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For filmmaker Asif Kapadia (The Warrior, Far North), documentary films were never part of his oeuvre. And when it came to the way he spent his recreational hours, Formula One racing never factored in to his life. But that didn't deter him from diving head-first into making Senna, a powerful documentary that uses found footage to tell the life and death of F1 racer Ayrton Senna.
On a rainy day in June, 1984, Formula One got its first real taste of the sport’s newest and soon-to-be brightest star. Ayrton Senna, a fiery young Brazilian driver from Sao Paolo, wouldn’t seem the most likely candidate for the top racer in a sport dominated by European drivers and watched primarily by fans in the United Kingdom. But Senna's decade-long career in the sport brought him 41 wins and three world championships, and earned him the wide regard of being one of the greatest Formula One racers of all time.
For a young man who had political stakes and fierce rivalries weighing down on him right until the tragic end of his life, Senna consistently remained a force to be reckoned with both on and off the track. And luckily, all of his career was caught on tape. Always one to stand his ground for something he believed in, Senna’s remarkable legacy still echoes through F1 to this day. Perhaps that’s why BAFTA award-winning director Asif Kapadia felt that his story had to be told, despite his subject not being available for interviews.
When we talked with Kapadia about his first-ever documentary Senna, he opened up about working with archival television footage, the power of social media, his distaste for talking heads, and how he learned about Formula One from square…well, one.
Tribeca: I understand you weren’t really knowledgeable about F1 or about Ayrton when you started.
Asif Kapadia: I watched it, but I was in no way an authority. And I knew of him as a driver, [but] I didn’t really know that much of him as a man. I had a long journey to go on. The writer Manish Pandey was really the guy on the team who knew everything. It was a good balance to have someone like that to work with because he was able to structure the story. He was the person who was able to say, “This is a really important moment in his career.”
Then we’d look at the footage, and my job was to turn it into a movie. The creative team—James Gay-Rees (the producer), Manish, me, and the editors, Chris King and Gregers Sall—together for 3 years tried to turn these thousands of hours of material into a movie.
Tribeca: So all of the footage you worked with was F1 stock footage, Senna family home movies and some YouTube footage?
You have to get [the audience] into the style of it early on. Technically it’s quite poor in the beginning, and as it goes on it gets better and better.
Tribeca: It’s very interesting that one can chart the chronology of the film through the evolution of the image quality.
Tribeca: So, using entirely stock footage was actually sort of an advantage?
Asif Kapadia: For sure, yeah. I don’t like talking heads. I don’t really do that in my films. I don’t like voiceovers. I don’t like cutting to stills to explain something. The footage and the pictures have to tell the story. And in this case they did. They showed us everything.
These [F1] guys have been interviewed thousands of times. I didn’t want to get their version of the story in hindsight, which is very different from what they felt at the time. It would have been very political. Everyone is going to give you their spin. But we didn’t want to do that. The clue is in the title: it’s Senna’s movie, he’s going to narrate it. The idea was to stick with Senna and let him narrate his life story. If there’s a gap, get him to tell us what he thought at the time, not someone else’s opinion now. And of course, I could talk to everyone but Senna.
Tribeca: With your narrative films, the visual element is so important. I’m wondering if that comes from your education, or if every story that you tell has to have potential to be visually interesting or you don’t sign on for it?
Asif Kapadia: I came from studying graphics and art at the Royal College of Art. I like cinema to be cinema, not to be television on the big screen. Cinema came from silent movies; it came from images and pictures. Hitchcock is my hero, and that’s how he told stories: through the image. That was something that was always interesting to me. I suppose this was the challenge for me: to take on a challenge where I would have no control over the image. I wanted to do the opposite of what I’m known for. I’m going to do the film that literally is just story and character. I don’t care what it looks like, and in a way I think it works. By not cutting to talking heads, you take the genre and you twist it slightly to make it cinematic. I think it looks great now, and it looks right.
Tribeca: When Senna is on camera, he has a performative side and a more personal side, but there’s also this other side to him that is very spiritual. Do you feel like that comes out no matter what he’s talking about? Do you think you can’t talk about Senna without talking about spirituality?
Asif Kapadia: Spirituality is a character in the film. That was a part of him. The more I talk to journalists here, they say “Yeah, all sportsmen talk about God,” but I think it’s slightly different in this case. [Senna] would very rarely do it in English because he would get attacked by the English and French journalists. He would do it, in a way, speaking to his Brazilian audience. It’s much more personal for him.
Spirituality is important in his story because the first time he gets in a car, he’s not acting when he says, “I thank God for giving me this chance.” The last time he gets in a car, he reads the Bible before he gets in the car. And his accident—what happens is an act of God. It’s a freak occurrence. It’s a part of his life and his death, tragically. It wasn’t just something he said on camera because it might appeal to certain people; it really was a part of him. It’s a part of the culture, and it was a private thing. He was attacked for it by other drivers and by journalists, so his spirituality is important because it isn’t just a throw away thing. It’s a part of him and what he was.
Others thought that it made him dangerous. If you think God’s on your side and you’re driving 200 miles an hour—As Alain Prost says in the film, “He thinks he can’t get hurt.” And I love Senna’s answer. He says “Just because I believe in God doesn’t mean I’m immortal. I know I can get hurt.” I love it because whenever he’s questioned, he’s so eloquent in the way he answers any arguments.
Tribeca: You’ve made a point to mention elsewhere that social media was a big part of all this. You touched on this a little bit in your piece for Future of Film, but I want to know a little more.
What we realized is that the old-fashioned model of how you sell a film—spending money on posters, TV advertising, and all of that—it kind of works, but also it’s old. There’s another way to have a direct contact with the audience, which is to be able to be available. Rather than somebody trying to contact the distribution company who may pass it on and it eventually gets to me, and by then it’s too late, now we’ll say, “We’re showing the film at Sundance! If you’re into Senna, go and see it.” We didn’t have a PR person, we didn’t have a publicist, we didn’t spend a penny on advertising. And in a country where no one watches Formula One and no one knows who Senna is, we sold out every screening at Sundance.
Tribeca: But starting way back when you made that first tweet, how did you start finding people?
Asif Kapadia: Because Manish is the Formula One guy, he knew Formula One journalists. It really started in the UK when journalists started seeing the film and started talking about it. If you were writing a blog in the UK, people in America are reading that blog, people in Brazil are reading that blog, people in Asia. They all started asking, “When can we see it? When is it coming out here?” and that started to grow and grow. Every day I’m getting a message from Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, and it becomes normal, doesn’t it? You don’t worry about where people are.
The process started when we were making the film, actually. That’s when people would ring us up and say, “We’re Senna fans, how can we help? What do you need?” Journalists would say, “I’ve interviewed him, can we get you the audio tapes?” While we were making the film, people would ring us up and say, “You let me know what you need. We want to help.” The composer is from Brazil; he rung us and said, “I hear you’re doing this Senna film and I want to do the music.”
Tribeca: Do you think that the Facebook and Twitter campaign has been more effective than having just a website? Or do you think that a website is still necessary?
Asif Kapadia: The website is still necessary because there are film people who need certain information. But right now, it’s the Twitter and the Facebook sites that are running the show. On the other side, it’s really journalists and word of mouth. I think the fans are a different community that those who would read the film mags. What’s happening on this film is that people who have not been to the cinema for 20 years are going to see the movie. All of the cinemas in the UK are saying, “This is not the normal crowd that come to an independent cinema.” Men are proudly tweeting “I cried and I don’t ever cry!”
Not only has the family not had a chance to mourn, but the fans didn’t have a chance. It happened on TV. What are you going to do? You cried at home and it was a very personal thing. The fans go out, they all wear their caps and their t-shirts and they quite happily cry for the guy that they loved. And then other people who’ve never seen him cry because they’re like, “Why did I never hear about this guy?”
Find Senna on Facebook and Twitter.
Watch the official trailer: