Interview with James Gay-Rees
To celebrate the release of Senna on DVD and blu-ray on 10th October we have a great exclusive interview with its producer James Gay-Rees to share with you…
Filmmaker James Gay-Rees worked as a producer on the likes of Long Time Dead, Blackball and Allegiance and recently produced Exit Through the Gift Shop, the directing debut of über-cool graffiti-artist Banksy. His latest offering, Senna, which he produced with Manish Pandey and directed by Asif Kapadia, is a stunning documentary that explores the extreme dedication displayed by arguably the world’s greatest-ever Formula One driver, Ayrton Senna. Charting the Brazilian’s rise to become a triple World Champion, against the odds, before his tragic death at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, which rocked the F1 world. The film won the 2011 World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Festival…
How was the recent Brazilian premiere? Ayrton Senna means so much to people over there…
It was quite daunting; they find it really hard. Obviously the Brazilians find it tough because it represents such a different time for them now. They are on such a high now. The economy is booming. They have the Olympics and the World Cup coming up, whereas while Senna was alive it was a much darker period for the country. He was the only thing they really had to get excited about and then he dies, of course. So it was a bit of a tough watch. The reviews were really good.
And the Sundance audience responded to the film, which is great because F1 means nothing in the USA…
They really connected to the character. It was really interesting. Partly what it is, I think, is that he is young, good looking, talented, ambitious and a God-fearing guy — an all American kid, in a way. He looks the part and I think that is why they responded to him. And that’s very important for us; that it does so clearly connect with a broad audience, not just an F1 audience which is obvious. F1 fans will go and see it but we know for a fact, without a doubt, that the film just works as a movie for people with no connection to F1 at all.
Your father worked with Senna during the 1980s, on the Lotus team, right?
That’s right. Ayrton was driving for Lotus in 1985-6 and my dad was the account rep for John Player Special. He was an advertising guy and they sponsored the car. After a Grand Prix my dad would do a photographic campaign with Ayrton, get a photographer and create something. He said there was one amazing time when there was this quite famous photographer and they were in Imola funnily enough (where Senna eventually died unfortunately), and they were literally standing in the middle of the straight with this huge camera on a tripod and there was this black dot at the other end of the bit of track. Effectively he was coming towards them in the car and just peeling past them at a 180mph. Today, Health & Safety would never let you do that. He said it was one of the most unnerving experiences he has ever had because they had to do that about 15 times with this car coming like a bullet towards him.
Did your dad know other drivers, too?
My dad became very good friends with one of Ayrton’s team mates at Lotus, a guy called Eddie DeAngelis, who subsequently died in testing a couple of years after Senna. He was the opposite of Senna. He was an incredibly sophisticated Italian count, a real aristocratic playboy driver, supper with champagne and all that sort of thing.
What did your dad tell you about Senna?
What he was always used to say about Ayrton was that he was a fantastically good driver and had something extra special about him, skill wise, but what really lodged with my father was that he had this spiritual intensity. He was a very intense, very focussed, very ambitious young guy and he seemed much older than his years. All the other young drivers of his age group were getting their leg-over as much as possible, having fun in the paddock and even though he enjoyed that side of life, he was clearly happiest to be on his path, to get to where he really wanted to go to as quickly as possible. That struck my dad. Ayrton was only 24 or 25 which then was very young for a F1 driver, although not so much any more. He kept on saying this guy has something about him: ‘He is so different. I can’t put my finger on it. He is not like the other kids.’
Is that where your interest in F1 stems from?
I am not a massive F1 fan. I am quite good now. I have become much more interested since we have made the movie. For me I had an interest in, and a preconception of Senna due to what I had heard from my father. I was then keen to add layers to that and build that up. He did not disappoint as a character and when we peeled off the layers he was even more extraordinary. I did think he was a fairly exceptional character. He is not perfect. He is very flawed in lots of ways. But he is pretty imposing and such an intense character. There was a real contrast between him and say, Eddie DeAngelis. So that was the connection. As a young kid, 15 at the time, hearing my dad talk, these things just lodged in my memory and stayed with me.
The film touches upon, but does not dwell on, Senna’s personal life. Is that because it’s extraneous to your story, or was there a lack of footage, or maybe you didn’t want to upset the family?
I think that it was a combination of all those things. But yes, we were trying to explain with the film what it took in order for this guy to get where he wanted, in order to become the world’s best driver. Basically he had to go on this mad journey, so what price did he pay? What did he have to do in order to achieve that; not just in technical racing terms but in terms of the politics of the sport? What were the obstacles and how did he overcome them? What did it take out of him? What did he use to motivate himself to go to this extraordinary place? I don’t think his relationships throughout that ten-year period were a key factor in that singular vision. I don’t think he is concerned with keeping his girlfriend happy, because he was on a solo journey. Obviously, he had lots of different relationships and I am sure that those women could have shed light on him being on that journey but we did make the decision then that if we did speak to one we had to speak to all of them and there just wasn’t room in the movie.
What was the family’s reaction to the finished film?
Bianca Senna, Ayrton’s niece, who has become a very good friend of ours now, was our contact on their side of things. She is about our age and she gets the process, understands what we are trying to do. She saw a couple of rough cuts and gave us her notes, which were really helpful. Then we finally showed it to the whole lot, to Viviane (Ayrton’s sister), his mum and Bianca, and she brought a huge bunch of people along to Cannes. We screened it for them during the festival basically. They got it.
What feedback did they give you?
The thing that Viviane said and she said a lot about this at the press conferences in Brazil, was that she really liked the way we handled his fight against the politics of the sport. She felt quite strongly that he wasn’t treated fairly. It was pretty evident in the film. He was always up against it. He was always on the outside even though he was triple World Champion. He didn’t have an easy ride. He wasn’t very good at the politics game like Alain Prost was. He knew he was being turned over. And he was. They were definitely taking the piss a few times.
One of the film’s great successes is the lack of ‘talking heads’. The only visuals are footage, which is most unusual in a documentary film…
It was Asif who basically said that we have such a wealth of material, maybe we can do this in a non-traditional way, without talking heads. That is the obvious way to do it but we had so much great material we thought: let’s do it without that. And I was all for it. Nobody has really done it properly before and I thought it would be remarkable. If we could do that we don’t ever break the moment on screen and it would seem much more like a movie. And that’s been the overwhelming response to the film; it feels like a movie because you don’t go backwards and forwards.
Asif Kapadia has proved an inspired choice as director, but why did you think he was the man for the job to begin with?
We interviewed a variety of people and the reason we ended up with Asif is because Manish and I loved The Warrior; it is so visual. And Senna was the warrior, so there were lots of relevant ideas contained in that. Asif has a great photographer’s eye, too and when you have such a vast amount of archive you do need someone who can quickly say, ‘That’s a great image and that’s a great image.’ That was a big part of it.
There are a few feature films in development with racing as a backdrop, but they’ve not proved too successful in the past. Do you have any thoughts as to why?
There are few classic ones, [1971 documentary] Le Mans, and a couple of others but there hasn’t been one recently. I think it’s because it is really hard to replicate the authenticity of it. Take the Micky Ward boxing movie, The Fighter, for example and that is two guys in a ring. But if you are trying to replicate the spectacle of the F1 environment, that’s tough. And when you get under the skin of Senna to see what it actually does take to be that good at something, it is very hard to imagine. I think our film shows just how hard it is and just how special Ayrton Senna really was.