticise the movie then they aren’t seeing the big picture; because that girl’s seen in a different way now.”

As our food arrives we discuss the difficulties of negotiating egos and expectations when making a documentary. I ask if it’s easier to make a film about someone who’s dead or someone still with us. Without missing a beat he tells me there are pros and cons to both as he throws me a cheeky look and says, “We must be mad, we’re currently dealing with the Gallagher brothers and Diego Maradona: all very well-known and famously challenging people.”

With the subject of ego firmly on the table, it’s only a matter of time before the subject of Ronaldo comes up – Gay-Rees worked with the Portuguese superstar on the eponymously titled film in 2015. It’s one of his documentaries that hasn’t managed to make the leap from its core audience of football fans to reach a wider public, but Gay-Rees is a firm believer in the subject matter.

“I respect Cristiano because he’s a really nice guy in reality, and the level of sacrifice and amount of pressure he wears from his family, himself, his friends, his team and his country is almost unbearable. To have the exterior toughness and inner strength to take everything that the world throws at him and go out there and deliver unbelievable statistics for 10 seasons in a row is amazing.”

A series of tasty tapas plates have now arrived, and I realise that I’m racing through the food as quickly as Gay-Rees gets through anecdotes. Worried, I check that he remembers that we’re sharing, as I note that I seem to have almost eaten my half of everything while, he, burdened with the task of answering my questions, is taking a considerably time longer. Ember Yard seems to be the kind of place where people like to linger over lunch, however, and I sense no hurry as he insists that adding food to the mix is the perfect way to get him to keep talking.

The unpretentious and down to earth Gay-Rees seems to be the antithesis of Hollywood frippery. The only clue to his level of work is an amazing capacity to speak at extremely high speeds while giving common sense answers and maintaining an impressive level of eloquence. Despite a decidedly English manner and liberal use of an expletive or two, his language is tinged by his time in the US. He has a tendency to finish his sentences with an Americanism or two, and is especially fond of an inflected ‘you know?’.

In 2010 Gay-Rees set up On The Corner, a London-based independent production company, along with Asif Kapadia, the director of Amy and Senna. After a seven-year stint as a “dogsbody” in New York and Los Angeles, he searched “desperately for a writer, an idea” something that he could produce on his own. He eventually found the project: Exit Through The Gift Shop – a film directed by street artist Banksy – and moved back to London. The freedom of having his own production company put him in the enviable position of being able to make films about people he’s passionate about and interested in, the most enigmatic of whom was Ayrton Senna.

A teenage Gay-Rees first became fascinated by Senna through his father, who worked as accounts director for John Player, sponsors of the Lotus car that Senna was driving in the early 1980s. His usually levelheaded father told stories of a mystical character who seemed to operate outside the usual laws of physics.

Ten years after Senna’s death, Gay-Rees read an article commemorating the driver that echoed many of his father’s words and decided to contact the family with a view to making a film about the iconic hero. “They’d turned down a lot of really big Hollywood directors as they were worried about the Hollywoodisation of his story, so the key to unlocking them was to say we’ll do a documentary.” Not having set out to make non-fiction, the fledgling production company found themselves on the path that would establish their brand as makers of serious, high-quality documentaries.

The 2011 film, Senna was a huge success at a time when documentaries weren’t big currency at the box office. Even more surprising was that a film about a sport with little appeal beyond its fanbase could break box office records. The filmmakers had managed to tap into universal themes that chimed with viewers well beyond the world of Formula One.

When I reveal my own lack of interest in F1, but how I was enraptured by Senna, he laughs, explaining how, “Women love that movie. If I had a pound for every mum who’d come up to me at the school gates and said, ‘My husband made me watch that movie and now I’ve seen it five times.’ Senna is the classic Icarus figure, the one who flies too close to the sun. He’s such a romantic hero ‘cause it’s not about the money for him… he was reaching for the stars.”

Gay-Rees’ most recent work, Supersonic – a documentary charting British rockers Oasis and their sharp (and notorious) rise to fame in the mid-’90s – has a romantic side to it, too, albeit in the guise of two lunatics from Burnage, Manchester. Noel and Liam Gallagher allegedly still can’t be in the same room together, but both contacted Gay-Rees to document their story, as well as to wonder where all the rock and roll heroes have gone. Supersonic is a call to arms as much as it is a retrospective. It’s a plea for some much-needed personality in the music business. The film opened late last year, and enjoyed instant success.

Gay-Rees is still chasing his own dream, and his stock in Hollywood is now considerably higher – an Oscar, Bafta and big box office will do that for a person. “I can have the meetings now that I couldn’t have as a younger man,” he says. But he’s clearly not satisfied. “Not all the time,” he adds hastily, “but I’m operating from a slight position of strength now rather than being a nobody.”

However, it’s still hard to imagine the affable man in front of me operating in the cutthroat world of movie production, and he admits a love/hate relationship with Hollywood. “As I’ve got a bit older, more experienced and less judgemental, I’ve figured out how it all works. It’s not perfect but if you treat it with respect, it treats you with respect back. That said, as soon as you lose your sense of humour in Hollywood... you’re done.”

Words: Kaye Martindale / Images: Geoff Brokate

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