The name Ayrton Senna brings up powerful emotions for racing fans. To many, he is the greatest race driver to have ever pressed a pedal. His skill and nerve allowed him to do things on the track that no one had seen before or since. A much smaller group considers him a villain, a danger because of his single-mindedness and overpowering desire to win.
But to all, he was a genuinely remarkable human being who experienced an amazing ascent, racking up race wins, and never forgetting his roots. At a time of great poverty and unrest in his home country of Brazil, Senna was a beacon of light, a symbol of what Brazilians were capable of, and his people loved him.
Modern drivers, too, idolized Senna. Up and down today’s paddock, drivers still cite Ayrton Senna as the driver they loved while they were growing up and want most to emulate.
His impact on the sport was immeasurable. For example, when seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher learned that he had tied Senna in race wins, he was completely overcome with emotion, a rarity for the normally stoic German.
But Senna’s greatest accomplishments may have come off the track. It only became clear after his untimely death that Senna had been donating millions of his own money to charities for children in his home country. Despite growing up in somewhat privileged circumstances, Senna recognized the hardships that many of his countrymen faced and was most concerned about kids and their future.
His family adopted Ayrton’s passion and, after his death, established the Ayrton Senna Institute, which has helped to educate more than 12 million Brazilian children with funds from his estate.
Millions watch the Formula One circus as it travels the globe, but there are still many who don’t know who Ayrton Senna, one of the sport’s greatest heroes is. That will soon change, thanks to a documentary being released in the United States this week.
Senna is a film five years in the making. Its director, Asif Kapadia, has crafted a touching and heart-wrenching portrait of not just a race car driver, but a humble, warm and generous man. When Senna was shown at the Sundance Film Festival, it was given the coveted audience award for best documentary. Recently, we convinced you that Formula One is a great sport for geeks. Read on to learn why you should do whatever you can to watch the movie Senna.
Wired.com: Of all the stories in sport to tell, why did you choose to tell Ayrton Senna’s?
I have always been a big fan of all sport, I like to watch and play everything, so I remember watching Formula One when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were competing. It was one of those great rivalries, up there with Ali v Fraiser or McEnroe v Borg, so it was an easy decision for me to agree to direct the film, as it gave me a chance to bring my two passions of sport and cinema together in a single project.
There is something special about Ayrton Senna, something about his charisma, his intensity, his will to win. Also the fact that he was so famous, in a particular sport at a particular moment in time that there was so much footage to work with, quite early on I felt that we have the chance make something really special and cinematic here.
Wired.com: In many ways, it seems Senna has more popularity now than when he was alive. To what do you attribute this phenomenon?
Kapadia: Senna was a hero to Brazilians, he had the hopes and dreams of 160 million people following his every race, he was loved by the rich, poor, young, old, blacks, whites, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. Families gathered around the TV in the early hours to watch him race. He was their joy, their hope, the one person they could be proud of at a time when Brazil was in a terrible financial situation and only just coming out of years of a military dictatorship. The country was troubled by poverty and violence, a ‘third world’ country in the eyes of the world and Ayrton went to Europe, took on the Europeans at their own game and beat them and at the end of each race he would raise the Brazilian flag because he was proud, and Brazil loved him for it and that love has only grown over time.
Worldwide, I suppose a large part of his popularity is due to the internet, young people who were not born when he was racing can at any moment watch his genius on the track, see him make a car dance in the rain, they can see he was just faster, braver and more intelligent than anyone else.
Wired.com: There is a lot of great footage in this movie, some personal movies, some from the track. Can you speak a little bit about how you came to have access to all of this film?
Kapadia: Prior to my being involved in the film, James and Manish spent a couple of years bringing on Working Title Film and Universal and Studio Canal to finance [the movie], the Senna Family gave their permission to make the film and importantly they made an agreement with Bernie Ecclestone, the man who owns the commercial rights to Formula One, he is the F1 ringmaster and owns all of the racing footage during Senna’s era. The deal gave us exclusive access to his Formula One archive, no one had been in there before, we had permission to use 40 minutes of footage from the archive, the remainder of the film to be made up of ‘talking head’ interviews.
Once I came on board, I started to look at the footage, much of it on youtube, I couldn’t believe some of the scenes that I saw, I felt all of the answers were all there, we just had to trust the footage, let Ayrton narrate his inspirational story with his own words. This film didn’t need talking heads, a voice over or a narrator, we didn’t need to cut away to stills or computer generated driving shots, we had some of the most thrilling and visceral driving footage you could dream for.
While doing our research we interviewed the Senna family and met Leonardo Senna, Ayrton’s younger brother, he mentioned that when he was younger he had shot a lot of footage of Ayrton and the family on VHS, he trusted us enough to let us use these family home movies, which no one outside of the family had seen before.
Finally we had a brilliant team of researchers around the world, in Sao Paulo, Paris, Tokyo, Rome led by our archive producer Paul Bell, they would be looking at specific archives in their countries and would send us material all the time. If there as a gap in the narrative, we couldn’t write a scene and just go out and shoot it, we had to find the right material from somewhere in the world that plugged that particular hole in the story. It certainly wasn’t the easiest way to make the film, but we refused to break the dramatic tension by cutting to a present day talking head, we had to be brave and find a way to stay in the present.
Our aim was to make this a unique film which plays like a classic narrative drama with a three act structure, but the twist is that everyone is real, there are no actors, nothing has been scripted, we just wanted to show what happened at the time. The process of research, writing, shooting the audio interviews and editing was all happening at the same time and it took nearly three years, our brilliant team editors Gregers Sall and Chris King shaped, structured and paced the film to perfection. Antonio Pinto created an amazing score and the sound design team of Andy Shelley & Stephen Griffiths was also key, there was only so much we could do with the quality of images so Senna had to sound like an epic feature film, that was all important to make the film truly cinematic.
Wired.com: Senna is cited as a great influence by many current drivers. Did you consider including interviews with drivers like Lewis Hamilton or Felipe Massa to show his legacy?
Kapadia: If you ask anyone with any knowledge of the sport they will say Senna was the best of his generation, possibly the best of all time, he is the hero of pretty much all of the present F1 drivers and his legend has only grown over time.
We did interview Lewis Hamilton at the McLaren Technology Centre, it was a great interview but in the end we chose not to use it as he wasn’t there at the time when Ayrton was racing, we decided to stick with the drivers, team managers and journalists that played a part in Senna’s actual story.
Wired.com: How did you approach creating a film that would not only appeal to F1 fans, but also to people who have no idea who Ayrton Senna was?
Kapadia: The ultimate objective was to make a cinematic film which worked both for the fans and was exciting and emotional for people who hated sport, people who have never seen a formula one race in their lives, to be successful it had to engage and emotionally move people who have never heard of Ayrton Senna.
I have never made a documentary before, I’m a drama director and I don’t really like ‘talking heads’, voice over, ‘voice of god’ narrators or using stills, essentially I wanted to make a film for the cinema, using all of the techniques of a narrative drama. By doing the film this way I think straight away it has an appeal to non fans but most importantly it is our central character who does all of the hard work. Ayrton is so charismatic and his life was so exciting, visceral, thrilling and emotional. If we could get the nonfans into the cinema they would have the greatest journey to go on as they would be seeing F1 racing in all its glory for the first time on the big screen, they didn’t know about Ayrton’s amazing career, the ups of the downs or the tragedy of the Imola weekend, so the challenge was to get people into the cinema, once there were there, people just fell in love with Ayrton.
Wired.com: How did you convince the Senna family that you were the right people to tell Ayrton’s story?
Kapadia: This was down to the skills of producer James Gay-Rees, and writer and executive producer Manish Pandey, they flew to Sao Paulo and Manish did a 40-minute pitch explaining the story that they wanted to tell, Manish made it clear this was going to be a film celebrating Senna’s extraordinary life and career but which had to be honest and so it had to deal with the Imola weekend. Also the plan all along was for the film to be a documentary, not a fiction film, no actor would play Ayrton, and the intention was that Senna would be the narrator of his own life story.
Wired.com: How difficult was it to condense a career that spanned better than a decade into just 100 minutes?
Kapadia: Our biggest problem from day one was what to leave out. My first assembly was seven hours long, we actually projected a five hour cut at a screening room in London. Getting the length down to 100 minutes was very tough, it took nearly 2 and half years of editing and we had to remove many amazing, dramatic and powerful scenes. We all had to lose our favorite sequences to make the film as tight as possible.
Wired.com: A couple of key races were left out of the final film: At Spa in 1992, the incident during qualifying with Eric Comas – for a lot of people – is this touchstone, defining moment that epitomizes Ayrton Senna’s character. At the same time, squeezing Alain Prost against the pit wall in Portugal in ’88 was a moment when Senna was not in such a good light. But there were so many races to choose from, how did you decide which to include?
Kapadia: The moment when Ayrton jumps out of his car to help a fellow driver Eric Comas at Spa 1992 was one the last scenes which we removed from the film, it is an amazing and very powerful scene, perfectly summing up the man. But at that moment of the film, we needed to speed up the pace to be able to slow it down again so we could take out time with the Imola weekend. The scene is actually in the end roller as I refused to lose it entirely!
As I have explained before there were just too many key moments in the story and we had to make tough calls every day. We had to try to explain the elements of Ayrton’s character and his rivalry through action, so from very early on Manish Pandey gave us a short list of key races in Ayrton’s career; Monaco 1984, Senna’s first win in a Lotus, Monaco 1988, Japan 1988, 89, 90 & Brasil 1991 and San Marino 1994.
There wasn’t time in 100 minutes to go through every single beat of his rivalry with Alain Prost as one might do in a pure F1 doc, there would be too much racing and it only work for F1 fans. We wanted this film to be for fans of cinema so we chose to reveal on the rivalry though the major incidents like the accidents between Prost and Senna which led to championship wins.
Wired.com: With all the footage you reviewed, there has to be a lot you cut. Will any of these scenes make it to a bonus disk on a DVD release?
Kapadia: There are a lot of extras on the DVD and Blu-ray, we have an hour of the exclusive interviews that we shot with Alain, Ron Dennis, Sir Frank Williams, Richard Williams and John Bisignano.
We have the amazing 40-minute audio interview with Senna where he speaks about having an out of body experience when driving around Monaco in 1988, people know the quote but no one has actually heard Senna saying it. We also have more family videos, a full commentary from the producer, writer and myself, so plenty of material. I hope if the film does really well, we’ll one day find a way to put on some special screenings around the world of a longer cut, who knows, maybe we’ll screen a 5 hour cut!
Wired.com: The film has opened elsewhere to great accolades and praise. Is there any one comment or review that has made you especially proud?
Kapadia: May 2010, the Senna family were in Europe to watch Bruno Senna, Ayrton’s nephew, race in the Monaco Grand Prix. The producers hired a cinema in Cannes to show the family the final edit of the film for the very first time. It was the most tense and emotional screening of all.
At the end, as the lights came up, everyone was in tears, Ayrton’s sister Viviane Senna hugged us and said; “You have managed to find the perfect balance between the genius of the driver in the car and the humanity of the man away from the track.”
That was a really special moment for James, Manish and me.
Wired.com: Over the long journey of making this movie, reviewing all of the footage, reading interviews and background material and conducting interviews, you were probably able to create a very detailed picture this man’s life. How would you describe who Ayrton Senna was?
Kapadia: He was a very special man, I have seen thousands of hours of material and believe me what is shown in the film is what we found. The more I see of him, the more I listen to him speak, he is so intelligent and eloquent, the more I like him! He is unique, a sporting genius but yet he remained humble. I love the complexity of the man; even though he was the toughest driver on the track, he cared the most about safety and his fellow drivers off the track.
Hopefully our film will show a new generation why he was so special, not just for his achievements in a car but for what he stood for as a man away from the track; he fought corruption, he refused to quit and he wasn’t afraid to fight for what he believed in.
What Parents Need to Know About Senna
- Senna is a documentary opening in Los Angeles and New York on August 12. The movie will be opening elsewhere around the country throughout the rest of the year.
- The film is rated PG-13 for profanity (including a handful of f-bombs) and disturbing images (car wrecks, including one intense image, though not bloody or gory.).
- Younger kids may lose interest because a healthy portion of the film is subtitled.
- The movie has a running time of an hour and 45 minutes.
- Senna is an exceptional documentary. If you’re a race fan or this interview piqued your interest, you should see it. There are reports of people driving 900 miles to see the movie and it’s completely understandable – it really is that good.