Tonight, the SENNA team will be walking the red carpet at the annual British Independent Film Awards, where it is up for three prestigious awards: Best Editing, Best Documentary and Best Picture.
With SENNA set to hit the shelves on this week on DVD and Blu-Ray in Australia, we at RichardsF1.com were given the unique opportunity to a follow-up interview with the film’s acclaimed director, Asif Kapadia.
Having gone on to become a multi-million-dollar grossing documentary worldwide, Kapadia’s film has gone on to receive multiple audience awards at film festivals around the world. Tonight’s awards nominations will hopefully the first of the many award nominations it rightly deserves.
Following on from our first exclusive interview with Asif on the eve of SENNA’s Australian premiere earlier this year, we spoke once again with him from his London base, where we discussed the aftermath of the film’s release, its critical response, and how its social media strategy paved the way for a broader awareness of the movie worldwide.
Asif also talks about this week’s DVD and Blu-Ray release of SENNA, along with all of the incredible bonus features that will be included.
Don’t forget that our Australian readers have just a few days to enter our exclusive SENNA readership giveaway, where you could win one of ten Blu-Rays of this incredible film.
We extend our thanks once again to the team at Universal Pictures for their assistance in making this interview with possible.
Congratulations on the global release of SENNA. Has the overwhelmingly positive response sunk in yet?
It’s been an amazing experience. The film’s done really well in the UK, where it’s been the highest-grossing locally-made documentary ever, It’s done really well in Australia, Japan, Brazil, and the United States. It’s broken over a million dollars in all of these countries, and it’s made over five million in the UK. It’s made nearly eleven to twelve million worldwide, which is amazing for a documentary. It’s just been brilliant and we couldn’t have dreamed for it to go so well.
We talked previously about the response of the non-F1 fans, which has been incredibly positive. Over here, the Australian critics have been overwhelming positive about SENNA, where it has earned comparisons with the great sports documentary, When We Were Kings. How does this praise sit with you?
That was our aim, our dream, to have it praised like that. Ali was a big hero of mine, and to just have SENNA mentioned in the same breath as When We Were Kings is just fantastic.
When the producers contacted me, they’d already been in this project for a couple of years, getting Working Title on board, speaking to Bernie Ecclestone and getting the Senna family to agree to us making the film. Manish Pandey [writer] and James Gay-Rees [producer] had been together working on the project, and then they contacted me.
My background is in drama and I’d not made a documentary before. But I am a big sport fan, but at the beginning I could not have been considered an authority on Formula 1 or Senna. But I knew enough to understand him, to remember him driving on TV, and I also watched Imola live.
The balancing act was in making it work for the fans, for someone like Manish, who knows the ins and outs of the sport and is a massive petrol head? And equally, it had to work for the non-fans: it has to be engaging, emotional, funny and dramatic. It can’t just be about him driving. It can’t be just him at every race, this is already on YouTube. The fans had seen this stuff thousands of times.
We had to get under the skin of the man, and by consciously looking for as much as possible on him away from the track. We had to get in his face, if you will, to understand all of his character traits. And when you do this, you make a film about a character who happens to be a racing driver. It so happens that he’s a brilliant racing driver, one of the best, and now we have a story.
And then we had involvement from these other characters: Alain Prost the rival, and Jean-Marie Balestre who rules the sport. And suddenly, we have conflict and drama.
From very early on, we were screening the film internally, to those at Working Title and Universal. Right from the beginning, we had young girls and interns – who had never known anything about the sport – would come along and watch the film, and be in tears by the end. It was the best thing I’d ever seen, to have these audience members fall in love with him.
And we’d do another screening a month later, and they’d all come back and bring their friends. And we would have more screenings full of people who wanted the see the film again and again, and those who’d heard about it and were watching for the first time as fans of Formula 1, or non-fans.
Early on, it gave us an instinct that we had made a film that could cross over. There was something about his charisma, the way he stood up for his principles, the way he refused to tolerate corruption, all of these ideals that good people believe in. And there was just something there that made it play like a movie, even though it was a documentary.
There was clearly a way the film could work for non-fans, but the next challenge was how to get them into the cinema. One they’re in the cinema, they’d like the film, but the challenge was getting them there, making them interested in a film that, on the surface, would not appeal to them.
Word of mouth became hugely important. We needed positive word of mouth from people who’d seen the film and from reviewers, who would say ‘It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the sport, you don’t need to, just go and see the film’.
Another feature that has really struck me with SENNA, it being a documentary where you don’t have a blank chequebook to go out and market the film, is how you have harnessed social media to spread the word and engage with the fans. How important has your social media strategy been in the overall success of SENNA?
Absolutely. From really early on, people were talking about the film from the moment they heard we were making it. And that made us realise that we had to engage.
Every film that I’ve previously made has been done the old-fashioned way, where I’d hand the film over to a distributor, and they’d put it out there and you’d have no control over it. You’d get feedback second-hand, but generally you wouldn’t know very much about its reception. Unless I physically fly to every single screening, I wouldn’t know how it went.
I’d never been on Twitter before, but during the process of the film, Manish and I got onto Twitter. We didn’t know many people at the time, but we knew a few key journalists. If we told them about a screening, they could tell their readers, who would then turn up.
So that became our aim: we wanted every screening to be full. People clearly wanted to see the film, it was just a case of letting them know when it was on. That process was a huge learning curve for us.
Without networking through social media – YouTube, Facebook and Twitter – the film would not have done as well.
If people had a problem or a question, they could ask us directly, and we could answer directly. And these queries would come from all over the world, in other languages.
When the film had its world premiere in Japan, people would come out of the cinema and tweet in Japanese. And of course with Twitter you can just translate it on your iPhone, so I could read what fans were saying the minute they left the cinema, while I’m sitting at home in London.
And then they liked it. So we rolled it out in Brazil, and they liked it too, so we knew we were in with a shot.
That was really exciting to be able to engage directly with the fans and non-fans alike. It was a massive part of the life and success of SENNA.
When it came to distributing the film in America – whose distributors usually like to insist on their own marketing strategy, website, poster and the like – they were so impressed with what had been done already, that they were just happy with continuing the process without changing a thing.
Ayrton Senna was such a popular man, than people would offer their services to market and promote the film for free.
For example, I must pay particular thanks to Rob Beddington, who didn’t work for us, but who was a Formula 1 fan who lived in the north of England. He contacted us, and wanted to get involved in promoting the film.
The film’s music composer was another one who just contacted us, as a Senna fan, and offered to write the soundtrack. He didn’t care that we couldn’t pay him, he just wanted the write the music to the film.
The poster was another thing that remained largely unchanged. Usually each country likes to run its own bespoke poster, but we wanted that to remain the iconic image of the film. That yellow poster with the eyes is universal to the film.
We had other that didn’t make the cut – the graffiti-style poster remains a favourite for Manish and I – but they found a way to seep out into the Internet, and I’m glad they’re popular too!
On top of the audience and critic awards you have already scooped at festivals, would it too much of a fairytale to have SENNA recognised on a broader scale as head into the peak awards season?
I must confess that I’m very superstitious about this. We’ve been really lucky so far to have won awards in Los Angeles, Moscow, Melbourne, Adelaide, Ghent and the like. As we now head into the awards season, it’s already been nominated for three British Independent Film awards, and on top of being nominated for best documentary, it’s also nominated for Best Picture.
To be up against all of these big films – some of which are hotly tipped for BAFTAs and Oscars – is really exciting. We’re up for four awards at the Cinema Eye Awards (which recognise documentaries), and there’s just a really positive buzz. Ultimately, I hope for more, but it’s not in my hands.
It’s already been a completely unreal journey, so many people have seen the film and loved it, so we’ll see what happens.
We’re here of course to talk about the DVD and Blu-Ray release of SENNA. What are going to be some of the features that our readers can look forward to seeing?
We’ve tried to squeeze as many features and the like into the retail release as we can, so we hope that the fans will enjoy it.
We’ve got Senna family home videos, audio commentary with the writer and producer, which are great additions.
The main feature with the Blu-Ray is that it has a cut that’s an hour longer, which includes longer versions of the interviews that we’d shot. So you’ve got the likes of Ron Dennis, Alain Prost, Professor Sid Watkins, the journalists – you can hear them and see them. So we can go off on a tangent with them; Prost can spend three minutes talking about the first time he met Senna, which we didn’t have time to include in the cinema version.
All of those interviews are also on the extras of the DVD, but on the Blu-Ray we’ve cut them into the film, which a lot of the fans consider to be the real movie.
The other thing that we’ve included, which I can’t believe we found, is the radio interview Ayrton gave with Gerald Donaldson at the end of 1989, where he talks about driving and makes that famous quote about having an out-of-body experience driving around Monaco. We found this TDK A90 tape, and included the full interview, which is fantastic.
It’s all after he’d lost the 1989 championship to Prost, and all of the emotions and anger he’s feeling is just so evident. It’s a hard interview to listen to because he sounds so despondent, but he speaks so eloquently and passionately about his love for the sport. I think this is a great addition to the Blu-Ray
I remember when speaking to you last time that we talked about the first cut of the film being seven hours long. If the film does really well, I hope one day that we can release a longer cut of SENNA and hopefully include the extra archive and interview footage we couldn’t include in the original release.
[Images via Buzzine Bollywood, Huffington Post, The Cahier Archive]