Channel 4 Fuel4: Director Asif Kapadia on Senna / by Heather Taylor

Channel 4 held it’s forth Fuel conference, a day for multiplatform creators, producers and technology partners, at the end of October, 2012. We had the pleasure of hearing Asif Kapadia speak about his work directing Senna and how he made the extraordinary documentary about Formula 1 driver, Ayrton Senna.

As a documentary filmmaker, weeks and months can go by talking and pitching the work you want to create. Half the time you haven’t written it but each time you tell you tell it differently and this can help solidify your ideas. This way you very quickly know what the bad ideas are. You need to distill the story and find the essence/ the story you want to tell. A good idea is something you can hold onto and grow. Find characters that will develop. Short form and long form, you needs to find the ideas that will intersect.

Asif is a big believer in the oral tradition of stories so you have to bring that into filmmaking. He is obsessed with the first image, and the opening sequence. How do you set up the world? What will you set audiences up to expect?

In the first couple of minutes of a film, the key themes are there. In Senna, Asif opened with super 8 footage and Senna’s mom saying “I just want to him to be safe” and Senna speaking about faith. In the sequence of titles, Senna showed everything up to the moment of the first race with music composed to make it look better.


Making Senna, it was all about the team. It’s not just about a “film by” credit. From beginning to end, there was a writer, director and producer. The producer was there all the way through, challenging and pushing.

It all started with a ten page document but Asif knew he needed to cut a film to make people understand his idea. Using YouTube footage, he showed the story of Senna in ten minutes and that got financing.

That way it’s about how it will look. You need to get away from the text and get away from development hell. It should be about making stuff.

Asif was just bullshitting all the way through about what he could get. He wanted the film to be real and made of real footage. A lot of directing is being a politician. You have to consider what are you willing to give away and what are you not. It took Asif’s team two years to make something different.

Early on Asif realised that in order for the film to work, it had to stay in the present so the audience wouldn’t always be thinking about Senna dying in the pursuit of his dream.  So he kept it all in archive footage with no talking heads. That way Senna himself tells his own story.

One of the problems Asif faced was that every frame of Senna was filmed for TV. By staying in moment though, you forget it’s TV and that makes it cinematic. It only happened once and we are going to show you reality. Two people die for real on screen.

The next biggest problem was that it cost 100k every minute over the 40 minutes of archive they budgeted for and first cut was 7 hours long.

Fiction is always cheating but with Senna, if Asif couldn’t find the right footage, then he’d have to change the story. He never talked about racing gear as he knew the racing audience would watch it and instead gave more to the characters.


Asif left the audience with a few words of advice:

  • Being as you are day to day in the world, you are 60 percent awake but when you are directing, you are out there and 100 percent awake. So do whatever you can to make the stuff that makes you feel that way.
  • Take things along the way and don't dismiss things that weren’t already written
  • Everything you planned can go wrong. Stay cool and calm and don't panic.

The last thought Asif pondered before leaving the stage was this gap between fiction and documentary. The way the world of storytelling is changing, we need a new term for this. What it is, even Asif didn’t know – but he did think there was going to be more and more of it.