Asif Kapadia on doing justice to Formula One legend Ayrton Senna,
Forget the wacky conspiracy theories: the documentary cast its net wide to find rare footage that enabled Ayrton Senna, the extraordinary Brazilian who died in a Grand Prix crash in 1994, to narrate his own story, as director Asif Kapadia tells Tara Brady
IT WAS a ghoulish YouTube moment long before anyone thought to share videos with strangers online. In 1994, when Formula One champion Ayrton Senna crashed his car into a wall at a speed of more than 200 miles per hour before a worldwide audience of some 300 million viewers, no one could have foretold how widely the moment of impact would be subsequently disseminated and dissected. In the immediate aftermath a controversy ensued, as fans and pundits questioned whether the accident was caused by driver error or faulty equipment.
Fifteen years on and the “truths” are out there. A thriving cottage industry has sprung up around the Brazilian hero and his tragic accident; there are biographies, hagiographies, vigils, TV shows and, most of all, internet rumours.
Particularly preposterous accounts factor in Hitler, Goebbels, Max Mosley and the plot of The Boys From Brazil. Senna’s car’s telemetry “black box” had several data channels physically cut, argue believers; the Italian authorities impounded the smashed vehicle for more than 10 years; how can you say Mussolini wasn’t linked? Others have puzzled over the steering wheel, G-force, angle of impact and a date of death, they say, was chosen to coincide with the foundation day of the Illuminati in 1776.
Senna, an award-winning documentary about one of Formula One’s most famous sons, gives such conspiracy theories a wide berth. Asif Kapadia’s riveting film, composed entirely from archive footage – much of it culled from hitherto unexplored Formula One vaults – allows the late driver to tell and enact his own story directly to camera.
“I had that instinct really early on, but it took a long time persuading everyone else,” says Kapadia. “If you look at all the successful documentaries – Kevin Macdonald’s Touching the Void or James Marsh’s Man on Wire – they all have talking heads as reference points. This is what a good cinema documentary looks like. But I’m not a documentary film-maker. And the existing footage of the subject was so powerful. My notion was I can interview people but I can’t interview Senna. And if I can’t interview my main character it’s going to become just another film where everyone gives their opinion. We had to find a way for him to be the hero and narrator of the film.”
Kapadia, the acclaimed British director of The Warrior and The Return, had little difficulty in finding extraordinary images to illustrate an extraordinary life. Senna’s entire career – from his early karting successes in Brazil and teenage forays into British Formula Three races – was heavily, nay obsessively chronicled.
“It’s the nature of that sport,” says Kapadia. “It’s a TV sport watched and followed by millions of people. You always have cover shots. Once we worked out what we were trying to say it was a question of finding the right footage in Sao Paulo or Japan or Monaco or wherever. By selecting key races we could cut between wide shots, close-ups, helicopter shots – just as if we were making an action film. It’s a comment on the nature and scale of his fame that all the clips we needed were already out there.”
All told, Kapadia’s team – including Tim Bevan and screenwriter Manish Pandey – have worked some seven years on the intricate project. The subject, says Kapadia, gave them a free pass with the late driver’s family, Formula One authorities and motor sports mogul Bernie Ecclestone, who granted access to his own personal video collection.
“Bernie’s bunker was amazing. Basically once the team had persuaded the family that this was going to be a film made by Senna fans – not about the sport or an underdog victory – then everybody said yes, including Bernie. His stuff was a revelation. We got to know by the name of the camera operator what kind of footage we had. A couple of French names kept coming up because they were brilliant cinematographers. There’s a scene with Senna arguing with Formula One authorities that was shot in a way that would have made The Hurt Locker’s Barry Ackroyd proud. It was a 45-minute sequence from a press conference, never intended to see the light of day, but the camera operator put in reaction shots and medium shots just purely out of professional pride.
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