A number of our great directors have shown a high degree of versatility in their careers—Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh. But an argument could be made that Danny Boyle, whose new film Trance opens this weekend, is the true jack of all genres.
That Trance represents a departure in many ways for Boyle shouldn’t come as a surprise. He’s been genre-hopping his entire career. He started out directing TV movies, series and mini-series. His first film, 1994’s Shallow Grave, was a cult favorite of the thinking-man’s horror set. But he truly burst into the public eye in 1996 with Trainspotting, the grimly funny indie drama about down-on-their-luck Scottish delinquents. Riding the success of Trainspotting, he took its main actor Ewan McGregor (whose career the film helped launch), and made a bid for the mainstream with a relatively straightforward romantic comedy, A Life Less Ordinary. The film bombed with audiences and most critics, but it wouldn’t be the Boyle’s last shot at mainstream success.
For The Beach, Boyle’s next shot at the big time, he tackled the adventure genre. There had always been great action sequences in his earlier films, and Boyle’s work continued to show a great feel for building up tension and then letting it erupt into a well-choreographed chase or fight. But this was arguably the first film that rose or fell on the strength of those sequences. Possibly due to the presence of Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead, audiences responded more favorably than critics, and The Beach was Boyle’s first big-budget runaway financial success.
This is the point in many promising directors’ careers when they slide into mediocrity, recreating their less imaginative but more profitable recent work and abandoning the creative spark that made them so exciting in the first place. But Boyle continued to explore new genres, getting more daring in the visions he brought to the screen. If Shallow Grave was a thinking-man’s horror chamber piece, 28 Days Later was a thinking-man’s horror epic, still one of the best zombie films ever made. The underrated Millions was an intriguing (and seemingly deeply personal) take on the children’s film. And Sunshine is some of Boyle fanatics’ favorite of all his films, a science fiction film with tastes of philosophy, horror, and art film elements—a Kubrickian mix, to be sure.
And then came 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire—winner of eight Oscars and changer of Danny Boyle’s life forever. Characteristically, the film is a mishmash of genres—game show, mystery, biographical epic, thriller, Bollywood musical. It’s wildly eclectic and manically energetic. If you’re looking for a distillation of much that is great about Boyle as a director, his Oscar champion is not the worst place to start.
And still Boyle presses on to new ground. His last three projects have been a suspense film taking place in a crevice (127 Hours), an Olympic opening ceremony, and the mindbending Trance. Paste editor-in-chief Josh Jackson and I sat down with Boyle recently in Austin, Texas, to discuss his new film.
Paste: The closest thing to Trance you’ve done I guess would be Trainspotting.
Danny Boyle: It felt very different, actually. There’s a sensibility in it that’s actually delicious, fucking with your head a bit, taking risks with your head, which connects with those [early] films. But actually if you look at it carefully, it’s much more classically shot than, say, Shallow Grave or Trainspotting. It has the same energy imperative which I love in storytelling. I try to get that across in the storytelling always. One of the central stylistic ideas in this film was that you don’t know how many trances there are. Some people say there are three, four, there’s five, I don’t know. Could be that’s part of the puzzle, really. So everything needed to be fluid. You know, like Trainspotting, a lot of it is shot for the delight of the scene itself and fuck the style it’ll all fit together in the end, hopefully. And it did. But this is slightly smoother and more fluid style; you’re not meant to be able to tell sometimes whether you’re watching a trance or not.
Paste: In so many of your films you have taken actors who are, at least in America, not as familiar to us and you coax these amazing performances out of them and they immediately enter into our consciousness. But with this one, I was trying to think if there was another one of your films that had had three names this big – James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel. Is that a different process, working with stars?
Boyle: It is a bit actually, and I find it quite liberating. I’d never had actors who took such responsibility for their characters. And you need to, for each of their journeys, because the narrative is so kind of messed with. To be able to shine that spotlight that actors have on their own character. And really fill it with the full, “This is acceptable, this isn’t acceptable, I would never do that.” You know, the way that can sometimes get on your nerves, but in this case it was hugely helpful. I like them taking that kind of responsibility. I liked working with Rosario because I always thought she was very underrated and not given enough work to do, which is a common thing with women anyway. They’ve clearly got the talent and yet they don’t get the part.
Paste: Especially the pretty ones.
Boyle: And the pretty ones often get caught in a lot of other stuff.
Paste: Yeah, “Just stand there and look pretty.”
Boyle: And then he, Cassel, is one of the world’s great actors. I was blown away to work with him. And McAvoy is amazing. And the only worry with McAvoy was whether he was a bit young. But actually when he feels… because he’s in his early thirties, you can feel that he’s beginning to become more of a man. So, no, I enjoyed it, actually. Although you’re right. I normally kind of cast slightly more under the radar than those three. It was nice to do that. But it was different. That’s a kind of different discipline.
Paste: Was there, with any of the three, a moment that comes to mind where you saw that for the first time, them taking responsibility for their characters?
Boyle: Oh fuck. When Rosario walked in, and we sat down. This was like the first read through. I can’t remember whether we read through nonstop or whether we read bits of it, but we were just gathered round. Oh my fucking God. She did so much work on it! I was like, oh my God, I have to go on tonight and make sure I brush up on this because it’s very complicated. Unless you see it, unless you can have the narrative kind of straightened out for you timeline-wise, it’s very complicated for you to keep in your head. She’d done that kind of work on her own. So that was one moment. There were a lot of moments like that with McAvoy. Because he has the most, ah, troublesome journey about what he knows and what he doesn’t know. On some level he has forgotten her, and on another level he loves her still in a way that’s not rational, that he doesn’t really have control of. Because the rational bit has forgotten her. That’s gone. But there’s another level which he used to call his meta-level that he still loved her in some way. All the time. So he had that to deal with. I’m glad that that was his job and not mine.
Paste: I keep thinking of Christopher Nolan and the stuff he’s done. Memento, Inception... the levels, the meta levels.
Boyle: It’s more like Memento or Eternal Sunshine, it’s more kind of in that world. Because it’s memories, really. And it’s the role of memories in us. We’re curious fish with memories. Because as we know from Alzheimer’s, once they go, there’s nobody left. She says in the movie, she says to Frank, to Vincent Cassel, “What is a person, Frank? We’re a series of memories. And we have to keep remembering ourselves all the time.” And if you break that thread, which is what happens to James’ character, then there’s serious consequences. I was reading William Gibson a bit ago and he said “We have memories and because they’re so unreliable, that’s why we create history.” We’re the only species that creates history because we think we need something to depend on more than memories. Because we select them, we alter them, we reorder them. Completely unreliable! So then, as a species, we’ve gone, “Oh, we better lay some facts down haven’t we, so we got something reliable.” Though we know history isn’t reliable either!
Paste: Was that the trigger for trying to do a story that really tackles the idea of memories and what they are and how reliable they are? Reading Gibson?
Boyle: There were a couple of things which will slightly spoil it for you, but it’s impossible to talk about without it. I do believe that thing that you when you go in a cinema, you forget what you’ve been told anyway. There’s a degree of that. Thank God. I never made a film with a woman at the center of it. And I was really disappointed in myself because I have two wonderful daughters, who are now both in their twenties. And I thought, I’ve made these boy’s movies, and I don’t apologize for that. I’m a boy at heart still. I make boy’s movies. But really, come on. You should make a movie with the woman at the heart of it. I’ve made a few movies and the women are important in them but they’re not the absolute-you know, it’s been Ewan McGregor or it’s been Cillian Murphy. And the woman is more at the center of this film. Obviously, there’s three of the characters. But she’s much more at the center of the film. That was one element.
And I suppose the other element was—there’s something wonderful about trance, about hypnotism, about cinema as hypnotism, about the whole spell of cinema that I just thought this movie, a series of trances, you just can not not do that. Because you long for, in those films that you mentioned, including Inception or films that do occupy that space where cinema works, unless it’s color coded for reasons to stop you from thinking this, it usually exists as time present. You’re just watching 90 minutes of time. That’s what you do. You just do. Unless it’s signaled to you with huge flashback, color coding or sound effects: “Bshou! Bshou! Bshou! Don’t think this is now! Bshou! Bshou Bshou! Because it happened back then!”
If you don’t do that, you’re going to think, that’s now. That’s now. It’s happening now. And I love that. You can—this is spoiling it for you—but she goes in to his mind, like that in the way that you do in the cinema, you go in to time present. And just fuck with it a little bit. But that’s sort of the appeal of the film. So as a filmmaker, to be able to join that band of filmmakers who do that. And one of the great filmmakers who does that is Nick Roeg, whose films are edited fluidly, you have no idea whether—if you want to get all rigid on it, and go, ‘Hang on a minute, when’s this happening? When’s that happening?’ they’re not going to work for you. You just go with the flow of it. It’s all time present. So I love that about movies. So there were those kinds of reasons for making it. And again, you’ve got three characters who, unlike the films we’ve made recently which have solid heroes that you could root for even despite their vulnerabilities or weaknesses, this is much more three people who you’ve got to work out, and it keeps moving about a bit. And it keeps shifting. I love that as well.
Paste: That’s one of the things I loved so much about Tree of Life, not so much about you don’t know what time it is, but it really feels like someone’s mind is wandering and you’re not exactly knowing where the mind is going.
Boyle: Yeah, and we do that in cinema. Cinema is a wonderful tool for that. I don’t think there’s any art form quite like it. Because there’s something about—you go in for ninety minutes. Black room. And there’s only one source of flickering light. And you’re going to go with what that flickering light tells you—and you assume it’s time present. Unless you’re led to believe otherwise. And in this case we lead you to believe it isn’t otherwise. Though it may be.
Paste: Was it intimidating tackling something that was a lot less of a straightforward narrative than the things you’ve done before?
Boyle: It’s certainly a challenge. I’ve never… yeah. Yeah. I’ve never done a cut-up narrative in quite that fashion. And it’s nice if you can come across a challenge like that. One of the things that helps us weirdly enough was that we shot it and then we didn’t go back to it for eight months—because of the Olympics thing. That was interesting because I’d never done that before and very few filmmakers get that opportunity—to shoot something and then go back to it when you’ve sort of forgotten it—you start you think ‘I’ll never forget this,’ because you’re so saturated with it. But after eight months of the Olympics thing, when you sit down to watch the cut that you’ve done, the kind of rough cut, you kind of can’t remember what’s coming next. That’s fantastic—for a story like this, especially, which is very complicated.
Paste: I would love to talk to you just for a second about the Olympic experience, because it was wonderful to watch. When the deal was done and you were like, “OK, I’m doing this,” what was the first step to figuring out what you wanted to do with it?
Boyle: I got the job, I said yes immediately, because I’m a sports junkie and I kind of grew up watching them all. And it was in my area of town. I live in East London and it was just around the corner, and I was really delighted when the city got it. So I said ‘Yes’ immediately and I immediately got these collaborators, a couple of designers, Suttirat Larlarb and Mark Tildesley and a writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and a couple of other people. Rick [Smith of Underworld] was one of them eventually. The musician. And we sat down in a room like this for six months. And we just talked about what are we, how do we define ourselves. And we covered the walls with bits of poems and pictures and music and culture—an amazing job to do. And the narrative grew out of that. And the rest of the time we spent executing that. Going through all the meetings. It was unbelievable. But those six months is when we kind of dreamed it up, the ethos of it. And as things evolved, things changed, but the essence of it remained the same.
And it was interesting because the Olympics movement itself, as you get closer to it, is much more like Coca-Cola. It’s a huge corporate brand that is so wealthy and so privileged and so protected, like all these corporations are. But what’s different is its consumers have a faith in it that is much more powerful than the organization itself. And that’s what actually makes it valuable, is people’s belief in it—that we can come together in a competitive, peaceful environment and have the best of us represent all of us. Because it does do that. It’s unlike most other competitive things where the best of us is better than us. This is the best of us, same boat, represents all of us. And it has a weird power like that. And you go, yeah, we’re the pyramid. And he’s right up there but he’s still, he’s us.
Paste: Tonight you’re tackling DJing. Are you excited?
Boyle: Ohhh. There’s a rumor going around that I’m DJing. If what you mean by DJing is this [mimes DJ motions], then no. I won’t be doing that. I picked some of the tracks and Rick is going to organize them in an interesting order, I hope.
Paste: Oh, I heard you were going to be scratching.
Boyle: Yes. These are the rumors that are flying around.
Paste: I heard you were going to be the third Dust Brother.
Boyle: I may have to get so drunk that I couldn’t scratch, that it would just not be possible for me. Certainly the last time I was in Austin, I don’t remember very much about it. So maybe that’s what will happen again as well.