A new film about racing legend Ayrton Senna puts you in the cockpit with him. Asif Kapadia explains how he did it.

When I was given the opportunity to direct Senna, I decided the film had to work for audiences who disliked sport, or had never seen a Formula One race in their lives. It had to thrill and emotionally engage people who had never heard of Ayrton Senna.

I was a sports fan long before I had any interest in film-making. I used to watch everything – football, boxing, cricket – and on Sunday afternoons Formula One was always on in the background. Before this film, I’d only ever been to one race. I worked with Michelle Yeoh on my last film, Far North, and her partner is Jean Todt; at the time, he ran Ferrari. So I went as a VIP to the British grand prix. I was in the pit with the team during the qualifying and was so nervous someone was going to trip over my foot. It was unbearably loud, and there were two real VIPs with me, Gianluca Vialli and Frankie Dettori; I could sense they could tell I didn’t belong there.

I had always wanted to combine my two passions: sport and cinema. Boxing is made for film – there is corruption, violence, tragedy and the chance that the underdog can catch the champion with one lucky punch. Formula One is like boxing. It’s a circus that travels the world, it’s political, and “team-mates” are the greatest of rivals. The rules change all the time, the points system is complicated, and the person who crosses the line first doesn’t always win.

I came to the film not knowing much about Senna off the track. Now he’s up there with other sporting heroes. Like Muhammad Ali, he was intelligent and eloquent, explaining what was going on in his head, even in his second language. Alain Prost, his great rival, was all about the points, but Senna existed to win. It didn’t come naturally for him to slow down and preserve the tyres. He went all out.

I had a rule with the film: if we can’t show it, we can’t put it in. Fortunately, Senna was constantly followed by a camera at the height of his fame: whether it was Globo TV from Brazil, Fuji from Japan, his brother’s VHS camera or the Formula One crews. Rather than shooting it, we scripted it and then sent word to our researchers in London, Japan and Rio to find the shots to fit. While they looked for that footage, something else would pop up. There was so much available that it enabled us to make a “true fiction” film that works like a three-act drama. There are no talking-head interviews, but I didn’t shoot a frame of the film. There is no voiceover filling in the gaps. Senna narrates his own life story.

He died in 1994, at Imola in Italy. When the sport’s biggest star, a man who doesn’t make mistakes, dies on the track, everything changes: the cars, circuits, helmets. Nobody will ever know exactly what happened, but we can be sure he didn’t make a mistake. It was a freak set of circumstances: something was wrong with the car, it hit the wall at a certain angle, the wheel came off, hit him on the head and killed him.

We made the big decision not to use live TV racing footage in the movie: instead we reconstructed the races from other bits of film that essentially put you in the car with Senna, giving you a sense of how fast he is going. My favourite part of the film is his win at Interlagos in 1991. It sums up everything about Senna. He was so far ahead; there are no other cars visible – then the gears go on the car and he brings it home, the last seven laps, in sixth gear. At the time, it wasn’t thought possible to drive a Formula One car in one gear. But we have the footage: his hand never leaves the steering wheel. He gave everything to win.

There’s a lot of love for Senna all over the world. He inspired people. And in Brazil it was special. The country was coming out of dictatorship, it was considered part of the developing world, and he was out there competing with the best driver, Prost, and the best team, McLaren. He made Brazilians proud again. It was a huge responsibility for me not to mess this film up.

source: © guardian.co.uk