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Senna - Asif Kapadia interview, part 2

Senna, Asif Kapadia

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ASIF Kapadia continues to talk about the making of Senna and, in particular, footage he was forced to remove from the film in order to reduce the running time from five hours to just over 90 minutes, as well as his pivotal win in Brazil, when he finished the race in sixth gear and was barely able to lift the trophy above his head.

Q. Do you have any particular favourite scenes that you were most sorry to lose?
Asif Kapadia: There’s a few that I tried to squeeze into the end roll, as you may have noticed. There’s a very famous scene where he’s driving a car in qualifying and there’s an accident in front of him… Eric Comas had this terrible accident and he [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 what it looks like to be in a terrible accident and then look at the state of the car and then look at the road and try and figure out how it happened, whether it was something on the track, but basicall7 what he needed to understand to be able to deal with it – and then he’d get in the car and go even faster! And that was him. And so that Comas accident happened in ’92, when he was having that terrible season, his worse season… Mansell whoops him in that Williams and he, in the middle of all of that, does this amazing act because his best friend is Professor Sid Watkins, because of what had happened to [Martin] Donnelly [in ‘88]… his spokesman said: “Well, what happens if something like that… what are you trying to do? What are you trying to do with his tongue there?” And Sid explained to him… the problem is how long it’s just taken me to explain it. We would have needed to explain it and it becomes another five minute scene at a point when we needed to get onto Imola. And so, we have the rivalry of Prost, there was a point where ’92 and ’93 were two seasons we had to do in a [hurry]… and people consider ’93 to be his best season! Senna fans are like: “That’s the one where he did… he won five races in a car that was nowhere near as good.” He really did amazing drives and we had to cut it right down because anything we put in there takes out of Imola or takes out of somewhere else, so it was this give and take. So, that was one scene.

There was an opening of the film which I loved, which was quite unusual, which was that we opened with this sequence, a montage of Brazil at that time, in a real bad state, a dictatorship, soldiers marching through the streets, rioting, violence everywhere, it’s in a really bad way and then we cut to that young boy with the Super 8 footage and someone with a bit of cardboard with “Brazil” handwritten, so you’re saying, ‘This is the country, look at the state it’s in and this is the guy that’s going to save them’. And I really loved that – it was a beautiful cut, almost. And you think: “How the hell is he going to do that?” And then you see the film. And then you see the ending. But again, it got cut and there were various scenes like that.

There was one very powerful scene about Tamburello. 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 race – the guy who runs the track. And then we had the audio from [Gerhard] Berger, talking about Senna and Berger 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 the film which is told in hindsight, saying: “Oh, look. Look. Look, look, look.’ Because it’s a very easy thing to do, 10, 20 years later, isn’t it? But actually at the time, no-one expected it. No one could believe he didn’t finish the race in a Williams. 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. So it felt, like we were, yeah, telling the story in hindsight rather than stay in the moment, all the time, in the moment, in the moment and then, bang, it happens, it’s a shock. And I think, story-telling-wise – and it was one of the editors who pushed for that, Chris King pushed for that and I think it was a really good call.

Can you talk about Senna’s pivotal Brazilian Grand Prix win, when he completed the race in sixth gear and was barely able to lift the trophy?
Asif Kapadia: It’s my favourite movement, moment and 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 Donnington, 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. And what I wanted to do was to somehow – and we had this story that we were trying to tell and Brazil 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 to go and say: “Okay, now let’s look at every single tape that’s been shot in Brazil 1991…” And then 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 went – 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. You know, 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 everyone else: “Don’t touch me!” And it’s just like, it sums him up in a few seconds.


And my favourite bit is the podium. You know, that thing of – I’ve seen the photo many many times and I didn’t really understand, why is it 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, to win – and what it means to the crowd and then 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 unbelieveable – he’s driving a Formula 1 car in sixth gear. It’s a fast track, which helped. But it was just – technically, it’s really weak, that footage, but emotionally, it’s really strong and that was the big decision that we had to do, because we had to go to Working Title, who were making hundred million dollar movies, so they were looking at footage, before we’d come into a screening room of YouTube, that looked like crap.

And the thing is, I’m like, trying to argue, saying: “Look, people are spending hundreds of millions to make it look as fast as our film. And our film’s real. So, just trust it, trust our footage, trust him, trust emotionally what’s going on. It will look a bit better when we get a master, it will sound a lot better.” And I love the music in that section. That’s one of the things that works, is Antonio Pinto’s music. He’s Brazilian and he hadn’t even seen the film and I got him to – I spoke to him on the phone, I 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. So that 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, outside, so yeah.

Q: 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?
Asif Kapadia: 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.” And that doesn’t happen with people, particularly… Heroes, they wane, you get forgotten. The composer [Antonio Pinto] is a case in point – he rang us and said: “I want to do this film! What can I do?” “We can’t afford you!” “Doesn’t matter, we’ll work it out – how can I do the film?” “Write me some music! We don’t have a contract, we don’t have a deal, I’ve never met you. I’m in Soho, they’re not going to fly me out there, they’re not going to fly you out here, but write me some music. The proof will be in the pudding – if your music is great then we can do the film.” And he went off and wrote the music.

And it was consistently like that – so we’d get, I’d get emails and calls from Greece, Russia, all over the world, saying “I’ve got photos, can I give you my photos? I’ve been following him for years…” And in the end, obviously, we didn’t use stills – that’s another element, apart from the voiceover, the talking heads. I didn’t want at any point to cut to a still of a magazine cover, you know, it’s like, that’s not a movie for me. That’s what everyone traditionally does. But that kind of fondness for him has just grown stronger and stronger over the years, and it was the same with Bernie [Ecclestone]. That’s why I think we were able to make this film – because there is something so special about Senna.


Q: Did you speak to all his ex-girlfriends?
Asif Kapadia: I think we spoke to Xuxa… nah, you know what, we made a call not to get into the gossipy stuff. In Brazil that’s all they want – well, a lot of people want that. Maybe YOU want that! Globo makes a movie about Senna every week – and you know, it’ll be this girl’s story, and this guy’s story, this person’s story. And that’s what they do, and I think that’s a certain type of film-making. My rule was very simple – if I they show it, I’ll put it in the movie.

Obviously, a lot of this stuff I couldn’t show – I never found those tapes! Although I think that stuff on the boat is pretty saucy… it’s pretty unbelievable, you can see that’s not done for camera. You can see they’re hardly wearing any clothes, but that intimacy, that his brother’s operating the camera. And that’s the point I was coming to – I did speak to his brother, and his brother is 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…” “Have you got this footage?” “I don’t know, I haven’t looked at it in 20 years.” “Can you find it?” Now he’s never looked at it himself again – as we all do, you shoot home videos, put it away and never look at it again! But we were like, “Can we see it?” And he thought about it, and then he said yeah. 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 by then they trusted us enough – and I couldn’t speak Portugese, and he doesn’t understand English – and he gave us these videotapes, 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… and it was quite amazing stuff from VHS tape that no-one’s ever looked at.

And that kept happening, there was just something that… I think generally, people make films, they’re TV documentaries, and you have a crazy turnaround. “I need this thing now, it’s on tomorrow”. Well, alright, we’ve got years. Ron Dennis, when we first spoke to Ron, he said “I don’t want anything on the record. No mics, no cameras, nothing.” “That’s fine, I’m cool with that.” I didn’t want the interview for the film anyway! But we were like “We want to get your voice!” But he said “No, I’m not 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 did it on tape, 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. And now he’s… you know, it’s absolutely the golden age of McLaren, isn’t it, this film, and so they love the film. 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.

Q. There’s a litany of amazing characters in the film, the FIA President for instance looks like a mob boss. These are characters that you couldn’t make up aren’t they?
Asif Kapadia: Yes, you come across his driver’s briefings and you can’t believe what he’s saying! The fact that he’s funny, I feel like some of what he says has, I hope, there’s a tongue in cheek. Who know, okay, but what I loved is that those drivers briefings are great character scenes, humorous and funny but show us what Senna was really like. I’ve seen so many and he would be the only guy who spoke up, he would be the only one fighting for other drivers, minutes before he’s about to race for the world championship, he’d be arguing for a French driver. And Ballest would be saying ‘no no no i can’t do that’, and we just didn’t have time to put it in.


I would love to be able to put in the longer version of the drivers briefing before the 1989 race in Japan, which is the one where Prost turns into him and Prost wins the title. Just before they drive, when Ballest is saying ‘these drivers are looking at you as an example, mistakenly they think you’re an example’. A young French driver, Jack l’feit, had had an accident a few weeks before. His career is over, he could have lost his legs. Ballest says ‘okay we’re going to raise some money, I want you to give a grand each, and I’ll get the teams to give a grand and I’ll put in some money as well’ and Senna said ‘what’s he going to do with 1000 dollars from each of us, it’s nothing, this could be the end of his career. We should all give 10,000, and whatever we give you double it with the fines you’ve taken off us all season’. ‘no, no I cannot do this, it’s not my money it’s not my money’.

They argue for a long time, and this is minutes before they’re about to race for the world championship, and he’s arguing with Ballest for money. To cut a long story short they have the race, we know what happens. Prost, in my opinion, turns a bit early into him, Senna goes off, changes the nosecone, takes over the guy, beats Nadeeri, wins the race, gets disqualified. When he gets disqualified he gets a six month suspended ban on his licence, he gets fined 10 grand. The next line Ballest says: ‘and I’m going to give half the money to this young French driver Jack l’feit because I think he deserves the fine’.

So, instead of getting a grand out of Senna he gives him 50 grand from Senna. He only gives him half! So that hundred grand fine says ‘and I’ve decided to set up a fund’, and we just didn’t have time to have the before, the middle and the aftermath. And that was the thing with a lot of the stories in the film because like a good fiction film you set it up, you have the middle and then you have the payoff, and there were so many scenes like that, so many stories like that. That one was one of my favourites but it would have been another 5 minutes of story and we just didn’t have time. But you’re going ‘I can’t believe he just did that’, and no one would know, no one knows because you’ve never seen it. And I suppose the other one is the Fullerton story. Actually part of me doesn’t want to talk about it because I don’t want to give that away. It’s like the Rosebud moment in the film, and I’ve seen a lot of articles that kind of give that away now. And that’s the thing when people first see the film, everybody sees that question and they wait for him to say Prost and he doesn’t, so let’s not talk about that.

Q: Having done it once, would you want to do it again?
Asif Kapadia: I am a director and I think actually they’re not that different – dramas and docs aren’t that different. When I’m doing a drama I’m trying to make things feel as believable and real as possible. The hair, the make-up, the costume, the design, you’re trying to make it authentic. And when you’ve got a documentary it’s all authentic, so what story are you going to tell and how do you make it dramatic and exciting? It’s the same thing. I love sport, so I’d love to do more stories if I can that deal with sport maybe. Other characters, actually the real guy is so interesting why would you want to get anyone to play them? But it’s all about access.

The challenge is… I could never do another film like this entirely with archive and one day I’m going to have to do an interview with someone, aren’t I? I’m delaying it. I used to work in TV and quit the job because I couldn’t do it any more. I quite like taking my time over a film, five years is how long it takes me to work something out. And when you just do quick turnover, turnaround, I’m literally this is driving me mad, I want to find another living. I’ll just have to find a creative way to tell the story.

Q: Can you watch Formula 1 in the same way now?
Asif Kapadia: 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. I haven’t even mentioned Schumaccher and what that brings in by having him around again. So there are five world champions I suppose and it’s a really exciting time. So I do watch it. And actually the BBC coverage is amazing. It really is good. So it becomes a seven hour thing. And I can now officially to the wife “It’s work, darling” I have to watch it. I have to watch every second. And actually, my wife who can’t stand racing has got into it and once she understood the politics it becomes more interesting for non-racing people I think.

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