Asif Kapadia interview: on directing Senna

With the superb documentary Senna out in cinemas now, we met director Asif Kapadia to talk about the feature and its depiction of a F1 legend…

British filmmaker, Asif Kapadia, has already won several awards over his career, with the short film, The Sheep Thief, having won best short film at Cannes, and his 2001 feature, The Warrior, earning a BAFTA for best British film.

His new feature, Senna, has won itself considerable acclaim, and secured Best Documentary at both the Adelaide and Sundance film festivals. A profile of the late Brazilian driving legend, Ayrton Senna, it’s not hard to see why the film’s garnered such an enthusiastic response. Using interviews and archive footage, it paints a dramatic portrait of one of the most famous drivers in F1 history.

With the film out now in UK cinemas, we caught up with Kapadia to talk about the making of the film, and the driver who inspired it…

Ad – content continues below

When did you first fall in love with the artistry of Ayrton Senna?

Well, I’m a sport fan. So, I have always watched everything, and I used to watch racing. Formula One was always on. The genius about it is that it’s on at lunchtime on a Sunday. So, I remember the Senna-Prost rivalry. I remember staying up late at night to listen to the climaxes of the races in Japan, and I was watching Imola [1994] live. So, I had seen enough to know that period and know that era, but I wouldn’t have said in any way that I was an authority on Formula One. I wasn’t the biggest Senna fan, although I remember liking McLaren at the time.

It was really, then, five or six years ago when James Gay-Rees, the producer, got in touch with me and Manish Pandey, the writer, to say, “Are you interested in doing this film about Senna?” I’m a drama director, and I’ve never done a documentary before, so straight away I thought it was an interesting idea and something totally different. At the time, I was making a film in the North Pole, in the Arctic, so it was one of those things where you say, “God, anything to get me out of the cold!”

But the answer to your question would be that it’s while making the film, while looking at the footage, spending years looking at thousands of hours of material- the more I saw of Senna, the more I liked him.

Now, the worry is often that you make a film about a person or something, a subject, and as you go along you kind of like it less and less, and you’re lying, you’re faking it. But, actually, he is amazing and he is great, and therefore, I was quite glad to not know that much about him, because I feel like I’ve been on this big journey that, in a way, I want a lot of non-Formula One fans to go on.

What’s been interesting is taking the film to the US, for example, where they don’t watch Formula One and they don’t know who he is. They don’t know how it ends. So, it’s really amazing to be in a cinema full of people who don’t know the ending and there’s this moment where they go, “Oh, no. What’s happening? They’re talking in the past tense. Something’s about to happen. Why has it all slowed down? Why are we going into such detail at Imola? It’s electric. And this is in Middle America, in Mormon territory, because Sundance is in Salt Lake City. So, you could really feel that the religious element was really speaking to them, when he speaks about God.

Ad – content continues below

You’ve made a documentary that is actually a drama.

Yeah. I’m a drama director and I wanted to make a drama. My dream was always to say, “Look, I don’t want to make a television documentary!” But all of my material was TV footage. There’s not a frame in there that I’ve shot. So, the challenge was to be stupid enough or brave enough to not shoot anything and call yourself a director!

I said, “I think there’s something original that we can do here.” All of the great documentary films. When We Were Kings, Man On Wire, Touching The Void, they all have talking heads, they all have interviews. And we don’t. And the process of doing it was quite tough, because nobody involved, Working Title, Universal, our producer, myself, had made a documentary before. So, everyone was like, “Go and get Norman Mailer, whoever is the Norman Mailer in this world, and interview them!” But I was saying, “I don’t think we need it. I really don’t think we need it.” But I was a lone voice, and so the only way to show it was to go and cut the film and show people.

So, we’d just work on the film and the first cut was seven hours, then it was five hours, then three. We had a really good two hour cut, but it was still a bit too long for non-fans, and we had a budget that only would go to ninety minutes.

Actually, another important detail is that, when I was asked to do the film, the budget had been put together in a more conventional documentary way. So, there was scope for forty minutes of interviews and talking heads, and forty minutes of Bernie [Ecclestone]’s archive. And I cut this film, which was seven hours of archive! Now, every minute over forty was something like £30,000 or something crazy. So, we were like £5 million over budget! I was accused of doing everything I could to get fired!

But everyone laughed in the right places, and everyone was crying by the end, and you knew it worked. It was just way too long.

But the great thing about being able to work with Working Title and Eric Fellner, who was very supportive of the film, was that they just gave us time to go away and cut. They’d keep saying, “It’s too long. Go away and cut.” So, we’d go away for another few weeks and cut and bring it down, down, down, without losing the heart of it.

Ad – content continues below

Do you have any particular favourite scenes that you were most sorry to lose?

There’s a few that I tried to squeeze into the end roll. There’s a very famous scene in qualifying in Belgium 1992, when he was having that terrible season, his worst season, where Erik Comas had this terrible accident in front of him and Senna jumped out of the car and went to help him, nearly getting run over. It’s just unbelievable.

I’ve seen so many hours of footage and in his era no one stops. No one even wants to know about an accident. But, as we know from the film, Senna is the guy who would go and see the scene of a terrible accident, and try and figure out how it happened, and what he needed to understand to be able to deal with it. And then he’d get in the car and go even faster!

There was also one very powerful scene about Tamburello [the corner at which Senna died]. A few weeks before Imola, Senna is standing on the corner. You can see it. It’s Italian footage. He’s not happy with the track. It’s too bumpy. And he’s complaining to the guy who runs the track. And then we had the audio from Gerhard Berger, talking about himself and Senna going to Tamburello saying, “If they don’t change this corner, someone’s going to die here.” And it’s really a powerful scene.

But the reason we took that one out-  It’s a tough call. It’s a very powerful scene. – was because, at the time, nobody knew he was going to have an accident. No one expected it. So, what we didn’t want to do was make a film which is told in hindsight. Because it’s a very easy thing to do, ten, twenty years later, isn’t it?

And so, we thought it’s too easy to re-look at everything saying, “Oh my God, look,” because how many corners has he stood on saying, “I don’t like this corner?” Over the years, you know. How many tracks has he done that on? And we’re just going to show you the one.

Ad – content continues below

As an F1 fan, I know a lot of the major story beats, the championships, the rivalry between Senna and Prost and so on, but there’s a moment that I wasn’t really as aware of, which is a really major turning point, when he wins the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix. That’s a really nice set piece in the film, and a kind of change in direction for him. I just wondered how you zeroed in on that?

It’s my favourite moment, and the most emotional bit for me, still, when I watch it. You see, that’s really interesting, because what happened was at the beginning it felt like if we just do what everyone expects, because it’s in every book, we’re going to just tell the same stories that are already somewhere on YouTube. You’ve got to have Donington ‘93, you’ve got to have this, you’ve got to have that. That’s what everyone knows, because everyone’s seen it in movies or in other documentaries. But we had this story that we were trying to tell, and Brazil itself was a character.

Now, the first time he wins in Brazil was a really big deal, but I don’t think people knew that story so well. And so we said, “Okay, now let’s look at every single tape that’s been shot in Brazil 1991,” and because we had access to Bernie’s archive that no one else has had, we got all this behind-the-scenes footage. And we found the guy who, basically, jumped over the fence, went in there with a video camera and filmed Senna in the car, when he couldn’t get out. That’s a VHS tape. And then we were able to get the footage of him getting out of the car, not being able to move his arms and saying to his dad, “Touch me gently,” and his dad gives him this kiss and then to everyone else he’s, “Don’t touch me!” And it’s just like, it sums him up in a few seconds.

And my favourite bit is the podium. I’ve seen the photo of it many times and I didn’t really understand why it was such a famous photo. But when you understand what he’s been through in that race, to win for the Brazilian crowd, to win at home, and what it means to the crowd. And then he has that struggle to lift the trophy. He’s not going to quit. He’s not a quitter. He doesn’t give up. That little moment on the podium almost sums him up as well.

And the other thing I suppose I love about the race is, it’s really not a race with anyone else. We never really show any other cars. It’s a race against himself. “I don’t want to – this car’s broken. The gear box has gone. I’m in sixth gear.” People didn’t believe him, famously. They said, “It’s impossible. You can’t do it.” Look at it! It’s a manual car. The guy’s not taking his hands off the wheel! It’s unbelievable. He’s driving a Formula 1 car in sixth gear!

I love the music in that section, too. That’s one of the things that works, is Antonio Pinto’s music. He’s Brazilian, and he hadn’t even seen the film when I spoke to him on the phone and said, “I’m going to need some music.” So, he wrote that theme before he saw a frame of the film, purely from his memories of Senna.

Ad – content continues below

So, Brazil being a character was something really important that that race sums up, and it’s not really something that people talked about. They talk about what he meant to Brazil. They talk about the funeral. But that race, people probably had never seen the footage.

You seemed to have had lots of co-operation regarding footage, and from Senna’s family and so on. Why do you think that is?

It’s Senna. There’s something about him. He is loved. He has a special aura and a presence. People who knew him loved him.

Obviously, there’s the tragic element to the story, but there’s something else. It’s something magical about him.

On this film, people would call us and say, “We hear you’re making a film about Senna. How can we help? What can we give you? Do you need anything? I love this guy.”

Ad – content continues below

Although they don’t feature on camera, did you do any interviews for the film itself?

Loads! We started off with a list of about eighty guys, but then, one by one, realised that we didn’t need them all. In fact, the fewer people we interviewed, the better, because that would make them special.

So, we had Frank Williams, Ron Dennis was a major one, Alain Prost, Professor Sid Watkins. The voices that you hear in the film are a mixture of interviews done at the time and our own interviews. And the idea was that I almost wanted it to be invisible. You’re not quite sure. So, all the journalists are our interviews, Richard Williams, people like that. Ron Dennis was a major one. That was a long interview.

People wondered why we wanted to speak to Ayrton’s brother, but he was the only family member who was there at Imola. He was the one who was in a lot of the footage. Anyone who was in the footage, I wanted to go and talk to. That was my rule. If they’re in the shots, I want to talk to them. And then we’ll find a way to have their voice, and I can show them at the time.

So, we spoke to Ayrton’s brother, and it was quite, you know, they’re all still in mourning, the family. It’s really tough. It’s really tough interviewing people, and you realise, “I’m not making a drama. This is not a fiction. These are real people. Two people died for real.”

There’s a moment when I was cutting the funeral, and I’m looking at his mother,and I’m trying to pick which bit of the shot to use. It’s just ethically, morally, in a place that I’ve never been in before. But anyway, his brother, his younger brother, said, “Oh, yeah, I used to come over on my summer holidays, and I used to have a VHS camera, and I used to shoot-” I asked if he had the footage, which he said he hadn’t looked at in twenty years, as we all do. You shoot home videos, put it away and never look at it again. But we asked if we could see it, and he thought about it, and then he said yes.

Now, I don’t know why he trusted us. He’s never given that footage to anyone else, or no one’s ever bothered to ask, but I think he’s never given it to anyone, and it’s amazing stuff. Senna being a kid, flying an aeroplane, doing childish things, pushing people off a boat into the water, waterskiing, being with his mum and his dad.

Ad – content continues below

We were lucky as well in having years to put everything together. When we first spoke to Ron Dennis, he said, “I don’t want anything on the record. No mics, no cameras.” We were cool with that. I didn’t want the interview for the film anyway. We did say we wanted to get his voice, but he said he wasn’t going to do it on the record. So, we said fine.

So, we talked to him, and Ron is a particular guy. He wants to get his story right. He wants to get his facts right. But he’d get things wrong. He wouldn’t remember. And we’d spent so long looking in detail at every race, we were like, “It wasn’t on the Thursday, it was the Friday.” “It wasn’t that track, it was this track.” “It didn’t happen on that corner, it was on that corner.” “Actually, no, it was so-and-so in the background!” And he was like, “Alright, you know what you’re talking about. You’ve done your homework. Okay, come back, let’s do it properly.”

So, then we came back a few weeks later and did it on camera and had two hours with him. And he came to see the film a couple of times and cried like anything when he saw the second version. So, he’s a tough guy, but because we had time, because we were making the movie over years, we were able to go back to him and actually gain his trust.

What was it like showing the film to his family?

That was the most emotional screening. It was exactly a year ago. We’d finished the cut about this time last year. Bruno Senna [Ayrton’s nephew] was racing in F1 that year and he was living in Monaco. So, the family were coming over for the Monaco Grand Prix. And it was during Cannes. So, we flew over to Cannes, hired a cinema in the middle of the day, and put on a screening for about fifteen members of the family. And it was just unbearable.

It was the first time we were showing the film to the family, and even when he was winning, even when there are scenes that normally, in a theatre, get a laugh, there were sobs in the room. And it was just unbearable. And then the lights come up at the ending and you kind of look around and everyone’s in floods of teams. But then Viviane stood up and hugged us all and just went, “You got it right.”

Ad – content continues below

Does Alain Prost have issues with how he’s portrayed in the film?

I’m sure there are some French journalists who would say that it isn’t fair on Prost, but this rivalry was a real rivalry. There was real animosity. And all we wanted to do was show what was really happening at that time.

That’s why I didn’t want to talk about it in hindsight. “We’re all perfect mates now, aren’t we? We all loved each other!” No you didn’t! And it’s totally understandable you didn’t. You are two people who are the best at what you do. You happen to be in the same team.  You’re the first rivals. You have to do whatever you can psychologically to beat each other. And I’m just going to show what was going on at the time. And my gut feeling is that that rivalry never went away. It’s still going.

When we interviewed Alain, he had a hell of a lot to say. He’s still there. It’s still going. And that’s why I’m glad that on the DVD we can show more of him, because in the film there isn’t enough time.

In a film called Senna, the clue is in the title, and we have a Brazilian badge on our sleeve as we were making it. We were making it from Senna’s point of view, with Senna narrating it. So, if there was a moment we were taking Senna’s side, because he was the one telling the story.

The family, Ron and Alain were the people we wanted to show the film to before we finished it to say, “This is what we are doing.” And Bernie, of course. I don’t know if Bernie’s seen it yet. He’s got a copy of it, but he’s a busy man. We’ve put on screenings many times and he wasn’t able to make it, and Prost was the same.

Ad – content continues below

So, I think there’s this element of “Do I really want to see it? It’s called Senna. I know what it’s going to be.” But I think because everyone else has seen it, he needs to see it. But I don’t know if he has. He has a copy, but we tried to set up screenings and he was busy.

The film generally presents some of the more contentious incidents, particularly Japan 1990, from a quite pro-Senna perspective. How does this reflect your own take on them? 

When I first came to the film, I knew about that accident in Japan. I remember it. It could have killed someone. He could have killed himself, he could have killed Prost, the car could have flown into the crowd. There’s no excusing what happened and he, basically, admits it.

But the question I found when we were putting the film together was, why would anyone do that? Really the story for us is “what’s the motivation behind his action”? Hold on, you have this whole thing about the grid position switch – “I’m on the wrong side even though I’m in pole position.” Hold on, what happened the year before? He got disqualified, fined a hundred grand and called a dangerous driver. For what? For someone hitting him.

For me, once you look at the motivation you can probably see his thinking is, “I don’t care, I’m ahead on points. I’m coming through. Get out my way.” And I don’t in any way excuse it.

After he’s done it, he doesn’t look like he’s happy. The team are not celebrating. As Ron Dennis says, he was embarrassed by it. There was no huge celebration. The team have said to us, “We’d rather they had started the race again. We’d rather race and win properly.”

Ad – content continues below

So, I don’t think we are celebrating him for doing that at all, but the motivation for it you have to look back at and see why that happened. And it’s all to do with what happened the year before. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to go crashing into people at 160 miles an hour. I’d like to put that on record!

The interesting thing is how you see that incident around the world. There’s one particular country where people stand up and start clapping at that particular point in the film. And that’s the US. They love it. They start applauding!

Can you watch Formula 1 in the same way now, after this?

Yeah, I love it. The more you know, the better it gets. The more politics there is, the more you understand. Sometimes the races are terribly boring, but what’s going on off the track is great. And then it makes the race much more interesting.

I think we are in a golden age. There are four great drivers in three different teams. So, it is exciting. And actually the BBC coverage is amazing. It really is good. So, it becomes a seven hour thing. And I can now say officially to the wife, “It’s work, darling. I have to watch it. I have to watch every second!”

Asif Kapadia, thank you very much.

Ad – content continues below