Director Asif Kapadia Talks "Challenging" New Doc 'Diego Maradona'

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"I think it’s going to be challenging for everybody concerned," says Asif Kapadia about the possibility of Diego Maradona coming to Cannes for the film’s premiere.

Three years after winning an Oscar for 'Amy,' the British helmer returns to Cannes with a doc about the controversial Argentinian soccer legend.

Having made the definitive documentaries about Brazilian motor racing legend Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse — Amy bowed in Cannes in 2015 before winning the Oscar a year later — Brit director Asif Kapadia has turned his lens on a celebrated figure who, unusually for him, still happens to be alive. In Diego Maradona, he explores the life and times of the diminutive Argentinian soccer player who captained his country to World Cup glory while at the height of his powers and is often regarded as the greatest the world has ever seen (he even has a religion named after him). But Maradona, much like Winehouse, was an addict who would end up generating just as many headlines for his extracurricular activities.

Ahead of its world premiere on the Croisette — a screening Maradona is due to attend — Kapadia, 47, discussed drawing blank expressions from Oscar nominees who had never heard of the sportsman and why he hopes the film will be a good thing for his subject to see.

How was it dealing with Maradona?

I met him a few times because he’s around, which is obviously different to my other films. And he’s such a powerful, charismatic leader. For me, I can only make these films if all of the key characters talk to me and are part of it, because that’s the only way you can get an authentic sense of what the story is. Whether he gets along with them or not — because he’s had disagreements with a few of these characters — none of them would talk to us unless Diego gave his permission. We had to have the deal with him.

Was he easy to pin down and interview?

We interviewed him when he was living in Dubai. The first time, we went all that way and in the end he wasn’t feeling great, so it was just a five-minute "Hello, let’s do this film, do you want a photo?" and then we left. The next time, I realized it wouldn’t work with a big crew, so I went with my translator and recorded myself literally sitting at Diego’s feet. The next time, while we were talking to Diego in Dubai, my translator would translate in Spanish, he would answer in Spanish, I had someone on WhatsApp in Buenos Aires translating into my ear, and my team in London on FaceTime listening and sending thoughts and questions. It was the most complex system of people, but all done in a way that hopefully he didn’t notice that there was any delay. Because if there was any delay, then he’d get bored.

At last year’s World Cup in Moscow he looked, let’s just say, a little out of it. Were you ever worried if matters out of your hands would force you to change the documentary? 

As I was making the film, I kept hearing rumors that he wasn’t well or was in hospital. There was one point before the World Cup I was hoping to meet him and show him a cut, and he was always busy or canceled. But then he was like, "Why don’t you come to Moscow?" As much as I’d love to go to the World Cup, it’s not the time to get someone in a quiet way. So my instinct was: "I don’t think it’s the best time to show you this film." And then of course every time Argentina played, the camera would cut to him and I’d think, "My instincts were right." But the question that comes to mind is: Why is he doing that at his age? And I hope that when you see the film, you’ll see the answer to what’s going on there.

Do you have concerns about bringing him to Cannes?

Yes and no. You never quite know what Diego is going to do. He’s been there before and I think he had a good time, and I’m hoping this will be a good experience. I think it’s going to be challenging for everybody concerned. But I’m a daydreamer, and I’m hoping this film will be a good thing for him to see at this point of his life, to experience it with people around him and to hopefully get love from the audience and the critics. His daughter said a really interesting thing. She’d seen Amy and Senna and said people often have these films made about them when they’re dead. She thought for him to have a film like this made about him while he’s alive was a really good thing.

Any worries that in the U.S. Maradona isn’t a big name?

I went to a few Oscar parties and some nominees would ask me what I was up to. I’d mention Diego Maradona and there’d be a blank stare. Academy Award nominees — none of them had heard of him! But I always turned it the other way: They don’t know the story, so they’re in for a bit of a ride. That was the case with Senna. When it went to the U.S., I thought, "That’s the one market where nobody knew the ending," and it made it much more powerful. So I hope that with Maradona, they have no idea where this story is going to go. You can always turn a negative into a positive.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 16 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.