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Sam Taylor-Johnson and Aaron Taylor-Johnson attend the world premiere of Back To Black, at the Odeon Luxe Leicester Square, in London, on April 8.John Phillips/Getty Images

While researching Back to Black, her biopic of Amy Winehouse – the explosively talented but self-destructive English singer who died of alcohol poisoning in 2011 at the peak of her fame, at the age of 27 – the director Sam Taylor-Johnson discovered something unsettling. If she Googled almost any day in Winehouse’s adult life, she would find a paparazzi photo. Then she’d find another photo of that day – of that moment – but from a different angle. Then another, and another – 10, 12, 20 angles of the same moment.

“I realized there were that many men with cameras surrounding her all the time,” Taylor-Johnson said in a video interview last week. (Remember, Winehouse was only 5 foot 3; they would have penned her in.) “Especially in her most difficult moments, when she’s barefoot, her feet are bloodied, she’s obviously unwell, she’s just being hounded. When she fell down, no one went to help her – the cameras just dropped down to get the shot.”

So it was important for Taylor-Johnson to include in Back to Black – named for Winehouse’s Grammy-scooping, multiplatinum second (and final) album – a scene of paparazzi bent over, shooting a fallen Winehouse (Marisa Abela, Industry). “It’s a powerful analogy for our collective inability to reach out and support people who clearly have health issues that need addressing, but instead it’s fodder,” she says. “The pain of what she was dealing with was all there, under the watchful gaze of the world.”

Now, Taylor-Johnson, 57, is nobody’s fool. Born and educated in London, she came to filmmaking after a career as a provocative fine-art photographer and videographer. (In her best-known works, David and Crying Men, she filmed, respectively, David Beckham sleeping, and actors including Robin Williams, Sean Penn and Paul Newman weeping.) During our interview, she wears very cool aviator glasses and serenely snacks from a cup of nuts.

She knows that each of her three previous features angered somebody: John Lennon fans were skeptical about the depiction of his teenage years in Nowhere Boy, and the morality police objected to Taylor-Johnson dating her leading man, then Aaron Johnson (The Fall Guy), when he was 18 and she was 42. (They married in 2012 and have two daughters together, as well as two from her previous marriage.) Author E.L. James repeatedly squashed Taylor-Johnson’s vision for the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey (someone else made the two sequels). Critics weren’t kind when she stuck to making A Million Little Pieces even after James Frey, the author of the source memoir, was outed as a fabulist.

Taylor-Johnson also knew that Winehouse fans and cultural commentators would object to Back to Black before a single frame was shot. They hated that she was making a film when there was already an Oscar-winning documentary, Amy. They hated that Winehouse’s father, Mitch (played by Eddie Marsan), was involved, since many feel he exploited his daughter’s life and death. They hated that she shot a scene of Winehouse overdosing in her actual Camden flat, and another scene in the cemetery where she’s buried. They accused Taylor-Johnson of stooping as low as those tabloid photographers.

But she believes her film counters those concerns, “100 per cent,” she says. It’s because Winehouse’s life and death have been so “dissected and analyzed and picked apart and fetishized” that she made it.

“I wanted to give Amy her agency back,” Taylor-Johnson says. “I wanted to honour her creative brilliance, which was being lost, by going within her own writing, to tell the story of her life that she told in her songs. I knew if I stayed in her perspective as hard as possible, I would be able to look at her relationships and choices without judgment. If you can do that, you can see with compassion the mistakes being made, and you’re not further exploiting her.”

The film is equally non-judgmental about Blake Fielder-Civil (Jack O’Connell, Unbroken), whose tumultuous relationship with Winehouse – they dated and broke up, married and divorced – inspired many of the songs on the Back to Black album, and who is reviled for introducing her to crack and heroin.

Taylor-Johnson’s open-mindedness may stem from something Winehouse’s mother, Janis, told her: “She said she didn’t like Blake, but she didn’t not like him, because she was grateful that Amy had experienced an incredible, intoxicating love, whatever the outcome,” the director recalls. “That chokes me up even now. For a mother to be able to step back and say that without judgment meant that I could equally look at it without judgment.” Her open-mindedness may also stem from having her own relationship scrutinized and doubted, even after 15 years and two children.

Either way, the loveliest scene in the film is the one where Winehouse and Fielder-Civil meet in a Camden pub, and over a long, lazy afternoon, fall in love almost in real time. Taylor-Johnson is incredibly skilled at depicting the fullness of female desire, the mental/physical/emotional swirl of it. (One of the sexiest shots in Fifty Shades of Grey is a backlit closeup of the fine hairs on Dakota Johnson’s thigh rising at Jamie Dornan’s touch.) She knew that to understand Winehouse, the audience must understand what she sees in Fielder-Civil. So in this scene she shows us not just his brash charm, but also how they connect over books and music, the way he parries her energy, how he looks at her and how she feels under his gaze.

“The scene was only one page – ‘They play pool’ – but I had to give it significant time,” Taylor-Johnson says. “We shot 56 locations in 45 days, but I took three days to shoot this. Their meeting, their journey of flirtation around the pool table, the slow push in as they get closer and closer and almost but don’t kiss. I didn’t want to shoot hairs rising again, but as he reaches under her arm to get the pool chalk, you can feel her pulse. The way she looks in his eyes, their playfulness. I needed it to feel the way falling in love feels. It’s one of my favourite things I’ve achieved in the film.”

The one thing Back to Black refuses to do is manufacture a tidy explanation for Winehouse’s self-destruction. “In the documentary and in what’s been written about her, there is a constant sense of having to apportion blame,” Taylor-Johnson says. “When we lose someone we are so attached to, we think there must be a reason, a cause, someone at fault. But sometimes there isn’t. At a certain point she didn’t stand a chance.”

I ask Taylor-Johnson what she means by that. “Amy was an addict,” she replies. “AA and NA are anonymous for a reason; they’re for people to be able to seek help and speak candidly. Amy was never afforded that anonymity. Whenever she sought help, there were reporters embedded, paparazzi outside. Nothing was private. That space was never sacred for her. How could she ever hope to get better under those circumstances?

“You can’t point a finger at the exact moment of a fatal choice. It has to be ambiguous.” Because the opposite of looming over someone in judgment is sitting beside them, trying to see what they see.

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