Growing up in suburban Chicago, Illinois, in the late '50s I wasn't tuned in to European Formula One (F1) racing that pitted agile and fast Ferraris against Maseratis and other automotive exotica. For my gang of friends, watching A. J. Foyt driving his front engined, Ford powered cars at the annual Indianapolis 500 was the race of all auto races. Little did I know that, outside of the safe boundaries of my Midwestern myopia, that race around a circle track was derided as being about a bunch of hicks making one long left turn while driving cumbersome, uninteresting cars.
That image was sealed when at the end of the Indy race the winner would celebrate victory with a drink from a cold bottle of milk. Cold milk, compared to the traditional Grand Prix winner's celebration of Champagne, what more proof did one need that we Americans were hopeless rubes?
This is a rather long-winded explanation of why it took me years to overcome my ignorance of how the rest of world feels about motorsports. The myth of American exceptionalism was reinforced with our cultural blackout of other forms of auto racing and even football. Nearly everyone else played a game of agility, what we call soccer, while we were fixated on a head bashing game of inches reminiscent of World War One trench warfare. So mea culpa, I admit that I didn't get why 527 million people follow Formula One or riot over soccer. After seeing a new documentary, Senna, that follows the remarkable racing exploits of the Brazilian, Ayrton Senna, as he climbs the ladder from go-kart driving teenager to win the F1 World Championship three times, I can't imagine anyone not being hooked by the drivers and the spectacle of human beings piloting autos through hair splitting curves at speeds in excess of 200 mph. The appeal of soccer still eludes me. But if some producer/director can uncover the "fly on the wall" footage chronicling the exploits and behind the scenes drama of a star player the way director Asif Kapadia did for this film, then soccer might have a chance with me.
To create Senna, Kapadia had to convince Bernie Ecclestone, the billionaire czar of Formula One, (whose daughter Petra, recently purchased the sprawling Beverly Hills mansion of Aaron Spelling for a reported $85-million) that letting him rummage through and use the archive would be a good idea.
He secured a meeting with the all-powerful Ecclestone and brought him a gift -- a photo of famed Grand Prix driver, Tazio Nuvolari, standing beside his Alfa Romeo after he defeated the German team at the 1935 German Grand Prix. This has become one of the most famous races and exploits of man over machine. It pitted Nuvolari against the monstrously fast Mercedes and Auto Union teams that were partly funded by the Nazis as an important part of their propaganda efforts. His come from behind, spectacular finish mesmerized the 300,000 fans who couldn't believe this Italian upstart driving an old Alfa Romeo had defeated a pack of the most powerful cars on the planet. He was hailed as the greatest driver in history. What better way to warm up Bernie as he pitched him the story of Ayrton Senna, a driver who's life followed the never give up Nuvolari credo?
After sitting down in Bernie's office, Kapadia handed him the photo. Ecclestone looked at the photo and smiled. Then told the hopeful filmmaker that "he owned that car," said Kapadia. Ecclestone also owned "every shot taken on the track," he said. The film would be impossible without the blessing of the F1 emperor.
The charm offensive must have worked. Kapadia was afforded unfettered access to the F1 archives and quickly discovered that there was more footage there then he'd imaged. When combined with footage from Japanese television and Brazil's Globo TV, which exhaustively covered the hometown hero, he knew he could make this film.
His vision of a film told exclusively using this wealth of archive began to come into focus. He was amazed to see the day in life footage; Senna at home, with his family, growing up and racing go karts, dates with super models, and race footage; practice sessions, heated discussions with officials over rules, arguments with fellow drivers, drama in the pits and the stunning on-board material that puts us behind the wheel. He could tell this story using the exact footage of every moment, "we're not cheating it," he said. "This is all on camera."
He decided that the best way to tell the story was to, "just show the people in the film" and not cut away to talking head interviews "with a plant or bookshelf in the background," or cut in still photos. Off camera interviews with people "who had been there" would fill in the narrative gaps.
While that might work dramatically, and it does, there was a budget issue. The producers who'd hired Kapadia had only budgeted for "forty minutes of archive," he said. One reason to use on-camera interviews is they act as filler and you don't have to use as much archive. Like the racer in his story, Kapadia, set his sites on the objective and motored ahead convinced he'd win. He did a "seven hour long first cut, then a five and then a two" and eventually the powers that be began to believe that it made sense to let the archive tell the story. Somehow they found the extra money and Kapadia whittled down the final run time to 104 minutes.
The end result is a riveting and moving experience that takes you behind the scenes of Formula One racing, the most elite sport in the world, and into the heart and mind of an outsider who challenged its conventions to become the World Champion.
The film premiered at Sundance this year and won the World Cinema Documentary Award and the Audience Award at the LA Film Festival.
It opens this coming Friday, August 12 at the Landmark theater in Los Angeles and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York then rolls out to 19 cities around the country.
The following release schedule and venues are subject to change:
Austin, Texas: Violet Crown Cinema
Berkeley, Calif.: Landmark Shattuck Cinemas
Cambridge, Mass.: Landmark Kendall Square Cinema
Chicago: Landmark Century Centre Cinema
Dallas: Angelika Dallas Film Center
Detroit: Landmark Main Art Theater
Miami: AMC Sunset Place 24
Nashville, Tenn.: Belcourt Theatre
Philadelphia: Landmark Ritz at the Bourse
San Francisco: Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema
Washington, D.C.: Landmark E Street Cinema
Atlanta: Landmark Midtown Art Cinema
Denver: Landmark Chez Artiste
Minneapolis: Landmark Lagoon Cinema
Palm Springs, Calif.: Cinémas Palme d'Or
Palo Alto, Calif.: TBD
Portland, Ore.: Regal Fox Tower Stadium
San Diego, Calif.: Landmark Ken Cinema
Seattle: Landmark Varsity Theater
Charlotte, N.C.: Park Terrace
Indianapolis: Regal Downtown West Cinema
Knoxville, Tenn.: Landmark Keystone Art Cinema
St. Louis: Landmark Tivoli Theatre
Santa Fe, N.M.: UA DeVargas Mall
All photos courtesy of Producers Distribution Agency and used with permission