The British director Sam Taylor-Johnson has taken on some ambitious characters in her films. Some of them (John Lennon in Nowhere Boy) were real people, some of them (Christian Grey, the tortured bondage enthusiast in Fifty Shades of Grey) were fictional, and at least one of them (James Frey, the author of the not entirely truthful addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces) were somewhere in between.

But her latest subject may be her most formidable. It’s the singer Amy Winehouse, who died at 27 in 2011, after recording one the era’s most iconic albums, Back to Black.

Like Winehouse, Taylor-Johnson, who is now 57, got famous young, as a fine art photographer winning awards and attention for work that was highly personal. Her most famous images are apparently in mid-air and photographs of naked women. And like Winehouse, her private life has been the subject of tabloid speculation, especially since she married Aaron Taylor-Johnson, 33, who played Nowhere Boy‘s Lennon as a rebellious teen and who is, more recently, rumored to be in consideration to play the next James Bond.

The director, whose new film hits U.S. theaters today, has learned to tune it all out. As she says, “There are times when I feel the lens of the gaze and people’s judgement but I just have to very quickly switch it off.” Over a late lunch in Manhattan, Taylor–Johnson, who is cheery and forthright in person, talks about why she made Back to Black (her last biopic, she swears), why she never reads any press, and her campaign to direct the next Bond film.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

TIME: Back to Black opens with an announcer saying “This is Amy Winehouse.” But the audience knows who the movie’s about. Why did you start with that?

Taylor-Johnson: I needed that at the beginning, in order to start with the magnitude of who she was, who she became. And then I could go into where she was, as a teenage girl, with the dreams and aspirations of what she wanted to become.

The film is not as celebratory as people might expect. A lot of people think her death is her husband’s fault or her dad’s fault, but the film seems to suggest Amy was responsible for her own life, and wanted to be responsible for it. Is that what you were going for?

It’s important to feel like we’re celebrating her. But at the same time, it’s important to show the complexity and make her a fully rounded human being with her own agency, because I’ve felt like a lot of her had been lost along the way. She wasn’t just a victim of her tragedy. The music and the songwriting and the Ivor Novello awards and the Grammys, those achievements were being lost.

You’ve done two movies about people struggling with addiction: A Million Little Pieces and Back to Black. Do you have any insights into the condition?

It wasn’t until halfway into filming that I made the correlation between A Million Little Pieces and this. I don’t necessarily have insights into how to fix the problem. But I definitely want to shed some light and understanding, to emotionally connect to the problem. In Amy’s case, it was such a public crisis. You know, we have Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, but she was never afforded anonymity. I went to an exercise class this morning—I was up super early with jet lag—and on the way back to my hotel, there was a guy walking towards me and his knees were buckling, his eyes were rolling back and he put his arms open as he very slowly staggered towards me. For Amy, it was so much like that—her arms were outstretched, and it was just documented and documented as her knees buckled and she fell. It was just tabloid fodder. And we all just watched it in real time. In telling that story, I wanted to address that, so people had an awareness of what that meant.

Do you think that that perhaps Amy suffered from a mental illness?

I don’t want to make statements and assume and label. What I decided to do was to look at her through her words and the stories she’s telling. Within her songs she talks about her struggles with alcohol, she talks about her love addiction, talks about things like that. But there’s also an awareness around the fact that she had bulimia from a very young age. I wanted everything to be through her perspective rather than mine, to come back to the intimacy of the connection of her and her music and what she was telling us. Otherwise I was in danger of repeating what has happened to her through her life and since her death—everything is dissected and picked apart from a voyeuristic place. I felt like her death is so sort of fetishized over, that she’d lost any sort of agency in terms of who she was as a woman, as a singer, songwriter, and the brilliance of her.

At one point a movie she says she can’t just record music; she needs to ‘live’ her songs. I wonder if you feel that that’s true of all artists or is that just particular to some?

It’s particular probably to some artists who live a very authentic truth. Producer Mark Ronson told me a story of when she recorded, how he would suggest a word change in order to fit with the structure of whatever music. And he said she looked, just completely, “What are you talking about? I cannot change a single word because that is a word that came from me.” He said it wasn’t even a crushing word, just like a tiny change to make a word land on the beat. I don’t know that everyone works and lives by the sense of authenticity to themselves and having to live every single moment. For sure, the great ones quite often do.

Is it that sadness propels artists to create or does the act of creating take so much out of them that they’re sad?

I don’t know. It’s so hard to answer. It could be both. I know from my own perspective of creativity, it’s like a sense of having to. Not like, “I wonder if I’d like to exercise.” If I’m not being creative, then I definitely don’t feel balanced. When I then make a film, it’s so all-consuming, and it takes and feeds, in sometimes equal measures, and sometimes it’s completely out of balance. Especially with something like this, there are times where I just felt so drained. It’s hard when you’re dealing with incredibly intense emotional scenes, trying to fathom, you know, what it takes from you. And what you need and the place you need to go to properly portray those really difficult moments.

What’s the role of the canary in the film?

That came from Janice, Amy’s mom. She said, “Amy had this Canary called Ava. And she called me one day, absolutely distraught, saying, ‘Mom, I think my canary is dead, can you come over?’ And I went over, and it was indeed dead.” And she said, “We had to put it in a sunglasses case, and drive to the cemetery, and do a proper burial, and stand there and say prayers, and she sang a song. Very serious.” The way that she told it just felt so meaningful, and I thought, well, the analogy and the metaphor of that isn’t lost—this little fragile songbird. And the meaning of it to Amy. And then for an entire week afterwards I saw canaries everywhere I went, and I was like “OK, I’ve got it! I’m going to put the canary in the picture!”

Before the movie was there an Amy song that resonated with you?

“Love is a Losing Game.” She performed it at the Mercury Prize, after everyone had been very sort of publicly aware of her struggles with addiction, and then she became sober. I remember thinking she was incredible. We’d all watched her go through the pain and the heartbreak and the loss of her husband, and they’ve broken up and they’ve separated and now she’s singing it to us as if we know nothing in a really intimate and painful way