Born in Hackney, London in 1972, BAFTA award winning Asif Kapadia studied filmmaking at the Royal College of Art where he first gained recognition with his short The Sheep Thief (1997). His visually striking style continued with his first feature The Warrior (2001) starring Irfan Khan, followed by cult Hollywood horror flick The Return (2006) and arctic drama Far North (2007) with Michelle Yeoh and Sean Bean. The writer/director’s fourth film is a fascinating documentary tracing the life and untimely death of Brazilian Formula 1 racing champion Ayrton Senna.
How familiar were you with motor racing and Ayrton Senna's life?
I’m a sports fan so I’ve watched that kind of racing period on television. I remember the rivalry between Senna and Alan Prost and the key moments, but I’m not an authority on Formula 1 or racing in any way. So it was important for me to make a film that would work for anyone, not just Senna fans. We had a difficult challenge to achieve a balance. It had to be absolutely right in the details for the big fans but also work for people who had never watched racing in their lives.
Senna was a hit at the 2011 Sundance Festival winning the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award. What other kind of response have you had?
We’ve had really good reactions from racing fans and people in the industry to sports journalists. People who are in the film and seen it have said we’ve absolutely managed to captured that period in time and what Senna was like, and achieve a balance between the genius on the tracks and the humanity of the man off the track. Brazilians like it so that’s important. But people who have never watched a race in their life are engaging with it.
Has any audience reaction surprised you?
The most amazing response has been in America where people don’t watch Formula 1 or know Senna so much. I’ve sat in a cinema with an audience in Middle America where people have no idea Senna died. They know something is going on and they are not sure because he is the one who is narrating the story. It is powerful because they don’t know what is going to happen.
Did Brazilian audiences wonder why a British Indian filmmaker was telling Senna's story?
There are a few people who said why didn’t a Brazilian make this? But when you’ve got a hero like this, having an outsider like me is sometimes easier. We were not in Sao Paulo or Rio so we didn’t have the pressure of the global audience. There is a big network in Brazil called Globo TV who really runs that country - they are so powerful and making TV documentaries constantly. So it was helpful to be separate and be able to pick and chose what’s in there, rather than have the pressure of having to put this or that in.
Like Brazilians, Indians are fanatical and worship sports heroes like Gods. Any plans to make a film on someone like Sachin Tendulkar?
Senna is to Brazil like Sachin Tendulkar is to India. He’s a legend. I am definitely interested in another sports film. But it’s about getting the right character that is as interesting as Senna and works as a movie. Not everybody does.
Besides racing, another point you highlight is Senna's relationship with God. Why did you want to bring out his spirituality?
That’s another link between Brazil and India - spiritualism is a big part of Senna’s personality and what he stood for. It was one of the things that almost troubled European journalists and drivers.
Why is that?
He used to talk openly about his faith which wasn’t the done thing, particularly in a sport where every time you’re getting into a car you are risking your life. What was interesting is that he spoke less and less in English about it afterwards. So we went back to original interviews where he was talking in Portuguese to his home crowd in Brazil. They understood where he was coming from. For me as an Indian, the writer Manish Pandey and producer James Gay Reece, spirituality was a really important part of his character and we had to find a way to express that.
Apparently you’re not the only Indian on the project…
You’re right. The fact that there are two Indian guys, myself and writer Manish Pandey, hooking up with British and American producers and studios to make a film about a Brazilian is quite interesting.
Formula 1 is a glamorous sport that took Senna everywhere from Monaco to Mexico. Having visited the circuits Senna raced on and the cars he drove, could you imagine yourself in his position?
No. (laughs) He’s in another universe in many ways. The racing side of things is kind of more straight forward. My challenge was to make people care about someone who drives around in circles at one hundred miles an hour. How do you show the danger, the spirituality and even though someone is so rich that they care about poor people? It was about the visualisation of his story.
Senna features some intimate archive footage. You get the sense of almost being in the same room or car with him. How difficult was that to source?
One of the key decisions of making this movie was trying to figure out how to make a movie about a sport that is so well covered by cameras. Before we started we knew Senna was big in Brazil but didn’t realise how big a personality he was worldwide with fans and PR sponsorship. It wasn’t until we started doing our research that we found out how much the cameras were following him. He was huge in Japan at a time when technology was changing and cameras where everywhere. The more and more we looked the more we found, so we spent time looking and thought if there is a hole we will go shoot that.
Were there any holes in Senna’s career that weren’t documented?
I knew the middle bit of his career and rivalry with Alan Prost was well covered and what the ending would be. It was the opening that was the last thing we cracked. We didn’t know where we were going to come in as there are so many stories to start. In the end we decided we didn’t want any talking heads or go the conventional way of how documentaries are made, like cutting to talking heads and hearing someone say how great he was.
What were the challenges of making a documentary film about the life of someone who is so well known but who isn’t around to tell his own story?
There’s such amazing archive footage of Senna that I didn’t want to take away from that. I wanted to have that emotional connection and tension of what he did and said at that very time. I wanted to create a drama film with real people and real footage. So even if you don’t know where the story is going you feel something is going to happen, and if you do know then you’re dreading it.
How did the Senna project get off the ground?
James Gay Reece, the producer, had the initial idea to make the movie. His dad used to work for John Player Special when they sponsored the Lotus. His dad knew Aryton and said he knew quite early on in his career that this guy was going to do something really amazing. He went on to be crowned three times world champion. But James wasn’t into racing much and forgot about it. It wasn’t until 2004, a decade after his accident, that he read an article in the Times in which a journalist talked about Aryton in the way his dad did. So that’s when he had the idea to try and make the movie.
How did it all fall into place?
James set about trying to get Working Title and Universal in place to finance it and meeting Senna’s family to get their permission to make a documentary. A lot of people had tried to make fictionalised versions of Senna. Oliver Stone and Michael Mann had tried and Antonio Banderos wanted to play him so there were all these rumours but it was just too expensive. The executive at Working Title said “Oh my God you’ve got to meet my husband” who turned out to be Manish the writer.
What’s Manish’s background?
Manish is from Shimla and is a practising surgeon in London. He is married to an executive at Working Title. This is his first film but he has a library like knowledge of Senna, Formula 1 and racing. He is the guy who knows everything. They all then approached me to direct. I had just come off a film which was shot in the arctic at the North Pole. It was a really tough shoot so I was quite enjoying the idea of doing lots of editing.
Did you have a gut feeling that Senna would make a great documentary?
I like challenges and doing something different. The more time I spent with him the more I knew he was an interesting character and that we had an amazing story. Once I had the idea that we didn’t need interviews it was exciting because it was almost like creating a whole new genre which is like true fiction. As a director I knew it would stand out against other documentaries.
How long did the film take to complete?
We were quite a small team and worked on it non stop for about three to three and a half years. The writing, directing and editing was happening all the time.
There is bound to be great interest in Formula 1 in India leading up to the country’s first Grand Prix race this November. Any plans to show Senna in India?
We are hoping to get the film out there. At the end of this season is the first Indian Grand Prix which is pretty amazing. India is a bit like the US in that you have ten sports which have a following but there are a lot of Indians who are interested in motor sports. It’s coming to Delhi and Noida and there will be an audience of middle classes. It’s all part of India needing heroes to show that there is more to India.
Do you reckon Bollywood will jump on the Formula 1 bandwagon?
Oh yeah. (laughs) Shah Rukh Khan will probably want to star as a racing driver. I can see it now.
Senna releases in the UK 3rd June 2011.