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An Interview With Senna Director Asif Kapadia

Asif Kapadia is the visionary director behind Senna and The Warrior. He is highly regarded in the industry and has the 'brass' to prove it – including the coveted London Film Festival Sutherland Award, and BAFTAs for Best Documentary and Best Editing. Here, he discusses his love of cinema, the filmmaking process, and the greatest F1 driver that ever lived.  

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What do you value most about the cinema experience?

I love the group experience of watching a film in a dark space, without interruptions from email, calls or text messages. Where I can totally immerse myself in the cinematic experience.

When did you know absolutely that directing was what you wanted to pursue?

I had worked as a runner on a student film, and the DOP on that film asked me to work on her graduate film a few weeks later in Cornwall. I suddenly found myself in the middle of nowhere, working with a group of people I hardly knew. I felt I had run away with the circus. It was while traveling back from Cornwall on the long train ride that I decided to make my own short film.

Which was?

A State Of Flux, about a man waiting for a train. It was made it in 1989 at Stamford Hill station. It was shot on Umatic. I did pretty much everything on it. My next film was the documentary 'Pizzaman' about an Italian pizzeria owner from Sao Paulo living in a rough part of South Wales, coming up against the local gangs. The lead was an amazing character, so even though the film wasn’t technically great, it worked. I still like this film! It was shot on a VHS camcorder and edited on a linear VHS edit suite.

How did the idea for The Warrior come about?

After graduating from the Royal College of Art, I wrote my first feature screenplay called On The Corner. The film was set in Hackney where I grew up, it was very personal, darkly humorous and based on real experiences. It had a lot of character and lots of different storylines, the problem was that it was really a short film expanded into a feature, so it didn’t quite work. There were great scenes but no strong structure or spine to the narrative.

As I was waiting for that project to come together, I co-wrote a detailed outline for another film, which was based on a footnote in a book of Japanese stories. This project became The Warrior. People who read it loved the idea, but many felt it was too complicated to do as my first film, it should be my ‘third’ feature. Still, a French producer came on board and he financed the development of the script, so I ended up making the more original, crazy film rather than the safe, sensible option.

My aim was to make something which stood out – something visual, cinematic, with minimal dialogue. A film where the story was revealed through images. This film would be a mixture of my Indian heritage, my interest in Samurai films and Japanese culture but told in a European camera-style. I was influenced by Zhang Yimou’s early films, like Raise The Red Lantern and Story Of Qiu Ju, as well as a French / Vietnamese film called Cyclo and Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped.

How did you capture such a legendary figure as Senna?

We wanted Ayrton Senna to narrate his own life story, so no talking heads, no voice over, no actors, nothing that would break the purity of the experience of his personal journey.

The aim was to make it as a thriller, an action film, it had to be emotionally engaging both for the non-sport fan, someone who has never heard of or cannot stand Formula One, as well as the hardcore fan who thinks they have seen everything about Ayrton already.

We tried to structure the film in the same way as a fiction film, with a beginning, middle and end, with all of the twists and turns of a good drama. We had to find the balance between telling the story we wanted to tell, yet working only with footage that existed in archives around the world.

We also had far too much material!  There were so many incredible stories in Senna’s life, he was so charismatic, so intelligent, the racing footage was visceral, it was a huge challenge to bring the material and story down to length. Our first assembly was seven hours long, the first cut five hours long! It took two years to bring this down to the 100-minute film which was released.

It was a close collaboration between the producer James Gay Rees, writer Manish Pandey, who was the big Ayrton Senna fan on the team, and myself together with our brilliant team of researchers and editors.

This feature was first seen here on DCM's Adweek blog 2013

Fancy yourself as the next Asif Kapadia? The D&AD Next Director Award aims to discover and showcase the next generation of talented directors from around the world. Are you next?

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