Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | “Senna” Director Asif Kapadia

Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "Senna" Director Asif Kapadia
Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "Senna" Director Asif Kapadia

The story of Ayrton Senna, perhaps the greatest race car driver who ever lived, is an epic tale that literally twists at every turn. In the mid 1980s, Senna, a young, gifted driver, exploded onto the world of Formula One racing. As a Brazilian in a predominantly European sport, a purist in a world polluted with backroom deals, and a man of faith in an arena filled with cynicism, Senna had to fight hard – both on and off the track. Facing titanic struggles, he conquered Formula One and became a global icon who was idolized in his home country.

Told solely through the use of archival footage, Asif Kapadia’s documentary is a thrill ride worthy of its daring subject. Adrenaline will be pumping as cameras from inside Senna’s car put you smack-dab in the driver’s seat. Buckle your seat belt; Senna will take you on a trip you do not want to miss. [Description courtesy of Sundance Institute]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

World Cinema Documentary Competition
Director: Asif Kapadia
Screenwriter: Manish Pandey
Executive Producer: Manish Pandey, Kevin Macdonald, Debra Hayward, Liza Chasin
Producer: James Gay-Rees, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Composer: Antonio Pinto

Responses courtesy of “Senna” director Asif Kapadia.

Joining the circus…

I was 17, studying graphic design with no real interest in cinema when I was asked to cover for a friend as a runner on a short film. It was cold, raining, we were shooting in a muddy forest. All I did all day was carry camera boxes in and out of trucks, but I loved it! I had run away with the circus and I never left.

I went on to work on shorts, commercials and features as first assistant director, sound recordist, assistant editor, camera assistant, grip, focus puller etc. On the side I started writing and directing shorts which I made with my friends. Slowly my own films became more successful and I focused more on them.

The aura of Senna…

The producer James had the initial idea to make the film after reading an article about Ayrton Senna in 2004. Years earlier James’ father had met Ayrton through work and had talked about the special aura and intensity that Senna had. James decided to try to make a feature documentary about him; so together with writer / exec producer Manish Pandey and Working Title Films, they approached the Senna family and Formula One Management who own the commercial rights to F1 footage.

James and Manish had liked my first feature “The Warrior” and asked me to direct. I’m a big sport fan. I remembered Senna’s great rivalry with Prost and had watched the 1994 Imola race live.

Crafting a ‘cinematic’ documentary…

My gut instinct from early on was that we had to make the film as cinematic as possible. There would be no talking heads. I wanted “Senna” to work dramatically like a fiction film, and as so much fantastic footage existed of Ayrton, we just needed the time for our brilliant team of researchers to find it. I also wanted Senna to narrate his own life story. We had to trust the material even when it was technically poor. Our story and the characters were real and many times we’d shake our heads and say that if we wrote this story as a fiction film, no one would believe it.

Chopping it up…

A constant challenge was the length. There were so many brilliant stories in Senna’s life that our biggest problem was what to leave out. The first assembly we screened was five hours long and we spent a couple of years editing it down to 100 mins.

Creatively my main battle was to get the team to believe that the film could really work without talking heads. People were pushing me to shoot interviews and to cut them in but I felt we had the potential to make something unique, cinematic and more emotionally engaging using only original footage.

Tears in Cannes…

All of the interesting stories took place in prep or post production because of the unique way the film was made. A special moment came when we first screened the locked picture for Senna’s family at Cannes in 2010. The tension and emotion in the room was unbearable. There were a lot of tears but Ayrton’s sister Viviane said afterwards that we had captured the perfect balance of the genius on the track and humanity of the man away from it.

A fresh perspective in Sundance…

I’m excited to screen the film to an audience who know little or nothing about Ayrton Senna, so they will have no preconceptions of the movie or the journey the film will take. I hope the Sundance audience will laugh, cry, fall in love with him and be moved by his remarkable story.

Documentary inspirations…

“When We Were Kings,” “Dark Days,” “A Great Day in Harlem,” and “Hoop Dreams” are some of the documentary features that I love and I secretly hope / dream that “Senna” could one day be considered to be at their level.

A fiction film in the future?

I aim to alternate between writing / directing fiction films and making feature documentaries. I’m interested in blurring the lines between the two genres. My next film will probably be a fiction film.

I’ve made films in the UK, India, the high Arctic, Italy, the U.S. and now Brazil. I try not to plan things too much, I love going wherever the next story that grabs me takes me.

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