For Villeneuve Pironi director Torquil Jones, capturing the stories of sports legends and those who live on the edge is standard practice.
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).
But despite the obvious similarities to his latest doc — their focus on sports, legacy and a man’s effort to achieve previously unreached heights — Jones’ inside look at Formula 1 racing legends Didier Pironi and Gilles Villeneuve, their fast lives and fast ends is something different.
That’s due in part to the doc’s dual focus on two players, once friends and teammates turned rivals, during some of the most dangerous years in the international sport. It’s also due to the fact that the eerily coincidental and rather rapid sequence of events that resulted in both of their deaths was largely televised for the public. That opened the door for Jones to go beyond a standard recounting of those shockingly crucial events and instead offer a more human story about the people who loved and respected both in a story that goes beyond the headlines.
It’s a film that rather pointedly avoids the use of versus within its title, offering instead an examination of how two men’s lives (and deaths) became inextricably linked and changed their sport — and their families — forever.
Ahead of its world premiere at DOC NYC on Saturday, spoke to Jones about what makes Formula 1 so distinct and ripe for the kind of rivalry seen between the teammates, how he subverted the sports doc genre by changing who’s voices explored their legacies, and one major element of Villeneuve and Pironi’s story that ended up on the cutting room floor.
What about this story and the Formula 1 culture really appealed to you and makes it somewhat different from documenting other sports cultures?
To start, I’m not a Formula 1 aficionado. I don’t watch 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. As I researched the project more and spoke to the contributors, I think what came across to me really was what underpinned their relationship for that very brief but very violent period of time was exactly the same. It’s this culture. They just wanted to be on the edge all the time no matter what it was — either in the race car or the helicopter or the speedboat. There were so many stories that didn’t end up making into the film due to time constrictions — too much detail. But there were so many stories, typically from the wives, girlfriends, families, loved ones, where they were living on the edge all the time.
Even when family members were with them; even when they were in the car with the family, they were still driving 150 miles an hour down the highway. It has that sense of being addicted to the adrenaline, of that fine balance between life and death. That for me was the fascinating thing, the culture around Formula 1 at the time — this five-to-six-year period where there were drivers dying every single year it was so dangerous. But it was really the passion for the sport and passion for living on the edge that brought the two men together. Their friendship was based on that sense of competition every single day. They were always competing against each other. There was this sense of immortality that you don’t get from other sports. You don’t get it from soccer or from American football or baseball, whereas in Formula 1 at the time, the risk was so high.
There’s one element of their relationship and Formula 1 culture you explore that is really interesting and that’s this unspoken rule that halfway through a race, whoever was in the lead on the team would retain that lead. In this way, Formula 1 is both an individual and team sport but in a difficult way for competitors who value honor alongside their aching drive to be number one. How did you think about that tension thematically in telling their stories and how it makes their story different from another sport’s story?
That’s a fascinating thing for me about the sport. You’ve got two racers in one team and the team is defining what those rules are — that Ferrari rule that many said was in place at the time of when you become first and second, you don’t fight against each other because the fear of both cars crashing out is too high. It’s a team sport from that perspective. But there have been so many occasions in Formula 1 where the number two driver has ignored those requests so they’re going against the number one driver. I think the thing with Formula 1 is that the racers start so young and they’re the best in their field for so much of their career — they’re the best Canadian or the best French driver or the best American private. 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.
But the bigger theme of honor was always a fascinating one. So the way I structure the film, the first act is interweaving both Didier Pironi and Gilles Villeneuve’s backstories to really try to establish that sense of competition that they both had, whilst also, particularly Gilles, there was that sense of honor and friendship and being a team player that he’d had with previous teammates at Ferrari. Then act two is really this series of extraordinary events that happen one after the other, which are inextricably linked together. For me, act three is really an exploration of the legacy of those decisions, particularly with the families and the 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. That sense of honor is fundamental to the story, really.
You use archival footage of both racers talking about their careers and philosophies, but neither one of your subjects is here to speak for themselves. That means other people are tasked with being the arbiters of their lives and legacies. It raises interesting questions about honesty, truth, bias. How did you grapple with things those things under these storytelling conditions?
For me, the fundamental thing was, if this was a single documentary about Didier Pironi or a single documentary about Gilles Villeneuve, I think that question is a huge challenge over how you’re portraying that person. I think with a story like this — where they have very opposing views, the families, over what happened in the story — it’s hugely challenging, but also a blessing in a way because you do have to land in the middle somewhere. You have to portray both sides of the story from both families’ perspectives and from both men’s perspectives. When we did the archive search at the beginning of the process, we found these interviews with both men that we use throughout the film to get their direct point of view across, but when they were giving these interviews, they were talking to a news reporter or sports reporter. How honest is that? They’re not talking off guard with someone that knows them well.
F1 is a real, male-dominated macho sport, so I was really keen that the lead narrators of the story would be women. They were closest to both men fundamentally and the women in the film use a different language to most sports documentaries. They don’t talk about the specifics of the sport. It’s about the emotional connection with men and the human side of the story. I was really keen that the first minute of the film is Joanne Belknap saying, for me, the story is about betrayal and then you have Catherine Goux saying, this story is really complicated. I really didn’t want it to be a kind of one-dimensional story. I wanted to lay out from the beginning, going to tell the story from a female-led perspective, and from the outset, it’s really complicated. These men have their strengths, they have their weaknesses, and both men had their flaws. But we’re going to try and portray them as these three-dimensional characters that hopefully an audience will connect with even if they have no interest in Formula 1.
Another thing that’s particularly interesting about this doc is how much of the story is openly available online because so much of it was captured by sports news media in real time. Can you talk about your process for acquiring seen and unseen footage?
I had a team of four archive producers — a couple based in Italy, one based in the U.K., one based in the U.S.— and we did a year of searching to see if we could lay out the story. There’s a lot of unseen archive in the film. I won’t go into detail but there were various sources where we found the film rushes on a canister and they’ve been digitized for the first time or someone’s found x, y and z. There’s a lot of footage that people won’t have seen before. But when you lay it out chronologically as a story, there are inevitably black holes, particularly around accidents and perspectives on accidents. I was very wary that, for example, with Gilles fatal accident, you can just go on YouTube and see it. But it’s filmed from one angle, it’s a wide shot, it’s the last five seconds, so how do we build a meaningful sequence around that? And one that really makes you feel like you’re in the cockpit with him and you’re going through that drama that he’s feeling, how he’s being torn apart by what’s happened to him in the weeks previously? For me, it was a combination of archived footage and then we did a load of abstract point-of-view reconstruction filming to go with that footage. We did specific car rig shoots to get that sense of speed and that sense of being on the limit, which is so crucial. 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 part of that, which is getting those key insider interviews with loved ones, Ferrari employees and fellow racers that tell viewers something they can’t see in a YouTube clip of a crash or post-race interview? And did anyone say no?
There wasn’t really anyone that we approached that said no, but it took us four years to get the two families to agree to be part of the project. That was obviously the major challenge for us. You could only tell the story in one way which was we need to have both families involved, everyone needs to talk about it. There’s gonna be areas that they will feel very uncomfortable talking about, periods of time that they feel very emotional about still — it’s very raw — but they have to talk about all of that. And all the editorial control has to lie with us as a filmmakers, so there’s no kind of involvement in that sense. So for me, it was about having those people closest to both men — family, girlfriends, friends — and then we had to have a number of people from Ferrari from that year from different levels. We have a technical director, the engineer, the mechanic. Then it was about who can give the broader context around this story. That was where we get world champions like Alain Prost and Sir Jackie Stewart, and those very high profile drivers in their own right to really contextualize what the sport was in that period of time. Because it was such a unique time in the sport’s history. Bringing all those elements together was for me the only way we could do it properly.
There’s a lot of tonal shifting in this doc, but the biggest seems to happen about halfway through when that friendship turns to rivalry and Gilles dies. And that creates its own challenge because now a story about two men is seemingly just a story about one. How did losing one of your subjects make you think about the story you’re telling and its pacing?
When I was researching this story, I just couldn’t believe some of this stuff happened. The race that comes after Gilles Villeneuve’s death, it’s in Canada, the track has been renamed the Gilles Villeneuve Circuit. Didier Pironi says he’s going to dedicate the victory to Gilles and his memory and then he stalls on the start line, and a driver from the back comes in and kills himself immediately. When you line up these events, they all happen over this three-to-four-month period of time. So in that sense, it was very straightforward just to lay them out chronologically. But the big challenge for me was exactly as you say: Gilles Villeneuve dies halfway through, so how do we carry on 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. If you lay both men’s stories out next to each other, one does run out halfway through so we thought about how to interweave the Villeneuve family story back into the narrative so that it becomes a story of two families rather than just two men.
You said that you ended up cutting some material from the doc due to runtime. What was one thing you ultimately cut that you personally thought was really interesting?
The film didn’t get cut down too much. There were just some specific details around the nuances of the technology at the time which ended up getting cut. For example, [the ’70s and ’80s] was the era of ground effects. The reason why those cars are so dangerous was because of these technological changes that were happening and Didier Pironi was the president of Drivers’ Association, so he was pushing for more and more safety measures along with other drivers throughout that period. He was pushing the sport to become safer and safer and then obviously, both men have these accidents and the sport does change the following season. I was always interested in it because it was a very positive thing and he’s been portrayed as a villainous character in the past. But to be honest, now that the film has come out, it’s a level of detail that we didn’t need. I think the film becomes stronger when it’s about those emotional human relationships, less about a detail.
Interview edited for length and clarity.