In ‘Senna,’ a new formula for documentaries


Portrait of Ayrton Senna of Brazil in his McLaren Honda before the Hungarian Grand Prix at the Hungaroring circuit in Budapest, Hungary in 1989. Senna finished in second place. (Pascal Rondeau/GETTY IMAGES)
August 19, 2011

If “Senna” had been made by Hollywood, it would have cost $80 million. Helicopter shots. Close-ups. Multiple reactions shots. More coverage than Mutual of Omaha. But documentaries never cost $80 million. Or play like big-budget studio features, the way “Senna” — the story of race-car legend Ayrton Senna — manages to do.

“Seriously,” says Asif Kapadia, director of the award-winning documentary, which opened Friday at E Landmark’s E Street Cinema in the District. “There was a moment when I realized that, if this were a drama, I would never have this many cameras. Or locations. Or helicopter shots. Or driving scenes, with crowds and accidents. I had 100,000 extras in the stands during a race. I had multiple camera angles, just for a shot of a man holding up a trophy.”

Kapadia used all live footage to compose his portrait of the three-time world champion Formula One racer. Pulling it all together is a testament to the tenacity of a group of filmmakers, most of whom had never made a documentary. Moreover, they made a film other people had been trying to make for years.

It also says something about the enormous renown of its subject: During a 10-year career on the international circuit, Senna was a global celebrity and Brazilian national hero. He was followed by dozens of cameras wherever he went. Few moments went unrecorded, before, during or after the races.

“I had an instinct that there was a dramatic way of doing this and entirely staying in the moment,” Kapadia says. “Cutting from past to present, for me, just kills the tension. And you become very much aware, when you’re seeing everyone but Senna, that he’s missing.”

A conventional documentary called “Senna” would have gone like this: Early go-kart footage of the teenage Brazilian, followed by early successes as a fledgling Formula One driver, interspersed with talking-head interviews.

Family, rivals, race officials and journalists would testify to Senna’s talent on the track, his “genius” racing in the rain — his famous performance at the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix — his rivalry with driver Alain Prost, and the constant friction between Senna and F1’s president, the late Jean-Marie Balestre (“You couldn’t have scripted a better villain,” Kapadia says. “No one would have believed you”).

Then, much talk about Senna’s fatal 1994 crash in Imola, Italy; his legacy among would-be young racers; racing bigwigs would talk about how much safer it is today; and some nostalgic codgers would whine about how the sport was better in the ’90s. All of which was tossed by the “Senna” folk into the junkyard of used doc parts.

Such drastic action required daring, luck and the consent of the Senna family, which had never before agreed to a film, despite entreaties from directors such as Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott and Michael Mann.

James Gay-Rees had never made a doc, nor had his co-producers, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of the U.K.’s Working Title. Universal Pictures, which co-financed with Working Title, had never made one, either. Manish Pandey, the writer and executive producer (and, as it happens, a surgeon), had never made a documentary. “But I’m not a part-time Formula One fan,” Pandey said. “I loved Senna. He really was my hero.” Pandey’s passion must have been apparent when he and Gay-Rees traveled to Sao Paolo in 2006 to get the Senna family’s blessing.

Fortunately, Pandey said, “Senna” also had onboard, as executive producer, Kevin Macdonald, a director who straddles fact and fiction: An Oscar winner for the documentary “One Day in September,” he also made “The Last King of Scotland” and “The Eagle.” He was unavailable to direct “Senna” because he was filming “State of Play.” But he was a valued adviser, Pandey said — even if his logical blueprint wasn’t ultimately followed. “Kevin said that normally, for a feature doc, the proportions would be 40 minutes of Formula One archive, 10 to 20 minutes of other footage” — Senna family home movies, for instance — “and about 40 minutes of talking heads.”

There are no talking heads, and there are “77 minutes and 45 seconds” of Formula One archive footage, obtained via an unprecedented deal with Formula One chief executive Bernie Ecclestone. “Our initial deal with Bernie was for 40 minutes — and any footage over 40 would be licensed at a punitive rate,” Pandey said. “I knew we needed 80 minutes. Bernie’s guy, Ian Holmes, said, ‘OK, well, we have a contract.’ I said ‘Yes, but we don’t have the money for 80 minutes. We have the money for 40 minutes.’ Ian said, ‘So let’s get this straight: You need double the footage for the same amount of money?’ ”

Pandey wouldn’t say what they paid — but it was half what the contract called for. And still only half of the problem.

What they wound up looking at, Pandey estimates, was 3,800 to 5,000 hours of footage, an “embarrassment of riches” from which Kapadia — and his editors, Gregers Sall and Chris King — were able to put together a film that may be a doc but is composed like a feature, with reaction shots, multiple angles, aerial views and, most thrillingly, the “Senna cam” that puts the viewer in the cockpit as Senna rockets along the tracks of France, Japan, Brazil and, ultimately, that final race in Italy.

“You couldn’t have scripted it any better,” Pandey says.

Anderson is a freelance writer.

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