Asif Kapadia is a British filmmaker who has directed several award-winning films, including The Sheep Thief (1997), winner of the 2nd Prize Cinéfondation for Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival and The Warrior (2001), which won the BAFTA Award for Best British Film.

He also shot the psychological thriller The Return (2006), starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and the Arctic-set 2007 movie Far North, based on a short story by Sara Maitland, with Michelle Yeoh and Sean Bean. His latest offering, Senna, is a dazzling documentary exploring the extreme dedication displayed by arguably the world’s greatest ever Formula One driver, Ayrton Senna, charting the Brazilian’s rise to become a triple World Champion, against the odds, before his tragic death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. The film is produced by James Gay-Rees and Manish Pandey and is the first-ever documentary picture from Working Title. Senna won the 2011 World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Festival…

Has there been an overriding piece of feedback from taking the film around the world and to Sundance?

People say that they find the film inspirational. A lot of people say that there’s something about his journey: that he never quit. He kept going and that was mentioned by lots of people. That was what people responded to. You just really fall for him. Other people say things like, ‘You make me fall in love with him and then you take him away.’ And it’s interesting when you show it to an American audience for example, because so many of them have a bigger journey to go on: they don’t know who he is, they don’t know where he is going to go, whether he is going to win anything and what happens at Imola.

How much of Senna’s story did you know before you signed on?

I knew Senna and I had seen his rivalry with Prost. I am a big sports fan and this was so different from anything else I had ever done, so I was intrigued. Things that are different always intrigue me.

When you came on board the producers had envisioned a different type of documentary, with ‘talking head’ interviews cut in…

Before I came on board there was a deal in place that was a more conventional documentary; just about 45 minutes of archive, 45 of interviews. But when we started to cut the film more and more, the instinct was: actually we don’t need filmed interviews. When we got down to three hours of film, I tried to stick to my guns and say this the way we have to go and everyone I think agreed. But they were still nervous because a guy can turn up and in an interview can say within 20 seconds something that has taken you ages to show visually. So the whole thing was really difficult.

Do you have any idea how many hours of footage you scanned for the film?

We saw many, many thousands of hours. The number of drives, gigabytes and memory we had were just off the scale. And on top of that there was so much we viewed on fast forward. With the F1 archive that Bernie Ecclestone gave us unprecedented access to, we were going through 20 tapes a day, which might be two hours long on fast forward until Senna would turn up. And then there were things like a 100-minute interview in Portuguese. We would have to pull that, translate it, and go through a transcript to get a couple of sentences that might be brilliant to us. That was the nature of the work, so we saw a lot.

Did you have an epiphany moment when researching the film, when you knew you had something special?

When we first showed a cut of the YouTube footage to Working Title, right at the start of the project. We used whatever he had, what Manish had in his book shelf, old video tapes, anything. Just using that footage and loading that and cutting it in together, that was the first moment we felt that this could really work. This could really work without interviews but there was a hell of a long way to go before we saw enough material to realise that it could really, really work. Even with the footage we had at the beginning, the YouTube stuff, I showed it to friends and people started crying. Just in that 11 minutes of footage it had the rivalry with Prost, it had them arguing, it had Imola and it had the funeral, so it had a lot of the key moments from the film. And it had humour in it as well, which was interesting and quite an important aspect. Early on we knew that we needed humour. To make the film more emotional and to like it you have got to laugh.

When you were cutting that first 11 minutes to show Working Title, had Manish already arced the story, as you’d eventually tell it?

I don’t think so. He had an outline before I came on board which was about 20 pages long but which was a much bigger, more general narrative about F1 with four different drivers. But as we were developing the story, editing one by one, we dropped the other drivers. What was interesting was Senna. It was really simple. But also in telling Senna’s story, I didn’t want do the thing where just because people have written books and highlighted famous incidents, then we have to put those in the film. That was a kind of constant backward and forward disagreement where we’d discuss the fact that everyone knows certain things that Senna’s famous for, but if it looks awful I was not going to put in the film.

What would be a good example of that?

People were saying, ‘Why don’t you put in Senna’s Donington lap, his most famous lap ever in 1993?’ But at that point of the story, just when he has won his three world championships, technology is coming in, the new Williams stuff is coming in. Now that is not the time to say he did a really great lap. It is undermining his achievements and where we are in the bigger picture and yet that moment comes up so many times at the screenings, from the fans, because they have all heard about it or seen it. I say, ‘Yes, but that looks rubbish. It really doesn’t look good.’ It’s Donington, with English weather and nobody is there; the shots are really bad and also we have to consider the story line. At that point in the story, we were trying to withhold the driving so that when you get to Imola you haven’t been in the car for a long time. There was always a very long decision process for everything.

When assembling all the footage, much of which is unseen, is there a piece of detective work you did that makes you especially proud?

There is one famous moment where Senna is driving in his car around Monaco for the first time and you hear him talking about how it’s like a drug. He says, ‘I wasn’t actually driving consciously. I was in another zone.’ That is a famous interview done by a Canadian journalist called Gerald Donaldson. It is mentioned in every book. People talk about it constantly because it is about that feeling of his body not consciously doing anything but making decisions at 200mph. It is very famous but no tapes existed of that. So we met the journalist, talked to him and he said he might well have a tape somewhere. No one has actually heard that tape before. People have rehashed the story but no one has actually heard Senna saying it. And then Donald came back months later and he sent it to us and we had the actual tape, one of those old fashioned cassettes.

Could you perhaps play the full interview on the DVD of the movie?

Well, exactly. Not only have we used the small section in the film, but because it was a long interview we have that on the DVD – which nobody has heard. It is a really fantastic interview where Senna talks in detail about what it means to him. It was taken just after he had been disqualified in 1989 so he is really at a lowish point, really questioning driving. It is a very, very interesting piece because we have seen interviews with him early on when he is almost a happy innocent still, but this is at a point when he had been cheated out of that Championship, so he is really questioning the people behind the sport, what it means to him and whether can he do this any more.

From where did you get the home-video footage of Senna, from his family?

It is all from Leo, his brother, the footage that we use. The family were really amazing. Manish was the main point of contact with them but I interviewed Viviane, his sister several times and we also met Senna’s mum, Neyde; we met Jani [nephew]; we met Bianca, his niece; Leonardo, his brother and we met his best mate. We spoke to Bruno [another nephew], who we got to know well. We got to know the family quite well. The one person who doesn’t like giving interviews is his dad. I think James and Manish bumped into him once in a car park but he doesn’t really do interviews and hasn’t for years. The whole thing is still quite heavy after all these years. There’s still a lot of pain there.

Senna was an outsider, really, much like your character in the film The Warrior. That must be a theme that interests you?

I think there is absolutely something in that. There is a hell of a lot themes that are similar to other work I have done, including that film: a person living in extreme circumstances. There’s the Arctic film I did as well [Far North]. Whether they are in the Arctic or in the racing-car environment, they are testing themselves against the environment and landscape that they are in. The idea of the outsider figure and the spiritual journey, that is something else I am interested in. Yes. And again Senna is not overtly the good guy; there are shades of grey. He is not your jolly, blonde, blue-eyed, obvious character. He is amazing-looking and amazingly interesting but he definitely has got an edge to him. I find that very interesting in a character.

His spiritual connection, especially to his life behind the wheel is captured vividly in the film…

That’s why I like him. I come from a religious background. It doesn’t mean that just because you might have experienced that you don’t do things that are a bit ‘iffy’. Life is complicated and balancing those two things is actually what Senna is about. It is about somehow him having faith, but also crashing into someone else on purpose. I think that is what makes it interesting, because it all answers itself at the end. He talks about God in a brilliant way, so eloquently in his second language, saying, ‘It doesn’t mean I am not mortal, it doesn’t mean I am not afraid or scared just because I believe in God’ and then there’s the tragedy of how he died, as an act of God. He could have walked away from that accident. At the end he looks so unhappy, so out of love with his sport, so out of love with driving and he is surrounded by corruption. And sadly he is not able to walk away. He can’t quit. I don’t know why, but I think that all pays off in the film.

source: ©