Asif Kapadia interview transcript

Interview with Asif Kapadia, edited transcript

31 May 2011

Q: You are a keen sports fan but the production notes seem to suggest you didn’t know anything about Senna, so why take Senna on?

AK: I knew who he was, obviously, because I was a sport fan, but I didn’t know that much about him away from the rivalry and away from I mean I was watching Formula live. I knew enough. Why take it on? Well weirdly enough it came to me… Someone offered me the chance and it was when you’re lucky things kind of happen at a particular moment in time and I had just come off shooting a really hard core film in the Arctic, so the idea of doing this documentary was quite appealing because it was the opposite of what I had done previously, but also I knew there was a huge responsibility because of how famous he was because of how much he was loved. There was a challenge there, [for me] as a director, because it was something different to what I’d done before that I was excited about and because I am a big sport fan I’ve never really done a film dealing with that world before and so it felt like, actually this is the way to do it because I’m not…I think sport and fiction are very tough to do. Certain sports work… Raging Bull is one of my favourite films and boxing particularly works but a lot of other sports really don’t work and so there were all of these issues that made me think well it’s worth a try and it’s not until we started making the film and doing the research that I realised actually we’ve got something potentially very special here because of the nature of the his fame and because of the nature of the sport everything was covered by cameras and so we really had an insight and access to a very special guy which just all of it was covered by camera so, so there was a movie, absolutely, a really, really interesting movie there to made.

Q: Was that one of the reasons why you had no interviews in shot?

AK: …I just thought it would weaken it. For me to cut to anybody now takes away the tension, breaks the film, breaks the flow and because I am a drama director I don’t like talking heads, I don’t like voice overs, I don’t like using stills, I don’t like a lot of the conventions of documentary film making, I am not a big fan of myself… I mean other people use them very, very well, but it’s not something that comes naturally for me. So, the idea was to how do I make this a movie how do I make it cinematic considering every frame is TV and how do I put my own finger print on it?  And that was to say well let’s treat it like a drama. Let’s not even think about it as a documentary let’s just treat it purely as a drama and do it…let’s see how far we can push that idea.

Q: Was there anything you picked up at the University of Westminster that you can think of that gave you that level of independence?

AK: I had a brilliant tutor, called Tony Grisoni when I was at the University of Westminster… and Joost Hunninger was the head of the course at the time and it was actually at Westminster University when I was first was given the idea that maybe… you should write and be interested in and doing not personal stories but finding a way to make ideas cinematic and I think Tony and Joost were obviously of huge influence… Having come into the film school, I had experience on working on films but I hadn’t really made anything that anyone liked and it was while I was at the film school that I made a short called Indian Tales which was a mixture of the style of filmmaking I was interested in – which is I suppose a more European way of filmmaking – as well as using personal stories. I think the idea of mixing two different ideas and putting them together, so making a drama but as a documentary or a documentary in a dramatic way… That idea of crossing things together to make something personal without it literally being about your family or being a movie in your high street … I learnt a lot at Westminster and all of that comes through in every film that I’ve made since.

Q: Did you feel you were encouraged to explore yourself and at the same make mistakes there?

AK: …I don’t know if any of that is clear when you’re actually a student. It’s when I leave and now I teach and I’m…actually I am teaching at Westminster tomorrow. When I teach at film schools I now know having left film school that without studying I would never have had a chance to make movies. For me I didn’t have access to money, I didn’t have access to equipment, I didn’t really know that much about the industry I didn’t know anything about film theory so for me, I did six years of film school and two of them were spent at Westminster. I did two before in Wales and I did two afterwards. I did a Postgraduate at the Royal College of Art and those six years, without them, I would not be making movies.

I would not have made features and I would not have made Senna so they were a vital part of growing up and learning technique of film making and the best thing about being at film school are those free things of having access to equipment, having access to crew, having the most important thing: deadlines. You’ve got to finish a movie at some point.

… The great thing about being a student is there are deadlines you’ve got to complete that movie even if it’s not ready even if you are not happy with it you’ve got to move on to the next one and so that idea of when you have a chance to make a film do your absolute best, do everything you can to make it better and then you have to move on and that’s what comes out of being a student and doing film particularly at University.

… There was a lot of film theory and it was the theory that was the biggest learning curve. I’d made quite a few movies before, I had worked on films so I knew about the practical side of film making. What I didn’t know was film history and that was the most important thing for me at University it was to learn about…it was to learn about what had been done before and the fact is nothing is new it’s all been done you just need to know where to look.

Q: Were there any bits of film history that you thought were particularly relevant for Senna?

AK: Everything’s relevant you know, that’s the thing… If I was to just go to the library I would always pick out the books of the film makers I already liked. The thing about being a student is to tasked to watch movies that you don’t normally watch and to see a style of film making that doesn’t at the time seem to speak to you and only ten years later, or twenty years later you go: “Oh, my God, I saw that movie and now I understand how influential it was because I now see that Christopher Nolan is using some of the ideas in this short film that someone did in this short film made in France in the sixties.” You know, this idea of playing with time was done in La jetée, this French New Wave Film. So all of that is useful but you don’t know it at the time. That’s why… you go to expand your brain by being a student.

Q: I assume…teaching at Westminster… you can pass on that knowledge but at the same time make students understand that without knowledge they’ll have a less chance of achieving, certainly in what is probably [one of] the most challenging and competitive industries out there.

AK: …I think the most important thing is also to have an instinct, gut instincts and to learn and by being a student you know, taking risks and failing is not a bad thing and it’s important almost with every film you do to take a risk but if you play it safe it doesn’t necessarily make it a better film. All of that is part of the process of studying and… you can learn a lot by looking at other movies, and you can learn a lot by studying them, and by writing essays, and it’s important to do that, but if you want to direct you just have to make films and the best ways to make films is for me to be a student, because then you can make more in a short space of time you know, and that is important…You’ve got to go through the process a few times to really understand the process and you’re still learning you never really figure it out.

Q: Could you give us an idea of just how much research and how long you spent in pre-production and then in the edit suites to deliver a very smooth-flowing story and it’s this modern day tragedy, but at the same time an enormous amount of work has gone into a project like this. Could you give us some kind of idea of the scale of the work?

AK: Well, the producer James Gay Rees had the idea to make the film back in 2004 and it’s taken… seven years to get to where we are now. He approached the studio Working Title and Universal to make a documentary. They…the head of the studio Eric Fellner is a big racing fan so he gets a go ahead. He then…James then spoke to an executive at Working Title and the executive said “You’ve got to meet my husband, he’s the biggest Senna fan” and that’s Manish Pandey he’s the writer. Manish is actually a surgeon, he’s a doctor. So then James and Manish approach the family in Brazil to get permission to make the film. Manish pitched to the family, they said “Yes”. They then gave him permission to approach Bernie Eccelstone who owns all of the commercial rights to the sport and without Bernie’s approval you don’t make a film about Formula 1. Bernie then said “Yes”. It was only then they approached Directors – so by now we are talking about 2006 maybe – and that’s when I first had a meeting with the producer and the writer and said “Yeah, I’d be interested” and then it took another year or almost six months for them to work out contracts and deals to get the approval. So then I was on it from about 2007 – just as I came back from my shoot in the Arctic and Far North – and from then onwards I was essentially locked in the edit suites and it’s nearly been three years of editing and researching and doing interviews and cutting and writing a script and doing everything all at the same time in order to have the film that we completed pretty much last year and it’s taken a while to come out in the UK. It’s been coming out in other countries and…it’s about three years of intense every day of the week being in there working on the edit with the editors, working on the music, working on the sound, working on the story doing research, doing interviews… Everything, all at the same time, unlike the conventional way you do one after the other.

Q: And how close do you work with your editors and your sound? Are you there every step of the way?

AK: Pretty much. I mean you need to be… There’s times when you leave just to let them try something out but pretty much…in this film I had to be. Normally, in a drama I wouldn’t have been, necessarily.

Q: Was there any point in it where you just thought: “This is not working as I expected”?

AK: No. I think a lot of people thought that but I was one of maybe… of the few people who thought…this is going to be good. I just thought this is something special. It’s just getting it down to the length was going to be our problem. It was long, it was always too long and there was a seven hour cut. That’s the border I put together. There was a five hour cut, there was a three hour cut, then a two hour and then getting it down from two hours down to 100 minutes was really tough. I always felt we had something very special. The people who knew me…who’d seen my other films just couldn’t get their head around why I would want to make a film about a racing driver… And now when they see the film they get it, they understand the scenes and the style of the film… But it was a battle, actually. They always are, all films are.

Q: How has Senna’s family responded to it?

AK: They saw it a year ago at the Cannes. We had a special screening for them during one of the Grand Prix because Senna’s nephew Bruno was racing in Formula 1 then, so the family flew over from Sao Paulo and we put on a special screening during the Cannes Film Festival just for them. It was very emotional you know, there were a lot of tears in the darkness and at the ending Senna’s sister, who was really kind of the matriarch of the family now, came over and hugged us all and just said “You’ve perfectly captured the balance of the genius on the track and the humanity of the man off the track”, which was I suppose our aim. So, yes, they gave us their approval.

Q: One thing I found very moving was seeing Prost at the end as one of the pool bearers …Did that surprise you?

AK: …We don’t want him to be the bad guy but he was obviously his biggest rival. It wasn’t intentional to make him the bad guy but yeah, that’s the thing, the reality is just so amazing of this story that you know who’d of thought he would actually, he came and he was there and he had the nerve to go, and the family invited him because…you know it’s sport and when you’re rivals, you don’t necessarily mean everything you say in a personal way. It’s whatever you’ve got to do to psychologically get one up on your rival. You know, it’s the same as Ali vs Frazer in boxing, or Borg vs McEnroe… You’ve got to do whatever you’ve got to do to win that title. You’re not really expecting these things to happen. The difference in boxing and in particular Formula 1, is that every time you do it you risk your life so there is a different level of intensity involved in doing this particular sport but he [Prost] was there and you know he is a Trustee at the [Ayrton Senna] Foundation and I think that was important for people to know that.

Q: And as far as your passion for sport, what sports do you have a passion about and who are your sporting heroes?

AK: I’m a football guy. I’m a big football fan and… that was my first and that’s the one I play, still…I’m a Liverpool fan. I grew up in the 70’s. Growing up next to Highbury I, of course, supported Liverpool. All my family are Arsenal fans. I have a love/hate relationship still with boxing… My hero was Ali and it’s a weird thing in which I kind of watch but I also hate and it’s another sport where the politics is a big part of it.

Q: I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions about the nature of the way that technology has moved on now and is maybe allowing students to tell stories that can be seen. You can tell a story on an iPhone or you can tell a story on a 5D or a red camera but at the same time the technology and the facility to edit is at everyone’s disposal now and I suppose once you have that knowledge and you have the right idea and if you have the work ethic, it’s available to you… What do you think about the way in which students now are approaching work?

AK: Do you know, I don’t think the technology is that big a deal honestly. You’ve still got to just do it... I’m old fashioned, I come a period in time when you shot on film you cut on film and you projected on film. Now, the thing about working on film was that it was pressure. It cost a lot of money you have to think before you shoot. I think it’s a great thing that everyone has a camera on their phone everyone can shoot constantly, but you don’t necessarily think much before you shoot and I think that’s the only thing that students need to do… It’s easy to shoot but what happens often is they don’t finish editing or they don’t cut it because they’ve got too much material…

The main thing is to complete a project whatever it is, however long it is. You need to start something and you need to finish it and I suppose the downside of shooting digital and shooting on video is that you never get a chance to project them.

… I think for me films need to be projected. Films should still be a group experience and it’s great that everyone can look at stuff on You Tube but it’s something also where you’re never really paying attention… That is something that can be lost from everybody having access and shooting non-stop is that it’s not precious and therefore you don’t think beforehand and then you don’t have the collective experience of an audience viewing afterwards because you just never can afford to put it back onto film…

I want to see films projected big and I think what happens is if you’re used to looking at things on a camera phone or you laptop or your iPad you frame footage in a certain which is much more like television, rather than films made for the big screen are wider, you know, you’re further away from the subject you don’t get in quite so close always.

There’s a technical thing which I think people maybe don’t quite get so therefore there is a big leap if you want to make feature films and all of your training has come from shooting on digital cameras and shooting untold amounts of footage and then suddenly you’ve got a real tough schedule to shoot on a feature and it’s a big leap, it’s a big change and also to make something feel cinematic I think you know, things can work on You Tube and things can work on Facebook and things can work on your laptop but it doesn’t always make them cinema.

Q: Talking about your teaching and if someone was to come and see you and say “How do I make a film?” what would you say to them?

AK: The first thing is to just start doing it. …I think when I was last teaching at film school the thing is to not look at the final edit, but to look at the rushes, and to make a collective experience: it is collaboration so you need to work with other people. Often you can learn more by looking at how other people work than just by looking at yourself and… locking yourself away with your material. I think it’s important to understand how to understand what people are shooting and why. What is the meaning behind everything you do? Everything, every shot, every cut, every movement by and actor, every bit of music, every bit of sound should have a motivation and a meaning behind it. You’re trying to express something and it’s really important to understand what you’re trying to say. The simplest question is “What are you trying to say?” “Why are you making this film, what is the point?” “What are you trying to say in this scene, what are you trying to say in this dialogue, what are you trying to say with this scene?” When you cut it, why are you cutting there and not there?

… So, the whole point is what is your motivation and what are you trying to say, to always remind yourself of that?

Q: Do you like to work with the same editors, the same people around you?

AK: I have been working with the same team since film school. Since the Royal College of Art. I’ve got the same cameraman …I work with the same colourist often, I work with the same sound team, same composers. With Senna I’ve got a slightly different team because I’ve got documentary guys involved but yeah, I have a group of people, they are family essentially I have been working with since 1996 and a lot of them I’ve made a lot of my movies with. I think that’s important also when you’re at film school to try and create a team. A strong team, a family around you that you will continue to work with because then things become instinctive and you delegate you can trust people around you. ‘Cause you can’t do everything. The bigger the films get the lesser you do so you have to hand things over and trust people to do their job.

Q: Talking about the sacred nature of cinema, a question about the cinema restoration at the University of Westminster. There will soon be one of the oldest Cinemas in that space… How important might the new (Regent Street) Cinema be to cinema?

AK: I don’t know what’s the latest? Has it been opened? I mean, have they managed to get the funding? Are they still trying to raise money?

Q: My understanding is that the funding is nearly secured. So let’s assume it has been…

AK: I’ve spoken to people a while ago but I haven’t really had an update. I don’t know where they are. I’ve been…it’s an amazing room and historically it means a hell of a lot, and because of the position of where it is on Regent Street, it is unbelievable …for the University to still be able to afford to have a building there (because my old building has gone on Riding House Street). But once it’s up and running, it will be an amazing thing. I look forward to it. I haven’t seen it yet but once they do it, it will be very, very special and unique. Historically it’s just…it’s a landmark, isn’t it?

Q: What do you take away with you from your time at the University? Was it the people? Was it the place? Was it being in London?…

AK: …it was a really amazing time… I am a Londoner, I’ve grown up here [and] … when you’re a student, you really want to go away. Partly you need to grow up, you need to go and study away from home, so I did that for two years, I went to study in Wales, and I did a very practical film course before Westminster. I kind of had work from films non-stop but I still felt like I didn’t know anything and I didn’t…I really hadn’t made a movie that could show…I wasn’t ever going to get a job you know, that was the truth… I was lucky. There are really difficult times ahead, because it’s just so expensive to be a film scholar, it’s so expensive to study… I was lucky I was one of that generation where… there was a thing called a grant. I didn’t come from a wealthy background, and I don’t know if I could make movies now, that’s the truth. I don’t think I could because the courses are so expensive so I was lucky enough to be there at a time where I could come in…

I only came into the second year because I had already done a two year course in Wales. I did a second year and a third year and I had a steep learning curve to make particularly on a film theory side but I loved it, it was an amazing experience to be able to go and study in the West End, which is where the film school used to be. My University base was in Riding House Street just off Regent Street. So to live in London, to study at a University at central London was an amazing time and I… I was really challenged… by my tutors…I started working with students and some of them are still very, very good friends and I still work with some of them and so…you know, it was a great time. It was a really, really special time.

I then left and worked in TV for a year as a director but then realised… I had to go another stage further so I actually went back to do a Postgraduate at the Royal College of Art.

So, for me University of Westminster was a stepping stone from what I had done previously as just, I was working on movies to also doing a Postgraduate at the Royal College of Art and it was the perfect bit in the middle where I made a short film called Indian Tales which won prizes in America and around the world that got me a job working in TV and it essentially made me…It became a career, from being something that I liked to do, to becoming a career. That leap happened while I was at Westminster.

Everything’s changed now of course you know. The University is now in Harrow, most of the people who have taught me have now gone so it’s all quite different to the experience I had. And it costs a lot more money... The world has changed, the Government… everything has changed, so that I don’t think I could study and make films now.

When I first got into films I noticed… you have to know somebody in the industry, you have to be quite wealthy, you’d been to Oxbridge… There were all these things that seemed to be the norm. There were very few black and Asian people working on films when I first started out and… I am a bit worried that now it’s going to be once again, you know, only the wealthy can study, only the wealthy can make films, because no one else can afford to do it. Because it does take a long time even after you’ve graduated to be able to fund your life you know, to be able to exist as a filmmaker. You have to spend a lot of time between jobs, as a director particularly. If you’re working on movies in sound or post-production it’s quite easy to go from one job to another. If you’re a film director you have huge gaps in between movies when you’re developing projects where you’re not being paid. And if you’ve got huge debts coming out of university you know and your family cannot help you it’s not going to be easy.

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