How Roger Federer opened up to Asif Kapadia on camera

(from left) Joe Sabia, Roger Federer and Asif Kapadia at the Tribeca Festival. Photo via AP (CJ Rivera/Invision/AP)
(from left) Joe Sabia, Roger Federer and Asif Kapadia at the Tribeca Festival. Photo via AP (CJ Rivera/Invision/AP)

Summary

‘Federer: Twelve Final Days’ co-director Asif Kapadia on the unique challenges of making a documentary on the tennis legend

On 15 September 2022, Roger Federer, considered by many to be the greatest tennis player of all time, announced his retirement. Ten days later on 24 September, the 41 year old played his last professional match—a doubles game in which he partnered with long-time rival and friend Rafael Nadal at the Laver Cup in London. The duo lost that match.

Federer: Twelve Final Days, an 88-minute feature-length documentary (Amazon Prime Video), follows Federer through those final days from drafting his retirement announcement, counting down to its posting on social media, along with reactions from his family, including parents, friends, colleagues and media, up to his final farewell.

The film by Academy Award-winning director Asif Kapadia and co-director Joe Sabia features archival footage (including Federer as a ball boy), interviews and appearances by his arch rivals and friends, including Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. London-based Kapadia, known for his in-depth documentaries on personalities with dramatic life stories (Senna, Amy), spoke to Lounge about crafting this intimate swansong. Edited excerpts from an interview:

‘Senna’, ‘Amy’, ‘Diego Maradona’ were your three films on child geniuses and their relationship with fame. The Federer documentary is somewhat different.

I would say the aim of all the films I have done is to always be true to the character. Diego Maradona is about Maradona and the chaos and the craziness is him. Amy is what her life was like. Senna is an action movie, like him.

Federer is quite different. He’s a calmer, more mature person, so the film is true to him. He retires in his own particular way and so it’s obviously going to have a different energy because he’s not a racing driver and he isn’t Amy Winehouse, and he definitely isn’t someone from a favela in Argentina who then lived in Naples.

My job as a director isn’t to cut and paste the style onto every story. It has to come from the character. I wasn’t present when this was being filmed. I saw the material later. They put it together and then someone said, this has been created, but we need an experienced director to turn it into a movie. They asked me if I would be interested and I had a look at it. Honestly, I was expecting to say no, but when I watched it, I found myself emotionally engaged. I’m not the world’s biggest tennis fan, so I thought if I’m feeling something, I believe the audience will feel something too. The film ends up with a bunch of men crying in a room together. That is not very normal in sport, at least not any that I’ve come across or played.

Did the time limit of 12 days require a different approach?

The other films I have made take three or four years of my life. This was interesting because it was really about one small period and I haven’t done anything like that. In drama, you can make a film which is about a huge epic story or you can make a film about one event, one day, a love story over a weekend. People think a documentary has to be about everything—the entire career—and I thought no, this is actually just where he is at that moment, building up to the final match, the final time he plays, the final professional moment on the circuit. Because he can’t do it anymore. Because his body is broken, and then the emotion that comes from that.

For me, it was a simpler story and more subtle. The fact that the people around him happened to be the greatest tennis players of the era, all sharing that moment in the locker room—I’ve never seen that kind of intimacy before. They seem to be genuinely ignoring the camera. The camera is kind of intimate, with a slightly hand-held, messy feel. The idea of making a really small film about a really big guy was interesting. The approach is to trust the limitations. The journey is specific and smaller, but within it, there's a lot. So then every time he speaks, every time he explains something, it has a big resonance to it.

You got a lot of the material postscript. But documentary requires discovery. Where was the space for discovery for you?

He’s never really given anyone access before. He’s very private. He’s not massively on social media. His wife has never spoken publicly. We’ve never seen his kids. But we were in his house, in the car with him, in the locker room. Somewhere along the way, having been private all of his life, he now felt comfortable letting the camera in, he felt comfortable talking and breaking down on camera.

I’ve made films about people who are not at peace, and you can tell. I’ve met a lot of those people as well. The insecurities are covered up by the entourage or they turn up late or they treat you really badly. Or there’s some other problem. But Federer is the opposite. The contrast between him and a lot of other athletes and famous people I’ve met was interesting. Not many people get through this journey, this much fame, money, success and come out the other side as really good people.

What was Roger Federer’s reaction when he saw the film?

He cries every time he sees it. He gets really emotional, kind of reliving it. So does his wife. They are an emotional couple. He is also very clever. When he saw the first cut, he said it’s really good and he was happy but he picked out one shot, this particular backhand. He said I think you used the same shot twice. I asked the editor, Avdhesh Mohla, who was with me in the room, if it’s true. It was like a split-second shot that Avdhesh used twice and thought no one would notice. I didn't notice. But Roger noticed. He knows every single shot he's ever played. That was an interesting insight into his brain.

I've gotten to know him better since we've made the film and someday down the line, he'll probably want to tell a bigger story. It's all a bit raw right now and he's still dealing with the stages. I think maybe after all his big rivals have retired, then it will all come out in the wash one day.

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