“78, I came to Europe to compete for the first time. It was pure driving, it was real racing, and that… makes me very happy.”
That a documentary charting the life of Ayrton Senna da Silva, or more simply Senna as became known to the world, should begin and end with grainy, slow-motion images of the future superstar and three-time Formula One World Champion during his karting days shows incredible sensitivity towards its subject.
Asif Kapadia, Manish Pandey, James Gay-Reece and Eric Fellner have produced a remarkable film, in which Senna’s voice is artfully and so heartbreakingly edited with the Super 8 footage of him competing [at Jesolo] during the opening and closing moments of the film as talks about his love of karting.
What also makes this documentary all the more special is that its BAFTA-winning director, Kapadia was not an out-and-out F1 enthusiast. “I’ve always been a sports fan and used to watch F1 on TV. I remember the Prost/Senna rivalry, and of course, Imola. I certainly wasn’t an expert, but I knew enough,” he says, then confesses “Before the film I had never read a book on Senna, never looked at one website and never read a book on Formula One. I had never been to a race. So that’s where I came in to it. I felt very much the outsider at the beginning of the process. I could see that Senna was an amazing driver and had this deep spiritual side, which was really fascinating, and it became all about paring the film down to the bare minimum so that somebody who doesn’t like Formula One, or a person who has never heard of Senna, will get the film, understand the character and actually be moved by his story. It’s all about the character; we were trying to make a film about racing. I was directing a feature film with non-professional actors.”
Asif describes Senna’s life being “like an epic novel” but found that structuring the film was harder than he first thought. “We knew the middle of the story would be Ayrton/Alain [Prost] and we knew the ending [that awful May weekend in 1994] but the challenge was where did we come in?”
“His story is amazing and we have this great three-act structure to work with. You have his rise, his success, and then the challenges he faces when he gets to the top. There is the ‘comedy bad guy’, Jean-Marie Balestre, the rival with four world titles – Prost – and then there’s Senna’s personal side, his family, his girlfriends, the relationship he has with Brazil. There’s tension, drama, tragedy – it is absolutely what films should be, and it is all real.”
The film was first screened at last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix and proved a big hit with the F1 fraternity. Not least reducing Ron Dennis to tears for ten minutes afterwards. What also began to gradually emerge amongst those who had seen it, was that Kapadia and his team had included the much-talked about quote from Ayrton, naming the driver he most enjoyed competing with – “There was an interview Ayrton gave in ’93 before the Australian Grand Prix. He knew Prost was retiring and was asked by an Australian journalist about who was his greatest rival. He spent ages thinking about it. I saw the interview in Bernie’s archive. No one expected the answer.”
Senna shocked the assembled journalists by naming his former DAP team-mate, Terry Fullerton. Virtually all had no idea of whom Senna was referring. Asif admitted he too was initially baffled, but Manish Pandey not only recognised the name but also the man in the cine film they had discovered in France. Asif takes up the story, “In Paris we found a father and son team who had shot a lot of footage. Jean-Paul and Jean-Claude Guiter had travelled across Europe watching and filming various forms of motorsport and both had an amazing eye. I came across this Super 8 footage with no sound. We took two very separate things – the Adelaide interview and their film – and put them together. It made perfect sense. You know, from really early on I knew that would be the ending. That Super 8 footage of Senna racing karts had to be it.”
The original Paris footage runs for more than thirty minutes and is of the 1980 Champion’s Cup at Jesolo. Asif confides that “Senna is leading all the way and then he makes a mistake and Terry beats him.” This has been judiciously excised from the movie but a candid, unposed image of Fullerton in the paddock, adjusting the spark plug of his engine while a cigarette dangles from the corner of his mouth, is retained and given incredible poignancy as Senna’s own voice names the Englishman as his greatest rival. “It’s a funny image of Terry smoking a fag. Senna was furious after that race. Those that know Terry was the best at what he did but for the vast majority of people, it’s a ‘Rosebud’ moment and it makes me cry,” says Kapadia referring to the child’s sled that comes to symbolize the loss of innocence and carefree youth in Citizen Kane. “The Super 8 is a defining moment of the film. That moment speaks to me. Everyone loves it. It is something very special and it is a beautiful memory. It is when Ayrton is happy. The later period of his life was all about technology. It says something about his character. He was someone who fought for purity. Racing is all he wanted to do. At Imola he looks like someone who doesn’t want to do it anymore. The subtlest way to end the film was to show him in a go-kart. The way he talks about Terry, he was talking about himself. He’s speaking about someone else but for me, he’s describing himself.”
Just as it opens, Kapadia’s remarkable film closes with the Guiters’ images of Senna, in his trademark yellow crash helmet and black leathers. “It was pure racing, pure driving. There wasn’t any politics then, right. And no money involved either. So it was real racing. And I…I have that as a very good memory.”
‘Senna’ opens on June 3rd. For more information visit http://sennamovie.co.uk/ or ‘like’ on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/sennamovie
TRANSCRIPT TAKEN FROM ‘SENNA’ OF INTERVIEW HELD AT ADELAIDE RACETRACK PRESS ROOM, AUSTRALIAN GP 1993