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Asif Kapadia – Life in the Fast Lane

The stunning documentary SENNA paints a passionate and emotional portrait of racing legend Ayrton Senna, and is told entirely through archive footage. Here, director Asif Kapadia reveals how he put the film together, and why it was a gamble worth taking.

I’m a big sports fan, and I was watching and playing sport long before I had any interest in cinema or filmmaking. I’m fascinated by the characters, drama, psychology, rivalry, politics and corruption that go on behind the scenes. Making Senna gave me a chance to bring my two passions of sport and cinema together in a project.

I watched Ayrton Senna winning his world titles, remembered his rivalry with Alain Prost and was watching the Imola race [the site of Senna’s fatal crash] live—but I’m not an authority on Senna or Formula One. In fact, it was my producer, James Gay-Rees, who had the initial idea to make a documentary about Ayrton; he approached Working Title Films and chairman Eric Fellner gave the project the go-ahead. At WT James was introduced to Manish Pandey, the writer and executive producer—and one of the most passionate Senna fans you could ever meet. James and Manish flew to Sao Paulo and pitched their idea to the Senna family, who gave their permission for us to make the film about Ayrton. Finally James and Manish looked for directors and contacted me, as they had both seen and liked The Warrior. I jumped at the chance; I couldn’t believe my luck!

I had just come off a tough shoot in the Arctic with Far North, where the location and the look of the film had almost taken over the production. I was interested in the idea of doing something which was the complete opposite and testing myself by making a film about a real person, a film where I would have little or no control over the images, where it had to work through the strength of storytelling and character.

The biggest problem was finding a way to make it cinematic and emotionally engaging. How do we create a film that works for an audience not into sport? How to make them care about a person who drives round in circles, in a car painted like cigarette packet? Once I started to look at the original material I felt all the answers were there. We just had to trust the footage and let Ayrton tell his inspirational story.

Manish and James met with the head of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone, in order to get access to the archive at Biggin Hill. Bernie owns every image shot on camera at a F1 meeting during the period we cover, so without his permission, we had no film. He liked us and gave us the go-ahead. In fact, we were the first people to have full access to the Formula One Management archive; no one had been in there before.

The process of turning the footage into a seamless narrative—researching, writing, shooting and editing—was all happening at the same time. We were finding material via YouTube or from our brilliant team of researchers, cutting it, rewriting the script, doing research interviews to check our facts and then re-cutting. Fantastic new material would appear, we’d incorporate it and, of course, the script would change again.

If there was a gap in the narrative, we couldn’t just write a scene and go out and shoot it, we had to find footage from somewhere in the world that plugged that particular story beat. It certainly isn’t the easiest way to make the film, but we refused to break the dramatic tension by cutting to a filmed interview; we had to be brave and find a way to stay in the moment.

Our biggest problem was what to leave out. My first assembly was seven hours long; we actually projected a five-hour cut at a screening room in Soho and the crew had to bring a packed lunch! Getting the story down to 100 minutes was tough, as we had to lose many amazing, dramatic, funny scenes.

For me, the biggest issue was staying with my gut instinct, that we could make the film entirely with archive footage. Most documentaries feature ‘talking heads’ with the main protagonists, so it was a gamble to not use them and to make the film the way we did.

The real surprise has been the amazing reaction from people who dislike sport, have no interest in F1, or who have never heard of Senna. That audience has the greatest journey to go on. Most people fall in love with Ayrton; he moves and inspires them.

The response in the US has been fantastic, particularly as this is a country where we were told there was no chance of a cinematic release—no one watches F1 there, or has heard of Ayrton Senna. So for me that was the real test; we wanted to see if the film could stand up as a piece of cinema. When Senna won the World Cinema Audience Award for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, it was like a dream come true. I think it gave everyone hope that we might have something interesting here.

There is certainly something very powerful about watching real people and real drama on a big screen. The audience knows they are not watching actors, so they engage in a different way. In terms of making a successful film, I don’t think there is a huge difference between documentary or fiction films. The same rules apply; you need a great story to tell, a strong central character. You want to make the audience laugh, make them cry; take them on an emotional ride so, even if they already know the ending—as many people did with Senna—they still want to experience the extraordinary journey.

Senna himself was passionate, exciting and thrilling. He spoke his mind and stood up for what he believes in; he refused to give up. I hope people will be inspired and moved by his story. •

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 22 (May/June 2011)

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