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's latest film, Millions, marks a collaboration with Frank Cottrell Boyce (Code 46). I spoke with Boyle on February 25, 2005, at the Prescott Hotel in San Francisco.
Groucho: How did you and Frank Cottrell Boyce get together on Millions, and what did you bring to the story development?
Danny Boyle: We—the script didn't—I subsequently found this out—the script had been to every director in Britain. 'Cause he'd had it for about five years? And it was very different. But they sent it to me. I think they—either they didn't like what I do, or they thought I was a a very inappropriate director for this kind of story. But they sent it and I loved it. I was—absolutely adored it. I kind of felt a connection with it, which really surprised me. And we started working on it. And we changed it—we realized, when we'd made the film, there was only one scene, eventually, that was in the film that was in that original script. It's really weird. You think, "If you liked it that much, why change it that much?" But we did, and it was partly 'cause it was originally a period piece. It was set it in the '60s. And, yeah, so we worked, but we had a great kind of working dialogue, and we changed it completely, almost entirely, but the characters remain the same, the two boys. And different people came and went. And we worked on it, and we sort of—it's a great working process if you can establish it with a writer, if you can find enough trust with a writer. It's quite difficult to establish sometimes, because they're—some writers think you're taking over the film a bit—you know, you're trying to—rewriting the film, but I'm not. I'm not. I'm not a writer. But I love to try and inspire a writer to write better, though, to do better things. And we worked on it, and we—you sort of make the film between the two of you. You're kind of making the film, in the sense of you're giving it like a trial run. They're a very cheap trial run, because it's not costing anything. So we'd write bits of it and then read bits of it to each other and, you know, act it out and stuff like that. Yeah, so what did I bring to it? I think I brought a lot of—a lot of the iconography came in: the saints and stuff like that, because he was a religious boy, but he wasn't—it was more of the—a lot of the unreal stuff that I think I brought to it. Right, yeah—I think.
G: Yeah, I read that you sent him to include more saints in the script.
G: How much of Damien Cunningham is a projection of Frank and of yourself?
DB: (Laughs.) I think quite a lot, actually. I mean, I think we had very similar upbringings, me and Frank, and we're quite similar personalities in a way. I'm probably a bit more aggressive than him because as a director you have to be, than as a writer. But yeah, we are, and there's a lot of—when you're brought up like that—we were both brought up very strict Catholics, by very loving mothers. And that's what kind of—that's what's in the kid; you can feel that in the kid. And I'm sure that's—I mean, you only really—you don't really think about it a lot until you do these kind of interviews, but I'm sure that's one of the reasons I connected with it so strongly. Y'know, 'cause people say—people can't quite understand why you connect with it. And the people who don't understand the iconography, who were brought up in a very different faith, or with no faith at all, they can't see how, just how important it is to you. Even though I'm not a Catholic now, and I'm not a—you know, I'm not, you know, um. But they can't see how much a part of you it is, still, you know? But he understood that, and I—I mean, he is still a practicing Catholic. And he's brought his children up religious, as well, whereas I haven't. But still, it's always there, you know. You can't let it go, really.
G: Was Six O'Clock Saints a book that—
G: —every child of your era read? Is that still a—
DB: Still around.
DB: And you forget—it was only looking back at it for this film, but you forget how vivid the stories are. And you realize—because you begin to examine it outside religion, the strict confines of religion, what it's about—you begin to examine it as narrative or as fantasy or as imagery or as the things that affect you, in the way that you go to the cinema now: those were what they were! You could see for the generation of people, these stories were not pious stories. These are vivid, violent, scary, amazing kind of stories. They're like comic books of, you know, of graphic details and kind of scenarios. Incredible storytelling. And of course, that's kind of part of the reason that it gets into your brain and hooks there, you know, these images. So, yeah—and Scorsese talks about it, as well. I mean, he talks about it as being a big part of his life, really. And that those people, those saints were—you know, became Jake La Motta and Travis Bickle. They are the people that the light shines on, these people who live in a kind of slightly different—live in a spotlight, you know?
G: Mm. How were these particular children cast? They're quite remarkable.
DB: They're good, aren't they? Yeah, I was really—we saw, like hundreds of kids. And we just—I remember he—the little lad [Alex Etel]—I saw him out of the corner of my eye when he walked in the room. There was a lot of kids in the room. And I did—and this is the God's honest truth, and I say this to everybody, and I say it because it is true, although it sounds convenient—I thought at the time, "I'll bet that's him." Before I'd met him, before I'd spoken to him or anything. And you have to be careful when you think that, because you have to be really tough with him in auditions because you have to make sure that you're not biased, in his favor—for whatever reason—what he looks like or whatever, like that. Whatever made you think that when you first saw him. But it had happened to me once before on Trainspotting, the way we cast the girl in that was similar in open audition, and it happened to me with her where she was already sat down, and she was in a chair when I walked in the room. And I remember thinking with her: "I'll bet that's her." And I don't know how you explain those things, but it was. And there was a bit of competition. Some of the producers didn't want him. They wanted a different boy, who was a bit older and therefore would be easier to work with and was a bit more of an actor. But I didn't want an actor. I wanted the opposite of an actor, really. I think if it's—if you can sense acting going on, it won't work. You feel manipulated, and—. So he was great, and I fought very hard to get him and to have him, and—. He was wonderful, actually, because he grew as we did it—you know, he grew to understand—to have some kind of understanding of what it is. I mean, he's only nine now, so I don't know how deep that understanding is, but he knew enough to—he's a very bright kid. He knew enough to not let it swamp him or destroy him or whatever: to get the best out of it for himself.
G: Right. This is, I think—it's probably fair to say, your most extensive collaboration with child actors.
G: Was there a learning curve for you—
G: ...working with them?
DB: They're like—you think—you imagine, when you go into it, you think, "Ohhh, I'm gonna have to do everything, aren't I?" You know, you kind of think that. That you're gonna guide them through it. And you try that at first, and to be honest, you do try that at first. And it's a bit fake. You can feel it. 'Cause you can sort of see your fingerprints all over them. You know, it's a bit—it's actually a bit nasty, actually; it's a bit kind of—. And you can see them saying things that you're telling them to say. So that when you look back at it on rushes—when you look at it—. So I tried to back off, really, and try and let the film emerge through them a bit more. And that worked. 'Cause you could feel it work straightaway. 'Cause we'd picked the right kids. So you have to back off, really. So there's a scene, for instance, the nipple scene, when they're looking on the internet. And I remember—that's a particular case— that when we did the scene, I said nothing to them at all—not one word at all. Apart from come in the door and then go out the door. Apart from the physical geography of it. I said nothing to them about it. And yet, when I look at it, as a piece of acting, it's an excellent piece of acting; it's as good as any other piece of acting that I've directed or been part of in any film I've done. Y'know, the two of them.
G: Mmmm. Yeah. And were you able to shoot much in sequence on this film?
DB: Tried to. Tried to. Because of the kids. I mean, it's not always possible. But we tried to, to just help them understand the consequences of the story going forward. But again, it's weird. Again, that's the assumption you make: you think, "We'll have to do it in story order 'cause it will help 'em." But once you explain to them the madness of filming, which is that you do the last bit first (laughs)—once you explain that to them, they're really bright. They got it straightaway. "Oh, all right. Okay." (Laughs.) They didn't need any explaining again.
G: Well, they were so imaginative that it makes sense that they would be able to make that connection.
DB: And also, you know if the—the problem with education in school is, for some reason, kids—especially at a certain age—aren't interested. If they are interested, they can just learn anything. You know, they can learn languages (snaps fingers) like that. They can go live in a foreign country and pick up a language like that. Whereas you and me, it takes like—it takes like an eternity to pick up a new language, y'know? 'Cause their brains are sponges. If you like it, its just "Fuh! C'mon, bring it on!" Y'know?
G: What kind of a child were you?
DB: Well, I was brought up very devoutly. I was an altar boy. I served on an altar—did mass every day before I went to school. I went twice on Sundays to mass. So I was brought up like that. I was very—part of a very good, loving family but very—not a wealthy family—a very—. My Dad was a kind of manual laborer, and my Mom was a—worked in a canteen. But I was very kind of imaginative. I was very kind of—. Loved reading and kind-of writing and kind-of, y'know, stuff. And did acting at school, in school plays and stuff like that. I was pretty good at it as I remember. Yeah, it's always—I kind of like—. So I suppose I was very lucky, really, because they—my Mom and Dad—worked very hard to get us into good schools—me and my sisters, and we—. And my sister—I'm a twin and my sister is a very practical person. She's very kind of practical. And I suppose I'm sort of the opposite, really. I'm very—you know, I mean, I don't whether that's anything to do with being twins or whatever, and so I was always encouraged to feed my imagination. So yeah, I turned out like I did turn out. So that's sort of what I was like, I suppose. Still mad about soccer, though. Mad about soccer. And still let's say I'm mad about soccer, yeah.
G: (Laughs.) There are creative transitions in the film that I presume weren't in the original script, like the children spelling out "WELCOME TO OUR SCHOOL DAMIAN CUNNINGHAM" or the real-estate listing photo that the kids are in it, you pull back, and they're looking at it.
G: To what degree do those things just appear to you off the page, or how consciously are you looking for opportunities to do that when you break down the script?
DB: Sometimes, it's—some of the stuff you come up with beforehand, kind of theoretically—you're thinking in theory. The best stuff, to be honest, comes up on the day, because—and that's why I'm not great at making much bigger films, when you're not—the economics say that you can't make it up on the day because everything has to be ordered beforehand. But what I love doing is having—you give people a plan of what you're gonna do, which is what you have to do—that's part of the deal—but on a film of this scale, that's plan B.
DB: That's if things don't work out like you want them to. Plan A has got no shape at all until you arrive on the day, and I love doing that because I—it's when you are under the most pressure. You're also finding the actor in the—like, for instance, you do a scene—if you do a scene on Thursday, and that actor's mom dies that night, y'know, if you'd done the scene on the Friday, it'd be a completely different scene. I mean it just would be, because they're a completely different person. I love that kind of feeling of—not of people's relatives dying—but of, y'know, organically, just like—I mean, I know it's scripted and all, etc., and we stick to the script. We don't improvise—it's not that kind of freedom—but it feels like within those strictures, you still—it has a kind of organic freedom. And I always start the day with a rehearsal and then let the actors—I don't set anything until the actors have done it a few times on the set. Y'know, come into this room and made themselves familiar with it and kind of got the feel of it. And then you begin to set it like that; you begin to come up with ideas. You need an enthusiastic crew because you often come up with ideas that need equipment or that needs to be got instantly; it needs to be made to work instantly because you haven't thought of it enough in advance for it to be ordered. So you need a responsive crew. But they like working like that as well, because it's—a lot of filming is boring, I think, for crews because it's a lot of the same stuff over and over again. 'Cause unlike—like I make one film every eighteen months or two years, whereas the crews are working on it every day of the week. They're just working on—y'know, it's just like a regular nine-'til-five job or, as it happens, eight-'til-eight job, because they end up with long hours. So they often like a challenge, I think, when you put it to them in the right way.
G: Your own conception of money: as a filmmaker, you deal with millions of dollars at a time, but also, for film, a relatively low budget, so how do you look at money as a function of your career?
DB: It's very interesting. Because its also complicated by the fact that we've been very lucky and had a couple of very successful films as well, and that changes everything because you get money. You're given money by the film industry, then. Not to make the film; you're given a reward. 'Cause what we tend to do to keep the budget down is you take—you don't take much fee up front—you tend to take a small wage up front, but then you have back-end instead. And if the films are successful, it then means that you're—relatively speaking, you become wealthy. And that changes you because then—as we know, money changes everything. So that is a factor in it as well. And that was, I think, a factor in making this film. And runs through all the films, in a funny kind of way, is that—not so much money, but kind of, like, success or kind of opportunity and whether you want to use it or escape from it or, y'know. Very interesting. Very interesting. Because you—yeah, it's very—I mean, it's a huge factor: the presence of money.
G: Right. Well, 28 Days Later... was a big success obviously, and the temptation is there to go back to the well. I know they're planning a sequel, but—and I know you won't direct that film—
DB: That's right.
G: As a potential producer on that film, do you feel protective of that material, and would you have any creative involvement at all?
DB: Well, yeah, I mean, they've shown me the script a couple of times, and you just give a—say a few thoughts, really. I'm not a very good producer. I have done it once, and I didn't do it very well. I tend to be unable to—I'm very hands-on, and that's terrible for a director if the producer is being hands-on. So you've gotta be—you've got to back off and let them get on with it, really. But yeah, its, erm, I dunno. I mean, we've got one idea for a sequel: we are going to do a sequel to Trainspotting, but it is a long-term project. It is, like, still probably a good ten years away from doing it, because it's when the actors who played the original parts look middle-aged that we go back to those characters. Which I've always been really interested in it, really almost since we finished making the first one, I always—. And Irvine Welsh actually wrote a book sort of about—it's a little bit like it. It's not quite that extreme. They're not middle-aged yet, but there is a time lapse that's gone on. And it's the same characters again. And I will direct that, yeah, but we'll wait on that—if I'm still alive.
G: Now will that be—you mentioned that it will be even further advanced than in Porno, so will that be an entirely different story or will it incorporate some elements of that novel?
DB: It will incorporate bits of elements of that novel, like there's—Bagby has been in prison, that it would start with Bagby getting out of jail after having been in for fifteen years for killing somebody, y'know, and that kind of, that'll be its starting point of it, which it is of the novel as well.
G: Right. I want to talk to you about actors in general. I was at the Q & A you did last night, and you were talking about—
DB: Were you?
DB: In San Jose?
DB: Was it all right?
G: Oh, it was excellent, yeah.
DB: Yeah, it was okay?
G: Yeah. It was very well-received.
DB: Oh, good.
G: But you were talking about the young lad who plays Anthony [Lewis McGibbon], and you said, "He's just like an actor—he's all over the place emotionally." (Laughs.)
DB: Yeah. Nhn.
G: I'm going to get you in trouble now.
DB: No, no, no.
G: In general, how do you view the psychology of actors?
DB: I like actors. But then, I grew up in the theatre. I mean, I learnt—. And that helps you enormously. I know a lot of film directors are either frightened of actors or hate them. But I actually quite like them. And I also think an important part of learning about being a director is that—for films especially—is that people go to films to watch actors. There's a very tiny percentage of us who are interested in who's directed it or, y'know, or the technical details. The vast, vast, 99% of people go to watch actors play out stories. And if it's successful, it's because you identify with an actor or see something played out that you respond to or, y'know, that you are living out part of your ego, or your psyche is being played out there for you. So you have to respect that, y'know? And they are—. To do that—the cost to actors to do that is extensive, that they spend half their career being rejected, and then when they do get a chance to work, they have to expose themselves. It's like, y'know, asking you: I'll only do this interview with you if you'll come in naked and do it. You know, they are being asked constantly to kind of do that kind of stuff. And so they then—when they become successful, I can understand them being completely impossible. (Laughs.) Because they gain their revenge for so many years of mistreatment. And I like that about them. And I think they also—they're great storytellers. Because they understand story better than anybody, because that's all they ever do is they're telling stories. And they do understand—and so I listen to them. I learn a lot from them. Y'know, you can get yourself out of trouble with them as well—if you're in trouble on a film, they can get you out of a corner by doing something or suggesting something, and it—it's their currency. They're working with it the whole time. And the other thing is that like—I think they're always actors. They're always thinking like actors. Y'know, they're always looking at people for behavioral things—
DB: It's their life, and they're—actors are kind of born, I think. They're not trained, really. They are born. And the older lad: you could feel it in him. Every bone in his body says he's an actor, and he'll be an actor. You can just feel it on him. And whether that's a good thing or not, I don't know. (Inhales.) But he is. You know, his DNA is an actor.
G: And I guess your relationship with the actors is a negotiation of honesty. They keep you honest, and you have to keep them honest. So—
DB: Yes. Yeah, that would be—yeah, that's true.
G: I'm thinking of: I was listening to the commentary of 28 Days Later..., and you and Garland were talking about the scene that Chris Eccleston and Cillian Murphy were unhappy with and that went back to the drawing board because they weren't satisfied.
DB: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, you have to keep each other—you have to establish trust to begin with. I think that's very important. They're looking for trust, actors. 'Cause, in order to walk in the room naked, they ideally need somebody there, and it's—they're not gonna be—it's not—and it has to be the director because it's not really going to be other members of the crew. They have to believe that the director is guiding them correctly and he's asking them to do things that are gonna bear fruit ultimately, and they're not going to make them look foolish. They sometimes are a bit defensive, because if they don't trust you—if you don't establish that trust—they tend to have a default mechanism, which puts them in a certain place, which protects them, makes sure they don't look stupid, you know? That's difficult, when you can hit that, because there's not a lot you can do with that. If they're in that place, it's quite difficult to get them out of there. They don't come in there, in that place, generally. But they'll go there if they lose confidence. And it's the default place, and it's the—basically, they'll do nothing. They'll just plod through it like that. And that's difficult 'cause you don't—there's nothing very exciting or interesting there. So you hope to—it's always difficult meeting them the first time. Because you don't want to make the mistake that will make them lose confidence in you. You know, you want to—you ideally want a sure footing. 'Cause once they do trust you—once they like you and trust you—they'll sort of do anything for you. Y'know, because they want to—they're desperate for a chance to play. Y'know? But they need to feel secure to play, really. (Whispers.) Like any kid. It's the same with any kid, really.
G: You mentioned your theatrical work. How did you make the leap from your theatrical career to film, and when did you know that that was something you wanted to do?
DB: I'd always—I mean, I was always much more interested in film than theatre, although theatre seemed to be the only thing I could get into. I tried to get a job in the film industry, and I couldn't. I mean, I just couldn't get a job in it. So I went into the theatre and then—I'd been in the theatre—I was working at a theatre called The Royal Court, and I eventually became what they call a deputy director. But the guy who run the theatre: he wasn't going to leave. And the next step, really, in terms of kind of rather shallow ambition was to run the place, y'know, which I—so I thought I should leave. And I heard about this job in Northern Ireland which was a bit—Northern Ireland was very—not dangerous, but it was a very troubled time in Northern Ireland. And it was a job producing drama at the BBC. There, nobody applied for it. I know they didn't, because I was the only applicant, of any kind of experience. And they gave me the job, and when I arrived, I said, "I'll direct as well," which wasn't on, because that's not how they do things at the BBC in Drama, but I sold it to them. I said, "And I'll only take one wage, and we'll save the money, and we could"—all this kind of stuff. So, and that's how I learned and—. On the technical level, you learn it very quickly, in terms of the camera and stuff like that: the difference between a camera and the theatre and, y'know, that kind of storytelling difference. A good cameraman teaches you that very quickly. Orson Welles said you can learn everything you need to know about a camera in an afternoon, and it's true. All the basic rules of it. After that, it's how you want to use it to tell the story, which is up to you. And then, I made some television dramas, which I was very proud of. They didn't make a particular impact. They didn't have a particularly big impact or resonance with anybody, though I was very proud of them. And eventually, I was sent the script Shallow Grave. But not as an outstanding individual. I was sent it as—they sent the script out to a lot of directors, and they decided to interview—'cause they obviously couldn't find somebody that they thought was—who they particularly wanted. And I went in and auditioned for it, like an actor does. And I got the job, so—. And it sort of took off from there, I guess.
G: Yeah, right. This film, Millions—you mentioned the technical aspects. It has a unique color scheme—
G: I wonder how much of that is in camera and how much of that is the result of post-production techniques?
DB: It's a mixture. And certainly the—one of the things I learned from 28 Days Later... was to give yourself enough time in what they call the digital grade. And what you do is you—although it's shot on celluloid, you digitize that image, so that it can be worked on. And they have these machines that you color-grade now on digitally. And you can isolate colors and isolate sections of the image and shape it, and—. But you need time 'cause it's quite—it's not a slow process, but it's a quite a creative process. It needs a bit of space to emerge. And because of how much that had done to improve 28 Days Later, I made sure there was enough—we kept enough money back, so that we had two weeks to digitally grade this. Although we dressed the set, and put costumes on people that did have these colors in it, we did use a particular stock for one section of the film, for the train robbery: we used reversal stock for that. Most of the time, it was actually, you shoot it so that it's in the digital grade: you can make the colors then just move forward a bit, y'know, to actually feel vivid and kind of—not childlike, but sort of like from an imagination that isn't dull and kind of tepid, like our adult lives tend to be a bit. You know, that's how we tend to see the world. Y'know, we tend to be—we've been ground down a bit by it, and here's a chance to actually break out of that—kind of see it like you used to see it as a kid when weather—things like that didn't matter. Every day is great. Y'know, it's just like an opportunity. Y'know, you're not thinking, "Oh, God, look at this. Nnhnnhnnn." Y'know. It's like, y'know: this is so prosaic, but it's why, as a parent, you're always telling your kids to dress up, or "Put your coat on, it's cold." They don't care! (Laughs.) They just want to kind of go out and play, and it's that kind of carefreeness which we wanted to suggest in the color palette of the film, yeah.
G: Before we're out of time, I wanted to ask you about your collaborations with Alex Garland. I know you have one upcoming. You first did The Beach, and he hadn't written that script, and it was a somewhat irreverent adaptation of the novel. So how did the two of you end up becoming really creative partners?
DB: Well, we met him—when we first found the novel, it was a very small novel. I mean, it grew in cult status while we were making the film, actually. Not because of the film, just because of its own quality. And then especially after the—once the film was on the cards and Leonardo was in it. So we met him way in the early days, and we got on very well, and I think he really fancied a go at it, but he was a bit shy about telling us. And it was while we were making the film that he kind of declared his hand really, that he'd like to have a go at it himself. And he came up with this idea for 28 Days Later.... So we started working together, and we've been—yeah, we're working on this new idea now. And he's very—yeah, he's a terrific guy to work with. Y'know, it's been a great—I mean, I'm very lucky. I've worked with three writers now who [I] have had that kind of strong creative relationship with. Frank on this one, and Alex and then this other guy John Hodge on Trainspotting and those other films. And it's rare to find one writer that you can kind of get on with, but I'm very lucky to have found three. Y'know, I can—and I'm trying to work with all three of them again. Y'know, at different times, we've got—we're kind of planning kind-of ideas. Long term, yeah.
G: Can you tell us a little bit about—the next project is likely to be the one with Alex Garland, right?
DB: Yeah. Sunshine.
G: A science-fiction piece?
DB: Sunshine, yeah.
G: Yeah. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
DB: It's just—it's a sci-fi film set on a spacecraft, which is on its way to the sun. And it has to—the job—it's carrying a bomb. This vast, vast bomb, which is—has to reignite part of the sun. But the real point about it is there is a mission that has gone before them, with a similar size bomb on. And that's gone seven years earlier, and nobody knows what's happened to it 'cause they lost contact with it. So there's that—I won't tell you what happens. But there's that element, and also—so it's a mystery in a way—but there's also what happens when they reach the source of all life, really. Which is quite an interesting confrontation to have.
G: Well, lastly, on Millions, the film—without giving anything away—ends on an upbeat note. Do you think its difficult for people to do good works in the culture we're in?
DB: There's certainly—you would say that, yeah. But then you'd look at what happened—how people reacted to the tsunami and, y'know, the out—. I think we are—there's a cynicism that we have that is, fortunately, is drowned when necessary. I mean it's a terrible expression to use, having said about the tsunami, but y'know, our protective defensive mechanisms are—can be got rid of quite easily. And actually we are innately—I think we are innately generous. I think there is that in us. And it kind of—everything else damages it, but occasionally it kind of re-emerges. Yeah. So I'm a believer. I believe in goodness, and I believe in kind of having faith in people like they say in the film—like the girl, the woman, like mum tells him in the film. My mum, she used to always say that to me. Y'know, if you make that leap, and it is an imaginative leap to trust, have faith in people—then it—y'know, good'll come of that, that's all. Yeah.
G: Well, thank you very much for speaking to me.
DB: No, it's a pleasure. Thank you for coming! Thanks for coming in to San Jose last night there!