Film Interview: SENNA director Asif Kapadia

Fiction filmmaker Asif Kapadia discusses his first documentary feature, Senna, which explores the life, career, and tragic death of Formula One racing legend Ayrton Senna

Vegas Outsider: I know that before you came on board to direct this film that you weren’t a huge Formula One enthusiast as opposed to other members of the creative team. Bearing that in mind, what was it about this project that pushed you into accepting the job since you were approaching it seemingly with fresh, unbiased eyes?

Asif Kapadia: It’s interesting because I am a big sport fan. I watch everything and have interest in a lot of different sports. I remember the era that that Senna was driving in though, that period of Formula One and his rivalry with [Alain] Prost. I did see and hear about a lot of the key races and I remember watching him at the end of the line, that final weekend. So I knew things about him as a driver but not being a huge fan of that world and not knowing much about the man himself was unnerving. Whenever I make a film, I prefer to know a little bit about the subject but really I like going on a journey; that’s part of the fun of it.

So I was learning as I was making the film, doing the research, and that to me is really important because that’s really where the audience are you know?  A lot of people don’t know about him, so my aim is to ask myself “how do you make a decision of what to put in the film and what to take out” and then decide “well I think this is interesting to the audience” and exclude other things like the tire treads, points system, or engines changing year by year, which I don’t think is that interesting to the non-fan. We were also lucky to have Manish Pandey as the writer and executive producer; he’s the big hardcore Senna fan on the team. He knew everything, and in a way my job was to be more like someone who knew nothing about this world and try to find the right mix between the two of us for the audience.

VO: I know from the press notes that you and your editing team sifted through some 15,000 hours of footage collected from various sources such as home movies, television interviews, as well as material from Formula One. What general rules did you follow in terms of deciding what to include in the film and what to exclude with so much material to choose from? Since you had a wide variety of angles for certain moments to choose from, it must have been both maddening and exciting to have that many editing possibilities to work with.

AK: I mean, I have to mention of course the pair of wonderful editors I had, Gregers Sall and Chris King. I’m a director, a fiction film director primarily, but I’ve made little documentaries before. This was my first feature documentary though and for me, that was the important part looking at footage and deciding whether to use this particular shot or that one; that’s what I do for a living. In this case, it was the first big appearance of suddenly having this amazing set of dailies to work with. It was a dream come true, because there was so much material. And what we could do was show at any given point any variety of angle. I would have a particular shot on Senna at a certain time, I could have a close up, a midshot, a reverse of who he’s talking to, I could have a two shot, I could have a wide shot, I could even have had a helicopter shot if I wanted at times.

That amount of options is a very unusual situation to be in. It was almost like if I had shot it as a fiction film, I wouldn’t have had this many options because we’d never have the time to shoot so many angles. So, for me it was quite early on the process where I’d realized the potential with this much material. His life is so well-covered with both in front of the camera but also what goes on behind the scenes in the sport, in the meeting rooms, personal life, and his family life via home movies. With so much material to use, I realized that was the best selling point we had. The first major decision though was to eliminate the thought of having contemporary talking heads, which would have been the conventional way one would tell his story. A bit of footage, a bit of talking heads, back to a bit of footage, and because my instincts, knowledge, and history is in making fiction films my aim was to treat it as a fiction film although everything is real. So then with the writer, we treated the story as a classic three-act structure; the beginning, which is the rise of Senna, his entry into Formula One, his battle to get into the right car, his battle to win his first Championship, the middle, which was the rivalry with Alain Prost, who was his great rival and Frenchman, and then with the final act we were wanted to slow time down and go into this tragic weekend in Imola.

That structure essentially became very clear to us so then the idea was to use the footage for the story. My simple rule was if I can’t show it then it can’t be in the film; there may be some very famous moments that are in books about Senna or people have given interviews about things, but if I can’t show it or if the footage isn’t good enough to make the movie then I’m not going to construct the film around that. I have to find a way to tell this story with images in the same way I would with a drama. So the story would change and that came with doing the research, coming across new material that we never knew existed. Suddenly, it would turn up and that would cause us to rewrite the script. So we were essentially editing, reworking the script, and conducting our research and interviews all at the same time. One section of the film would end up constantly affecting the others.

VO: What I was really struck by while watching is the way in which documentary footage was pieced together in such a way to suggest almost a fictional narrative; so many of the moments play out with such dramatic intensity. For example, when Senna observes fellow driver Roland Ratzenberger’s fatal crash in Imola over that final weekend, he’s watching over a monitor in what appears to be the press room. Not long after, when he meets his own fate, observers watch in horror the same sort of events unfold on what looks like the very same monitor. It’s a small moment but still very chilling and rife with sad irony.

AK: The reaction shot, seeing something happen like that and being able to find these shots that existed, such as Senna’s reaction, and then having other people being able to watch Senna’s crash the same way was possible because the sport exists on TV. That sequence subconsciously became a comment on just how much the sport exists and is so completely covered by television. We could not have made this film the way we did unless he was that famous, in that particular moment of time, and in that particular sport. So the idea that even people in the film are watching television to know what’s going reflects the world we’re in at large. That’s why there are so many cameras everywhere. What happens is they ignore the cameras because they’re so used to them and what’s amazing is that as you watch the film, you forget just how many cameras are in shot because they’re there the whole time.

So when you’re observing a person have a conversation with someone else, all of a sudden you stop noticing the cameramen because you’re spending all your time focusing on the main people. Now, I suppose what also needs to be explained is how fantastic the archive itself is and the archive producer, a guy named Paul Bell who’s a real documentary guy. He had to see people in Sao Paolo, in Japan, in Paris, in Rome, and in London, because they had to find all of that material. We would give them notes of what we were looking for and they then had to find it. What’s worth explaining is I would have a shot on Senna, for example, which was filmed by a Brazilian cameraman, the reverse of who is he is talking to would be an Italian shot, the two shot would be a Japanese shot, and then the high angle shot would be an English shot. We would take all this footage together and realize it was all the same moment in time, so we can now intercut between them.

The problem though, was that they didn’t all neatly turn up in one place. It just became another part of this crazy process; sometimes the audio came from a cassette tape. One of the journalists would be holding a cassette tape recorder in front of Senna’s face while interviewing him and that became the best audio for a scene. It would come from a TDK-A90 tape that one of these journalists miraculously had kept in a bag in an attic somewhere in their house.

VO: Another technical aspect that sets the film apart I think is the limited usage of interviews; first off, we never cut away to any talking heads whatsoever. We only ever hear the interview subjects’ contributions via soundtrack alone, and even then, it’s only in brief snippets that provide the necessary context for a particular moment or some insight into Senna’s thought process. Otherwise, our attention is solely fixed on the documentary narrative itself.

AK: I didn’t want to break the tension; any cuts out of the moment would have weakened it and you’d have to start all over again. So for me it was really clear, why do we want to cut to anybody now? What are they going to give us that we can’t already show? If we can show it, we’ll change the story then so we can show it and that was the difficulty. It was quite a tough process to get that by everybody because obviously the genre is known for having interviews. When We Were Kings has interviews, Touching The Void has interviews, Man on Wire has interviews. So a lot of people were saying “this is a documentary, you need interviews, so interview someone”. But I couldn’t interview Senna, so that became a part of the journey, which was we had to find a way to make this film work and I like the idea of making something unique and unusual.

The process was important, but we had to have a great team of editors and a great sound team that could make this film cinematic and epic; a movie made for the big screen. But it’s really great and please do make mention of the editors, they were the people who put it together. They were the guys who had the patience to construct the material in the way that it was ultimately done. Gregers Sall is an experienced documentary editor, Chris King also; he did the Banksy film last year, Exit Through The Gift Shop. They were a brilliant double act.

VO: Well again as I was watching and seeing all the various angles used and having enough footage on-screen to stay in that world without having to break away to a talking head, it was refreshing to see that almost every single moment you’d want to have filmed actually was. Moreover, the cost of getting that much coverage in a fiction film would be an amazing pain, if not impossible.

AK:  And it would cost a 100 million quid you know? You couldn’t just travel the world to Japan and then you’re in Monaco and then you’re in Brazil with 100,000 people. When he lifts the trophy after winning the championship in Brazil, I look at that sequence and think “I could not do that sequence as a fiction film director because I’ve got 10 cameras on a man lifting a trophy. And I’ve got 100,000 people in the stands.” If I write a scene in a script where a man lifts a trophy above his head, I’d be lucky to get 50 people to be in the crowd and told to just move them around a bit and spread them out. I must also mention the music too, because that was a really important as the emotional heart of our film. Antonio Pinto, our composer, is key because he brings the heart and emotion to the story, without relying on clichés within Brazil.

He is the guy who did City of God, Central Station, and worked with Michael Mann on Collateral. He and the sound team also were brilliant because, just like all of the pictures coming from archival material, everything you hear had to come from the original footage because you can’t drive those cars. And those cars then don’t sound the same as the way they do now and no one can drive a car like Senna did. Everything you hear was captured by these tiny microphones installed into these cars in the 1980s and early 90s, using that we had to turn it into Dolby Digital.

VO: One of the best shots we see, as you mention that, are the over the shoulder shots of Senna in his cockpit while racing because only then do you truly feel and understand the physical pressures and force being exerted upon both him and the vehicle while driving at these incredibly speeds.

AK: Yeah absolutely, that blows people’s minds. When you see that on the cinema screen, people who have no interest in the sport suddenly get it. They finalize realize these guys are superhuman; they’re thinking at speeds that we can’t comprehend, their bodies are going through G-forces that we’d lose consciousness from, and they’re doing it one-handed. They’re driving one-handed around the streets of Monaco at 160 mph because it’s a stick shift car. It’s amazing. I wanted to make sure as well that we only watched it from Senna’s point of view, we’re only on his shoulder and no one else’s.

VO: Well, also when speaking about the soundtrack, I was impressed by how the actual interviews themselves were utilized in that they cut into the sound mix only at key points, providing a bit of needed context or insight into his thoughts, and then pulling back again so as not to dominate what’s happening on-screen.

AK: That’s fantastic to hear because that finding that balance and tone of how much to explain to those who don’t know anything about the sport and not over explain it to the fans was very tricky to find. Again, we did shoot interviews; I have the pictures, I just chose not to use them. Originally, I was going to capture them on audio and then HD, but then made the decision to not show any of them. In terms of how they were integrated into the soundtrack, again all credit goes to our talented editing team. It should probably be mentioned that our first cut was over seven hours long. And then the first cut projected at a cinema was five hours long. Very early on, I realized that every film you work on has an inherent issue or problem whether it’s the story or the ending that doesn’t work or a performance that doesn’t work. Well in this one, we had too much footage and too many stories. We had to lose some of our favorite scenes to bring the film down to length. Every day we’d all look at the film, see things we liked, but then had to take twenty minutes out at a time.

VO: On screen, Senna comes across as an individual who is deeply spiritual and has this inherent love of racing, competition, and winning. While he has a passion for all of these things, he also seemingly operates without ego, which at times seems to butt up against the political aspect of Formula as evidenced by his rivalry with Prost and the F1 president at the time. I’m wondering if that portrait of the man’s personality was one that you consciously set out to display? Or did you gradually discover it as the editors worked through the hours of available footage?

AK: That was something that really came out of the footage; I really didn’t know too much about him as a man. I’d never read a book, looked at a website, or studied him beforehand so that came out of just seeing the material. That was the genuine person we met while watching all of this footage. What’s interesting is that in terms of both the British and French press, he had a terrible reputation. He was a guy seen as being arrogant and dangerous on the track. So it’s interesting that when we started putting the footage together there are people saying “oh well this isn’t what he really was like” but you know one journalist says something and then that spreads from one person to another.

Yet while we were looking at the footage, that wasn’t the guy coming across in the material. What really came out was the humility of the man who said things though that would almost always be read the wrong way; people would decide to read it wrongly and accuse of him things because he believed in God and was spiritual. And yet the way he answers all of the critics back I love, he’s so intelligent, eloquent, and humble which is very rare for a hugely successful, sports person.

VO: Again, I found the juxtaposition of Senna’s coming across as a proud yet humble man who’s incapable of hiding his emotions versus Prost’s much more measured and calculated façade interesting. Here was a guy who was very meticulous in his approach to racing, and knew exactly what he needed to do in order to win and how to play the game. In contrast, Senna appears to want to simply race and compete and not deal with the politics. It’s funny then that Senna ran up against so much adversity within the system itself; whereas Prost’s obvious machinations were regarded as no problem at all.

AK: I think you’ve nailed it there; I’m not going to disagree.

VO: I was struck finally as well with his complete emotional honesty on camera; he never plays to it or shies away from it so, as an audience member, you really do seemingly feel what this man is going through because he broadcasts his emotions with an ease that often, professional actors have trouble matching.

AK: That’s the thing; he didn’t change on camera or off camera. Certain other people I know when they’re on camera because they’re playing a certain act, which is charming people and can sometimes fool people. However, when they’re off camera, they’re very different. Senna was always the same; he never played things up on camera. And he could drive. Not only was he a tremendous person but a true genius when it came to his specific art, the art of driving.

To learn more, view the film’s trailer, and check out upcoming screenings, go to www.sennamovie.com

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