27 May 2011 by Keith Collantine

Senna was not the first film about the life of Ayrton Senna to be approved by his family.

The year after his death, Senna’s relatives approved plans for a feature film with a $100m budget in which Antonio Banderas was set to play the part of Senna. It was never made.

Fast-forward 11 years to March 2006, and Manish Pandey along with fellow executive produce James Gay-Rees were at the Instituto Ayrton Senna in Sao Paulo, preparing to pitch their concept to Senna’s sister and mother.
One Senna film pitch every month

They had already met a representative of the family, Celso Lemos, in London the previous year. He told them the family received a “serious offer” about doing something similar at least once per month.

Pandey relates the story of the meeting: “At lunch James, Celso and I just spoke and something clicked.

“He realised we were very sincere in what we were up to and were willing to go as long as it took – and that we weren’t out to make ‘The Death of Ayrton Senna’. He admitted at the end ‘I get all these offers and I basically know it’s all about the death of Ayrton Senna because that’s what everyone’s heard of.’

“That parallels with something Ron Dennis told us. He said ‘What I find very difficult to deal with is the fact that he drove for us for six years, yet the biggest images of this man are in white and blue at his death.’

“It really sticks in Ron’s throat – purely in a sense that, yes, Senna’s death was monumental but that’s not the thing to remember him by. And the Sennas were never interested in doing that.”

“At the end of lunch Celso embraced us both – it was incredibly emotional, actually, because I’m a fan, and I was sitting there with someone who was a heartbeat away from what I’d always cared the most about, outside my family. He was really responding to what I wanted to write.

“Afterwards he said, ‘I think you’ll do it’, which I thought was an amazing thing to say to two people he’d never met before.”
“You really knew my brother”

Celso arranged for Pandey to do a presentation for the family in Sao Paulo at the Instituto:

“I did a 40-minute presentation going through from this young man arriving in Formula 1 on a rainy day in Monaco and ending with photos of Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost as they are now, dissolving into the bronze statue of Senna at Imola – so he was the immortal one, if you like.”

Pandey recalls that within a few minutes of the presentation starting Senna’s mother started to weep. By the end the whole family were in tears: “I remember having to stop and say ‘please don’t cry, because if you cry, I’ll cry, and then we won’t get anywhere!’”

Despite the melancholy tone Pandey made it clear that he would not overlook the controversial moments in Senna’s career:

“In that presentation I could and I remember thinking ‘don’t be scared, it’s OK talking about the dark side of Senna because you’ve got to do it at some point’. The worst thing would have been to be really dishonest and then come back and say we wanted to put this and that in.

“So I talked about the British media’s response to him, the incidents with Mansell, and they all responded to that. They were very objective people and I think they understand that you can’t go off into some weird hagiography. If you do that, no-one enjoys it, it’s a cartoon.

“The last few slides were of him after the accident, the helicopter. The whole room was crying and she hugged me and said ‘you really knew my brother’. That was the most incredible thing because I’d never met him.

“They said ‘yes’ – but it took us two years to complete the deal after that.”

Pandey returned to Brazil the following year in November to introduce them to Asif Kapadia, who by then had come on board as director. In the meantime they had cut together a short demo version of the film:

“I had all my F1 tapes and there’s also YouTube which you can download clips from, and we made a little ten-minute movie in three acts. We showed it to the people here [at Working Title] and they suddenly understood the film.”
Talking heads

This led them to one of the film’s most powerful devices. Unusually for a documentary, it avoids the use of ‘talking head’ interviews, relying on pre-recorded voiceovers instead. Pandey explains: “Asif was the one who said to me ‘I don’t think we need talking heads’.

The abundance of footage of Senna allowed them that luxury: “This guy had been filmed from so many different angles.

“There was something organic about it as well – it starts off in really low resolution but by the end of his life he was being shot in really fantastic film.”

Pandey created a 256-page, colour-coded script to organise all the material they had found – and hoped to find:

“Everything in black was something I had seen and transcribed. Everything in green was something I’d read and purple was descriptions of events in books which might not have been filmed. “And then there was light blue – for footage I wished existed!” The next step was an exhaustive process of interviewing:

“We wrote up a list of 63 people we thought we should interview. We knew we had to interview Senna’s mum and Vivianne – his father’s never, ever given an interview.

“We knew we had to interview Alain [Prost] and Ron Dennis.”

These are four of the ten people who are heard during the film. The others include Frank Williams, Professor Sid Watkins, Brazilian F1 presenter Reginaldo Leme and The Guardian’s Richard Williams.

Pandey also approached Pierre van Vliet, formerly of French channel TF1: “one of those rare people who was very good friends with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna”.

The tenth voice is of John Bisigniano. Pandey described this as a “controversial” choice but says: “If you look in 1990, John does all the best commentary in Suzuka. He’s the guy who grabs Ayrton in the pit lane.”

The commentaries turn the assembled footage into a narrative: “We let them say it in their own words, we tried it out, and if it didn’t absolutely work we would get them to re-record certain sections, make them shorter and so on.

“The journalists became the glue. But then we had that age-old problem which is you know what the key moments are in the story and you’re trying desperately hard to illustrate them.”

The key to that was getting the footage – and that meant a visit to meet Bernie Ecclestone.

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