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Speed Racer: 'Senna' Is a Bracing Ride

By Michael Rose

Growing up in suburban Chicago in the late '50s, I wasn't tuned in to European Formula One (F1) racing, which pitted agile and fast Ferraris against Maseratis and other automotive exotica. For my gang of friends, watching A. J. Foyt driving his front-engined, Offenhauser-powered cars at the annual Indianapolis 500 was the race of all auto races.  Little did I know, outside of the safe boundaries of my Midwestern myopia, that race around a circle track was derided as being about a bunch of hicks making one long left turn while driving cumbersome, uninteresting cars.

That image was sealed when, at the end of the Indy race, the winner would celebrate victory with a cold bottle of milk. Cold milk, compared to the traditional Grand Prix winner's celebration of champagne: What more proof did one need that we Americans were hopeless rubes?

This is a rather long-winded explanation of why it took me years to overcome my ignorance of how the rest of world sees motorsports. The myth of American exceptionalism was reinforced with our cultural blackout of other forms of auto-racing, and even football. While the rest of the world played a game of agility--what we call soccer--we were fixated on a head-bashing game of inches reminiscent of World War One trench warfare. So, mea culpa, I admit that I didn't get why 527 million people follow Formula One, or riot over soccer. 

After seeing a new documentary, Senna, which follows the remarkable racing exploits of the Brazilian Ayrton Senna as he climbs the ladder from go-kart-driving teenager to win the F1 World Championship three times, I can't imagine anyone not being hooked by the drivers and the spectacle of human beings piloting autos through hair-splitting curves at speeds in excess of 200 mph. The appeal of soccer still eludes me, but if a filmmaker can uncover the "fly on the wall" footage chronicling the exploits and behind-the-scenes drama of a star player the way director Asif Kapadia did for Senna, then soccer might have a chance with me.


Courtesy of PDA



To create Senna, Kapadia had to convince Bernie Ecclestone, the billionaire czar of Formula One (whose daughter Petra recently purchased the sprawling Beverly Hills mansion of Aaron Spelling for a reported $85 million), that letting him rummage through and use his archival footage would be a good idea.

Kapadia secured a meeting with Ecclestone and brought him a gift--a photo of famed Grand Prix driver Tazio Nuvolari standing beside his Alfa Romeo after he defeated the German team at the 1935 German Grand Prix. This has become one of the most famous races and exploits of man over machine, pitting Nuvolari against the monstrously fast Mercedes and Auto Union teams that were partly funded by the Nazis as an important part of their propaganda efforts. His come-from-behind, spectacular finish mesmerized the 300,000 fans who couldn't believe this Italian upstart driving an old Alfa Romeo had defeated a pack of the most powerful cars on the planet. He was hailed as the greatest driver in history. What better way to warm up Ecclestone as Kapadia pitched him the story of Ayrton Senna, a driver whose life followed Nuvolari's never-give-up credo?

After sitting down in Ecclestone's office, Kapadia handed him the photo. The tycoon looked at the photo and smiled, then told the hopeful filmmaker that he owned that car. He also owned "every shot taken on the track," he said. The film would be impossible without the blessing of the F1 emperor.

The charm offensive must have worked. Kapadia was afforded unfettered access to the F1 archives and quickly discovered that there was more footage there then he'd imagined.  When combined with footage from Japanese television and Brazil's Globo TV, which exhaustively covered the hometown hero, he knew he could make this film.


Courtesy of PDA



His vision of a film told exclusively using this wealth of archival material began to come into focus. He was amazed to see the day-in-a-life footage--Senna at home with his family, growing up and racing go-karts, going on dates with super models--and race footage--practice sessions, heated discussions with officials over rules, arguments with fellow drivers, drama in the pits and the stunning, on-board material that puts us behind the wheel. Kapadia could tell this story using the exact footage of every moment. "We're not cheating it," he maintains. "This is all on camera." 

The filmmaker decided that the best way to tell the story was "to just show the people in the film" and not cut away to talking-head interviews "with a plant or bookshelf in the background," or cut in still photos. Off-camera interviews with people "who had been there" would fill in the narrative gaps.

While that might work dramatically--and it does--there was a budget issue. The producers who'd hired Kapadia (James Gay-Rees, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner) had only budgeted for "40 minutes of archive," he says. One reason to use on-camera interviews is they act as filler and you don't have to use as much archive. Like the racer in his story, Kapadia set his sites on the objective and motored ahead, convinced he'd win. He produced a "seven-hour-long first cut, then a five and then a two" and eventually the powers-that-be began to believe that it made sense to let the archive tell the story. Somehow they found the extra money, and Kapadia whittled down the final run time to 104 minutes.


Asif Kapadia, director of Senna. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival


The end result is a riveting and moving experience that takes you behind the scenes of Formula One racing, the most elite sport in the world, and into the heart and mind of an outsider who challenged its conventions and became the world champion.

Senna, which won the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this year, opens August 12 in Los Angeles and New York through Universal Pictures and ESPN Films.


Michael Rose is a writer, producer, director who turned his interest in automotive history into several nonfiction series.