Asif Kapadia is a British filmmaker who has won awards for the likes of The Warrior and The Sheep Thief. Having spent much of his career working on dramatic productions, he was asked to direct an archive based documentary on the life of the iconic Brazilian motor racing driver, Ayrton Senna. Talking about his passion for the sport, his growing interest in the hero behind the film and his amazing archival finds, Kapadia spoke to View London’s Matthew Turner about the release of his Sundance World Cinema Audience Award winning documentary.
So, when did you first fall in love with the artistry of Ayrton Senna?
I’m a sport fan. So, I have always watched everything ... football, cricket, rugby, Ryder Cup, you name it, darts. I used to watch racing. Formula One was always on. I remember the Senna-Prost rivalry, I remember staying up late at night to listen to the climaxes of the races in Japan on Radio 2 or wherever it used to be back in the day. And I was watching Imola live. So, I had seen enough to know that period but I wouldn’t have said in any way that I was an authority on Formula One. It was really when James Gay-Rees, the producer, got in touch with me to say, “Are you interested in doing this film about Senna?”
I’m a drama director, and I’ve never done a documentary before, so straight away I thought it was an interesting idea and something totally different. Honestly, while looking at the footage, looking at thousands of hours of material ... the more I saw on Senna, the more I liked him.
Now, the worry is often that you make a film about a person or a subject, and as you go along you kind of like it less and less. But actually he is amazing and therefore I was quite glad to not know that much about him because I feel like I’ve been on this big journey that, in a way, I want a lot of non-Formula One fans to go on.
What’s been interesting is showing the film in America, where they don’t watch Formula One and they don’t know who he is. They don’t know how it ends. So, it’s really amazing to be in a cinema full of people who don’t know the ending and there’s this moment where they go, “Oh no, what’s happening? They’re talking in the past tense ... something’s about to happen.” It’s electric. And this is in Middle America, in Mormon territory, so you could really feel that the religious element was really speaking to them, when he speaks about God. So, the answer to your question is that it’s really during the making of it. I just think he’s amazing.
I feel like I’ve been on this big journey that I want a lot of non-Formula One fans to go on...
You said there was a script, so what was the script like?
It wasn’t a script. Manish is the writer because he is the guy who was a big fan. He’s the guy who’s seen every race, who has read every book, who has an amazing brain for detail. So, when I came on the project there was a 20-page document which dealt with the golden age – the Mansell, Senna, Piquet and Prost period. And essentially what happened during the development of the film was bit by bit we said, “We can’t have this many characters. We can’t have that many great races. It’s just going to get a bit boring for the non-fans.” So, the script, the editing, the interviews, the research was all happening at the same time.
It wasn’t like a drama where you have a screenplay and go and shoot it. This was, this is the idea, and what Manish was able to do because he knows the subject so well was to look at a sequence and say, “We’re not showing this part of his character. This is really important.” So, then we’d send our researchers off in Japan, Rio, Sao Paolo, France, Italy and we’d go into Bernie Ecclestone’s archive, to find a scene that visualised what Manish felt we had to show.
You’ve made a documentary that is actually a drama ...
Yeah, I’m a drama director and I wanted to make a drama - that was always my dream. But all of my material was TV. There’s not a frame in there that I’ve shot. So, the challenge was to be stupid enough or brave enough to not shoot anything and call yourself a director. [Laughs] So it was quite tough, because Working Title haven’t made a doc, Universal haven’t made a doc, the producer hadn’t made a doc, the writer hadn’t made a film, I’ve never made a doc - our researchers and our editors had, but we were all new to it.
So, we’d just work on the film and the first cut was seven hours, then it was five hours, then three ... we had a really good two hour cut but it was still a bit too long for non-fans, and we had a budget that would go to 90 minutes.
Actually, another important detail is that when I was asked to do the film the budget had been put together in a more conventional documentary way, so there was 40 minutes of interviews, talking heads, and 40 minutes of Bernie’s archive. And I cut this film which was seven hours of archive! Now, every minute over 40 was something like £30,000 or something crazy. So, we were like £5 million over budget! I was accused of doing everything I could to get fired! [Laughs]
But everyone laughed in the right places and everyone was crying by the end and you knew it worked, it was just way too long. But the great thing about being able to work with Working Title and Eric Fellner, was that they just gave us time to go away and cut. So, we’d go away and bring it down, down, down without losing the heart and the gut of it.