Last night, the blistering British film Senna won BAFTAs for Best Documentary and Best Editing. To celebrate, we are re-posting this piece by its writer and producer, ManishPandey.

Locanda Locatelli, June 2005.

James Gay-Rees – an urbane, hip and impossibly lanky independent film producer; Celso Lemos, Commercial Director for the Instituto Ayrton Senna – a charitable foundation set up to educate underprivileged Brazilian children – and I are at a corner table talking about the possibility of making a documentary for the cinema on the life of Ayrton Senna.

Celso is warm, his English has that nasal quality, that rhythm and those soft consonants that Brazilians bring to our language.  He smiles a lot and asks clever questions, trying to discover what James and I really want to make the film about.  It is actually a very good question…

In May 2004, James comes across a series of articles in The Times marking the 10th anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna – who some believe was the greatest motor-racing driver of all time.  The articles pique James’s interest, not because he is a motor-racing fan (James loves Liverpool FC) but because something of his teenage years resonates within him.  James remembers his father (who handled the John Player Special Formula One account) telling him about this ‘otherworldly driver’ he had just met; this driver who had an intensity about him; this driver who was, in some way, just ‘different to the others’ – Ayrton Senna.

The articles and the memory combine and James has that moment of inspiration: he wants to make a film about the last three days in the life of Ayrton Senna, who was so tragically killed at the San Marino Grand Prix in the spring of 1994.  The idea is so powerful, so dramatically complete, that James sets it up at Working Title Films (usually, a powerhouse of romantic comedies) as their first feature documentary for the cinema.

Celso is wary of such ideas.  The Senna family have been receiving variations on this ‘pitch’ twice a year for the last decade – sometimes thinly veiled, sometimes very cleverly disguised – but always about Senna’s death.  It is not the way they want him remembered.

Above a tailor’s shop in Soho, October 2004.  I meet James for the first time in his one room office and I listen intently as he pitches me this idea.  I shake my head ‘No’ – I don’t want to make this film. James asks me why.  Because to make a film about the death of Ayrton Senna is to miss the point of his life – a life which, as a fan, I witnessed in real time; a life on and off the track; a life which took a 24-year-old boy from Sao Paulo and made him the biggest sporting icon on the planet – a life which was taken away as 300 million people watched live on television, on May 1st 1994.  Senna’s story is, for me, the story of man – of his quest for perfection in this worldly life and of his journey home to God.

Instead of shaking my hand and showing me the door, James is rapt. ‘Can you get something down on paper?’ he asks. A month later, I have a ten page outline of ‘The Life and Death of Ayrton Senna’ – a blueprint for the film far more complete than any retrospective of his life, told from the perspective of the weekend of his death.

Over pasta, Celso listens, asks more questions, probes – then can’t help himself from grinning.  He hugs us at the table and says that he loves what we are trying to do: it is a fresh approach, built on a foundation of knowledge (unlike most filmmakers who crib a few sheets of statistics or read the usual unauthorised biographies) and he agrees to open the door to Senna family: the door to Viviane Senna, Senna’s sister, and guardian of his name.

BA 747, March 2006, sometime around midnight.  I am thinking of my three-week -old baby boy as the plane taxis, turns onto the runway and the engines howl – but then quieten. The Captain explains that a warning light has come on and the flight to Sao Paulo is cancelled.  James and I are on our mobile phones, immediately. We have been waiting months for our meeting with Viviane and now we are going to miss it – this is insane. We explain the situation to Celso who tells us to remain calm – he will see what he can do…

The BA check-in at Guarulhos Airport, Sao Paulo, four days later. As I wait, holding a cuddly dog under my left arm for my son, my mind wonders back to the small conference room at the Instituto Ayrton Senna, three days earlier.  I was checking a slideshow that I had put together with my words and some music when Viviane walked into the room.  Her presence was electrifying – James felt it too – and, somehow, we knew that this was all going to be fine.  She sat six inches to my right, with Senna’s niece, Bianca, six inches to my left, surrounded by four other Brazilians with James behind them – all staring at my computer screen.  Viviane began to cry almost as I began and, for the next 40 minutes, listened through tears as I told her brother’s story.  By the end, everyone was crying.  Then she stood and embraced me and whispered ‘You really knew my brother’.

It is my turn to check in for the flight home.  The beautiful Brazilian BA attendant looks up from my passport and says ‘We have upgraded you to First Class, sir – enjoy your flight.’

Queens Gate, May 2006

Viviane has opened the doors of FOM (Formula One Management) to us and Bernie Ecclestone walks into a small office remarkable for a sculpture of a million dollars on a low ledge. We need his footage if we are going to make this film.  The meeting is just 17 minutes long and Bernie doesn’t even sit.  But he does listen – and then shakes James’s and my hands with the words ‘Give us what you can and we’ll see what we can do!’ – and he is gone.

Another Film Company in Soho, July 2007.  Asif Kapadia, bespectacled, swarthy, eternally wearing a backpack, bounces into a room that has a glass-topped table football pitch as a conference table.  He won two BAFTAs for his first feature film, The Warrior, and comes to film from a Royal College of Art background: Asif is all about the visual.  James has warned me that he has a reputation for being difficult, something which I will learn first hand over the next three years.  ‘What do you think of my outline?’ I ask.  ‘I love it,’ he says, ‘When do we begin?’

Universal Studios, Los Angeles, June 2008.

Another conference room, waiting for the Head of the Studio and Head of Production to appear – to whom I am going to ‘pitch’ Senna.  I have a secret weapon for this meeting to augment my words: Asif and I have made a 12 minute version of the film with footage culled from my old Formula One tapes.  Whilst making it, Asif turned to me and said ‘I think we can do the whole film without talking heads – just tell the entire story with footage.’  Universal love it – Senna is ‘greenlit’.

Over the next two years, the solitude of my laptop and the darkness of the editing room is punctuated by trips to Paris to interview Alain Prost (who does thousand- piece jigsaw puzzles when he isn’t cycling stages of the Tour de France, at the age of 55); to McLaren’s incredible factory to enrol Ron Dennis; to Grove where we meet Frank Williams and to Brazil to ask the Sennas their incredible stories.

But one interview stands out for me, perhaps because I am a doctor. Professor Sid Watkins, the wise old British Neurosurgeon and Formula One doctor, tells the story of a friendship with Senna – who was like a son to him – that spanned a decade and which ended on May 1st 1994, when he pulled ‘his lad’ from the car and knew he would succumb to his terrible injuries.  He is weeping as speaks and tearing sugar packets, very neatly. ‘I hope you’re not going to make a film just about his death, old boy?’ he asks.  ‘No Prof,’ I reply, ‘It’s about his life and death.’

Cannes, May 2010

In a small cinema, just off the Croisset, the film (complete but with temporary sound and time codes under the picture) is playing to an audience of six Brazilians, James, Asif and me.  I am sitting between Viviane and Bianca and they are crying again because film has this incredible power: Senna has been alive for 70 minutes.  Now, as the film approaches Imola, I exchange seats with Bianca so that she can hold her mother’s hand because over the next 15 minutes, he dies.  They are amazed by the film, amazed at its power – we are overwhelmed when Viviane says ‘You did it – you captured not only the genius, but also the humanity.’

Working Title Films, October 2010

The Japanese poster for the film is on proud display in the foyer. It is beautiful, with Senna’s otherworldly eyes peering from inside his visor, looking up at heaven.  My name is on it, along with ‘James Gay-Rees’, ‘Asif Kapadia’ and ‘Eric Fellner’, co-chairman of the company, who has supported us through throughout.

Six years have passed since James and I first spoke in a Soho office above dusty, brown-suited mannequins, and three since Asif bounded in. Someone said to me at the beginning, ‘Be careful about working on projects about your heroes – you won’t like what you find by the end.’  But I can say that my appreciation of the immensity of Senna’s life and the tragedy of his death is greater now that it was before I embarked on this journey – and that you only make your first film once and that I sailed under a lucky star to have been involved with this.

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