The Making of Senna part 2: Meeting the Sennas


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Ayrton Senna, Lotus-Renault 97T, 1985

Ayrton Senna, Lotus-Renault 97T, 1985

Senna was not the first film about the life of Ayrton Senna to be approved by his family.

The year after his death, Senna’s relatives approved plans for a feature film with a $100m budget in which Antonio Banderas was set to play the part of Senna. It was never made.

Fast-forward 11 years to March 2006, and Manish Pandey along with fellow executive produce James Gay-Rees were at the Instituto Ayrton Senna in Sao Paulo, preparing to pitch their concept to Senna’s sister and mother.

One Senna film pitch every month

They had already met a representative of the family, Celso Lemos, in London the previous year. He told them the family received a “serious offer” about doing something similar at least once per month.

Pandey relates the story of the meeting: “At lunch James, Celso and I just spoke and something clicked.

“He realised we were very sincere in what we were up to and were willing to go as long as it took – and that we weren’t out to make ‘The Death of Ayrton Senna’. He admitted at the end ‘I get all these offers and I basically know it’s all about the death of Ayrton Senna because that’s what everyone’s heard of.’

“That parallels with something Ron Dennis told us. He said ‘What I find very difficult to deal with is the fact that he drove for us for six years, yet the biggest images of this man are in white and blue at his death.’

“It really sticks in Ron’s throat – purely in a sense that, yes, Senna’s death was monumental but that’s not the thing to remember him by. And the Sennas were never interested in doing that.”

“At the end of lunch Celso embraced us both – it was incredibly emotional, actually, because I’m a fan, and I was sitting there with someone who was a heartbeat away from what I’d always cared the most about, outside my family. He was really responding to what I wanted to write.

“Afterwards he said, ‘I think you’ll do it’, which I thought was an amazing thing to say to two people he’d never met before.”

“You really knew my brother”

Celso arranged for Pandey to do a presentation for the family in Sao Paulo at the Instituto:

“I did a 40-minute presentation going through from this young man arriving in Formula 1 on a rainy day in Monaco and ending with photos of Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost as they are now, dissolving into the bronze statue of Senna at Imola – so he was the immortal one, if you like.”

Pandey recalls that within a few minutes of the presentation starting Senna’s mother started to weep. By the end the whole family were in tears: “I remember having to stop and say ‘please don’t cry, because if you cry, I’ll cry, and then we won’t get anywhere!’”

Despite the melancholy tone Pandey made it clear that he would not overlook the controversial moments in Senna’s career:

“In that presentation I could and I remember thinking ‘don’t be scared, it’s OK talking about the dark side of Senna because you’ve got to do it at some point’. The worst thing would have been to be really dishonest and then come back and say we wanted to put this and that in.

“So I talked about the British media’s response to him, the incidents with Mansell, and they all responded to that. They were very objective people and I think they understand that you can’t go off into some weird hagiography. If you do that, no-one enjoys it, it’s a cartoon.

“The last few slides were of him after the accident, the helicopter. The whole room was crying and she hugged me and said ‘you really knew my brother’. That was the most incredible thing because I’d never met him.

“They said ‘yes’ – but it took us two years to complete the deal after that.”

Pandey returned to Brazil the following year in November to introduce them to Asif Kapadia, who by then had come on board as director. In the meantime they had cut together a short demo version of the film:

“I had all my F1 tapes and there’s also YouTube which you can download clips from, and we made a little ten-minute movie in three acts. We showed it to the people here [at Working Title] and they suddenly understood the film.”

Talking heads

This led them to one of the film’s most powerful devices. Unusually for a documentary, it avoids the use of ‘talking head’ interviews, relying on pre-recorded voiceovers instead.

Pandey explains: “Asif was the one who said to me ‘I don’t think we need talking heads’.

The abundance of footage of Senna allowed them that luxury: “This guy had been filmed from so many different angles.

“There was something organic about it as well – it starts off in really low resolution but by the end of his life he was being shot in really fantastic film.”

Pandey created a 256-page, colour-coded script to organise all the material they had found – and hoped to find:

“Everything in black was something I had seen and transcribed. Everything in green was something I’d read and purple was descriptions of events in books which might not have been filmed.

“And then there was light blue – for footage I wished existed!”

Ten voices

The next step was an exhaustive process of interviewing:

“We wrote up a list of 63 people we thought we should interview. We knew we had to interview Senna’s mum and Vivianne – his father’s never, ever given an interview.

“We knew we had to interview Alain [Prost] and Ron Dennis.”

These are four of the ten people who are heard during the film. The others include Frank Williams, Professor Sid Watkins, Brazilian F1 presenter Reginaldo Leme and The Guardian’s Richard Williams.

Pandey also approached Pierre van Vliet, formerly of French channel TF1: “one of those rare people who was very good friends with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna”.

The tenth voice is of John Bisigniano. Pandey described this as a “controversial” choice but says: “If you look in 1990, John does all the best commentary in Suzuka. He’s the guy who grabs Ayrton in the pit lane.”

The commentaries turn the assembled footage into a narrative: “We let them say it in their own words, we tried it out, and if it didn’t absolutely work we would get them to re-record certain sections, make them shorter and so on.

“The journalists became the glue. But then we had that age-old problem which is you know what the key moments are in the story and you’re trying desperately hard to illustrate them.”

The key to that was getting the footage – and that meant a visit to meet Bernie Ecclestone.

“The Making of Senna” continues after the Monaco Grand Prix.

Senna opens in the UK on June 3rd. See the official website for more information.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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22 comments on “The Making of Senna part 2: Meeting the Sennas”

  1. Reading this makes me appreciate the film even more now, can’t wait for the next part :)

    1. Me too. Really feels like we’re on to something special here.

  2. Chris Goldsmith
    27th May 2011, 13:59

    Just reading this gives me a lump in my throat. I’m going to be an absolute wreck when I finally see this film.

  3. Has it come out in Italy yet?


      A good response at Sundance is likely to make for a wider US distribution for the movie. It is due to open in Italy shortly and then in the UK in June.

      From that it should be out in Italy about now.

    2. Fixy, the movie’s come out as early as February 11th over here in Italy. In a grand total of 6 cinemas covering just about the Milano area, but whatever…You can already buy the DVD-Blu-ray version or you mat fly to a more civilised country where good-quality movies are actually advertised and shown in cinemas ;).

  4. i’m so glad that 100m budget movie was never made!!

    1. I think that that project evolved into Driven…. Which is grim…

      1. Driven was based on Schumacher. I seriously doubt that it ever had anything to do with Senna.

  5. Mark Hitchcock
    27th May 2011, 16:16

    The key to that was getting the footage – and that meant a visit to meet Bernie Ecclestone.

    Cue flash of lightning and foreboding music.

    1. Haha, indeed.

  6. I decided to stop following F1 after the death of Gilles Villeneuve, in 1982, but in 1985 there I was again, following that guy in a ridiculous Lotus. Ayrton quickly became like a saint to me. In 1994, I was living in Rio de Janeiro and working for United Press International (UPI), and covered the arrival of Ayrton´s body to Sao Paulo. It was the most shocking, memorable event of my life.
    Of course, I watched the film. To me, every minute of the film was like living all over again. And the point made here is precisely what shocked me the most: the film is not about Senna´s death, because that would be too easy. It is about what made of Ayrton the ultimate F1 driver.
    I can´t avoid mentioning Bisigniano´s commentary because in his testimony it is clear that Ayrton´s funeral in Sao Paulo changed his life. It changed mine too. As a reporter, I covered three football World Cup final, four Olympic games, and also natural catastrophes like Haiti´s hearthquake in 2010, with its 210.000 deaths. But what I lived that day in Sao Paulo, and what Bisigniano lived that day in Sao Paulo, was unique. I guess we both thank Ayrton for that.

    1. Wow! Great insights, thanks for sharing.

    2. Thanks for posting this Aldo. He really was a great figure.

  7. Keith, I think the “the” and the “all” got turned around in this paragraph:

    Pandey created a 256-page, colour-coded script to organise the all material they had found – and hoped to find:

    1. Fixed it, thanks.

  8. Still waiting for the first ‘Senna’ in Greece…

    1. That’s gonna be hard.

    2. Yeah, haven’t seen much about a release here in the Czech Republic neither.

  9. I saw the movie here in the States and many even though aren’t into F1 had enjoyed and applauded the movie. It’s worth every minute…

  10. I have postponed reading the “Making senna” series after part 1 because I didn’t have much time to sit down for it and fully appreciate them – today I do, and it is great. I still don’t know if I will be able to see Senna in a cinema where I live, but just reading about it, reminds me of the bits of Senna’s live that I have seen, either live, or on youtube etc. Thanks for this series Keith!

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