DVD EXCLUSIVE 1:1
Filmmaker James Gay-Rees worked as a producer on the
likes of Long Time Dead, Blackball and Allegiance
and recently produced Exit Through the Gift Shop, the
directing debut of Łber-cool graffiti-artist Banksy. His latest
offering, Senna, which he produced with Manish Pandey and
directed by Asif Kapadia, is a stunning documentary that
explores the extreme dedication displayed by arguably the
worldís greatest-ever Formula One driver, Ayrton Senna. Charting
the Brazilianís rise to become a triple World Champion, against
the odds, before his tragic death at the 1994 San Marino Grand
Prix, which rocked the F1 world. The film won the 2011 World
Cinema Documentary Audience Award at this yearís Sundance
How was the recent Brazilian premiere? Ayrton Senna means so
much to people over thereÖ
It was quite daunting; they find it really hard. Obviously the
Brazilians find it tough because it represents such a different
time for them now. They are on such a high now. The economy is
booming. They have the Olympics and the World Cup coming up,
whereas while Senna was alive it was a much darker period for
the country. He was the only thing they really had to get
excited about and then he dies, of course. So it was a bit of a
tough watch. The reviews were really good.
And the Sundance audience responded to the film, which is great
because F1 means nothing in the USAÖ
They really connected to the character. It was really
interesting. Partly what it is, I think, is that he is young,
good looking, talented, ambitious and a God-fearing guy ó an all
American kid, in a way. He looks the part and I think that is
why they responded to him. And thatís very important for us;
that it does so clearly connect with a broad audience, not just
an F1 audience which is obvious. F1 fans will go and see it but
we know for a fact, without a doubt, that the film just works as
a movie for people with no connection to F1 at all.
Your father worked with Senna during the 1980s, on the Lotus
Thatís right. Ayrton was driving for Lotus in 1985-6 and my dad
was the account rep for John Player Special. He was an
advertising guy and they sponsored the car. After a Grand Prix
my dad would do a photographic campaign with Ayrton, get a
photographer and create something. He said there was one amazing
time when there was this quite famous photographer and they were
in Imola funnily enough (where Senna eventually died
unfortunately), and they were literally standing in the middle
of the straight with this huge camera on a tripod and there was
this black dot at the other end of the bit of track. Effectively
he was coming towards them in the car and just peeling past them
at a 180mph. Today, Health & Safety would never let you do that.
He said it was one of the most unnerving experiences he has ever
had because they had to do that about 15 times with this car
coming like a bullet towards him.
Did your dad know other drivers, too?
My dad became very good friends with one of Ayrtonís team mates
at Lotus, a guy called Eddie DeAngelis, who subsequently died in
testing a couple of years after Senna. He was the opposite of
Senna. He was an incredibly sophisticated Italian count, a real
aristocratic playboy driver, supper with champagne and all that
sort of thing.
What did your dad tell you about Senna?
What he was always used to say about Ayrton was that he was a
fantastically good driver and had something extra special about
him, skill wise, but what really lodged with my father was that
he had this spiritual intensity. He was a very intense, very
focussed, very ambitious young guy and he seemed much older than
his years. All the other young drivers of his age group were
getting their leg-over as much as possible, having fun in the
paddock and even though he enjoyed that side of life, he was
clearly happiest to be on his path, to get to where he really
wanted to go to as quickly as possible. That struck my dad.
Ayrton was only 24 or 25 which then was very young for a F1
driver, although not so much any more. He kept on saying this
guy has something about him: ĎHe is so different. I canít put my
finger on it. He is not like the other kids.í
Is that where your interest in F1 stems from?
I am not a massive F1 fan. I am quite good now. I have become
much more interested since we have made the movie. For me I had
an interest in, and a preconception of Senna due to what I had
heard from my father. I was then keen to add layers to that and
build that up. He did not disappoint as a character and when we
peeled off the layers he was even more extraordinary. I did
think he was a fairly exceptional character. He is not perfect.
He is very flawed in lots of ways. But he is pretty imposing and
such an intense character. There was a real contrast between him
and say, Eddie DeAngelis. So that was the connection. As a young
kid, 15 at the time, hearing my dad talk, these things just
lodged in my memory and stayed with me.
The film touches upon, but does not dwell on, Sennaís personal
life. Is that because itís extraneous to your story, or was
there a lack of footage, or maybe you didnít want to upset the
I think that it was a combination of all those things. But yes,
we were trying to explain with the film what it took in order
for this guy to get where he wanted, in order to become the
worldís best driver. Basically he had to go on this mad journey,
so what price did he pay? What did he have to do in order to
achieve that; not just in technical racing terms but in terms of
the politics of the sport? What were the obstacles and how did
he overcome them? What did it take out of him? What did he use
to motivate himself to go to this extraordinary place? I donít
think his relationships throughout that ten-year period were a
key factor in that singular vision. I donít think he is
concerned with keeping his girlfriend happy, because he was on a
solo journey. Obviously, he had lots of different relationships
and I am sure that those women could have shed light on him
being on that journey but we did make the decision then that if
we did speak to one we had to speak to all of them and there
just wasnít room in the movie.
What was the familyís reaction to the finished film?
Bianca Senna, Ayrtonís niece, who has become a very good friend
of ours now, was our contact on their side of things. She is
about our age and she gets the process, understands what we are
trying to do. She saw a couple of rough cuts and gave us her
notes, which were really helpful. Then we finally showed it to
the whole lot, to Viviane (Ayrtonís sister), his mum and Bianca,
and she brought a huge bunch of people along to Cannes. We
screened it for them during the festival basically. They got
What feedback did they give you?
The thing that Viviane said and she said a lot about this at the
press conferences in Brazil, was that she really liked the way
we handled his fight against the politics of the sport. She felt
quite strongly that he wasnít treated fairly. It was pretty
evident in the film. He was always up against it. He was always
on the outside even though he was triple World Champion. He
didnít have an easy ride. He wasnít very good at the politics
game like Alain Prost was. He knew he was being turned over. And
he was. They were definitely taking the piss a few times.
One of the filmís great successes is the lack of Ďtalking
headsí. The only visuals are footage, which is most unusual in a
It was Asif who basically said that we have such a wealth of
material, maybe we can do this in a non-traditional way, without
talking heads. That is the obvious way to do it but we had so
much great material we thought: letís do it without that. And I
was all for it. Nobody has really done it properly before and I
thought it would be remarkable. If we could do that we donít
ever break the moment on screen and it would seem much more like
a movie. And thatís been the overwhelming response to the film;
it feels like a movie because you donít go backwards and
Asif Kapadia has proved an inspired choice as director, but why
did you think he was the man for the job to begin with?
We interviewed a variety of people and the reason we ended up
with Asif is because Manish and I loved The Warrior; it
is so visual. And Senna was the warrior, so there were lots of
relevant ideas contained in that. Asif has a great
photographerís eye, too and when you have such a vast amount of
archive you do need someone who can quickly say, ĎThatís a great
image and thatís a great image.í That was a big part of it.
There are a few feature films in development with racing as a
backdrop, but theyíve not proved too successful in the past. Do
you have any thoughts as to why?
There are few classic ones, [1971 documentary] Le Mans,
and a couple of others but there hasnít been one recently. I
think itís because it is really hard to replicate the
authenticity of it. Take the Micky Ward boxing movie, The
Fighter, for example and that is two guys in a ring. But if
you are trying to replicate the spectacle of the F1 environment,
thatís tough. And when you get under the skin of Senna to see
what it actually does take to be that good at something, it is
very hard to imagine. I think our film shows just how hard it is
and just how special Ayrton Senna really was.