‘Villeneuve Pironi’ Director on Going Beyond the Rivalry for Formula 1 Doc
– ‘Villeneuve Pironi ‘
In the last half-decade, the filmmaker has been behind stories about Nepali mountaineer Nirmal Purja who sought to conquer 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks in seven months (14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible); Australian comedian Adam Hills’ creation of the globe’s first disabled rugby league team (Take His Legs); as well as the life and legacy of the late English football manager Sir Bobby Robson (Bobby Robson: More Than a Manager).
Jones’ insider look at Formula 1 racing legends Didier Pieroni and Gilles Villeneuve is different, despite their obvious similarities.
This is partly due to the fact that the doctor’s dual focus was on two players, who were once close friends but became rivals during some of the most dangerous years of international sport. It was also due to the fact that both their deaths occurred in a bizarrely coincidental and rapid sequence of events. Jones was able to tell a more personal story about the people who loved them and respect them, which allowed him to go beyond the standard recounting of these shockingly important events.
The film avoids using the word versus in its title and instead focuses on how two men’s lives and deaths became inextricably connected and changed their sport and their families forever.
interviewed Jones ahead of the world premiere at DOC NYC Saturday. He discussed what makes Formula 1 unique and ripe to see the kind of rivalry between the team members, how he subverted sports docs by changing who voices explored their legacies and the one major part of Villeneuve’s and Pironi’s stories that was cut.
What about this story and Formula 1 culture really appealed you and makes it a little different from other sports cultures?
To start, I’m not a Formula 1 aficionado. I don’t follow every race every week. I found out about the story about five or six years ago but I just couldn’t believe it hadn’t been told as a documentary because it was such a human drama with, for me, the motorsport being a secondary element to a story about relationships and legacy and trust and betrayal and personality. I realized that the core of their relationship during that brief, but very violent time was the same as I had researched it and spoken to the contributors. It’s the culture. They wanted to be at the edge of everything, no matter what — in the race car, the helicopter, or the speedboat. Many stories were not able to be made into the film due too many details and time constraints. There were many stories, mainly from wives, girlfriends, and loved ones, about how they lived on the edge all the times.
Even though family members were there, they still drove 150 miles per hour down the highway, even when they were not with them. It’s like being addicted to adrenaline, that fine balance between life or death. This was what I found fascinating about Formula 1, the culture at the time. It was a five- to six-year period in which drivers were dying each year. The two men were connected by their passion for the sport and for living on the edge. Their friendship was built on this sense of competition every day. They were always in competition against each other. You don’t get that feeling from other sports. It’s not something you can get from soccer, American football, or baseball. However, it was possible in Formula 1 because the risk was so high.
There is one aspect of their relationship that you can really dig into and that is the unspoken rule that the team leader would keep that lead at the end of a race. Formula 1 can be seen as both an individual and team sport, but it is difficult for competitors who are driven to be number one. How did you approach that tension in telling their stories? What makes their story different than other sports?
This is a fascinating aspect of the sport. There are two racers in one team, and the team is defining the rules. The Ferrari rule that many believe was in place at the time you became first and second, is that you don’t fight each other because of the fear of both cars colliding. From that perspective, it’s a team sport. There have been many times in Formula 1 when the number two driver has refused to comply with those requests, so they are going against the number 1. The thing about Formula 1 is that they have young drivers who are the best in their field for most of their careers. They’re often the best Canadian, French or American private driver. They’re number one and then they get to this really high elite level, where there’s only 20 drivers in the whole world, so to then get to that level where you’re told you’re number two, rather than number one, I think it’s impossible for them to let it go. That’s what I found really interesting specifically in regards to that in the ’82 race.
The larger theme of honor was always fascinating. The film’s first act is structured so that Didier Pironi’s and Gilles Villeneuve’s backstories are interwoven. This allows me to try to establish the sense of competition they had. However, Gilles also had that sense of honor, friendship, and being a team player that he had with his Ferrari teammates. Act two is a series of extraordinary events that occur one after another, which are inextricably connected. Act three, for me, is about the legacy of those decisions, especially with the families and loved ones. I guess really, it’s how those split-second decisions that were made in that ’82 season had these repercussions for the next 40 years up until today, whether it’s the daughter growing up without a father or it’s the son whose father has been painted as a villain for so many years. This sense of honor is essential to the story.
You use archival footage from both races talking about their careers, philosophies, and lives. However, neither of your subjects can speak for themselves. This means that other people will be tasked to decide their lives and legacy. This raises interesting questions about honesty and truthfulness as well as bias. How did you deal with these things in these storytelling conditions?
The fundamental thing for me was that whether this was a documentary about Didier Pinon or Gilles Villeneuve, that question was hugely challenging in terms of how you portray that person. It’s a difficult story, but it can also be a blessing, because you have to find the middle. It is important to show both sides of the story, from both the perspectives of both families and both the men’s. We found these interviews with both men during the archive search at beginning of the project. However, when they gave these interviews, they were speaking to a sports reporter or news reporter. This is how honest they are! They aren’t talking off guard to someone who knows them well.
F1 is a macho, real sport. I was keen to see women as the main narrators. They were close to both men in fundamental ways, and the women in this film use a different language than most sports documentaries. They don’t discuss the details of the sport. It’s about the emotional connection between men and the human side. It was very interesting to see Joanne Belknap’s first minute of the film. She says that for her, the story is about betrayal. Catherine Goux then says that this story is really complex. It wasn’t my intention for it to be a one-dimensional story. I wanted to make the story clear from the beginning. It was going to be told from a female-led viewpoint. Both men have their strengths and weaknesses. We’re going to portray them as three-dimensional characters that an audience can relate to, even if they don’t have any interest in Formula 1.
Another thing that is particularly interesting about this document is the fact that so much of it is online because it was captured in real-time by sports news media. What was your process for acquiring unseen and seen footage?
I had four archive producers to work with me — one in Italy, one in the U.K., and one in the U.S. We did a year’s worth of searching to find the right story. There is a lot of undiscovered archive in the film. I won’t go into details, but there were many sources from which we found the film rushes on canisters. They’ve either been digitized for first time or someone has found x,y, and z. There’s lots of footage that most people won’t have ever seen. There are always black holes when you arrange it chronologically as a story. This is especially true for perspectives and accidents. You can see the Gilles fatal accident on YouTube, but I was wary of that. It’s only filmed from one angle. It’s a wide shot. The last five seconds are the most important. So how can we create a meaningful sequence around this? One that makes you feel like you are in the cockpit with him, going through the drama that he is experiencing and how he has been affected by the events of the past weeks. It was a mixture of archived footage, and then we did a lot of abstract point-of view reconstruction filming to match that footage. To get that feeling of speed and being on the limit, we did car rig shoots. Because the story is 40 years old, a lot of the footage that exists is wide camera shots, so you don’t really get that sense of how fast they were going.
Can you talk about the other side of that? Getting those key insider interviews from loved ones, Ferrari employees, and fellow racers, that reveal something viewers can’t see in a video of a crash or postrace interview? Did anyone say no?
We didn’t approach anyone who said no. However, it took us four long years to get two families to accept the project. This was clearly the biggest challenge. The story could only be told in one way. Both families need to be involved. Everyone needs to talk about it. There will be times when they are uncomfortable talking about certain topics, and there will be periods where they feel very emotional about. But they must talk about it all. All the editorial control must be with us as filmmakers. There is no way to influence that. It was all about having the closest people to both men — friends, family, and girlfriends — and then having a number of Ferrari employees from different levels. There is a technical director, an engineer, and a mechanic. The next step was to determine who can provide a broader context for this story. This is where world champions Alain Prost, Sir Jackie Stewart, as well as other high-profile drivers, help to contextualize the sport’s history during that time period. Because it was a unique period in the history of the sport. I believed that bringing all these elements together was the only way to do it right.
There is a lot tonal shifting in this document, but the most significant seems to occur around halfway through when that friendship turns into rivalry and Gilles passes away. This presents a challenge, as a story about two men becomes a story about one. How did you lose one of your subjects? What made you think about the story and its pace?
It was amazing to me that some of these events happened while I was researching the story. The race that follows Gilles Villeneuve’s passing, it’s in Canada. The track has been renamed to the Gilles Villeneuve Circuit. Didier Pironi claims he will dedicate the victory to Gilles Villeneuve and his memory. The driver then stalls at the start line and a driver from behind comes in and kills him immediately. These events all occur over a three-to four-month period if you look at the timeline. It was easy to arrange them chronologically in this sense. The big challenge was, as you said, Gilles Villeneuve’s death halfway through. How can we continue his story? Basically, as soon as we get to the end of the ’82 season at the end of act two, that’s where we bring Joann Villeneuve back into the story and it continues to today. When you put both men’s stories next to each other, one will run out halfway through. So we thought about how to bring the Villeneuve family story back into our story so it becomes a story with two families and not just two.
You said that you had to cut some material from the doc because of runtime. You mentioned that you had to cut some material from the doc due to runtime. What was the one thing you thought was really interesting?
The film was not reduced too much. The film was cut because of some details about the technology at the time. For example, [the ’70s and ’80s] was the era of ground effects. These cars are dangerous because of technological changes. Didier Pironi, the president of Drivers Association, was pushing for more safety measures with other drivers during that period. He was pushing for the sport to be safer and more secure. The sport changes the next season, and both men are involved in these accidents. It was a positive thing, and he has been portrayed as a villain in the past. I was always interested in it. To be honest, the film is too detailed. The film is stronger when it’s more about human emotions than a particular detail.
Interview edited to ensure clarity and length.