The Senna director reveals how he brought the life and lap times of motor racing's prodigal son back to life.
Motorsport commentator Murray Walker, in one of his more profound moments, once remarked, "'If' is a very long word in Formula One; in fact, 'if' is 'F1' spelled backwards."
In the long history of the sport, the fates and fortunes of so many have hinged on the split-second margins of this two-letter word. Yet of all the chokers, chancers and champions, no one has felt the impact of 'if' quite like Ayrton Senna on May 1, 1994. The aftershocks of that fateful day in Imola still echo through Formula One, like the squeal of rubber ringing in a driver’s ears.
Now, 17 years on, an intimate new documentary about the life and lap times of motor racing’s maverick son is seeking to set the record straight. The man behind Senna, BAFTA winning British director Asif Kapadia, spoke to LWLies recently about coming the challenges of taking on one of sport's most iconic figures.
LWLies: How did the film come about?
Kapadia: Weirdly enough, the film came to me. The producer, James Gay-Rees, had the initial idea to make a film bout Senna, and had the initial idea to make a documentary. His dad had worked for the Lotus team around the time that Senna was passing through and he’d come home from work and say, ‘I’ve just met this guy, there’s something different about him.’ But James wasn’t a big racing fan so he heard it but it went out the other ear, until 2004 when he read something about Senna in The Times – this was a decade after the accident, which had passed James by because he was living in America at the time and it wasn’t widely reported there – and thought, ‘Wow, this is exactly the sort of language my dad used to use about him.’
So James then had the idea to approach Working Title, who he already had a relationship with, and Eric Felner is a big racing fan, a big car guy, so he liked the idea. And when he went to Working Title he was introduced to Manish Plandi, who’s the writer and is the husband of one of the executives who was at Working Title at the time. So she said, ‘Oh my god, you’ve got to meet my husband, he’s obsessed with this guy.’ And Manish is a surgeon, not a published screenwriter, but he and James approached the family to get permission to make the film. The family have had offers over the years from all sorts of people; Oliver Stone supposedly wanted to make a biopic, Michael Mann tried to make a film, Walter Salles was trying to do the same around 1994, Antonio Banderes wanted to play him... There were loads of people, big, big guys, who tried and for one reason or another it never happened.
How much did you have to convince the Senna family that your vision was the best way to document Ayrton’s life?
Everybody before had wanted to do something relatively conventional, and I think they were always weary of the idea of an actor playing their son. And as soon as your coming from an American studio angle then you raise a problem straight away because sport and particularly racing are hard to do anyway, as a script, so generally I don’t think the screenplays worked. So you get into the issue of ‘how do we make this script work? How do you make it work for Americans who aren’t generally into the sport and might not have heard of Senna?’ In Brazil Senna’s family are very well known, almost like royalty, really; they’re above politics, and his sister represents the institution, the charity, which is in his name. The amount of children the institution has helped over the years is vast and the family are hugely well respected for that. So naturally they’re very protective, because Senna is still revered all over Brazil and Japan and places like that.
I’d worked for James’ stepfather at a commercials company when I was still in film school 10 years ago, so I’d met him then but I didn’t really know Manish at all and I only knew Eric Kelner because I’d been told he liked The Warrior. I think they approached thinking it wasn’t going to be my thing, but it was because it was almost the opposite of what I’d done before; I’d just come off a difficult shoot in the Arctic, and I liked the idea of doing the opposite which was to do a feature documentary which was not about the look of the film but all about storytelling and the character.
It was interesting for me to do a non-fiction film, and the biggest thing I was able to bring to the project was to make it a movie. Very early on I noticed that there was something so special about Senna and I could see how much he meant to the people of Brazil and Japan and so many other people from all over the world. He transcended the sport and that was helped by the fact that every moment of his career was caught on camera, which cut out the need for talking heads. For me there’s no point telling someone what you think if you can show it, so the biggest decision I made was to say that we weren’t going to have interviews.
I just applied all of my tastes – not liking talking heads, not liking exposition – and applied it to a doc. So to me it was like I wasn’t making a documentary, I wanted to make it as a drama. So it’s a non-fiction drama where you’ve got real people playing themselves. I wanted to almost make up a new genre – just like 'In Cold Blood', the novel, when it was written, was a new genre. And also when you interview someone about the past they’re much more likely to say ‘Yeah he was great and we were all friends and we all loved each other’, which I didn’t want.
You’re referring to Alain Prost?
Yeah, we knew they hated each other’s guts and we wanted to show that. But who could blame them? Two sportsmen at the top of their games clashing head on; it’s Ali/Fraiser, Borg/Mackenroe. When you’re the best of the best and you come across someone else who threatens that you’d do whatever it takes to win. It’s dramatic but it also provides humour, especially in retrospect. And then you’ve got people like Ballest...
Cast-iron panto villain...
Right?! But yeah, so we wrote it like a dramatic screenplay, and we had to find just the right scene to move the narrative on, and if we couldn’t find the right bit or archive we had to go back and change the story and re-jig the edit. So the whole thing was to make it play like a classic three-act structure and you’ve got all the components of that in the good guys, the bad guys, the heroes journey, the outside taking on the system, politics, corruption, humour, the underdog, it was all there. The start was the hardest part because we had the ending and had this great rivalry in the middle but we didn’t know how to start it, if I’m honest, for quite some time.
How long was the editing process?
About three years. The biggest issue was always length, we had to bring it down to 100 minutes and we could have easily put out a three-hour film. My first cut was seven hours. And then we screened a five-hour cut, which was amazing, but the studio weren’t biting and kept pushing '90 minutes, 90 minutes, 90 minutes'.We never hit that length but in the end we managed to push to 100 minutes.
Did you come across aspects of his flaws in the archive material that you wanted to put in but couldn’t for whatever reasons?
Yeah, I mean the reason people didn’t like him was because of the second accident he had with Prost. You know, he drove into someone else at 160 miles an hour, he could’ve killed Prost and he could’ve killed himself, his car could’ve flown off into the crowd and killed 30 people – it’s happened in the past. Coming in I knew he wasn’t whiter than white, he was the tough guy on the track, that was his reputation and we had to be faithful to that as well. We already had this guy who was so driven that he’d end up arguing with everyone, but I suppose what I found was that I saw that and didn’t really like that side of his character, I still don’t agree with what he did, but the idea was to look a the story and put those events in context and when you did that you could see quite clearly that everything he did was motivated by his desire to win.
There’s no question that other drivers and the guys running the sport were doing their best to give other people a better chance at winning then him, and it’s that that motivate him to doing things that could’ve killed him or could’ve killed someone else. He’s a real guy; he’s flawed. He was genuine, he said what he thought on camera, and we did a lot of research and cross-referenced everything to make sure we weren’t just repeating the stories that had already appeared in countless bestsellers, and that often told a different story to the footage, which is always telling the truth.
What about some of the home movie footage?
Ayrton’s brother gave us his VHS collection, which had never been transferred and so no one had ever seen before.
How aware were you of Ayrton’s messianic image in Brazil, even today?
Not to the extent that I thought I was. He’s got millions of fans on his Facebook page, some of whom weren’t even alive when he was at his peak. He’s become this presence, and actually in Brazil that’s influenced quite heavily by Globo, the TV channel that follows him throughout his entire career, they’re very powerful and there’s always some special on TV celebrating him. At the time Brazil hadn’t won the World Cup since the late ‘70s, they didn’t win it until 1994, right after when Senna had his accident, and up until that point he had really been carrying the nation’s hopes. Brazil is a very different place now, but 15 years ago they were really in a bad way. The key thing that he did was to show his pride for being Brazilian – he’d always wave the flag after a race.
As someone coming from the background of not being a Senna fanatic, what were your thoughts on him as a man?
I’ve seen thousands of hours of material and I think he you see him really is how he was. Stuff I’ve seen where he’s off camera is no different from the interviews he did.
Do you feel like he was the last of an era of drivers; that the dawn of computer technology in the sport had to coincide with his death?
This is the thing. He’s definitely the end of a generation, but he was also the start of a new generation. He was the first of the new, super fit drivers. I’ve seen footage from ’84 when he was just starting out in F1 and there are other guys sat by the side of the track smoking; these huge, out of shape, old school guys. Senna came along and brought the vision of being mentally and physically prepared for each race. He was a pure athlete. Lewis, Schumacher, they all followed the model. And he was also the first of the go-karting generation, which they all are now. Back then it was all men, now it’s kids. He was 26 when he got into it and everyone around him was a bit older.
There’s a boxing analogy I like to use when I’m talking about this film: you have this great boxer and you have this young guy who comes in and beats him; no one expects it but it happens and the young guy keeps winning until he becomes the old guy. And every time you’re doing it you’re risking your life, but you don’t know how to stop until one day the kid beats you. The difference with Senna is that he never got to that stage, he was never the multi-champion at the back of the grid.
Like Michael Schumacher now...
Yeah. I tell you the different between Senna and Schumacher: Schumacher would never allow himself to be paired with a teammate as good as him. But Senna didn’t care – he knew he could take anyone on and beat them, whether they were in his team or not. And Prost didn’t like that, he knew what points he needed and he’d drive to a gameplan.
One thing that the documentary skips out quite a lot of is the fact that, aside from Prost, Senna’s biggest rivals were always the British drivers of the time – Damon Hill, Nigel Mansell... Was that a conscious omission?
We had to make some tough calls. We wanted to include some of the Mansell rivalry but there just wasn’t the space. Ultimately we couldn’t afford the footage from Bernie (Eckleston), we were paying by the minute and we were working within a pretty strict budget.
So you’ve got the studio mandate, but it’s restricted to finding a broad cinema audience, when you were making the film did the temptation to make it a fans’ film creep in?
Well, we were doing the impossible. Manish is the ultimate fan and sometimes we’d argue over footage that he’d be adamant on us putting in, and I’d have to say, ‘No one cares’. When you’re told you’ve got to lose another 20 minutes after you’ve already delivered four cuts, you’ve got to take out some stuff that leans towards the fans.
Any good examples?
Yeah, so Imola, for instance, we had some extra footage of Tamborillo, of Ayrton on that corner inspecting it and you can see he wasn’t happy, you can see it was bumpy. There was an amazing scene of Senna stopping his car on the track to help another driver. Of all the hours of footage I’ve seen, no other driver did that. It was too dangerous, but Senna didn’t care, that’s what set him apart from the rest. And some great moments, like Donnington in ’93, we had to cut because we needed to spend more time on Imola.
Was the death scene difficult to edit. It’s quite a brave way of doing it...
There were moments when we’d find some archive material that we couldn’t believe existed – that was one of them. It’s unbearable to watch, but it’s so powerful as well, you can’t leave it out. It’s like an out-of-body experience.
Was there anyone who wasn’t happy with you showing it in that way?
No. Most people haven’t seen it though because it’s all in Bernie’s archive and we were the first ones to ever be allowed into it. I genuinely believe that it was such a black weekend for the sport that everyone just wanted to draw a line under it; I don’t think anyone’s seen those tapes since.
Has Prost seen the film?
Yeah. There were a couple of people that we wanted to show the film to before we put it out. So Senna’s family first and foremost, and then Prost, Bernie, Ron [Dennis]... We offered to show the film to Alain many, many times and he always said that he wasn’t bothered. Which if found strange at first but then I suppose it’s not about him, why would the four times champion want to talk about the three times champion? But what we found, actually, when we did speak to people like Alain is that we would end up correcting them because our research was so fresh and, of course, most of the stuff we were asking about happened 15-20 years ago. Alain was really good though, there’s going to be a lot more of him on the Blu-ray.
His personality really contrasts with Senna’s, were you ever conscious of over-emphasising that?
Well we were making a doc about Senna, but it wasn’t a BBC doc, we wanted to show just what it was like and actually Ron and everyone who’ve seen the film have said that we’ve shown it exactly how it was. For me, nobody knew what was going to happen, when you have a rivalry you say things in the heat of battle that you might not mean literally. But we had to tell it exactly like it was and show that because otherwise we wouldn’t be telling the story right.
A lot of your films focus on the lives of outsider/underdog figures. What fascinates you about those characters?
I don’t know... I like westerns, I like those journeys and I’ve always sided with the Indians. I like the guys who are flawed and have a kind of darkness to them. Those guys who take on the system and fight for something, they’ve the ones that interest me.
Senna is like the last cowboy, clinging on the Great American West...
That’s exactly what he was. But he wasn’t whiter than white and that’s why I wanted to do it.
Going back to Senna and the crash scene, it’s interesting that the crash itself isn’t dissected in the film. Is that because it’s been done before or again was it down to time constraints?
People that know already know the story, and people that don’t, don’t really care. There are still theories swirling around today, but to me it’s an act of God. If you believe in God, bad things happen and good things happen thanks to God. I think something terrible happened and it could only have been an act of God, because so many things had to happen in order for him to hit that bend and a particular speed, at a particular angle, for a wheel to come off to hit him in the head. It was a freak accident, and I wasn’t interested in any of the court cases that proceeded that day.
Do you think he was destined to die that day?
He was very unhappy. He was a man who had everything, in the absolute prime of his life, but at that moment, before that race, he looked so alone. It’s so tragic just to think about seeing him out there, and I just wish someone had done the equivalent of taking the keys off of a drunk driver. But he couldn’t quit. People in hindsight look at that footage and say that he knew he was going to die, but I don’t buy into that. I don’t believe that he wanted to die.
And if he hadn’t of died that day...
Nothing would’ve changed. Ratzenburger dying certainly wouldn’t have had the impact that Senna’s death had if it had been an isolated case. Because of who he was, the fact that he didn’t make a mistake, means that things had to change in the sport.
The film ends with an interesting fact about no F1 driver having been involved in a fatal accident since. Isn’t that tempting fate a bit?
Yeah, I thought about that, it nearly happened when we were editing with [Felipe] Massa. And Webber’s car rolled over a season or so ago. Years ago they would’ve died.
So why tell it like this, and why now?
Well, we could’ve made about 10 different films; we could’ve made an entire film about his first Brazil GP win, and the impact it had on the country. There’s easily a film to be made just on the Imola weekend, or the aftermath. Japan ’89 was 60 minutes in the original cut... I had a two-and-a-half-hour cut of Imola originally, but you can’t please everyone.
Is it easy for you to put the film to rest, to move on...
It’s not because it’s been my life for four/five years and it’s like part of my family. I spend everything I’ve got on a film and then I move on to the next thing, which tends to be something completely different.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt about yourself making this film?
Probably that there’s really no difference between making a drama and a documentary, you’re always trying to create a reality. You want it to become truth, and the interesting thing about documentary filmmaking is that you’ve already got the truth and what you’re looking for is the drama. I enjoyed that process.