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Senna is one of the finest documentaries that I’ve ever seen and it’s guaranteed to appear on my top 10 list for 2011. It’s also the first A-grade film that I’ve seen in over 2 months. I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t earn an Oscar nomination for best documentary next year.
When offered the chance to speak with director Asif Kapadia, I jumped at the opportunity! Asif is a 39-year-old filmmaker from London. His previous credits include The Warrior, The Return and Far North. The process behind the film is incredibly interesting so here’s how Asif went about it. You can listen to an extract of the interview and my review on 612ABC Brisbane in my special podcasts section by clicking here.
Matt: Two of my best friends went to see this film in London a few weeks ago and they both said it reduced them to tears. As soon as they said that, I knew I had to see it. Have you been getting similar reactions when showing the film yourself?
Asif: Yes. We’ve had an amazing reaction. Across the board we’ve been really lucky. People who are big fans of formula one and Ayrton Senna really love the film because it reminds them of their hero and shows him at his prime.
On the other end of the spectrum, people who have no interest in sport, have never seen a formula one race and have never heard of Ayrton Senna have really responded well to the film. There are moments when they laugh a lot and there are definitely moments towards the end of the film where they get very emotional.
Matt: So where do you fit on that scale? Did you know a lot about Senna before you got involved with this documentary?
Asif: I’m a sport fan. I was aware obviously of formula one and I remember the Senna and Prost rivalry. I remember that period of time and watching Imola live. It’s very clear in my memory about exactly where I was when it all happened.
That said, I would never consider myself an authority on formula one. I have never read lots of books on Senna or read articles and blogs on the internet. I knew enough to know he was a great driver but I didn’t know much about the “man” and that really came out through the process of making the film.
The more I learned about the man, the more interesting I thought he was and I realised it could be a really good movie. He is an amazing character. He is so charismatic, he stands up for what he believes in, his ideals are good ideals and you can’t help but like him. The ending therefore becomes much more powerful and emotional.
Matt: You mentioned that you learned a lot about Senna during the process but some of the other key players such as Alain Prost – we learn a lot about him too during the movie. Did you find your opinion of some of these people changed?
Asif: I remember from 20 years ago and I knew who Alain Prost was but I didn’t really have an opinion because I wasn’t that involved with the sport. For me, it became a process of working with the writer, producer and editor to try to tell the story and just show what happened at that particular moment in time.
By using real footage, we’re using what they really said at that moment and how they felt rather than telling the story in hindsight and having interviews from now. People change their opinion and the story changes over time so that was a key thing for me to just show what happened. As much as possible, we tried to cut down and edit this huge amount of footage and fit it into 100 minutes.
Matt: How much footage are we talking about? I believe there was a treasure trove of stuff within the F1 archives that isn’t accessible to the public. How did you get all that?
Asif: The producers (James Gay-Rees and Manish Pandey) initially approached Working Title who are one of the biggest production companies in Europe to finance the film. They then contacted the Senna family and we found out that many people in the past had tried to make formula one films, particularly about Ayrton Senna.
For one reason or another (thank god I would say), they never worked out. Generally, these people wanted to turn the story into a drama and get actors to play Senna and recreate the scenes. I think that becomes very expensive and the scripts very rarely work. When you try to dramatise sport, it often feels fake.
Once we had the family on board, they approached Bernie Ecclestone who owns the commercial rights to formula one. He pretty much owns all of the material during the timeframe of our story. Anything within the confines of the track on a race weekend or on a practice weekend, he owns. We had to deal with Bernie.
Initially, we made a deal to have access to 40 minutes of archive. There was so much amazing material. We were the first people ever to go into Bernie’s archives and that’s worth mentioning. The first cut we put together was about 7 hours long! The next cut was then 5 hours long which we showed in a cinema to a small number of people. From 5, we went down to 3, down to 2 and eventually we had to make many tough calls to bring it in under 100 minutes.
A lot of us had to lose favourite scenes but I think it’s important to make a film that is the right length. That’s why it works for people that are not hardcore fans. If it’s too long, it becomes a bit too much of a formula one racing fan’s movie.
Matt: One of the strongest parts of the film for me was the way it highlighted the rivalry between Senna and Prost. I know they didn’t like each other at times but it seemed this hatred helped fuel their passion and determination. I’m curious to know if Alain Prost was involved with this film, if he’s seen it and if he has any thoughts about it?
Asif: It was a pretty tough rivalry, a very bitter rivalry. It was one of those great sporting rivalries like Ali-Fraser or Borg-McEnroe because these two guys were brilliant at what they did and were both at the top of their game at a particular moment in time in the sport. Further, they were actually team mates for two years. The biggest rivalry in formula one is your team mate. You’ve got to beat the guy in the same car as you.
There was just something special about the two of them. They were very different characters and had very different styles of driving. It just happened to be a really amazing time.
We spoke to everyone. We met with Alain and we interviewed him for about 4 hours in his apartment in Paris. We made it quite clear at the beginning that we were making a film called Senna but it was still important that we talked to him. We had a really good conversation.
The problem in the film is that we don’t have enough time to always offer opposing points of view. When in doubt, we’re going to go with Senna’s actual opinion of what he felt was going on at that point in time. In the DVD version, we have more time to play with and Prost gets more of a chance to get across his opinion.
Matt: I look forward to seeing the additional footage! Senna comes off looking fairly well but there are others like Jean-Marie Balestre who don’t look quite so good. When you’re thinking about the footage to include do you think about those things? Do you not want to portray someone too well or too poorly?
Asif: That was Balestre. Anyone who was there says “yeah, that is a fair representation of what was going on.” He really was a character. If you had made him up then no one would have believed you. If you did dramatise it, people would say “you’re overdoing it, bring it down a tad” but that’s what’s so amazing.
I didn’t know that Jean-Marie Balestre even existed when I started making the film. He just came from scenes in driver’s meetings and seeing him and Senna argue time and time again. Some of the lines he comes out with are fantastic! Again, we were just trying to show what was going on. There was more that we could have put in and it was always a question of time.
When it came down to it, he was the guy who ran the sport. A lot of the decisions he made, particularly in 1989, were favouring his fellow Frenchman, Alain Prost and therefore they were working against Senna. I think that fact is important to show.
A lot of people didn’t understand the motivation of Senna in 1990 to get his revenge by crashing into Prost. Once you show what happened to him in 1989 and once you understand what was going on behind the scenes, you realise why Senna was so wound up and why he felt “this time I’m going to do it my way.”
Matt: I noticed like unlike many other documentaries, there is no narration track. We just watch the footage and hear interviews with some of the key players. What was your reasoning behind that?
Asif: I come from a drama background and this is my first feature documentary. My initial instinct was to never go off and shoot a “talking head” interview and to have a narrator. I felt I had to make a film that felt natural to me and my way is to show the images and tell the story through the pictures.
It wasn’t until we started looking at the material that we realised how amazing the images were and the fact that we could cut it like a drama. There were times when Senna was talking to someone and we’d have a reverse angle to show he was talking to. I can show a “two shot” and I then cut to a “helicopter shot” and when he goes to work I’ve got a camera right next to him.
My job as the director is to find the best way to tell the story. In this particular case, the best way to tell the story was to just show the footage. It’s so much more dramatic, exciting and thrilling than anything I could shoot now.
An interview of a guy with a bookcase and plant in the background where he says “oh that Senna, he was great” – we didn’t need any of that! We just show him. That was the reason and it was very much a conscious decision. We did interviews but we chose not to show them. You just hear their voices over the top of the footage.
Matt: The film has received ringing endorsements. It won the audience award at Sundance for documentaries. I saw on Rotten Tomatoes that it has 27 positive reviews from 27 critics. On a personal level, it must be really satisfying to receive this acclaim for a film you’ve put together?
Asif: It’s been great. It was a bit of a gamble because I was moving from dramas to a documentary. A lot of people do documentaries and then go on and do drama.
A lot of my friends wrote to me and said “why the hell would you want to make a film about a racing driver? We didn’t realise you were that obsessed with racing?” I’m not actually but I just think there’s something interesting here.
They’d ask “well, who’s playing Senna?” and I’d say it was a documentary. They’d ask “who is the narrator?” and I’d say nobody. They’d ask “who have you interviewed?” and I’d say nobody. Suddenly you start doubting yourself and you wonder if you’re doing it the right way. Every time I looked at the film I realised it was the only way to do it.
I’m really proud of the film as are all of the team who helped make it. Hearing the positive comments gives you a bit of strength and makes you feel like you made the right decisions along the way.
Matt: I should ask as a final question that if you’ve gone from drama to documentaries, what’s next? Have you got a rom-com in the works?
Asif: Hahaha. Yeah, a big sci-fi film. In all honesty, I don’t know. Part of the fun of being a director is to try different things out. I wouldn’t say no and at one point I probably will do a rom-com if I can find the right script. Right now, I’m happy to juggle the two genres.
Dramas take a long time to put together so it’s always nice to be doing something where you have a smaller unit and a smaller budget. Also, I love sport so if I can continue my two loves of sport and cinema together, that would keep me happy.
Matt: Asif, thank you for talking with us this morning. The film is brilliant and it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year.
Asif: Thank you. Thanks for your support!
My review of Senna can be viewed by clicking here.