Catching Up With... Danny Boyle
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Danny Boyle's time has come. While the renowned and talented British filmmaker has been churning out respected films for over a decade, he's teetered on the edge of notoriety in the minds of the public at large.
He made his debut in 1995 with the morally-conscious crime thriller Shallow Grave. But it was Trainspotting, his searing look into the life of a
heroin-addicted Scottish scallywag, that truly put him on the map. Since,
he's successfully skipped from genre to genre in ways few directors
could manage. He paired his Shallow Grave and Trainspotting star Ewan McGregor with
Cameron Diaz for the edgy romantic comedy A Life Less Ordinary. He gave
Leonardo DiCaprio his first post-Titanic leading man role in The Beach. He simultaneously launched Cillian Murphy's career and redefined the horror genre with 28 Days Later. He then pulled off some kind of miracle in making Millions, an intelligent and decidedly adult family film. And he jettisoned into space for his last film, 2007's Sunshine, a thinking man's science fiction thriller.
With a resume stockpiled full of wildly diverse films, Boyle's accumulated a certain amount of pedigree while still remaining unscathed by the Hollywood machine. But with the release of his latest film, Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle is on the cusp of widespread mainstream acclaim. The film—a non-linear epic about an orphaned kid from the slums in India who defies the odds by winning the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire—is a first-rate amalgamation of comedy and melodrama, a melting pot of themes like poverty, brotherhood and lost adolescence, all centered around a love story for the ages.
Critics have taken notice. After seeing the film at the Toronto International Film Festival, Roger Ebert declared "an Oscar best picture nomination is a definite possibility." In many ways, Slumdog Millionaire represents his most ambitious challenge yet. Veering off into the uncharted territoriy of the second most populous nation on earth, Boyle had to find a way to juggle all of the different elements to the story while maintaining the integrity of India, which is just as alive as Slumdog's characters. Paste recently caught up with Boyle (in between his tea time) to discuss what he saw in Slumdog's script, how his daughter helped cast its key role, what he thinks of the Oscar-buzz and how Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. (of all people) gave him a couple of tips on how to improve the film.
Paste: First, I have to ask: You seem to be able to jump from genre to genre with ease. Why do you think that is?
Danny Boyle: I know it looks like that, but you don't really think like that. You're always looking to change so as to not repeat yourself. I'm pretty neurotic when it comes to that. I love change because you get to go back to the beginning. You start again with your skills. I have this theory that your first film is your best film, because you don't really know what you're doing. There's a kind of freedom in that. Your first film may not be the most successful or technically accomplished, but there's something unique in it. But it's not like you focus on genres, and go, "What genre should I do next?" It's just about when you feel that heartbeat skip when you read a story that it is something entirely different.
The most recent example is when I made this film [Sunshine] set in space, which is a very precise, incredibly isolated, meticulous, painstaking, lonely, slow, cold process—given all the CG and the nature of the subject. And then you suddenly got to India, to Mumbai—a maximum city on earth—and sling yourself in there and make a sort of hand-held testimony to it. The next project I was going to do was an animated film, but that's fallen apart. But you have to try and change, because it stops you from feeling like an expert. People tend to treat you like an expert sometimes. That's very bad, because you've got to be learning all the time.
Paste: So what would you say you look for when choosing a project—stories that speak to you personally?
Boyle: I don't think you necessarily need to have to have a deep, personal connection with it, but you have to be able to spot something in the story you can inflate. I remember reading 28 Days Later and there was a short paragraph in the beginning where Jim [Cillian Murphy] walks around a deserted London and that was it for me. I read that and thought, "Oh, there's 20 minutes right there." That's what I mean. You see something and inflate it. With this [Slumdog Millionaire] script, I wasn't going to do it. I didn't really want to do a film about a game show, especially Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The only reason I read it was because of Simon Beaufoy, who is a very respected writer in my eyes. I began it imagining I would never finish. But 10 pages in, I knew I had to do it. I absolutely had to do it. You read scripts which are probably better than it—more finished, more accomplished, more commercial, but your heart doesn't jump. With this one, I was just alarmed to be in the presence of something I suddenly wanted to do.
Paste: You say after 10 pages you knew you had to do Slumdog Millionaire. What about Beaufoy's script specifically drew you in?
Boyle: I love the idea of the underdog. Well, I think I like the idea of the underdog anyway, it's always appealed to me. There's something very ennobling about this story. But I couldn't read him [Jamal, played as a teenager by Dev Patel] either. I couldn't quite get it. There's obviously something going on not to do with the money. It's outrageous that a slum kid could go on this show and win the big prize, which is the initial premise of the film. The automatic reaction is he's just trying to win the big money, and then you realize quite quickly there's another agenda. But then you realize he's not after the big prize anyway, he's after something else. In an innocent way, he's hijacking the show to his own ends. I love that about it. [The story] is very, very well constructed. I didn't read the novel until I committed to the film. When I read the novel, I realized just how clever Simon's construct of these ingredients was. When you read the novel, you realize as a film you could easily tire of the schematic nature of question answer, question answer. After about two or three [questions], you'd really tire of it in film, unless you weave through time, both backward and forward, which is what he managed to do. Sometimes you know the answer way beforehand and other times he holds it back. It makes you feel implicit in the jigsaw puzzle.
The other thing that leaped off the page was this portrait of the city that just vibrated off the page. You think "oh my god" to have the chance to make the film in one of the most potentially interesting cities on earth, which it definitely turned out to be.
Paste: It's a film that juggles a lot of different themes and elements, but at its core do you characterize Slumdog Millionaire as a romance?
Boyle: I don't know. I certainly support Fox selling it as a romance, a dynamic romance. You've got to be careful though, because she [Latika, played as a teenager by Freida Pinto] is absent for a lot of the film. So, actually, it's a search for her. Everytime he gets close to her, she's torn away from him. That's the structure of the love story, so it makes it difficult to sell it solely as a love story because she's absent for so much of it. But in emotional terms, it is a love story. It is certainly a better phrase than adventure drama. [Laughs]