The new documentary Senna chronicles the brief but incredible life of Brazilian Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna. Through him we see not only the sport of European Formula One racing (far more dangerous than the Indy 500) during the 1980s and early 90s, but we see it through the eyes of one of its most celebrated and revered figures. Senna is notable not only for its subject matter, but because it dispenses with ordinary documentary conventions of talking head interviews and keeps narration to a minimum. All of the footage is archival and the racing scenes in particular demand to be viewed in a theater.
I interviewed screenwriter Manish Pandey about the decision to use only archival footage, what fascinated him about Senna, the lasting impact of Senna in his home country of Brazil, and much more. Hit the jump to check out the interview. Senna opens this weekend.
MANISH PANDEY: I loved Ayrton. I’ve been an F1 fan since my early teenage years and then Senna suddenly arrived and became my absolute hero. His intensity, his passion and the way he drove a car with a near mystical ability used to mesmerize me alternate Sunday afternoons. I think, no matter who you are, Senna made you feel and that counts for everything in a hero.
Too often we see stories like this adapted into narrative features. What made you decide to tell Senna’s story as a documentary?
PANDEY: We have to give all credit to James Gay-Rees and Eric Fellner for this. James was told all about Senna by his father, who worked for a sponsor of Senna’s Lotus team. His father would tell James of this ‘otherworldly driver’ and James retained this memory until 10 years after Senna’s death, in 2004. he read some articles commemorating Ayrton and had the inspiration of telling the tale of Imola. Eric is a massive motor-racing fan, too, and so James set up the project at Working Title Films. I met him, through my wife, in October 2004 and loved the idea of telling Ayrton’s story as a doc – but with one caveat: I felt that telling the story of his life, through F1, would be a more fitting way of remembering my hero. James and Eric agreed immediately. James has a wonderful aphorism for why this film could only work as a doc – because no one could play ‘Senna’.
Senna became a national hero to the people of Brazil. The film notes how his charity has improved the lives of many, but I was curious if he also left the country with a lasting appreciation for Formula One racing?
PANDEY: Brazil has an amazing tradition of Formula One. Before Senna, Emerson Fitipaldi and Nelson Piquet were champions. What Ayrton did was to use his international fame and reflect some of that light onto Brazil – a country, in the 80’s and 90’s, just coming out of a dark military dictatorship; a country riddled with poverty, crime and debt – a nation perceived as third world. He stood on a world stage and told everyone that Brazilians were not just as good as their European counterparts, but better. And he brought Brazilians together, alternate Sunday mornings, rich and poor, black and white, male and female – old and young. He did it by driving and by unashamedly waving a Bandeira – a Brazilian flag – from his cockpit.
It’s worth remembering that 250,000 Brazilians actually queued to say a final goodbye to his coffin – many queuing for hours – and that there wasn’t one recorded crime in Brazil on May 2nd 1994.
In short, Ayrton exceeded anything that F1 had ever offered Brazilians before – he offered them hope and pride.
You make the bold decision to use only old footage and photographs in telling Senna’s story as opposed to cutting away to talking heads or other familiar documentary techniques. What led you to make this decision?
PANDEY:I have to give credit to our director Asif and our editor Gregers Sall for this. James and I – indeed Working Title – had never made a documentary before. We had to make some very fast calculations very early on the the process (in 2006) when we met Bernie Ecclestone about how much archive we needed. We asked for 40 minutes, figured that we would use 40 minutes of ‘talking heads’ interviews and another 10 minutes of non-F1 archive. When Asif came aboard, he and I made a 10 minute short version of the film with existing footage culled from F1 tapes and YouTube footage. Asif felt that if we had access to the material, we could make the whole film with archive. But Asif had never made a documentary before, either! James had a long conversation with Gregers, who had made over 40 documentaries, and Gregers agreed with Asif that it could be done. Then James and I had the task of asking Bernie for another 40 minutes of archive – but that’s another story. The all archive approach means that the role of our Editors is often underplayed. Gregers saw, frame by frame, thousands of hours of footage and painstakingly assembled the sequences at which people marvel. Chris King came on as an additional editor to add a fresh pair of eyes to the process.
Kevin MacDonald, who stayed on board as Exec with me, really felt the material worked – but needed interviews to bring out the story – so that’s what Asif and I went out and did!
PANDEY:This has been the thing that has most humbled us, I think. As film-makers, we bring whatever we bring to the film. But those who knew Ayrton – whether they were family or F1 people – see things in the film that we don’t have the first clue about. Can you imagine being Viviane Senna (his sister) and watching those last days of your brother’s life in such detail? Or that barbeque on the beach when, maybe, the whole family remember what they ate, when they got there, who their friend were? It’s unimaginable. But the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Viviane praised us for capturing the genius and the humanity.
On a lighter note, an F1 person saw himself walking along the pitlane in one scene and told me that in the background was a friend who always wore a particular yellow sweater! It’s just that evocative for those who were there.
Finally, it’s not often that Bernie Ecclestone embraces you – but he gave me a hug after the UK premier and congratulated all of us on a wonderful accomplishment. As I said, all very humbling.
We don’t see much of Senna’s time as a go-kart racer. Was this because there was a dearth of footage from that time period or because you wanted to get the audience to his time as an F1 racer as quickly as possible?
PANDEY: There was some wonderful footage of Senna in karting – beautiful super 8 film. The problem comes in the overall narrative: if you begin with the karting, where are you in Ayrton’s character arc? He is already a very young man when he holds that helmet – young and intense – and those characteristics are enduring. But we have to get on – we have to tell you the story in a way that you see his transformation – that’s how films work – and that happens to its greatest extent in the 10 years between 1984 and 1994.
One of the great visual images in the film is Senna’s bright yellow helmet. Did he choose that or was the color of the helmet dictated by his bosses?
PANDEY: If you watch the beginning of the film, you will see a 20 year old Senna holding a helmet whose colour scheme never changed: it was always the yellow, blue and green of his beloved Brazil.
When you have a subject like Senna, a paragon of his sport and of his country, and he dies tragically at such a young age, how do you make sure the documentary doesn’t turn into hagiography?
PANDEY: Some people have already accused us of making exactly that! Senna was human but had very spiritual aspirations. It was a constant tension in his personality. The key was to keep highlighting that conflict. I think that if someone is your hero, these complexities only add to them. Our best shot at showing his darker side was in Japan in 1990, when he drove Prost off the track at 150mph. There is no arguing that we showed it the way it was and then put him on the rack by having Jackie Stewart grill him! Also, he protests that drivers skill is diminished by electronic driver aids – but when he has lost enough, he just wants to get into that car with all its bells and whistles. All very human, I think.
As I mentioned before, the film bucks convention by only using footage and judiciously uses voice-over from present-day commentators. In making this movie, did you feel you were finding the path by walking it or did you look to other documentaries for inspiration?
PANDEY: You have to look at how others – the greats in documentary film-making – do what they do. We were so luck with having Kevin with us. But you also have to find your own way. The all footage route was risky but once we added the interviews, the footage sparkled. The trained eye may know what it is seeing but a general audience needs to be subtly taken to what is relevant. The voices do that. Also, there is a component to the interviews that sums up each year and these, subconsciously, give the film an epic quality – we are reminded of the passing of time.
What’s next for you?
PANDEY: I’ve just signed to write the script for a feature film also set in the world of motor-racing in the late 1950’s. Honestly, it’s the only other motor-racing film that I have ever wanted to make and we will make our official announcement in the press in the next couple of weeks. Also, I’ve just finished my first Hollywood comedy (I’m known to Working Title as a comedy writer) – and there is a medical drama for TV in the pipeline, so it’s been very busy!