Finding Amy Winehouse’s Voice in the Back to Black Screenplay

An exclusive Q&A with screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh.

Sam Taylor-Johnson's Back to Black explores Amy Winehouse's story. From her early days singing to her family to her sold-out concerts, Winehouse (Marisa Abela) turned every song she sang into a personal connection. Her early experience with her grandmother (Lesley Manville) and her father (Eddie Marsan) grounded her musical identity, and her intense relationship with her husband (Jack O’Connell) transformed her life and music in ways few have fathomed.

In bringing her story to the screen, Taylor-Johnson turned to screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, who had previously worked with the director on Nowhere Boy, a touching look at a teenage John Lennon growing up in Liverpool. Previously, Greenhalgh won a BAFTA for his penetrating portrait of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis in Control.

We spoke with Greenhalgh about how he got involved in writing the film, why Amy Winehouse is so special, and what he hopes audiences take away.

Back to Black opens in theaters May 17, so get tickets now!

Official trailer for Back to Black

You’ve collaborated with Sam Taylor-Johnson before. How did this movie come about?

When Sam was in Los Angeles and I was in Manchester, she texted me that she was working on the Amy Winehouse story and asked me, “What do you think?” I responded that I thought she would be great. She replied, “No, what do you think about you writing it?" It was a snap yes. If you pulled any musical artist out of the sky and asked me, “Can you write a script about that musician?” Amy would be one of them.

After we discussed what we wanted to do, I flew to Los Angeles so Sam and I could set about plotting it. When we had a structural plan for how we wanted to do it, we gave that to producer Alison Owen, and the project was green-lit.

You’ve made a few films based on actual musicians. What makes that material both interesting and difficult for you as a screenwriter?

I never thought of myself as the go-to guy for that kind of narrative. I think the dark intensity of Control affected a lot of people. When it became a break-out hit, I became known for handling that kind of material. Then I wrote Nowhere Boy, and Sam signed on to make it. By then, I knew what I was doing both in structuring those stories and hearing the voices of the characters.

When the film about Amy came about, I felt I could do that. Not just because I knew the music and how to structure the story, but also because Amy was someone who I felt that I could really write about.

Sam Taylor-Johnson directs Marisa Abela in Back to Black

How did you go about doing the research for the screenplay?

I started by collecting everything I could that had been written or filmed about her. We made a decision early on that this would be very much from through Amy's eyes—through her life and through the people who were in her life. There was so much information about her that I didn’t feel we needed to do new interviews. Through our research, I felt that I had a handle on Amy, as well as the characters who surrounded her like Cynthia, Blake, and Mitch.

After doing the research, there was a moment when I was ready to go. I had all of her songs in my head and I was bouncing around the room ready to start. I felt like a greyhound, nudging the cage, ready to start the race.

How did you incorporate Winehouse’s songs and those that inspired her into your story?

We started a Spotify list quite early of all the songs we wanted to use. Overall, we put the music into a chronology that matched the timeline of the film. Then there were all those tracks like “Fly Me to the Moon” that inspired her and worked with our story. There was some brilliant stuff that we couldn't put in the movie, but, in the end, we were really happy with our choices.

Marisa Abela in Back to Black

In writing the story, what changed in your perception of Amy Winehouse?

I’m not sure that anything did. I just became twice as educated as I was before. Her genuine character remained the same. Qualities like her honesty, her loyalty, and her kindness stood out even more. Researching her and creating this character for a movie made me realize how true those characteristics were and that it was those things that made me love her in the first place.

People have a deep emotional connection to Amy Winehouse. What did she mean to you?

I thought she was so refreshing. When I first heard her album Frank, I thought her voice just seemed to hit you in the guts. And that cool jazz-funk-rock sound was wonderful to hear. It’s not often you get something so original. After I saw her on a few chat shows, I knew she was special. There was almost something punk about the way she didn’t care what people thought. She was just going to keep making her music.

What do you hope audiences take away?

Every time we think of Amy, we can smile as well as cry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.