[box type=”info”]Editors Note: Thanks to Lois and LM for bringing this exclusive to F1B and helping with the arrangements, communications and Q&A. We couldn’t have done it without both of you.[/box]
“Suddenly, I realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously,” said Senna. “I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel… I was way over the limit but I was still able to find more.”
The history of F1 is ripe with heroes and villains and in some cases those two are not mutually exclusive. F1 has its champions list that ranges from domination to one-off’s and yet each man who has risen to the pinnacle of the sport, to claims its coveted prize, understands the risks.
Perhaps no other name in F1 sends more emotions, praise, admiration as well as screams and whispers of the “greatest that ever drove”. Ayrton Senna was a man like no other. A singular driver with the passion and faith to live life to its fullest and bring the sport to its knees. He was Brazilian by birth and god-like in skill. His style was nothing short of amazing and his performances were categorically beyond most everyone who had driven before.
A few years ago, Asif Kapadia and Manish Pandey got together with a few gentlemen to create a film in which the story of Ayrton Senna could be told. Their creation is ‘Senna” the movie and has been released globally to rave reviews. Comments from the paddock have all been extremely positive upon viewing the film and it’s no small task as many of the people commenting on the film knew Senna and or worked with him.
The first hurdle was getting the approval of the Senna family and Pandey was the man for the task:
“My wife told me not to cry, because I get quite emotional, especially if I’m passionate about something, like I am with this project,” Pandey begins. “She said to me, ‘You have got to be very professional, or they will think you are an idiot!’” Taking these sage notes on board Pandey ran through his 40-minute presentation, a mixture of sounds, footage and stills, while keeping himself together. “Thankfully, I didn’t cry but everyone else in the room did,” he smiles. “For 40 minutes, Ayrton’s sister, Viviane, and the rest of the family, were just crying their eyes out. At the end, Viviane stood up and gave me a hug and whispered in my ear, ‘You really knew my brother.’ We had never met but I think she got what we were trying to do.”
Scripting a movie about Ayrton Senna is no easy task and arranging the sequence of what to cover and what not to cover is a real challenge. Luckily in Asif Kapadia, they had a real professional. While not an F1 enthusiast, Kapadia quickly came to realize there was something special about Senna:
“I could see that Senna was an amazing driver and had this deep spiritual side, which was really fascinating, and it became all about paring the film down to the bare minimum so that somebody who doesn’t like Formula One, or a person who has never heard of Senna, will get the film, understand the character and actually be moved by his story.” He smiles. “It’s all about the character; we were trying to make a film about racing. I was directing a feature film with non professional actors.”
Kapadia points to Senna’s rivalry with Prost, and his struggle against the racing authorities. “I am never really interested in people who are just ‘the good guys’,” continues the director. “There’s always something about Senna that is a bit grey, there’s something about him also that I noticed when we started to spend more time researching the film; the outsider coming in. In my films there’s always something about outsiders and I can see a relevance here of ‘the outsider from Brazil’. Even though he is not a poor kid, he is coming into the European world, taking on the dominant drivers and administration that seemed to favour Prost.”
As the movie has premiered across the world, it has finally landed on American soil at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The reviews have been terrific. The showings have been sold out and the commentaries from film reviewers who, like Kapadia, barely know what Formula One is let alone Ayrton Senna have been replete with words such as “best of the festival”. America does have a heart for formula One and perhaps no other person can reinvigorate it like Senna as told by Manish Pandey and Asif Kapadia.
We caught up with Manish and Asif for a few questions about the film and what it took to pull together. Here is our exclusive Q&A with Manish Pandey and Asif Kapadia:
Formula1Blog: Manish, I understand that you are a great fan of Ayrton Senna. Was it a long-time dream to make this film? When did you begin work on the project?
Manish: As you grow up I think you have one chance to have “big heroes” and Ayrton was mine. I watched all of his races and when he died I felt I had lost an older brother. Making “Senna” was a six-year labor of love, beginning when I met co-producer James Gay-Rees in 2004. At the time James was interested in making a documentary about Ayrton’s death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. I told James that I felt focusing on his death would miss the point. I wanted to make a film about his life.
F1B: Asif, how did you come to know Manish and become involved in the making of “Senna”?
Asif: Manish and I first met about five years ago when I joined James and him to discuss the “Senna” project. At that point Manish had an outline covering a decade of Ayrton’s career with the film following him along with Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost. Over the years the project became more about Ayrton and Alain.
I am a big sports fan. I have always watched Formula 1 but would never claim to be an authority. I was immediately excited by the project. I like to direct different things and thought this had amazing potential, but how do you make a film about F1 cinematic? How do you make it engaging for those who are not into racing?
F1B: Tell us about your experiences working with Bernie Ecclestone and Formula One Management. Were they supportive of the film?
Asif: Once the project was up and running I had a gut feeling that we could make something special and original. Ayrton became a superstar in a sport where cameras are omnipresent. My feeling was that we could make the film entirely with archival footage and didn’t need present day “talking head” interviews to fill the gap. Ayrton could narrate his own life story.
In theory this could work, but we needed Bernie’s permission to access F1’s archives. Bernie seemed to like us, liked the idea of the film and could see we were genuine and passionate about the project. He let us have access to his personal archives which no one has ever had before.
F1B: What were some of the highlights and favorite moments among the footage of races and interviews that you considered for “Senna”?
Asif: My favorite sequence in the film is Ayrton’s first win at home, Brazil 1991.
It is so moving and dramatic, showing what physical pressures Ayrton put his body through in order to be the best. There are a couple of moments just after the race when he hugs his father and when he finally raises the trophy on the podium where the images, the emotion going on between Ayrton and the crowd at Interlagos, together with the fantastic music by our composer Antonio Pinto perfectly come together to make something truly cinematic. This sequence still makes me cry even though I’ve seen the film hundreds of times.
Manish: Ayrton’s post-race celebration in Brazil in 1991 is also my favorite moment. Another highlight is the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix when we ride onboard with Ayrton as he talks about the spiritualism that driving brings him. He describes “a different atmosphere, another dimension”. It’s wonderful and words spoken are Ayrton’s own. We managed to track down Gerald Donaldson, the journalist who did that famous interview, and he managed to track down his original tape which we had feared was lost for all time.
In addition, I was touched by Ayrton reflecting on life as a driver and as a man at the end of 1991. He is triple champion, young, seemingly unstoppable but what he speaks of is his lack of fulfillment: he is reaching for perfection as a professional – but is also beginning to understand that he wants to have a fuller life outside the car. What makes it so special is that he was always described as ruthless and single-minded yet this simple interview shows that he always yearned for something more and was contemplating a long, full life outside F1. It is very moving.
F1B: “Senna” was well received in Ayrton’s native country of Brazil. It was also welcomed in Japan. We know that the Japanese have a special admiration of Ayrton. What is the story behind their devotion to him?
Asif: There has always been a special bond between Brazil and Japan; Ayrton seemed to understand the Japanese mentality. There was his relationship with Honda, his three world titles won at Suzuka that made him such a hero. He and Japan made history together. We have been pleased by the way the Japanese audience has responded to the film as Japan is a key character in the movie.
F1B: Sometimes watching hours of footage can reveal truths. Was there a key theme you noticed while editing the raw footage for the film? An underlying character trait in Ayrton that you feel few people knew?
Asif: What we have found is that even those that knew Ayrton, his family and people he worked with at McLaren say there is so much footage in the film that they have never seen before, so hopefully even the biggest fan will see a part of Ayrton that few have seen previously.
There is a definite moment when young Ayrton who drives the Toleman and the Lotus vanishes – the boyish face is gone and he becomes the harder, leaner man Senna. It seems to happen during the off-season after the 1989 season climax, when Ayrton is disqualified from the Japanese Grand Prix and Alain Prost wins the title. For me there is a dramatic change in Ayrton’s face and his eyes as he has really come head on with the politics of F1 and it changes him. Something is different from then on.
The whole 1994 season is painful to watch; seeing Ayrton in blue overalls just doesn’t seem right to me. The Imola footage is so sad and moving, the entire weekend so heavy. To me Ayrton doesn’t want to be there anymore, he does not want to race, he has fallen out of love with the whole circus of F1. I really wish he had got out of the car and walked away.
F1B: Ayrton could be aggressive when racing and yet he has escaped much of the criticism launched at other drivers, such as Michael Schumacher. Why do you think Ayrton’s actions are considered “passion” and overlooked to a large part?
Manish: Ayrton was driven by emotion which is understood by most. He was hot-blooded and emotional compared to others who were cold-blooded and calculating. When you consider the context of his on-track maneuvers compared to other drivers’ you see that Ayrton rarely did something questionable to win. Other drivers made calculated and deliberate maneuvers to produce results. Ayrton was reactive.
An exception was Suzuka 1990. In the film, Alain takes responsibility for the collision with Ayrton during the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix. “I closed the door. It was my corner,” he admits. After they collided again the following year at the same venue, Ayrton was not proud of himself. He admitted that the collision was revenge and that he was provoked by FIA president Jean-Marie Ballestre’s reversal of his original ruling that pole position – won by Ayrton – would be on the left and clean side of the track.
F1B: What edits have you made to the film since its original debut? Are these primarily cultural edits for the particular market you are approaching? Would a release in America garner any edits?
Asif: There are so many great moments. From the beginning, our biggest problem on this particular film has been time. Our first edit was over five hours long! I thought it was great although you needed to bring a take-out lunch!
We worked with the brilliant editors Gregers Sall and Chris King to edit the film to 100 minutes. All the time new material was coming in from the researchers and changing the story, taking it into new directions.
There were no real cuts for markets. The studio wanted us to deliver a 90-minute film as that is what our budget could stretch to. We pushed this to the absolute limit and have managed to release the film at 104 minutes.
The Japanese release has a few unique scenes which were put in for the Japanese audience but, other than that, the film is completed we have no plans to change it for particular markets.
Maybe one day we’ll be able to revisit the 3 hour cut which I thought was amazing.
F1B: Nearly all the press we have seen regarding the film has been positive. How can Americans and other fans around the world help in ensuring that the film is given its due course in theaters and mass distribution via DVD?
Asif: The most important thing is to push the local distributors to release “Senna” at the cinema, this is a movie that needs to be seen and heard on the big screen, when it is released we really need all of the F1 fans in the US and around the world to go and see it and to bring along their friends who have no interest in F1, we need the positive word of mouth to continue and to grow.
The worst thing is for the film to be finally make it to the cinema and find that no one there watching as it will quickly vanish from the screens.
F1B: Are there any plans for additional features, scenes or commentary in a DVD package?
Asif: The DVD will come after the cinematic release. We’ve worked hard to squeeze in as many extras as we could possibly fit! There will be special editions, BLU-RAY, all sorts of goodies. There will be a commentary from myself, Manish and James, additional Senna family home movies, more from Ayrton speaking about his career and we have exclusive footage of the key people we spoke to while researching the film, like Ron Dennis, Alain Prost and Richard Williams. It’s going to be a must-have for any F1 fan!
As fans of F1, you can imagine the types of footage the movie includes but you will be delighted to know that the producers were given unfettered access to the F1 archive. You will see footage you’ve never seen of before and the movie has been crafted to take advantage of all the footage it could contextually use.
Along with the footage from the F1 archive, the filmmakers could employ the wealth of material recorded by Brazilian television. “It was following his every move from very early on, and he knew he needed his press to become successful,” says Kapadia, who also used early footage supplied by the family along with several scenes from Brazilian TV channels.
“It is something that made this film doable the way we have done it,” concludes the director. “Very few people in the world have an amazing talent but on top of that everywhere Senna went someone was filming him. He became huge in Japan, and the Japanese loved their cameras, so there was always someone somewhere. And then with F1, we got lucky that these amazing French cameramen were working at the time — most of the good camera work was shot by them — and they just happened to have a great eye.”
Reviews such as this one and this one are common place and it is categorically acclaimed by many journalists and team members up and down the F1 paddock. Fans thw wolrd over have been raving about the movie and there is little doubt it will do as well in America.