British director Danny Boyle shot to prominence with the thriller Shallow Grave. For an encore, Boyle adapted Irvine Welsh's novel Trainspotting, to great acclaim. After making A Life Less Ordinary, Boyle filmed Alex Garland's novel The Beach, which led Garland to script 28 Days Later... for the director. Boyle and Garland took a break for the former to direct the family film Millions, but the team reunited for the science-fiction epic Sunshine. I spoke with Boyle at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco.
Groucho: One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the aspect of the sun as our Creator, or giving us sustenance both literally and mystically. Did you see it as part of your job to be sort of coy on this point about whether it's a meeting of God and man? I hear you and Alex see it differently, is that right?
Danny Boyle: Well, it's very difficult to talk about without sounding a bit trite. It's one of the reasons that you try to visualize it as much as possible. The thing about—it's quite interesting: Alex is very much a kind of confident atheist. And it's quite interesting 'cause clearly writing the script he didn't really challenge himself in that. Whereas I'm not quite so confident. And I found one of the things that was interesting about making the film was that everything led you to challenge yourself, really. Not about "Is there a God?" in that kind of trite, kind of quite narrow way. But just "Is there something beyond what we see rationally?" And everything led towards that, really. You can't—and I think for the actors as well—you can't deny it. There's an interesting question, really, which is: is it just the result of your culture, your own background? Or is it something beyond that, really? And anybody who's too confident in their belief system anyway is a danger. Like Pinbacker. (Laughs gleefully.)
G: Or like the scientists.
DB: Well, possibly. But what's interesting about the scientists is the ones we worked with—and we went to CERN, Geneva, and worked with a lot of them, one representative in particular—is that although they are adamant atheists, they actually do dabble in—not belief in a manifest way, like in churches, but in the sense of you have to remain open to all evidence, really. So for instance they have this thing, which always amused me. They're building this particle accelerator in Geneva, the CERN particle—27 kilometers in circumference, and they're gonna fire protons around it. And they're going to fire these—they're going to hit these protons into each other. And they're searching for this particle called the Higgs particle, which will be the smallest known particle that we've found yet. And their nickname for it is "God's particle." That's what they call it. So you can see even in that a little fissure open to there. There's another side of them, you know. Anyway, so that's why the film emerged as it emerged, yeah...
G: You innovated a new kind of green-screen work with the CG supervisor [Tom Wood], didn't you?
DB: Well, we tried to use it as little as possible. And I was really—I mean he was great because he took on board—I don't really know what I'm doing with CG, to be honest, because I don't really understand how it works. It's ones and zeros, but I don't really understand how ones and zeros become the sun. You know. Basically. And I challenge you to explain it as well. Maybe one of you can. But he could. But I said, there's no point, Tom, 'cause I won't really understand what you're talking about. But what I want is that the experience for the actor to be real in that moment. And I don't care how much it costs us. And I know it's a waste of money 'cause you're going to replace it with a CG image. But that should feel real. So we used actually very, very little green-screen, as such. Most of it was real.
G: What would they be looking at?
DB: They would be looking at light sources, or they would be looking at—like for instance, Cillian at the end of the film, when he touches the sun, when it bursts into that chamber and puts his hand up, that was this extraordinary rig. It was like 40 feet high and like 60 feet wide of lamps. Hundreds of lamps on it, all pointing at him. And what they did is they built it on scaffolding, and then it took about fourteen men to push it. And it was like a U2 concert, with the—you're at a U2 concert, but it starts to come towards you, like that, the bank of lights. And it's pointless doing that 'cause you're going to dump it all, as it's dumped in the film, and the CG creates a wall of fire coming in. But, boy, it means there's no acting required for Cillian. It's just this huge kind of ball of light coming straight at him, you know? So that was what we did as many times as possible, really. There's odd bits of conventional green screen as there always will be, but we tried always to do without it. They don't need it as much now. The reason you have green screen is to separate—you separate the human from the background, but they need it less and less now. They can separate much better without it anyway. So kind of getting a independent from it a bit now anyway...
G: You did a space camp, sort of, with a two-week pre-production communal experience with the actors where they lived together. What kind of reports did you get back from that? Did you have a mole in there?
DB: No, it wasn't—I actually promised them—one of the things I had to say—. They weren't very happy about it 'cause they were expecting to stay at like the Ritz-Carlton, or whatever the equivalent. And I said, no, you're in a student dormitory by the canal in East London. But I had to promise them there were no cameras. You know, that it wasn't a Big Brother-type thing. I said there's nothing like that. And in fact, I wasn't really interested in—I mean, I went there a few times, but I wasn't really interested in what was happening. It was about pop—they all turn up in a bubble, actors. They have an individual little bubble around them. Which is their—well, you know what actors are like. They have kind of obsessions with—and you have to pop that bubble. It's one of your jobs as a director somehow. I realized, the more experience I get, that's one of the basic ingredients of the job, which is to create a new bubble that they're all in, which is your film. And they help do that. It creates a—football managers do it, soccer managers do it in Britain. It's siege mentality you create. You take them away, and you create press stories, in the press, that says about them hating the team, the people think this about the team. And they do it deliberately to create a siege mentality: to seal this group of people together, to make them fight for each other. You know? It's weirdly cool like that; it helps like that. So that was the idea; that'[s what I did.
G: Sounds like it could be a movie in itself.
DB: (Laughs.) You probably could do, yeah.
G: What goes on.
DB: But then you bombard them with all this stuff, information about submarines, you take them up in a weightless plane, you kind of let them fly a flight simulator at Heathrow. They got to fly—they got to land 747s. And they crashed them; each one of them crashed them. You couldn't land them. And when they crash, it's serious; it shuts down the whole system. It's like really weirdly kind of convincing. You know? (Gripping imaginary equipment.) You go like that as it crashes! (Laughs.) Bizarre, anyway, so. And all these things, they kind of have a drip, drip, drip effect on them, and just take them out of that bubble they were in before...
G: You flirted with the Alien franchise, but you've never made a franchise movie. Is there a franchise that, if you were asked at this point, you would leap at?
DB: A franchise? As such? Well, I mean, there's franchises that I love: you know, Alien was one, which is why I briefly got involved in it. And, you know, I mean, love—yeah, I mean, some of them I love.
G: Like if James Bond came to you
DB: No, I—
G: Or something like that.
DB: I decided not to. I was asked about the Bond. And Harry Potter I've been asked about. And I don't want to do those kind of films. They're just not—they're just made—they just don't interest me, really. I mean, I've nothing against them, obviously, but, um...Well, I've got an idea for a third [28 ----s Later film]. I don't know whether it'll actually happen or not. It's an odd kind of—they're not—I mean, it is a franchise, I suppose, but it's a kind of slightly amateur franchise. (Laughs...)
G: [Months or Years is] a trade secret.
DB: You'd have to use that, because that's the franchise. Although actually the idea—it would be completely irrelevant to the idea, but because it's a franchise, you'd have to use it. Which is the problem with doing a franchise. Which is that you're in another narrow corridor again, and there's certain rules you have to obey. Which is this is to be in the publicity...
G: Thank you very much.
DB: Thank you. Thanks very much.