One of the immediate reactions to watching Senna – after you’ve wiped away the tears – is to wonder how the makers managed to find so much incredible footage of the greatest racing driver who ever lived.
In fact, BAFTA-winning director Asif Kapadia had the opposite problem. “Working Title gave me seven months without really any pressure to just look at everything and put it together,” he tells GQ.com
. “I was just getting whatever we could find – there’d be a shot that would come from Japan, another shot that would come from Brazil, another shot that would come from Italy, and they all fitted together. The first cut was seven hours long then we cut that down to a really tight five hours. They just kept saying, ‘Go away and cut.’ The three-hour cut went down reasonably well…”
At 106 minutes, the whizz-by final cut is an even more remarkable achievement given that by his own admission Kapadia is not that much of an F1 fan. “For whatever reason it didn’t happen with anyone else and they came to me,” he explains. “I knew who Senna was: I watched his races, I remembered the rivalry with Prost, I watched Imola live. But also I was enough of an outsider to say when looking at the material to say ‘No one cares about the points system. No one cares about the tires.’ The whole film became three years of a process of eliminating elements until we were left with the movie we have now.”
Thanks to unprecedented access to F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone’s archives – and the absence of talking heads – it comes across less like a documentary than a hidden-camera show. “It’s almost like The Truman Show,” agrees Kapadia. “He lived his life on camera. You can’t believe it was all done on camera and in a way where people are not playing up to the camera. They’re ignoring it because they know no one’s going to see the footage.” Until now. Here Kapadia talks us through the key scenes that sum up his subject, the best ones that were left on the cutting room floor and why you don’t have to be an F1 fan to watch the film.
“For me the go-karting footage is just magical. Supposedly his mum had said that he wasn’t particularly good with coordination and he was always dropping things. But from the age of three he was driving and racing. And he’s just genius. He had this thing from very early on that if it was raining, that’s when he wanted to go and race. He lost a race once in the rain – he couldn’t keep his kart on the track – so whenever it rained he wanted to go and practise, which all led to him becoming so good in the rain in Formula One. That footage is brilliant because all he wanted to do in life was drive fast with a pedal: push your foot down to go quick, take your foot off to slow down.
To find that footage in an archive in France and separately to find this interview that he gave in 1993 before the Australian Grand Prix [in which Senna cites little-known, Norwich-born go-kart driver Terry Fullerton as the opponent he’s had the most satisfaction racing against, not Prost] – which happened to be the final race that Prost had in Formula One and Senna’s final race at McLaren – to find these two things in different parts of the world… That’s what film-making is. You put them together and go, ‘Wow, that’s magical.”
“Brazil, 1991, when he wins at home. One of the clichés of F1 is people spraying champagne on the podium but this transcends that. There’s something particularly special about it because of the pain he’s in, because he had to drive in sixth gear. What I like about that race is that we don’t even have to show another car, because he’s racing himself. It’s an internal battle: ‘I have to win for you guys and I’m not going to quit.’ People at the time said, ‘Yeah right, we don’t believe that he didn’t have any gears, it’s not possible.’ The footage shows you: it’s a manual car and he doesn’t take his hands off the steering wheel when he goes around a corner. I love that race. There’s a little moment when his dad comes up to him and because Senna’s in so much pain he just says, ‘Touch me gently.’ His dad gives him a kiss. Anyone else comes near him and he says, ‘Don’t touch me!’ It covers all of the aspects of his character.”
“The Jackie Stewart interview in 1990 after Senna shunted Prost at the first corner of the Japanese Grand Prix] is just a classic. Two-time world champion Senna arguing with three-time world champion Stewart calling him ‘Jack’ and saying, ‘You are very experience driver.’ What I love is Senna’s not taking his foot off the pedal and if Prost doesn’t get out of the way he’s going to have a crash. McLaren don’t look particularly proud of him when he comes back to the pits and he doesn’t look particularly happy with himself either. But in a way I love that argument because of the way he expresses his thinking: ‘If not I’m winning, if I don’t see a gap and go for it, I’m not a racing driver.’ At the end of it I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m with you.’ It wins me over. I love that intensity, that passion. That’s what sums him up. That’s why other drivers look up to him.”
“Originally the opening of the film was all about Brazil in the Sixties and the state it was in. It was a military dictatorship, in a really bad way; a lot of violence, police beatings. It was a really powerful opening: you think you’re watching this film about a racing driver and in fact you’re watching this film about Brazil and the state of the world. Then there was this hard cut to this boy driving a go-kart and somebody holding a piece of card with ‘Brazil’ handwritten on it. And you think, ‘What? Brazil’s in a mess and this is the guy that’s going to come and save us.’ I really loved that opening. But we made a decision to go a different way.”
“There was one scene that I really loved where he’s on Japanese game show in the Eighties or Nineties. This woman presenter comes up to him and says, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ There and then he grabs a pen and signs her chest. She justscreamsand all the crowd start screaming. It’s an amazing scene of how famous he has become – she’s been touched by God type of thing. It was the funniest gag in the movie. But the problem is when you make a documentary, once you’ve made the film you have to clear every single shot. France has very particular rules on personal images; Japan is the same. So we had to then go and clear every single person in the shot. I think we’d completed the film but then I had to lose the scene and it was one of my absolute favourites.”
“The very first time Senna finishes an F1 race [in South Africa] he ends up in hospital, in a neck brace. He’s in so much pain because the car is so hard to drive that he’s lying in a hospital bed in a neck brace. And Globo TV breaks in to the hospital and does an interview with him. Again, it kind of works on two levels. The very first time he finishes an F1 race it ends with him in hospital, and we know how the film is going to end. Secondly Globo still conducts an interview and it sort of sets up that this is going to be a bit unusual; this is really access-all-areas. It’s funny because Globo is making jokes and Senna’s in so much pain he can’t laugh. It’s a great scene but again we lost it.”
“F1 fans often say, ‘Oh why didn’t you put that in, why didn’t you put that in?’ People who are not huge F1 fans often get more from the film and it’s really important to get that across. You don’t have to be someone who likes walking a tightrope across the Twin Towers to watch Man On Wire. You don’t have to like being punched in the head to watch When We Were Kings. You don’t have to like watching racing cars to watch Senna. There’s just something about him.”
source: © gq-magazine.co.uk