BAFTA award-winning filmmaker Asif Kapadia is well-recognised for his visually splendid films that explore the lives of outsiders. And his acclaimed documentary SENNA is no different, telling the life-and-death tale of the legendary three-time World Champion Ayrton Senna.

An effort made in conjunction with Studio Canal, Working Title and Universal Pictures, SENNA covers the decade spanning Senna’s arrival on the Formula 1 stage, his on- and off-track struggles against the sport’s powerbrokers and chief rival Alain Prost, his three World Championships and his tragic death in 1994.

Sublime, speedy and sometimes utterly ruthless on-track, Senna was also a zealously religious man who donated millions of his earnings to Brazil’s poor. He was a truly complex, enigmatic character, and Kapadia is the first man to develop a full-length documentary feature on the legend, which has also achieved success on the international stage.

It scooped the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, an incredible feat considering the festival typically centres around the (very non-F1) United States’ audiences. Similarly, it has won other awards at international film festivals, such as the Los Angeles and Adelaide Film Festivals.

On the eve of the film’s red carpet premiere in Australia – with the film set for national release on 11 August – we had an exclusive chat with the very man behind the entire project.

We offer our sincere thanks to our friends at NBC Universal Australia who helped make this opportunity possible.

How did you become involved in the project and what were your first impressions when you were approached to direct SENNA?

I was approached by the film’s executive producers, James Gay-Rees and Manish Pandey, to make the film. James’ father had known Senna when he raced for Lotus, so James came up with the idea to make the documentary. He approached Working Title, who he managed to get to finance the film.

We then approached the Senna family in Sao Paulo to get permission to make the film, and once that had been achieved, we approached Bernie Ecclestone, who owns the commercial rights to all Formula 1 footage. Only then – and that took about one-and-a-half years to do that – with all that in place, did they approach me.

Now, I’m a drama director. This is my first documentary. They were looking to make a film for the cinema – they wanted something that was going to be cinematic – and luckily for me, I was approached.

My worry was – in understanding that this project would work for F1 fans, who’d want to see such a film put together – in making this work for those who were not Formula 1 fans. How were we going to make the film appeal to those who’d never heard of Senna, or – worse still – those who think the worst nightmare is watching Formula 1 cars going round in circles?

The next process became the research. The more footage I looked at (we were using YouTube, because we didn’t have access to the FOM archives at this point) and the more I saw of Senna – not just in the car, but away from it as well – and the more I heard him talking, I came to realise how eloquent, intelligent and how passionate he was. He stood up for what he believed in, and it became easy to see that this guy was a real movie star. I realised we just needed to show him at the time; I didn’t need anybody now telling me he was great, it was clear.

So that took about two years or more, to get the material together from archives all over the world, and then cutting it down and editing it together.

Of the thousands of hours of footage that you and your team went through to select the scenes for SENNA, how did you make the decisions between what to include and what to cut?

Our biggest problem was always that the film was too long. The first cut was seven hours!

We then had a five-hour cut, and later a three-hour version we played in a cinema. Day by day, we were having to take twenty minutes out of the film to get it to the length we have now (100 minutes).

Yours is a really good question. The crux of our problem was in how to reveal his character? You have to reveal character through what they do, so we had to find a way to make the story work.

So we used a classic three-act structure. We have the beginning, with the rise of Senna and his entry into Formula 1, working his way through Toleman and Lotus, before joining McLaren. The middle act is his winning his first World Championship, followed by two more.

Normally, that’s where films would end. But then there’s this amazing rivalry with Alain Prost, and we had to pick and choose how much time we could spend on this – there were so many things that happened between them.

And then the final act was always going to be that weekend at Imola. So we slowed time down, and showed exactly what happened on that particularly sad, tragic weekend.

So we had to find a way to get the story’s most important key points across in the film, but if we were risking repeating ourselves, we had to carefully pick which were the most important bits to keep. We couldn’t just go over the same story again and again. We had to take the story forward and make it work, to reveal the different layers of the character, his rival, his spirituality and what he meant to the Brazilian people.

It was a tough challenge. It was almost a scripted documentary, but you’re working entirely with original footage. On the flip-side, if we had a hole in the film, we couldn’t just go and shoot something. We had to figure out what we were missing, and then ask those working in our archives around the world to find a scene that best captured what we were looking for to fill that space.

You’ve made SENNA with a very deliberate technique of avoiding the ‘talking heads’ style of cutaway that’s often very typical of documentary films. Can you tell us about your reasoning for doing this and how this suits SENNA?

Primarily because I come from a drama background where most of my films have very little dialogue, the ‘talking heads’ technique was just something I’d never do. My instinct isn’t to do that first, although for a lot of documentary directors they would interview their characters.

But there’s your first problem: I cannot interview my lead character. I would end up with a film showing everyone else’s opinion of Senna, except for Senna’s opinion, because I can’t interview him.

I had many decisions mulling around on what to do, and my instinct was ‘Let’s just see if there is a hole, and then we’ll interview someone’. But the more we looked and the more we opened another door, there were ten more doors. There was just so much material – thousands and thousands of hours, with a lot of it never having been seen before – but a lot of the key characters have been interviewed countless times.

It made perfect sense that we should be making a film with footage that no one’s seen before, rather than using the classic television model: go and interview someone, they’ll tell you what to think, and then we’ll show what they’ve told you to think.

In our case and because of my background, our thinking was always to have the images tell the story. It would be much more exciting, much more visceral – the hope is that the audience will laugh in the right places, and experience the real emotional points as well. There is an engagement that comes from just seeing what actually happened, rather than someone telling you what happened.

Many documentary films – When We Were Kings, Touching the Void, for example – have all been hugely successful using this interview-style format, so it’s been a gamble we’ve taken to go the other way.

But it’s also a comment on the man: he was so famous that everywhere he went in Brazil he seemed to have a camera crew following him. He became famous in Japan because he drove a car powered by a Honda engine. He was famous through a sport that uses TV as its primary medium. He’s been interviewed countless times and he’s so used to the cameras. We also have these drivers’ briefings where his character comes through so much, and when he goes to work, there’s a camera looking over his shoulder!

And the other thing to keep in mind is the timescale. This was before the dawn of social media: before YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. It was before the era of public relations: everything that was said was on the record, so it was an amazing moment in time where everything they thought was said on camera: they didn’t care about [the consequences].

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?

This is another great question. If hadn’t have seen all this behind-the-scenes footage before, the difficulty would have been in thinking he wasn’t a very nice person. But the more we see of him away from the cockpit – when he’s not as conscious of being on camera – the more you come to see how nice he actually was, how much he fought for other people.

There was this perception of him – in the UK particularly – of not being very nice, of being a tough guy who crashed into people. So how were we going to tell his story, and get people to watch this movie?

And then you see this, and you watch SENNA, and you realise that the persona created by journalists wasn’t necessarily true. He was a very spiritual man, a caring man. Much of this was done very privately: he gave a lot of his money away to his various charities, for instance.

But when it came to his driving and his care for other drivers, he was the one who cared about safety for other drivers. And he would often be answering, in his case, for other people just minutes before he would go out and race for the World Championship.

That’s what makes him very special. You’ll recall in SENNA that meeting before the 1991 German Grand Prix with [then FIA President] Jean-Marie Balestre about their demands to replace the tyre bundles at the chicanes with traffic cones. I love that scene, because it’s really funny, but it’s also amazing: had he not spoken out about that safety concern, nothing would have changed. The other thing that struck me was that he was the only one in the room who’d actually read the rules! He was super intelligent, and very eloquent – in a second language, no less – and he just had these amazing character traits.

If I was to try and do this as a drama, the audience wouldn’t buy into it and would think I was overcooking it. But this was the real man; this was the real guy.

The film has enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive reaction around the world, and it’s been the recipient of awards at the Sundance Film Festival, to name but one example. Perhaps been the greatest measure of its success is the reaction from those who are not necessarily Formula 1 fans or familiar with his story. What has been the most profound reaction to SENNA from your perspective?

What you’ve just said hits the nail on the head. For me, it’s clear: Fans will want to see the film, they’ll want to watch it and they’ll go.

But somehow the challenge at the very beginning of the film was how to get non-F1 fans – those who don’t like motorsport and who would hate watching cars dressed as cigarette packets going around in circles – to care enough to go along and be glad they saw the film.

And I’m really lucky. Across the board and around the world, we’ve had fans and non-fans respond well. The film’s won audience prizes not only at Sundance, but also at Los Angeles, Adelaide and recently in Moscow, and it shows that this is really appealing to the F1 fans and the casual cinema-goers who may not like Formula 1.

In a way those audience members have to go on a bigger journey with us, and that was our aim. It’s really exciting that it’s getting such a good reaction.

What are your plans for a post-cinema release of SENNA on DVD and Blu Ray?

We’ll be releasing a retail version of the film that is one-hour longer, and it’s largely got up to an hour’s extra interviews, including lots with Alain Prost, Ron Dennis, John Bisignano, Sir Frank Williams, Professor Sid Watkins, Richard Williams and more, you’ll have all this material and opportunity to watch them go off on a tangent and give everything even more context.

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.