Award-winning documentary filmmaker Torquil Jones was only a casual Formula One racing fan before agreeing to direct a film about iconic Ferrari racers Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi. Before he knew it, he had become “an F1 obsessive.”
“Throughout the process, you just get an appreciation of the sport and how special these two men were,” says Jones, who spoke to That Shelf just days after the film, Villeneuve Pironi, had its world premiere at DOC NYC 2022. The documentary highlights both men and their friendship-turned-rivalry—a rivalry that would result in both of their premature deaths.
“Particularly in that era, around the late ’70s/early ’80s, the sport was so dangerous. They would race in these metal tin cans with no protection. They were risking everything, race after race.”
This thrilling lifestyle is the key to the film’s many moments of thick tension. Jones and his team put audiences right in the thick of their many F1 races, cutting between archival footage and custom-shot b-roll from the view of a race car undercarriage zooming down a winding racetrack.
“There are countless quotes from Didier where he speaks very poetically about the experience of racing and the experience of being on the edge, and the experience of speed. From the start, I knew there would be a lot of onboard car-rig filming that we could do to give us that sense of being in the car.”
Other examples include hazy champagne bottles popping off (a tradition at the end of an F1 race), team flags waving in the wind, and even archival footage captured on the screens of vintage televisions and tape decks. These artful moments elevate Villeneuve Pironi beyond your traditional sports documentary.
“I was always very keen not to shoot [them] in a very straightforward way because there’s a lot of documentaries at the moment that shoot reconstructions in the same way,” noted Jones. “We used a number of different techniques, like specialized filters on the front of the camera that re-refract the light where it feels like parts are in focus, but parts are out of focus.”
The reconstructive footage puts viewers directly into the film’s historical setting without overt staging or reenactment. It takes its subjects and viscerally transports viewers into their headspace. “It was really to give that dreamlike, abstract sense of being there at the time and being inside the mind,” Jones explains. “We just wanted the viewer to feel as immersed in the story as possible.”
Jones spoke further with That Shelf about more of the technical choices behind his immersive direction and the responsibilities of retelling a story with strongly opposing viewpoints. Here is our discussion, edited for length and clarity.
First of all, congratulations on Villeneuve Pironi’s world premiere at DOC NYC 2022.
What was the response like? Also, I know that you were at the festival for your last film, 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, so what was it like to return?
It was a very different experience. Last year, for 14 Peaks, I was with Nims [Nimsdai Purja, the film’s subject]. He’s a force of nature, so being with him for a festival and a screening was a real experience in itself. The reaction [to Villeneuve Pironi] was really, really positive. It was the first time anyone outside of a handful of people had watched the film. Hopefully it’s an indication of that bigger audience that we’ve been trying to get.
The ambition from the start has always been to produce a documentary that’s embedded in the sports documentary genre, but is really a human drama. What was interesting for me was the reaction from people who weren’t Formula One fans or necessarily sporting fans. Hopefully, the fact it’s such a human drama at its core makes it so that anyone can understand and relate to the film and be taken away by the drama of it.
You’re talking about people who maybe aren’t F1 fans, but I have to imagine that the recent explosion of the sport, specifically in the United States, played a big part in helping this film get made.
Well, actually, it didn’t really. We first started developing this film six years ago, so pre-Drive to Survive. We were approached to see if we wanted to make a Gilles Villeneuve documentary, who is an icon of the sport and deserving of his own biopic–incredible personality and an amazing driver. It was really when we looked into the story, particularly around 1982, this really compelling figure of Didier Pironi started to emerge.
It was my co-writer on the film, Gabriel Clarke, who had the idea of “Why don’t we do this as a double header?” [I said,] “Well, if we’re going to do that, we’re going to need both families to be a part of the film,” because it really is a story about two families. The producer on the film, John McKenna, spent four years trying to bring the families to the table for the first time. This story has been written about a lot, but it had never been made into a documentary feature, which was surprising given how dramatic the story is. Really, I think it was because no one has been able to bring the families together to tell the story before.
I think our timing has just been really fortunate. The fact that, like you say, there is a much bigger audience for F1 now, particularly in North America, means that hopefully we can ride the crest of this wave that’s been built via that Netflix audience.
I have seen a few episodes of Drive to Survive and I have a couple of friends who are really deeply into the F1 scene, following that show–have you seen the show by the way?
I’ve watched all three series. I think it’s great. I think the reason it works and why the popularity of this sport has increased off the back of it is because it’s personality driven. It’s being driven by the drivers and the sporting directors of the team. Its rivalry. It’s teammates. It’s friendships. It’s betrayal. It’s loyalty. It’s all of those things that really appeal to us about the Villeneuve/Pironi story as well. I think that’s why the audience has grown massively, because they’re not seeing it as 20 cars. They’re seeing it as 20 individual characters going up against each other.
It reminds me a lot of pro wrestling, oddly enough.
That’s another very character driven sport. I think that people are just looking for really good stories and I think F1 provides a lot of very compelling stories.
Yeah. It’s narrative driven, it’s 100% narrative driven.
That really comes out in this film, I think. There’s this Godfather level of politics that are happening. I know, obvious comparison because Ferrari…
It feels like you’re infiltrating this very deeply political world. Was it a challenge to get to the heart of the difficulties behind this story? There’s a very troubled history between these two lost figures and their families.
That’s a really great question. It was a challenge. There was so much detail around the story that wouldn’t make a 90-minute film edit but would make a really intriguing book about the story and about that season. It is laced with politics. infighting, and different ambitions and perspectives. I think the key for me was figuring out how to get to the people that matter in the story. For example, within Ferrari, we talked to the sporting director, Marco Piccinini, who was running the team. Many who were there say that he had a preference for Didier Pironi and he didn’t get on with Gilles as well. But then we also spoke to Mauro Forghieri, who was the technical director and head engineer, who had an amazing relationship with Gilles and didn’t really like Didier Pironi. We also have Enzo Ferrari’s private secretary [Brenda Vernor] who had a very human, personal relationship with both drivers and Enzo Ferrari.
We also talked to the mechanics who were there working with both men on a day-to-day basis, supplemented with drivers from other teams who were friends with both men but had an outsider perspective on Ferrari. The key for me was working through all the research and, through talking to the right people, deciding who were the right characters in the story that will give us first-hand accounts of what happened, but will also give us different perspectives on what happened. From there, it’s a case of, as a filmmaker/storyteller, deciding what is the key information that’s really going to drive the emotional narrative. What’s going to make this as thrilling and as exciting as possible?
One scene in the film recounts Pironi’s wedding and his rise within the ranks. You have these moments where two polar opposite perspectives are giving very different views on the situation in almost a comedic way. Was it fun, in a way, to juxtapose those together and create this cognitive dissonance for the audience to see just how polarizing the relationships were?
Yeah, it was fun. [chuckles] There are aspects of this story where the views are so opposing. You can’t just pick a side and say, “This is the right version of events, and this is not,” you have to weigh up all the evidence. There are some times where you have to lay it out to the audience a bit tongue-in-cheek, like with the wedding. Joann [Villeneuve, Gilles’ wife] was with Gilles at the time and will know better than anyone how Gilles reacted. There was a genuine sense of, “Hang on a minute. These are best friends and the wedding hasn’t even been mentioned to us and we’ve not been invited and the best man is Marco Piccinini, who’s, essentially, the boss of the drivers. So, what’s that about?”
But then, you talk to Catherine Bleynie-Larson, who was Didier’s wife, and you talk to Marco Piccinini, and they just say, “This wasn’t a big deal back then. People got married and you’d invite people a week before. You just do it.” So what’s the right answer there? I think you just have to lay it out to the audience and let them decide. Because I started as a casual fan, I had no skin in the game, so to speak. For me, it was just an incredible story.
I would like to discuss the b-roll reconstructions you shot for the film. They definitely do not feel like traditional reenactments or stagings. The focus is very selective and hazy. I particularly love when a young Jacques Villeneuve, portrayed by a child actor, sits in a tree as we hear the real Jacques discuss his difficult relationship with his father. What was your approach to those reconstructions and how did you decide which particular images needed to be captured?
Because we don’t have access to them today, for obvious reasons, we would be limited by the finite amount of interview material. The idea of the reconstructions from the beginning was to film them in quite an abstract way, whereby it would feel very much like a POV. I was always very keen not to shoot it in a very straightforward, reconstructive way because there’s a lot of documentaries at the moment that shoot reconstructions in the same way.
I think there was one quote in the film where Gilles, right at the beginning, says, “I love racing because I can defy the laws of physics.” And there’s countless quotes from Didier where he speaks very poetically about the experience of racing and the experience of being on the edge and the experience of speed. From the start, I knew there would be a lot of onboard car rig filming that we could do to give us that sense of being in the car. That really just expanded out to being inside their minds for certain key events.
We used a number of different techniques, like specialized filters on the front of the camera that re-refract the light where it feels like parts are in focus, but parts are out of focus. It was really to give that dreamlike, abstract sense of being there at the time and being inside the mind of whoever was talking in that moment. We filmed young Jacques in my garden, so that tree is in my garden. It was to get us inside the mind of Jacques at that point. I was really happy with how the reconstruction came together.
I have to ask you about the aspect ratio choice because that, to me, was something that really stuck out. You use a 2.39:1 widescreen aspect ratio, even though a lot of this footage was shot in 4:3. You’ve scaled the footage to its original dimensions but it’s being black-barred by the widescreen, so everything feels more up-close. I’m curious what inspired that initial decision. Was it a challenge to use a widescreen aspect ratio when you have a majority of archival footage that was not shot that way?
The original decision was partly based on the reconstruction element. We just wanted the viewer to feel as immersed in the story as possible. I’ve made a lot of archive projects in the past where the inclination is that we need to have the best quality footage possible, so we’ll shoot 16:9 but we’ll present the 4:3 footage in 4:3 because we want to maintain the quality of image as much as possible. But I’ve always had a problem with the aspect ratio changes because I think, when you’re cutting, you know you are going in and out of archive footage.
I think, on a subconscious level, you’re stepping out of the immersiveness. For me, if people are going to be caught up in the story, it doesn’t matter if we lose a bit of quality in the imagery. It doesn’t matter because people won’t notice. They’ll be too caught up in what the content is of that shot, what the meaning of that shot is, rather than if it looks slightly more pixelated than if we’d maintained the 4:3.
The other side of that was we’re much more close up on certain images. Because we’re blowing up the 4:3, we’re losing space from the top and bottom, but that’s fine. If it’s a shot of Gilles Villeneuve in the cockpit, let’s be right up close and personal, try and get into how he’s thinking at that moment or how others are talking about him in that moment, rather than worry about seeing the top and bottom of the frame. I thought this is a very immersive, intimate story. You rarely jump out to a wide drone shot to take a breath, so I was keen to keep that going.
I will tell you, as somebody who’s seen a lot of movies in IMAX where it goes in and out of full frame, it was a much-appreciated choice.
Villeneuve Pironi had its World Premiere as part of the Game Face Cinema section at DOC NYC 2022. It is currently seeking distribution.