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In this November, 1993 photo, Ayrton Senna flies the Brazilian flag after winning the Australian Grand Prix. (Mark Horsburgh/Reuters)
In this November, 1993 photo, Ayrton Senna flies the Brazilian flag after winning the Australian Grand Prix. (Mark Horsburgh/Reuters)

Motorsports

Film celebrates Brazilian F1 racing superstar Add to ...

Six years after being given the green light from Ayrton Senna's family, a documentary on the life of the brilliantly talented Brazilian racer is ready for its close-up.

But don't think for a second that getting "Senna" to theatres was easy.

The filmmakers went through agony trying to edit a five-hour original cut to 3.5 hours before slicing it into its final 100-minute length.

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"It was horrible: When you assemble something like this dot-by-dot, just losing anything - a scene, a line of dialogue - is horribly painful, but you have to do it because the narrative has to have a certain pace," said Manish Pandey, the film's executive producer and writer.

"What you are trying to do constantly is be as accurate as you can, you are trying to do it with the footage that you've got and the words that are available, and then be editorial."

A special screening of the documentary will take place in Japan on Thursday against a backdrop of the Formula One race preparations at the Suzuka Circuit, before it opens Friday in Japan. The film will have its official world premiere next month in Senna's native Sao Paulo, hosted by his family. Canadian release plans are not yet decided but will likely happen next year.

When it does come to Canada, movie goers will see a documentary directed by British Academy of Film and Television Arts award winner Asif Kapadia that eschews the usual talking heads. Instead, "Senna" relies on voices over archival and behind-the-scenes footage that the filmmakers dug it out of Formula One commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone's archive. Many Senna home movies have also been woven into the mix after the family agreed to help the filmmakers with the documentary.

"The most emotional time in my life was going to Sao Paulo to pitch the story to his sister, Viviane," Pandey said.

"What I did was put together a 40-minute presentation on my computer with music that had my take on what he was as a man. She cried her eyes out all the way through it and, at the end, she gave me a big hug and said 'you really knew my brother.' Given that I never met him, it was an incredible thing to say."

Three weeks later, they were in Ecclestone's office getting access to his video archives, something no filmmaker has ever done. That delivered never before seen footage of key events that shaped Senna's career, such as the acrimonious confrontations he had in drivers' meetings with the sport's governing body president at the time Jean-Marie Balastre.

A co-production of Working Title and Universal, the film is the brainchild of James Gay-Rees, whose father was in charge of the John Player Special account in Formula One, a livery Senna raced under in 1985 and 1986. Gay-Rees' original idea had the film centreing on the final three days in Senna's life that ended in a high-speed accident at Imola's Tamburello Corner, five laps into the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. That focus changed after Pandey came on board.

"I really didn't want to do a film about the death of Ayrton Senna because I thought it would really miss the point of him, even if the plan was to do three days at Imola with flashbacks," he said.

"I really wanted to make it cinematic by giving him the classic three act structure of the story: The ascendancy of the guy, his massive meteoric rise, and then the third act about his death."

Following Senna from his first race to his last fateful weekend gives the film an incredible opportunity to show his sublime talent, his drive to win, and underlines the sport's tremendous loss.

Senna burst onto the F1 scene with the unremarkable Toleman team in 1984 and immediately showed the brilliance that would have many call him the most talented driver to ever sit in a racing car. In a decade, he won 41 of 161 grand prix starts, grabbed pole an incredible 65 times, and took home three world championships.

Along the way, Senna became a superstar in Brazil and remains revered in that country and around the world 16 years after his death. For example, when celebrated Sao Paulo born composer Antonio Pinto heard about the film, he contacted Pandey and insisted upon writing the score for the movie.

It's a gesture Canadian racing fans likely understand after losing megastar Gilles Villeneuve 28 years ago in a crash during a qualifying race at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix.

And that raw emotion that the filmmakers encountered at almost every turn simply ratcheted up the anxiety as they worked to get it right.

"I've had two years of sleepless nights - there was an unbelievable amount of pressure on us," Pandey said.

"When saw Viviane and talked about the project the first time, she said 'we have so much faith in you' and we promised her that we would not let her down. I believe we kept our promise."

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