Producer James Gay-Rees has been involved in the movie industry for over twenty years, and it is this quiet Englishman to whom Formula 1 fans worldwide must give thanks for getting the very idea of the award-winning documentary, SENNA, off the ground.
And to celebrate this week’s DVD and Blu-Ray release of SENNA in Australia, we were fortunate to be given the chance of an exclusive interview with a man Variety magazine dubbed as one of the ‘Ten Movie Producers to Watch in 2011’.
James’ interest in Ayrton Senna was sparked by his father, who worked for Team Lotus sponsor John Player Special in the 1980s.
Never considering himself as a die-hard Formula 1 fan, the first ideas of making a film about the great Brazilian’s life were triggered on the tenth anniversary of his death. And after a painstaking process and a series of pitches to the Senna family and F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, Gay-Rees’ dream started to become a reality…
You have mentioned in interviews with other broadcasters that your interest in Ayrton Senna was sparked through your father. Can you fill our readers in with a bit of a back story on this?
My father was the account manager for John Player Special, the title sponsor for the black-and-gold Lotus that featured so prominently in SENNA. He would go off to lots of Grands Prix and campaign shoots, and he would come back and tell me about how he’d completely been bowled over by this young Brazilian driver. He was fascinated by how different Ayrton was compared to the other drivers he’d worked with; he was articulate, intense, with a wisdom beyond his years. This all resonated with me as a teenager, here was this man who was heroic and very cool in my eyes.
Your next hurdles were to get the go-ahead from the Senna family and Bernie Ecclestone. Can you talk us through these steps and how you gained their trust and support?
It wasn’t easy. The family had actually flirted with lots of Hollywood-style ideas, making a semi-fictional narrative of his life. They were quite cautious about my proposal, and the key to it was really pursuing them with the idea of a documentary instead: it would be all about Ayrton, played by Ayrton, and with Ayrton in his own words.
You couldn’t bend the truth and manipulate the narrative, because you’re dealing with real footage that doesn’t lie. We weren’t going to throw in any love stories and the like that weren’t relevant.
All of this was allied to the fact that I’d known Manish Pandey (writer of SENNA) for a while, and he was a massive Ayrton fan, and knew all about him. His knowledge, belief and passion were crucial to giving the Senna family the assurances they were looking for.
One we had them on board, we then had to deal with Bernie, which I have to say was incredibly straightforward. This wasn’t going to be a deal where Bernie was going to make a lot of money out of this, and we couldn’t afford to pay them anywhere in the region of their standard going rate (to access the FOM archive), but he was actually very good to us to give us complete access to his archives at Biggin Hill.
The three figureheads (L-R): Producer James Gay-Rees, director Asif Kapadia and writer Manish Pandey
Now Asif Kapadia had built his reputation in directing drama films, and he’d never made a documentary before. How did you come to approach Asif and what were some the key reasons you selected him?
I’d known Asif for a long time, we used to work at the same commercial company about twenty years ago or more. He is a sports fan, but more into the psychology of the sport rather than the sport itself.
He’d made a very good film called The Warrior, which was a period Indian Western, if I could describe it as such. It had almost zero dialogue; all of its story-telling came through its images, how Asif had created each shot.
For this film, I really wanted the sense of Ayrton – his very essence – to come through the film, to convey what is about Ayrton that meant you could be at any dinner party or social gathering anywhere in the world, and there will always be one person there who would be a major fan of Senna.
I wanted to convey that power cinematically, so it was important to get someone who was very strong at telling a story that didn’t necessarily have lots of dialogue, which Asif managed to achieve in The Warrior. Obviously there is some dialogue in SENNA, but the bulk of the film’s story-telling is through its imagery.
Motorsport fans have you to thank for kick-starting the entire SENNA film project. But motorsport is a notoriously difficult subject to translate to a cinema environment. What drove you to pursue this project in telling the story of one of the sport’s most iconic drivers?
Absolutely. Prior to this, I wouldn’t have called myself a massive motorsport fan by any means; I had a passing interest in it. And as was the case for a lot of people, the sport lost a bit of its magic when Ayrton died, and this was the case for me.
When we were making it, a lot of people’s feedback – on hearing about our project – was ‘That’s a great DVD idea’, but I always believed that Ayrton could transcend that market. But none of us really knew how this would be received. This took years of painstaking work to make, and we still didn’t have a clear idea of how it could be received by a broader audience. Thankfully, the massive fans have responded brilliantly to it.
But what’s really fascinated me was the reactions of those who have had zero interest in Formula 1, who’ve gone to see the film, and who’ve responded so positively to the film.
I’ve just come back from the United States, and SENNA has done particularly well with female audiences over there, largely because he’s such a deep-thinking, charismatic human being.
All over the world, this has translated in to such positive feedback, and the incredible box office results we’ve seen, particularly in the UK, and Australia for that matter.
Given that you’re dealing with a complex, God-fearing man – a genius behind the wheel, but a man who is vulnerable to the same flaws and temptations as any other – how did your making of SENNA affect your perceptions of him, particularly taking into account much of this behind-the-scenes footage that your audience won’t have seen before?
I came into the film knowing a little about him, and much of that was based on what I wanted to believe about him.
A lot of what I know about him now was borne out of our making of this film, and you definitely get a sense of his vulnerability, his fragility, and his inner motivations that were so different from the other drivers on the grid.
There was this incredible sensitivity about him, and he was so fearful of being derailed from his own causes that it did sometimes lead to the questionable behavior that we witness watching the movie.
It’s hard not to hold these preconceptions about racing car drivers: they’re hard and fast, super-slick. But he was a vulnerable human being who felt things deeply and personally. He wasn’t a superhero in that respect, he was a human being like the rest of us. What stood him out from the rest of us was his exceptional talent behind the wheel, and how he could do something extraordinary with it. But at the end of the day, he walked and talked and breathed the same air like the rest of us.
Now of course I want to talk about the DVD and BluRay release of SENNA in Australia early next month. The release will have plenty of extra features; what are some that our Australian readers can look forward to?
There’s one fantastic interview, which we’ve called ‘The Lost Interview’. It was with the British journalist Gerald Donaldson, and it’s from this where we used an extract of the interview and overlaid with a qualifying lap from Monaco, where he talks about his driving moving beyond the realm of the conscious and into the subconscious.
We have the entire interview here in the extra features. Donaldson was of the opinion that he’d long since taped over it, despite it containing some of the most well-known passages of Senna quotations that have ever been published. But he did find it, and he called us from Canada, full of excitement that he’d unearthed it.
The entire interview with Donaldson is just he and Senna talking off the cuff under a tree somewhere for forty minutes. It’s extraordinary, and Ayrton talks about almost every aspect of his life; it’s so wonderfully unscripted.
There’s also some great home footage and home videos in the extra features, and in the longer release of the film, we’ve also cut in the interview footage of our interviews, which will be well-received by our hard-core fans.
[Images via Zimbio]