Poster of the Formula One documentary Senna

Poster for the documentary

With the new documentary Senna, director Asif Kapadia has made an enthralling tribute to Brazilian Formula One driving star Ayrton Senna.

Kapadia, a BAFTA award-winning fiction filmmaker (2001’s The Warrior), constructs his film exclusively from archival footage and voice over. Senna died in a 1994 crash on the racetrack, but with the cooperation of Formula One’s Bernie Ecclestone, there was enough footage — thousands of hours of it — to craft a thrilling drama whose appeal has extended well beyond racing fans. Since winning the World Cinema Audience Award at its Sundance premiere earlier this year, the film has continued to collect accolades and broke documentary box-office records in the UK when it opened there in June.

Adam Schartoff: Have you ever driven a Formula One race car?

Asif Kapadia: No. I’ve seen them up close and touched them. They’re worth $1,000,000 or something! You don’t get a chance to drive them. I couldn’t drive one anyway. Normal people couldn’t drive them.

Schartoff: I understand when you say “normal people couldn’t drive them,” but can you explain that for someone who hasn’t seen the film or doesn’t follow the sport?

Kapadia: These guys are like fighter pilots. They’re moving at 200 miles an hour. The way to drive them is to drive them on the limit. If you don’t drive them on the limit, the car stalls or spins. You’ve got to drive the car in such a way that there’s g-force. My body or neck would fall off. By the time I’m supposed to change into second gear or third gear, by the time my brain could calculate it, it’d be too late.

There are no drivers like Formula One drivers. They are engineers, in a way. They are driving manual cars one-handed at 200 miles per hour around streets in Monaco. These cars use the ultimate in technology. A normal person just couldn’t do it!

Schartoff: A good example of that would be when Ayrton Senna was driving in the Brazilian Grand Prix and his car locked in sixth gear.

Kapadia: That’s one of my favorite bits in the film, actually. That race was about him and the machine. It was about him refusing to quit or to give up because he wanted to win for his country. He had never done that before.

There were three things that Senna always wanted to achieve: He wanted to win a race, he wanted to win the world championship and he wanted to win in Brazil. I loved the Brazil sequence. I come from a drama background. So, when I was putting that sequence together, if we had done this as a dramatic film, no one would have believed it. I mean, the fact that he won a Formula One race stuck in sixth gear. No one would’ve thought that was possible. You can’t go around the corner in sixth gear. But the fact that we have the footage. You can see he doesn’t take his hands off the steering wheel, going around the corner. You see what he has done to his body after he’s won the race. What he was putting himself through in order to win. He refused to give up even when it came to lifting up the trophy, because he wanted to do it for the fans. I just love the way it came together with the music and the reaction of the people. It makes me cry when he hugs his dad.

Schartoff: He appeared to be in excruciating pain. These guys didn’t go from being car enthusiasts to Formula One drivers, right? They were go-karting as youngsters, weren’t they?

Kapadia: Yes, he was really the first of his generation that came from go-karting. It’s very physical with competitors touching each other. Senna was criticized for bringing those aspects of go-karting into Formula One. Of course, the last thing you want to do is touch another driver, or go near anyone else. Now all the drivers come from go-karting. Senna really brought racing into the modern age.

It was sort of a gentleman’s sport before that. When he started in ’84, I’d see footage of other drivers who were big and out of shape, smoking on the grid before a race. Senna brought in a real sense of being fit and athletic, mentally and physically. He was the first who talked about visualizing winning.

Schartoff: He introduced a Zen approach, I guess you could say.

Kapadia: Yes, he was doing that in the mid-80’s when no one else was speaking in that language. And he was a very spiritual guy as well. Now, this is considered normal.

Schartoff: Has anyone from his family seen the finished movie?

Kapadia: Wow, [Cannes] was the most emotional screening ever. The Monaco Grand Prix is in May right around the time of Cannes. So we brought in Senna’s nephew (Bruno). Bruno is now in Formula One. He was racing in Brazil and the family flew in to São Paulo to his race and then the Monaco Grand Prix as well. We brought them over to the Cannes Film Festival and showed them the film that night. And it was the most emotional screening. We had been working on the film for about five years, editing for the past three, and it was the first time we showed them the completed movie. Even the scenes where things were going well, where he was winning, where there were laughs in the film, you could hear the sobs in the audience. There had been a lot of footage that they had never seen before.

At the end, his sister, Viviane, who is like the matriarch of the family, came over and hugged James (Gay-Rees, Exit Through the Gift Shop), the producer, and myself, and told us that we had the perfect balance of the genius on the track. So she gave us the thumbs up. We were very happy after that.

Schartoff: I imagine that it had to be a very gratifying to bring him back to them at the height of his talent.

Kapadia: I think a new audience is discovering why he was so special, especially in the United States where so few have heard of him. They are discovering just why he was so inspirational.

Schartoff: Formula One is not a terribly familiar sport here in the United States. With the arrival of Senna here, are you concerned at all about that?

Kapadia: I think it’s an exciting thing actually. There are a lot of people in the United States who are using the movie as a way to find out why the rest of the world is so into this sport. And, also, why Senna meant so much to so many people. He’s pretty amazing — charismatic and passionate.

Schartoff: The movie successfully refutes the notion that he was an arrogant guy. He comes across very focused and driven, pun intended. That kind of dedication might explain his style, or at least explain the superficial way some people have perceived him, labeling him ambitious, self-serving, whatever.

Kapadia: It’s interesting. Senna did not have a great reputation in England, particularly with a lot of the journalists. Not like (French Formula One driver Alain) Prost had. Prost had a way of coming across much more charming. Senna had this reckless reputation of someone who would drive into other cars. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was partly because he refused to change his persona on camera. He didn’t pander. If he was in a bad mood, he didn’t mask it. And he stuck with what he believed in. In some cases, it wasn’t necessarily what people wanted to hear. But he was humble, despite becoming very rich and successful.

Schartoff: In the film he’s depicted as be quite charitable.

Kapadia: He gave away a lot of his money. And behind the scenes he was the one asking for more safety precautions on the track. He wanted to protect the younger drivers. He would jump out of his car risking his life to try and help somebody. No one was talking about driving safety like Senna was. Yet he was labeled a dangerous driver even though in truth he was probably the one who cared the most.

Schartoff: Was it this dichotomy that drew you in?

Kapadia: Well, I’m a big sports fan. I watch everything but back then I wasn’t terribly familiar with Formula One. I do remember Senna and Prost’s famous rivalry. They were two very opposing characters. They had very different styles of driving, often coming head to head. They were teammates, which was an oxymoron. They drove for the same manufacturer, McLaren. To be teammates in Formula One actually means you are first rivals, not really mates. It was a bit like Ali vs. Frazier. They were great people but they had very different personas, but both brilliant in their own way. They would crash into one another to stop the other from winning. That didn’t happen before.

I remember enough about the time, at the same time I don’t know loads about the sport. I didn’t read books about him or spend years on the Internet studying him — before I made the film, anyway. So, in that way, I had a long way to go. I needed to learn about the man. In the end, I believe what you see in the film was the man. We didn’t hide anything.

Senna opens in New York City and Los Angeles this Friday, August 12, 2011, before starting a limited release in other U.S. cities. Check Senna’s Facebook page for show times. For more documentary news and features, follow POV on Facebook.

Published by

Guest blogger Adam Schartoff is a freelance film journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. He's the founder and programmer of the Brooklyn-based film series Filmwax.