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“The Tapes were Sticking Together When I Found Them”: Asif Kapadia on Diego Maradona, Digitizing U-Matic and Mindhunter

Diego Maradona being arrested in 1991 (Photo courtesy of DANIEL LUNA/AFP/Getty Images)

The greatest soccer player of his time, Diego Maradona was also the sport’s highest-paid athlete until he was forced out of competition due to his criminal connections and substance abuse problems. Director Asif Kapadia built the HBO Sports release Diego Maradona from over 500 hours of archival footage, much of it never seen by the public. After a theatrical run for Oscar consideration, Diego Maradona is now screening on HBO.

The documentary focuses on Maradona’s years in Naples, where he led the Società Sportiva Calcio Napoli team to its first league championship. A native of Argentina, Maradona also played in four FIFA World Cups for the Argentinian team. After he was driven out of Naples, he turned to coaching.

Kapadia has been directing films for over thirty years, making his feature debut with the BAFTA-winning The Warrior (2001). Senna (2011), about the Brazilian race car driver Ayrton Senna, won several international awards. His Amy Winehouse documentary Amy (2015) won an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary.

Kapadia spoke with Filmmaker at a press event in New York and later by phone from his office in London.

Filmmaker: Did Maradona cooperate with you?

Asif Kapadia: I had nearly ten hours of interviews with him, which really nobody’s ever gotten before. When you hear his voice in the film, that’s from our interviews. He’s quite old now. His memory isn’t perfect, shall we say. 

Filmmaker: Was it always your choice not to show his interviews on screen? 

Kapadia: Yes. I’ve done three films like that now, after Senna and Amy. Each film has a different reason for being done in this way. Senna, I couldn’t interview him, he wasn’t alive. Amy was a very painful story. I started making it a year after she died, so a lot of people were still really in pain. Also, they didn’t trust the media. 

Diego’s so tricky at times to get close to. Often he’s keeping you waiting and canceling or changing plans. It’s part of his thing. I couldn’t afford to keep flying to Dubai and not meet with him. So the smaller I kept the crew the more flexible I could be to work around his hours. That was part of the reason. Also, I didn’t want a performance from him. And to be honest, I’m interested in telling the story of the particular moment when he arrives in Naples. I’m less interested in worrying about what people look like now.

Filmmaker: Let the footage speak for itself. 

Kapadia: That’s exactly the idea, let the images tell the story and let the audience work it out for themselves. You know you don’t have to keep telling them exactly everything to think. 

Filmmaker: But that also ties your hands when you need to cover complicated events. 

Kapadia: It’s not the easiest way of making movies, there’s no denying. But I think the payoff is when you screen it for an audience. I want to make cinematic movies, ones that feel like they were created for the big screen. I want you to get lost in that period, that time. I don’t like your thought process being interrupted by an interview and you suddenly think, “Oh my God, look how big they’ve gotten.” I like the idea of trusting the footage, even the imperfections in the material. Honestly, just looking at Diego’s eyes. I just wanted to look at his face. It was the same with Amy, the same with Senna actually. When in doubt, show their faces and that will tell you what’s going on. You can tell when they’re lying, when they’re happy, when they’re uncomfortable, when they’re lonely, when they’re sad. That’s what good acting is about when you do fiction. You don’t need everything to be explained. Sometimes you just want to look at the eyes of the characters. 

There’s another reason for not doing talking head interviews. People rewrite history. What they now think was happening then, what they want you to know, what they assume was going on, all that is sometimes very different to the evidence in the actual footage. So I’d rather do very forensic research, talk to people, work out what everyone said was going on and then find an image from the moment in time that tells you what’s happening. 

Filmmaker: There’s a terrible arc to the story, which you point out with an early clip of Pelé saying Maradona isn’t psychologically equipped to deal with fame. 

Kapadia: Historically those two have had moments when they’ve been friendly and they’ve had moments when they argued. I just love the fact that we found this footage that’s not really well known of Pelé quite early on saying the guy’s brilliant. But is he prepared for what’s coming? He nails it in those two sentences. Could anyone deal with what Maradona goes through in his life? I’m not sure. 

Filmmaker: Pelé did in a way, didn’t he? 

Kapadia: Pelé never came to Europe. He won the World Cup many times, he played for Santos in Brazil, he did go to the New York Cosmos. But he never came to the toughest leagues in Europe, because he’s from the generation where you just weren’t allowed. Maradona’s the next generation. He basically had to come to Europe where the money was. It’s a different challenge for him, being away from home. 

Diego’s always said he was a mama’s boy. To be taken away from his family—there were eight of them living in a shack, a single room with no electricity, no water. Can you imagine coming from that and suddenly being taken to the other side of the world, without your parents, without your family, and having to survive? 

Filmmaker: Did you see any connections between Maradona and Amy Winehouse?

Kapadia: I think it only came out while making the film, but I feel like Maradona’s story is essentially part Senna, part Amy. Maradona’s a Latin American hero, he came from a dictatorship, really tough political and economic problems. He took on the Europeans and beat them and he did it in ways that makes his fans very proud of him. But he’s definitely got a lot of Amy Winehouse about him. At times he’s vulnerable. He looks lost. He needs someone to look after him, to protect him. He finds solace in addiction because of the mistakes he’s made in his life, because of the things that he’s not able or willing to deal with. In various ways, like the lack of protection from his entourage, you realize he’s very similar to Amy. I didn’t know that going in, but now I see a lot of things in common. 

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the footage of Maradona’s early life? 

Kapadia: So Diego is growing up in Argentina, and from the age of about fifteen everyone says he’s going to be the best player in the world. He plays for Argentinos Juniors, then he’s sold to Boca Juniors. They go on a world tour with him to make as much money as they can: America, Japan, Africa. His manager and agent, Jorge Cyterszpiler, does a deal to take him to Barcelona. 

This is the early ’80s, and people like Pelé, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Georgie Best, all these people are trying to make football, soccer, successful in the US. So Cyterszpiler had this idea: “if I make a movie about Diego Maradona, I can break him in the US, where the big money is.” He had already gotten him a Pepsi sponsorship, he was doing Puma and all these endorsements. But he wanted the big bucks. 

He’s thinking this is it, this is the time to film him, make this great movie about this guy who is going to become a champion. So he hires two Argentinian cameramen. They filmed Maradona all the way through Barcelona, but it doesn’t work. Diego breaks his ankle, he gets hepatitis, he hardly plays. It’s a bit of a disaster. So he gets sold to Naples. The cameramen follow him there and continue filming. On the pitch, off the pitch, in his car, when he’s training. That amazing footage when he arrives at the stadium in Naples—all of that was shot by his personal cameramen. But a year or two into Naples, Diego fires his agent. New agent comes in and gets rid of all of the people from the previous crew, including the cameramen. They’re fired, they probably didn’t get paid, so they went off with the tapes.

So these tapes range from 1981 to, say, 1987. In 2015 we find a bunch of them. We’re outside Naples with one of the cameramen, and he’s got tapes on the old format called U-matic. My very first short film was shot on U-matic, it’s 30 years later and I’m back on the same format. Nobody can find a deck to even play the tapes, so we have to buy one. Then when I interviewed his ex-wife Claudia Villafañe in Buenos Aires, I ask if she has any material. She said there’s this stuff in the back room and there we find all these tapes of the film they tried to make for the American market. U-matic and one-inch tapes that we digitize for the documentary. 

Filmmaker: How hard was it to deal with U-matic?

Kapadia: I mean, the tapes were sticking together when I found them. I had to appeal to people, “Let me digitize this.” The ex-wife did not want to be a part of this film because they do not get along, there have been wars, suing each other in court. It’s a real mess. So for me to turn up saying “I cannot make this film without you and you have to let me borrow this footage,” you can imagine. I was like, “Look, even if you don’t want to be a part of the film, I’ll digitize this material and leave you a copy because these tapes are going to vanish.” 

We actually bought a deck on eBay and had to bring it from England to Argentina because we couldn’t find one in Buenos Aires. We brought a screen, a computer, then we would connect the U-matic to the computer, connect a line out to a TV monitor, and digitize it as high-res as we possibly could. The tapes kept glitching and breaking and chewing up. Sadly, part of the process of digitizing all this material is that the process can destroy the tapes. 

We found an ultra-Maradona fan in Naples who had loads of VHS tapes that no one’s ever seen. In order to screen what he had—and this is classically Neapolitan—we had to pay upfront. It was mostly kids’ birthdays and weddings and things. But then somewhere in the middle of it there’s a clip of Diego Maradona, there’s another and another. They look like Mean Streets or Who’s That Knocking at My Door, early Scorsese films, very low-res. And the tapes were dying, the machine was chewing them, I’m having to rip them out of the deck and cut and splice them together. 

Filmmaker: Can you talk about how you arrived at a structure? How did you balance the sports footage with his personal life? 

Kapadia: We started with a five-hour version, slowly reducing and reducing it to four hours, then three hours, and then you’re like, okay, we’re going to have to make some tough calls. The opening, this crazy French Connection-style scene of Maradona driving into Naples, was 45 minutes long in a previous cut. And then we had to insert the footage with Pelé, we had to explain what happened to Maradona in Barcelona, we had to show everyone who’s a part of his life. 

But it took too long for the film to get going because really the story always started when we got to Naples. We couldn’t have 45 minutes of setup. We had this one screening that went really quite badly, I have to say. That’s when the idea came up: use the driving footage to throw us into the story. My brilliant editor Chris King reduced the opening down to five minutes. Every beat had to tell you something and move the story forward. You didn’t have time to show more than a quick essence of how he ended up in Naples. Then time slows down. And when we get to his penalty shot against Italy in the World Cup, I really don’t care about football anymore. As far as I’m concerned his career ended there. He takes that kick, and by scoring he loses everything. So we’re not even going to show the final, we’re just going to go into how everything and everyone turned on him. His life’s a mess. 

There’s a shot that quite a few people have mentioned. It’s Maradona at a Christmas party, he’s just sitting all on his own. He’s contemplating what he’s done. No dialogue, no voice-over. A producer found it, she said “I know this is going to be in the film.” It’s an amazing shot, but we don’t understand its context. Then the editor tried playing with the idea of just holding on it. Both of us thought we’re just going to stick with the shot. No one needs to talk. You just look at his face and you look at his eyes and you understand everything that’s going on. Somebody compared it to the shot of Ayrton Senna just before he drives for the final time in Senna. This moment where we just land on the character, time slows down, and you just see they’re thinking it all through. There’s a British film, The Long Good Friday by John Mackenzie—the final shot of Bob Hoskins, that’s my reference. He’s in the car, you don’t know what’s going on outside of the frame, but you’re just looking at his face and you see that he’s thinking it all through.

Filmmaker: How have the participants responded to the documentary?

Kapadia: Maradona, it depends on what day of the week it is whether he likes it or not. That’s the way he is. The two cameramen, they continued in sports, one is still working now. He came to the premiere in Naples. It was the first time he saw the footage he shot in the 1980s and 1990s, so you can imagine how emotional it was for his wife and kids. The other cameraman died while we were making the film, he had been ill for some time. 

When I went to Buenos Aires about three years ago, I had intended to interview Cyterszpiler, the agent who originally discovered Diego and repped him and did the deal to Barcelona and the deal to Naples. Tragically he committed suicide, so I never got to meet him. Incidents like that are when you remember these are real people you’re dealing with. There’s a lot of emotional stuff, a lot of heavy stuff with Diego’s family. I’ve spoken with his kids, the two daughters and Diego Junior. A pretty heavy time they had growing up with Maradona as a father.

Scorsese screened it. I think he liked it but he said it was more for [Francis Ford] Coppola because it takes place in Naples, not Sicily.

Filmmaker: While you were making Diego Maradona you were also shooting episodes of the Netflix series Mindhunter. 

Kapadia: I ran off to Pittsburgh to do those during the first year of research on Maradona. It’s funny because it’s like the two sides of my brain, doing fiction and drama and then these documentaries happening pretty much at the same time. 

I asked [executive producer David] Fincher, “How did I end up doing this? Where did you hear about me” He said they were having a pizza in Pittsburgh in preproduction, “and my best mate came round to my house and said you gotta watch this movie.” It was Brad Pitt with a copy of Senna. They watch it and Fincher loves it. And his other mate Steven Soderbergh is a big fan of Amy Winehouse. 

I think Mindhunter is also somehow linked to the fact that I made Amy by interviewing people. As far as I was concerned I was investigating a crime. A young girl died. No one seemed to get in any trouble for it. I wanted to figure out what happened. How did it happen? So I went and did audio interviews. When I read the Mindhunter script I said to David, “You know the way these characters, Holden’s [Ford, played by Jonathan Groff] character, the way he and Tench [Holt McCallany] go around interviewing people just with a cassette recorder — that’s what I did with Amy.” My job was to understand the psychology of all of the characters and piece together a narrative. So I was essentially doing what a detective did. I think David liked that.

Filmmaker: At one point Holden and Tench interrogate Dwight [Tobias Segal], a murder suspect, outside his house. It’s a complex scene with a number of set-ups, the camera moving in inexorably on them with each cut. 

Kapadia: That was my first day of shooting. It was an absolute nightmare because it was the noisiest location on that whole show. Fincher loves control. He shoots everything in a studio. But I found this location and really pushed for using it. We went up there and it was an absolute nightmare. Police cars, dogs barking, helicopters, planes. Everyone on the crew was like, “This guy’s an idiot. He’s chosen the worst location ever.” It was his first day, Dwight’s first day, and for me literally day one of the shoot. And we had rain. We had really a troubled time with the weather. But it looked great. I’m really proud of it, but behind the scenes I was shitting myself. 

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