Ayrton Senna, Toleman, 1984

The Making of Senna part 1: Life and death

InterviewPosted on | Author Keith Collantine

Ayrton Senna, Toleman, 1984

Ayrton Senna, Toleman, 1984

I met Manish Pandey, writer and executive producer of Senna, at Working Title Films in January, shortly after watching the film for the first time.

Manish was extremely generous with his time and over the course of several hours talked in depth about how the film was made, meeting the Senna family, exploring the FOM video archive, and the agonising decisions about what to cut and what to leave in.

The product of that discussion is a multi-part feature on the making of the Ayrton Senna movie starting today on F1 Fanatic.

Turning down Senna

It would be hard to find a bigger fan of Ayrton Senna then Manish Pandey.

But his first reaction to the project to make a film about Senna was to turn it down.

Seven years ago he met James Gay-Rees, one of the producers of Senna, who originally had an idea for a film focussing on the events of Imola 1994.

“I met James and he said ‘what do you think?’. I said I didn’t want to do it.

“He asked why and I said, ‘Because I’m a really massive Senna fan’.

Pandey explains: “I think it would have been a really interesting film. Obviously the structure’s there: Friday, Saturday and Sunday making it a play in three acts.

“You would probably tell it in flashback, explaining who this man was, but it would basically be The Death of Ayrton Senna.”

But he told Gay-Rees: “If you’d watched Senna like I did growing up, missing none of his races, I don’t think you’d want to do that. It’d just be too down, too negative. The end, believe me, is going to be down enough. You want to explain who this man was.”

So they agreed to change the thrust of the film to focus more on the life of Senna. Pandey said: “I gave him a million anecdotes on Ayrton Senna and he was sold.

“He said, ‘fine, do you think you can write that?’ I said, ‘yes’.”

Remembering Monaco ’84

Pandey has solid credentials as a bona fide Senna fan: “I only missed two of his races.

“The first race I remember watching any of was James Hunt winning the title at Fuji in ’76.

“I remember him getting out of the car, it was on either World of Sport or Grandstand. It was really hammy, he went across the line and they were saying ‘and he doesn’t thinks he’s won – and he’s won!’

“I watched Brazil ’84 [Senna’s debut] but the race that really sticks out is Monaco ’84. I don’t think anyone who was watching that race forgot it. The weird thing about the race was that Grandstand went live to a bloke who was hosing down the tunnel.”

Much later, when it came to cutting together footage for the film, this was one of the first races Pandey looked for:

“We found all of this footage in Bernie [Ecclestone]’s archive and it was fantastic. Because it was so wet the drivers complained it would be going from wet to dry to wet in the tunnel. I think Bernie had the idea to put water into the tunnel.

“In the meantime the race wouldn’t start and there was steam coming off the cars.

“Another friend I made along the way was Peter Windsor who was very close to Nigel Mansell and got him the drive at Lotus. And if you watch the grid you’ve got Alain Prost on pole, look to the right and it’s Nigel, with Lotus 12, with Peter squatting down talking to him.

“And that was the first Senna race I remember – like everyone else.”

From rom-coms to Senna

After studying medicine at the University of Cambridge, Pandey began writing romantic comedies at Working Title Films. It was there, in October 2004, he first heard about James Gay-Rees’s plan for a film about Ayrton Senna:

“I met James, he wasn’t a big Formula 1 fan but his dad was the brand manager for Imperial Tobacco. And his father used to tell him about this guy, Ayrton Senna, who, was just different.”

Pandey describes the plan to make a film about Senna as “flicking a switch that had lain dormant for 19 years”.

Kevin Macdonald, director of The Last King of Scotland, was approached to direct the film – but ultimately turned them down:

“We got a call from Kevin saying he didn’t want to direct it and that was like being punched in the guts, it was a horrible feeling.

“He said, ‘I don’t think I could ever own this film.’ He feels a director has got to be the most passionate person in the room about something and he said, ‘with you [Manish] in the room I don’t think that could ever be the case. I’m not saying I’m not doing it because of you, I’m just saying I don’t love Formula 1 enough.’”

Their hunt for a director eventually led them to Asif Kapadia. “You just know when you get the right person”, says Pandey.

He said the film would have turned out very differently with their original choice of director, who remained with the project as an executive producer:

“I think if Kevin had made the movie it would have been much more of an indictment of Formula 1.

“Because he comes from a journalistic background and he’s not passionate about the sport it would have been one of these forensic dissections. I didn’t want that. I love the sport, you [pointing at me] love the sport but we know there’s tons wrong with the sport.

“If you wanted to make a really cynical film about Formula 1 we could have done that but I wouldn’t have been involved. I thought it was really honest of him to do that.”

“The Making of Senna” continues tomorrow and on Friday, with further instalments to follow after the Monaco Grand Prix.

Senna opens in the UK on June 3rd. See the official website for more information.

Senna movie

Browse all articles on the Senna movie