Follow Us on Twitter

Senna - Asif Kapadia interview, part 1


Interview by Rob Carnevale

ASIF Kapadia talks about the making of his brilliant documentary on the life and death of Ayrton Senna and how he came to fall in love with the artistry of the sporting icon while making it.

He also gives insights into the humanity of Senna, the problems he faced with F1 politics and why it proved to be hugely emotional showing the film to his family and to press critics in Brazil.

Q. So, when did you first fall in love with the artistry of Ayrton Senna?
Asif Kapadia: I’m a sport fan. So, I have always watched everything… football, cricket, rugby, Ryder Cup, you name it, darts. I used to watch racing. Formula One was always on. The genius 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 on Radio 2 or wherever it used to be back in the day. And I was watching Imola 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. I liked McLaren, 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 with 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!” Essentially, I thought there would be quite a lot of post production on this film, so I thought it was going to be quite a different way of working, so I liked that challenge. Honestly, 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 on 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. He does transcend the support and he works on so many levels that the fans… I can totally see why he has so many children named after him, and why people really love Senna.

But then the other thing is that I understand why he is such a huge thing to Brazil and what’s been interesting is taking the film to the US, for example, and showing the film in America, 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. So, the answer to your question is that it’s really during the making of it. I just think he’s amazing.

Q. You said there was a script, so what was the script like?
Asif Kapadia: It wasn’t a script. Manish is the writer because he is the guy who was a big fan. He’s the guy who’s seen every race, who has read every book, who has an amazing brain for detail. He’s a back surgeon and he’s a Cambridge graduate but this is his first film. So, when I came on the project there was an outline, a 20-page document which dealt with the golden age – the Mansell, Senna, Piquet and Prost period. And essentially what happened during the development of the film was bit by bit we said: “We can’t do it… we can’t have this many characters. We can’t have that many great races. It’s just going to get a bit boring for the non fans and we’re still going to have to do a cut down.”

So, the script, the editing, the interviews, the research was all happening at the same time. It wasn’t like a drama where you have a screenplay and go and shoot it. This was, this is the idea, and what Manish was able to do because he knows the subject so well was to look at a sequence and say: “We’re not showing this part of his character. This is really important, we’ve got to find…” So, then I’d say: “OK, well what race shows that? What scene can we find?” And then we’d send our researchers off in Japan, in Rio, in Sao Paolo, in France, in Italy and we’d go into Biggin Hill, into Bernie Ecclestone’s archive, to find a scene that visualised what Manish on paper felt we had to show.

Q. You’ve made a documentary that is actually a drama…
Asif Kapadia: Yeah, I’m a drama director and I wanted to make a drama… that was always my dream was to say: “Look, I don’t want to make a television documentary!” But all of my material was TV. 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 [laughs]. I said: “I think there’s something original that we can do here.” All of the films – When We Were Kings, Man on Wire, Touching the Void – they all have talking heads, they all have interviews and so it was quite tough the process of doing it because everyone… none of the executives – Working Title haven’t made a doc, Universal haven’t made a doc, the producer hadn’t made a doc, the writer hadn’t made a film, I’ve never made a doc… our researchers and our editors had, but we were all new to it.


So, everyone was like: “Go and get Norman Mailer. Who 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 in a way 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, I suppose, and we had a budget that would go to 90 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 40 minutes of interviews, talking heads, and 40 minutes of Bernie’s archive. And I cut this film which was seven hours of archive! Now, every minute over 40 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 [laughs]! 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 and the gut of it.

Q. Will the long cut surface?
Asif Kapadia: Do you know, I’m asked this a lot. I have a dream that one day, if the film does well enough – and that’s the bottom line with movies, obviously – then maybe there will be a way that we can somehow go back and talk to Bernie again to have permission to show a longer version on a DVD or something. Who knows what it could be. Obviously, the numbers have to add up. That’s the bottom line. But if enough people ask, I just hope we can… it might just be a few one off screenings around the world where you can show it in a confined space. You know, they’re very protective of their material, so there might be a way of doing that and there’s some amazing scenes that we couldn’t put in the film that we might one day see.

Q: Did you do any interviews for the film itself?
Asif Kapadia: Loads! I just had to say to the cameramen: “Make it look really good, I’m never going to use it”. But I said there’s a good chance they’ll be on the DVD, which they are, which a hell of a lot of people have already seen, and which more people hopefully will see. We interviewed… okay, we started off with a list of like, we put stickers up on the wall for like 80 guys – but then one by one said “We don’t need that person, we don’t need them, we don’t need them… in fact, the fewer people we interview the better, because that makes them special.”

So… Frank [Williams], Ron Dennis was a major one, Alain [Prost], Professor Sid Watkins… you know. 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. Went to his house, spoke to him for a long time. We spoke to all of his team-mates, his mechanics, Jo Ramirez who was the team manager, and who was inbetween – he was the only guy who got along with Senna and Prost – people like that. All of them, we spoke to – his mechanics, his family, his mum, his sister, his brother.

Everyone was like: “Why’d you want to talk to his brother? His brother’s not really got anything to say.” His brother was there, his brother was there at Imola. He was the only family member who was there. His brother was the one who was in a lot of 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 I didn’t go with some of the obvious journalists that are famous in Formula One – I went with people who I know were holding the microphone, asking the question, who knew Senna, who were there. Which is why the American guy, [John] Bisignano, is there – because you wouldn’t believe how many of the most famous interviews, he’s the guy doing the interview. He’s the one off-camera. And then Reginaldo Leme, is the guy who followed him, was in-camera all the time with the mic. So I love the idea that you hear his voice, but then you see him in Japan ’89, on this TV screen showing the accident – and that guy talking is the guy who’s telling you the story. He knows, he was there.

So that was a device I wanted to use. And we’ve got a lot on the Blu-ray – there’s like an hour of our interviews. So we know we can give Prost three minutes to talk about something, which you just can’t do in a movie – the movie you still need a bit of a soundbite and get on. Whereas there’s a lot more time to do it in other versions.


Q: What was it like showing the film to his family?
Asif Kapadia: That was the most emotional screening. It was exactly a year ago. We’d finished the cut about this time last year. Bruno was racing, obviously, that year – last 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 15 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, you got the right balance between the genius on the track and the humanity of the man.” And yeah they were happy with it, and they loved it, and were supportive. We were worried about what Bruno would – he’s the kid driving the boat, when Senna’s on the boat. And I think the family saw so much footage that they’d never seen before, you know – it was one of those things were they were seeing… [intake of breath] when you see Imola, and I don’t know if they’d ever seen how unhappy he was. So all of this stuff it was like, even people like his family, or Ron, people who knew him, who were there with him, saw things that they’d never seen before. So there was a different level of understanding what happened or what was going on with him at times. But they gave us the absolute thumbs up, they were very supportive.

Q: How about Brazil, the press screening there?
Asif Kapadia: Brazil’s kind of weird. The press screening was unbelievable, because it was during the Brazilian Grand Prix last year – it opened in Japan, then it opened in Brazil. So we had the next test – Formula One journalists. An entire cinema full of Formula One journalists in Brazil. That’s a scary one, right? And I think they really all got behind the film, and I think the word by then had spread, they all knew about the film – so they all turned up, and they all watched it. And the normal question is, why haven’t you put that race in, why didn’t you put in this bit? That’s the biggest gripe the fans have, is why isn’t it longer? And I’ve given the answer, that’s how much money we had! That’s all we were allowed to do, that’s all we could release. But yeah, we got away with it, people like it.

I’m sure there are some French journalists who 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 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. French journalists say: “Hey why don’t you put this in…” And look, if a French person made a film about… not that I’m Brazilian but if a French person made a film about Prost, do you think everyone in Brazil is going to love it? It’s just the nature of what it was and why he was so special and why he was a one off.

Senna, Asif Kapadia

Q. Does Prost have issues with how he is portrayed?
Asif Kapadia: 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 in 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 Prost 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. Bernie, as far as I know, I don’t know if he’s seen it yet. He’s got a copy of it, 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 thing, 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, we tried to set up screenings and he was busy.

Q. you mention showing the film with Senna’s family, was there any contact with Roland Raztenburger, because he features in it…
Asif Kapadia: Yes, it was a case of talking to the family to let them know this was going to happen. But with Roland, I’d spoken to a lot of people: fans, journalists; and very few people have ever seen him speak. Everybody knows he died, everybody knows what he looked like, but we found some footage of him on the track, talking, and we wanted to show that this was a man who was a racing driver, but then the footage we found happened to be him not happy with the car. It was just unbelievable, and it happened throughout, there’s something that happened when we were making this movie in that the reality was that you wouldn’t have the nerve almost if you were writing a fiction film to say that the only time we’re going to hear Roland speak will be saying, ‘I’m doing things with that car that no one would believe’, minutes before he goes out and drives it.

So, that thing of showing him talking and seeing who he was before he has the crash rather than just being this name, ‘this person had this terrible accident’. That’s important to me anyway, and his family I’m sure have seen it. I know there were links with Berger, obviously, that Austrian link, but we never met them in person. His dad I think is still in formula one, I think his dad is involved in some sort of way. But I think my producer had contact with them. It was important that there were two accidents and that two people died, that was very important to say. The truth is I don’t know if anything had changed in the sport if RR had had the accident only. It’s Senna having his accident and the fact that he didn’t make a mistake, we can absolutely dispel that rumour. Something happened, something went wrong, but it was still a freak that he died. It was an act of god, that’s why everything changed afterwards.

Q: One thing we haven’t touched on is the spiritualism aspect of it. What do you think of Senna’s idea that racing brings you closer to God?
Asif Kapadia: That’s part of the whole Brazilian, the religion, his spirituality, a key part of his character and something that James Gay Rees the producer was always pushing for. It’s really important for him that we didn’t go light on that subject. And it’s amazing how many people respond to that. People who are not religious at all. But it’s the way he speaks, the way he eloquently uses that and the way it was used against him by certain people. And it’s interesting that we’d look at a race and look at a press conference. And he’d give an English press conference and it would be pretty bland – had problems with the car, the gear box was going … I could find nothing there.

Then’s he doing a 45-minute interview in Portuguese and I had to get it entirely transcribed and he’d be amazing. Like the Brazilian race, it’s all in Portuguese. He didn’t say any of that in English and that’s when we realised, ah, there’s more than one story going on. He’s saying one thing to the English guys, who didn’t like him talking about God, who would pick on him, and then he’d say something else to his home fans and we want the film to work as if you walk out and feel a bit Brazilian at the end. So that was interesting, he said most of that in his own language to his own people to his own audience. But it was a very important character trait. The spiritual element is almost the way he drove. It was an out of body experience. And the way he thanked God when things happened. When his engine goes, when his gearbox blows, he said God gave me this race. And there were other moments.

Of course, the tragedy his journey is such that for me his accident is an act of God. It’s a freak accident what happened for all of those things to come together at that particular moment at that speed on that corner. Something happened to make the car go straight. The fact that the wheel came off at a particular angle to him is just a one in a million chance. So that is a part of his life and his death. It’s an important thing to get across actually. That’s what made it different, a real key part of what made it different. Some people would say he used that psychologically to outdo other people. If you’ve got God on your side what hope do the rest of us have?

Prost says it’s dangerous for the driver if they believe in God and I think Senna’s answer is fantastic: “Just because I believe in God doesn’t mean I’m immortal, doesn’t mean I think I can’t hurt myself.” It’s a brilliant answer, it’s a brilliant riposte I think. It’s where the change happens in the film in a way because danger comes into the film. That’s when we see Donnelly’s accident. Up to now he’s just winning, winning, and it’s easy. Even when he loses the title it’s not because he did anything. Then something starts to happen at that period of the film and you realise this is really dangerous what you guys do for a living…

Read the second part of our interview with Asif

Read our review of Senna