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When Asif Kapadia signed on to make a documentary about three-time Formula One world champion race car driver Ayrton Senna, he and everyone else involved assumed they were going to make  the typical doc. The ratio they worked out was that Senna would include 14 minutes of archival footage of the Brazilian racing legend. The rest would be talking heads.  That was before anyone really looked at the wealth of archival material.

“There’s so much and it’s so strong,” marvels Kapadia during a promotional pit stop in San Francisco. “It seemed crazy to have someone with a plant and bookshelf behind him saying, ‘Well, Senna he was really good.’ I thought, ‘Why do we need him? We’ll just show you.”

Good call. Senna unfolds with the tension and immediacy of a Formula One race careening through the movie theater, bringing the iconic driver’s career to vivid life. Sneaking into January’s Sundance Film Festival for its US premiere with little fanfare, it was quick off the blocks, winning the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary there. Since then, it won the Best International Feature audience prize at the Los Angeles Festival and it had the biggest theatrical opening of any documentary this year. And while it might be expected that Formula One fans would flock to it, the film’s appeal is crossing over to people with no interest in the sport and to whom the name “Ayrton Senna” previously meant nothing. To Kapadia, this success dates back to the decision to lose the talking heads.

“There came a point when it was so obvious, if in doubt, just let Senna tell you what is going on,” he says. “He should be the narrator of his own life story, not somebody else. He’s more intelligent, more eloquent, more good-looking. He can drive the car like nobody else can drive. He’s the one fighting corruption.  He’s the one who’s got the whole of Brazil following his every move. He’s perfect. He’s the perfect movie star.”

Researchers around the globe chased after material on Senna, but what really made a difference was the unprecedented access to the Formula One archive given to the production by Formula One head Bernie Ecclestone.

“We were the first people to actually set foot in his archive to get all the exclusive footage that you see in the film,” Kapadia says. “By the time we get to the last race in Emilia, there are 30 cameras on Senna everywhere he is. From one race, there are thousands of hours of material. You multiply that by a season and multiply that by 10 seasons.”

With or without that wealth of footage, Senna’s story is a compelling one with multiple facets, beginning with his rise through the Formula One ranks.

“In Formula One, the cars are not the same. They are totally different. They are totally unequal,” observes Kapadia. “The richest ones start at the front with the best of everything. The weakest ones start at the back and you’re meant to race. It’s obvious who’s going to win. The guy with the most money and the best car is up front.

“Senna’s job coming into the sport was to prove himself in a bad car to get a chance at a better car to get a chance to get into the best car. That’s what the sport is all about. It’s a really tough sport. You’ve got to be tough to make it.”

There is much more to Senna’s story than his ability to win races. He was a devout Catholic. He was a passionate advocate for safety and unafraid to take positions that put him at odds with the racing establishment. In Brazil, he was a national hero, that love affair reaching its apex at the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, a race he won despite problems with his gear box that forced him to drive the last laps of the race stuck in sixth gear.

“That’s the bit that still makes me cry,” says Kapadia. “There’s something about that moment where he has to do it. He cannot give up. He cannot quit, because he has to do it for everyone, all of his Brazilian fans. You just see what he means to them.”

Then there was his rivalry with his McLaren teammate Alain Prost. Every hero needs a villain and Senna found his in the Frenchman, a four-time world champion with whom he repeatedly locked horns both on and off the track. Kapadia compares their relationship to Muhammad Ali’s with George Frazier and George Forman or Bjorn Borg’s with John McEnroe.

“They’re so different as people,” he says. “They have different ways of driving, different ways of winning, different ways of dealing with people.

“Their faith made them different,” he adds. “Senna would talk about God and Prost didn’t like that. Everything about them. It was amazing to have two brilliant guys at the top of their game at the same time on the same team.”

Rivalry with Prost or any other driver could only motivate Senna so far, Kapadia believes. After spending two and a half years wading through the Formula One archive and putting the film together, gradually winnowing a seven-hour assembly to a 106-minute final cut, he has come to a conclusion about what drove Senna toward racing superstardom.

“He had to do it. He had to drive on the limit and find new limits. Push it further and further and further,” he says. “A lot of the time he wasn’t racing other people, ’cause he kind of knew he was better than them. He was racing himself, he was finding the kind of level he could achieve, in a way to get closer to God almost. It was a spiritual thing for him, to drive. It put him in a place there is no other way to be in that moment, to feel what he was feeling. He couldn’t help it. He had to do it.” – Pam Grady