Asif Kapadia, the 39-year-old BAFTA winning director of The Warrior and Far North, has a reputation for visually striking accounts of surviving in dangerous, unfamiliar landscapes. His latest film, more than 5 years in the making, is a documentary retelling the story of the life and tragic death of Ayrton Senna, the three time Formula One World Champion. An extraordinarily complex character, Senna makes for riveting viewing, made all the more bracing for Kapadia’s bold decision to create the film entirely from archive footage. Retelling the story in the present tense, Senna works as a drama or thriller as much as a documentary, and the film has been attracting rave reviews. It also won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.
FAN THE FIRE: What first attracted you to Ayrton Senna as the subject of a film?
ASIF KAPADIA: I’m a sport fan. I used to watch racing, and I remember staying up late at night to listen to the climaxes of the races, so I had seen enough to know that period and know that era. But I wouldn’t have said in any way that I was an authority on Formula One, and I wasn’t the biggest Senna fan. It was really five or six years ago when the producer, got in touch with me. I’m a drama director, and I’ve never done a documentary before, so straight away I thought it was an interesting idea. At the time I was making a film in the North Pole, so it was one of those things where you say: “God, anything to get me out of the cold!”
FTF: So it was the sport, rather than Senna, that sold you on the idea?
AK: Formula 1 is fast, it’s exciting, it’s dangerous. The difficulty was always going to be how do you make it emotional? People driving in a giant cigarette packet for two hours round in circles: how do you make anyone care about that? That was my worry. Then when you spend more time with Senna, you think, ‘Actually, we’re going to be alright. This guy is good. This guy is amazing at what he does, and how he does it is also very visceral. You know, he’s drama.
FTF: So you knew very little about him when you took the film on?
AK: The worry is that you make a film about a person, and as you go along you like it less and less, and you’re faking it. But actually he is amazing, and I was quite glad to not know that much about him. I feel like I’ve been on this big journey that I want a lot of non-Formula One fans to go on. He does transcend the sport and I can see why he has so many children named after him, and why people really love him. But then what’s been interesting is taking the film to the US, where they don’t watch Formula One. They don’t know how it ends, so, it’s really amazing. There’s this moment where they go: “something’s about to happen”.
FTF: Did you know how it was going to be structured when you started?
AK: When I came onto the project there was an outline, a 20-page document which dealt with the golden age – the Mansell, Senna, Piquet and Prost period. Essentially what happened during the development was bit by bit we said: “We can’t do it… we can’t have this many characters. We can’t have that many great races. It’s just going to get a bit boring for the non-fans.” The script, the editing, the interviews, the research, was all happening at the same time. What Manish [Pandey, the film’s writer] was able to do was to look at a sequence and say: “We’re not showing this part of his character.” Then I’d say: “OK, well what race shows that? What scene can we find?” Then we’d send our researchers off in Japan, in Rio, in Sao Paolo, in France, in Italy, and we’d go into Bernie Ecclestone’s archive to find a scene that visualised what Manish felt we had to show.
FTF: You’ve made a documentary that only uses contemporary footage, keeping the audience in the moment . When did you decide to do that?
AK: There’s not a frame in there that I’ve shot. The challenge was to be stupid enough or brave enough to not shoot anything. When We Were Kings, Man on Wire, Touching the Void – they all have talking heads. Working Title haven’t made a doc, Universal haven’t made a doc, the producer hadn’t made a doc, the writer hadn’t made a film, and I’ve never made a doc! We were all new to it, and I was a lone voice. I’d say to everyone ‘I think we can make this entirely without interviews’ and everyone would say, ‘Everyone wants to do that, no-one pulls it off’. The only way to show it was to go and cut the film. I’d show them stuff and finish with that final lap, and even if they didn’t know anything about Senna, they’re watching and they think ‘He’s going to crash, isn’t he?’ And people would start crying. I just thought, ‘I know there’s something special here’. I knew it was all there, from very early on. The issue was always ‘how much time do we have to cut it down?’ That was always our battle. Every day we’d go in and say ‘What can we lose?’ The first cut was seven hours, we were like £5 million over budget, and I was accused of doing everything I could to get fired! But everyone laughed in the right places and everyone was crying by the end and you knew it worked. So we’d go away for another few weeks and cut it down, down, down, without losing the heart and the gut of it.
FTF: Will a longer cut surface?
AK: I’m asked this a lot. I have a dream that one day, if the film does well enough – and that’s the bottom line with movies, obviously – then maybe there will be a way that we can somehow go back and talk to Bernie again to have permission to show a longer version on DVD.
FTF: Do you have any particular favourites that you were most sorry to lose?
AK: There’s a very famous scene where he’s driving a car in qualifying and there’s an accident in front of him. There’s this terrible accident and he [Senna] jumped out of the car and went to help him, nearly getting run over. It’s just unbelievable. I’ve seen so many hours of footage and in his era no one stops. But as we know from the film Senna is the guy who would go and see what it looks like to be in a terrible accident and then look at the state of the car and then look at the road, and try and figure out how it happened, whether it was something on the track. Basically he needed to understand to be able to deal with it – and then he’d get in the car and go even faster!
FTF: There are lots of other moments that reveal sides to his character that haven’t been seen before.
AK: The drivers briefings are great character scenes. They show us what Senna was really like. I’ve seen so many and he would be the only guy who spoke up, he would be the only one fighting for other drivers, minutes before he’s about to race for the world championship.
FTF: It’s actually more like a drama than a documentary in many ways, isn’t it?
AK: Yeah! I’m a drama director and I wanted to make a drama. Like a good fiction film you set it up, you have the middle and then you have the payoff, and there were so many scenes like that. I think dramas and documentaries aren’t that different: when I’m doing a drama I’m trying to make things feel as believable and real as possible. The real guy is so interesting, so why would you want to get anyone to play them? I’ll just have to find a creative way to tell the story.
FTF: One key scene is the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, where Senna wins his first race on home soil. He’s so desperate to win he drives the entire race in sixth gear after his car breaks down. It nearly cripples him.
AK: It’s my favourite moment and the most emotional bit for me. Brazil was a character [in the film]. The first time he wins in Brazil is a really big deal, but I don’t think people knew that story. My favourite bit is the podium. When you understand what he’s been through in that race, to win at home and what it means to the crowd… and then that struggle to lift the trophy. He’s not going to quit, he’s not a quitter, he doesn’t give up. That little moment on the podium almost sums him up.
FTF: You seemed to have had lots of co-operation regarding footage and from the family, why do you think that is?
AK: It’s Senna. He has a special aura and presence. Obviously there’s the tragic element to the story, but there’s something else – it’s something magical. People would call us and say “We hear you’re making a film about Senna… how can we help?” That doesn’t happen with people. The film’s composer [Antonio Pinto] is a case in point – he rang us and said “I want to do this film! What can I do?”. We don’t have a contract, and it was consistently like that. I’d get emails and calls all over the world. That fondness for him has just grown stronger and stronger over the years. That’s why we were able to make this film – because there is something so special about Senna.
FTF: What was it like showing the film to his family?
AK: They’re all still in mourning. It’s really tough interviewing people: you realise ‘I’m not making a drama, these are real people’. There’s a moment when I was cutting the funeral, and I’m looking at his mother trying to pick which bit of the shot to use. Ethically, morally, I’m in a place that I’ve never been in before. We put on a screening for about 15 members of the family, and it was just unbearable. Even when he was winning there were sobs in the room. The lights come up and you look around and everyone’s in floods of teams. But then Viviane [Senna’s mother] stood up and hugged us all and just went “You got it right”.
FTF: Some people aren’t portrayed too kindly in the film, especially Alain Prost, Senna’s teammate and fiercest rival. How has that gone down?
AK: I didn’t want to talk about it in hindsight. You are two who are the best at what you do, and you happen to be in the same team. You’re the first rivals, you have to do whatever you can psychologically to beat each other. And I’m just going to show what was going on at the time. It’s just the nature of what it was and why he was so special. We were making it from Senna’s point of view.
FTF: You make his spiritual side a very big part of the film as well.
AK: That’s part of the whole Brazilian thing. The religion, his spirituality, is a key part of his character. It’s amazing how many people respond to that, people who are not religious at all. But it’s the way he speaks, the way he eloquently uses that and the way it was used against him by certain people. He’d give an English press conference and it would be pretty bland, then he gives a 45-minute interview in Portuguese and he’d be amazing. He’s saying one thing to the English guys, who didn’t like him talking about God, who would pick on him, and then he’d say something else to his home fans. We want the film to work as if you walk out and feel a bit Brazilian at the end. It was a very important character trait, and the spiritual element is almost the way he drove. It was an out of body experience. Of course the tragedy his journey is such that for me his accident is an act of God. It’s a freak accident, so that is a part of his life and his death.
FTF: There is a moment where he answers a question about his faith by saying that just because he is religious doesn’t mean he is immortal. It takes on eerie significance shortly afterwards. Is that a turning point in the film?
AK: ‘Just because I believe in God doesn’t mean I’m immortal, doesn’t mean I think I can’t hurt myself’. It’s a brilliant answer. It’s where the change happens in a way because danger comes into the film. Something starts to happen at that period and you realise ‘this is really dangerous, what you guys do for a living’.