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Talking Must-See Formula 1 Race Car Doc Senna: Visceral "Three Act Drama"

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood August 11, 2011 at 5:15AM

Sundance doc audience-award-winner Senna has been wowing fest crowds and European moviegoers in advance of its August 12 opening (via indie PDA). And motors are gunning on Peter Morgan's Formula 1 race car movie Rush, because low-budget indie doc Senna shows that the sky's the limit on what you could do with a fiction film and a big budget. With new technology, lightweight digital cameras put you inside the action and the visceral danger that this kind of racing is all about. It's inherently dramatic. Thus Ron Howard is chasing Rush, about three-time Formula 1 champion Niki Lauda, who crashed in 1976 but weeks later returned to the track, covered with burns, to compete.
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Thompson on Hollywood

Sundance doc audience-award-winner Senna has been wowing fest crowds and European moviegoers in advance of its August 12 opening (via indie PDA). And motors are gunning on Peter Morgan's Formula 1 race car movie Rush, because low-budget indie doc Senna shows that the sky's the limit on what you could do with a fiction film and a big budget. With new technology, lightweight digital cameras put you inside the action and the visceral danger that this kind of racing is all about. It's inherently dramatic. Thus Ron Howard is chasing Rush, about three-time Formula 1 champion Niki Lauda, who crashed in 1976 but weeks later returned to the track, covered with burns, to compete.

You've never seen anything like Senna, partly because the footage is 100% authentic. Not one piece of fakery was added, not even new talking heads. (There are new voiceover interviews.) No, the estate of the late great Brazilian Formula 1 race driver Ayrton Senna agreed to let producer James Gay Rees and director Asif Kapadia make the non-fiction version of the movie that the likes of Oliver Stone, Antonio Banderas, Ridley Scott and Michael Mann had been trying to fictionalize for years. Better, his heirs decided, to let the charismatic, heroic Senna play himself. “He had cameras everywhere,” says Working Title's Eric Fellner. “It plays like a three-act drama.”

The filmmakers had access to 15,000 hours of archive footage that no one else had ever gone through, as the media chased one new two-hour Formula 1 race after another, year after year. Inside those miles of interviews, press conferences and driver meetings were revealing scenes of rival drivers (especially Senna's French McLaren-Honda teammate, Alain Prost), petty politics and high stakes fights over safety.

Brit Kapadia (Far North, The Warrior) is a big sport fan who grew up listening and watching Formula 1 races. He and Rees first took the doc to Fellner, who was a Formula 1 fanatic. Manish Pandey, a surgeon, came on as writer; he was the first to approach the Senna family. They landed the rights in 2004; it took six more years to make the film as they researched archives in London, Paris, Rio, Rome and Tokyo. As Kapadia assembled the story out of footage for key races, he says, he asked the researchers to find specific things. If writer Pandey couldn't make a scene work, they asked them to look for something else. They found shots of driver Roland Ratzenberger complaining about his car moments before he drove his death--the day before Senna crashed and died from head trauma.

And Senna had kept fighting the powers that be--who resented him mightily--to enhance safety for the drivers. As Kapadia painfully edited the film from a seven to six to three to two hour to the final 104-minute cut (which was supposed to be 90 minutes), he lost a scene showing Senna stopping his car to get out and try to help another driver, something that is simply not done. It ends up in the closing credits.

One fascinating aspect of the doc is the way the early blurry low-tech 16 mm footage from Brazilian TV improves over a decade to beta quality. Eventually many of the cars had camera mounts that provide powerful POV footage of each race. And as Senna's fame increased--he won the world championship three times--more and more cameras followed his every move. His sexy charm, personal integrity, and obsessive drive come across loud and clear. And when he lost his life, Brazil gave him a state funeral. When Kapadia viewed film footage of the mourners lining up to see Senna's coffin, he had not realized the towering figure Senna had become in his homeland.

What caused his death at age 34 on May 1, 1994, in the San Marino Grand Prix? "It was an act of God," says Kapadia. "Not a driver mistake. Either the car broke or the steering broke."

This article is related to: Directors, Genres, Video, Festivals, Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone, Documentaries, Action, Trailers


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.