BY ANDREW PULVER
Photographed by Jay Brooks
If eclecticism is the hallmark of an accomplished director, then Danny Boyle is up there with the best of them. He’s made movies big (The Beach) and small (Shallow Grave); crowded (Slumdog Millionaire) and lonely (127 Hours); he’s gone to outer space (Sunshine) and sat in scuzzy drug dens (Trainspotting). For his efforts, he won a DGA and Academy Award in 2009 for Slumdog, received a prestigious British Film Institute fellowship, and even got a Primetime Emmy Award
for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
The restless enthusiasm and hyperactivity that characterizes his films is reflected in the man himself. This is not a self-regarding auteur, but rather an inquisitive, exuberant character, still maintaining an air of wide-eyed interest in everything around him. Born and brought up in a small town in England’s industrial northwest, not far from Manchester, Boyle worked his way into directing via theater, making his name at the celebrated Royal Court. After learning his craft on a series of TV shows for the BBC in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Boyle broke into films with Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1996), two cult hits made in Scotland that established him as a talent to watch.
He eventually moved up to bigger budgets and American backing for The Beach (2000). But he was not enamored with the Hollywood-style of moviemaking and returned to smaller films with Slumdog Millionaire, and followed up that international hit with a movie about a solitary hiker trapped in a
canyon in Southeast Utah, 127 Hours (2010).
His current project is the Aaron Sorkin-penned biopic of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, another hairpin bend on a path full of them. Boyle stepped out of the editing suite where he is finishing the film, a bit rumpled but full of energy and eager to talk about the unusual trajectory of his career.
ANDREW PULVER: Let’s start at the beginning. Do you remember when you first became interested in movies?
DANNY BOYLE: I’ve thought about this. I traced it back to when I was 7 or 8, and my dad took me to Battle of the Bulge, and my mum took my twin sister to The Sound of Music. And that’s the first I’d ever been in a cinema, or knew what cinema was. Although we had a telly, we didn’t really watch films on it. People from my kind of background just didn’t—films were a real birthday treat. I still don’t know why we were separated on gender. I caught up with Sound of Music later; it’s a genius film, of course. And here’s a good DGA story: I came to the Guild for a Q&A after Shallow Grave, pretty excited because it was my first proper film and it had gone down very well, and there was an older guy in the audience, and he came up to me afterward and said: ‘Hey, very good job young man.’ I said: ‘Oh, thanks very much,’ and walked on. Then someone said to me: ‘That was Robert Wise.’ That was amazing. I never got to meet him again unfortunately. But it was wonderful to have that contact.
Q: And when did you first think: I want to be a director?
A: I really got the directing bug through theater. Although I was very interested in films when I was a teenager and went to see lots of art movies, in college I studied drama and English. I did a lot of acting as a result: When you are energetic and loud, as I was, they pick you for parts in stuff. Then I did my own production. I was doing a dissertation on Samuel Beckett, so I directed Play, the one with three people in urns. I really got the bug then—I was behind the scenes and I felt much more comfortable there. I think it’s because I was always very self-conscious, and self-consciousness is pretty deadly for actors. Whereas self-consciousness as a director is pretty crucial—you’ve got to have that awareness.
Q: You had an impressive apprenticeship in theater in the early 1980s, particularly with the Royal Court in London. What did you take away from that?
A: The main thing theater taught me was a love of actors. I don’t think you can do theater unless you love actors on some level. You might be unpleasant to them, which some directors are—they’re ghastly unpleasant to them sometimes. But you’ve got to love the acting, the craft of acting. It became a huge help with film; it seems to me, often, because the actors arrive at the last minute and there’s so little time for them because of all the technicalities involved, directors are often scared of them, or wary of them. Whereas I love actors and I love involving them in the process as much as possible. I always try and get a lot of rehearsal, if I can, no matter what we’re doing, so the actors feel like they own it a bit.
Q: You made a move to the BBC in 1987, and that got you behind a camera. But it doesn’t sound like it was very straightforward.
A: That’s right. The BBC didn’t advertise directing jobs, but I applied for a producer’s job in Northern Ireland. At the time Northern Ireland was very tense politically, so nobody applied for the job, which is the reason I got it. The job basically was as a commissioning editor, commissioning projects, and I told them, when I got the job, I was going to direct the TV shows as well—but I won’t charge, so we’ll save the money on the director’s fee. They were not sure about that at all, but I had a very good reference from [playwright] David Hare, because of the Royal Court connection. They were very impressed with that. So they let me do it, and I learned on the job. The first thing I commissioned, I directed. It was a show called Scout by a wonderful Irish writer named Frank McGuinness.
Q: What was the steepest part of the learning curve?
A: I had to learn about a camera, basically. It is so weird when you come from the three-dimensional world of theater. You are suddenly in a two-dimensional
creative world, which you then have to make feel three-dimensional. But Orson Welles said that you can learn everything you need to know in an afternoon from a decent cameraman. And it’s true. And I had a great cameraman called Phil Dawson who taught me everything I needed to know. Plus I had a great Irish actor, Ray McAnally. I think he could tell I didn’t know what I was doing. So whenever we were doing close-ups, he’d say, ‘Danny, I’ll do you the line this side of camera, and then I’ll do it again the other side of camera.’ That way, when you get to editing, you’ve got options. Other directors will understand how wonderful that is that someone helps you out enormously like that.
Q: So you took what you learned on one TV film and applied it to the next one?
A: Each time I did a film I got a bit more ambitious—but made some terrible mistakes. But it was a great training. That’s the wonderful thing about film: There are so many jobs in it that suit different temperaments and different personalities. I’m working with an editor at the moment [Elliot Graham], on Steve Jobs, and to me the work of editing is just the most extraordinary mystery. You need a great editor because films are made in editing more than any single place. But great editors are strange creatures who sit in a room of their own and show you things that you never thought of.
My approach has always been to try to work with lots of people who I regard as mini-directors. By that I mean that they have the sensibility of a storyteller, and are obsessed with an idea and how to convey it to someone. But for some reason they don’t want the hassle or the spotlight of being the actual director. They don’t want to have to get up in the morning and tell everybody what to do—it just doesn’t suit them.
Q: During your time at the BBC, you also got the opportunity to watch directors at work. I’m thinking specifically of a masterpiece you produced called Elephant, about sectarian killings in Northern Ireland, directed by Alan Clarke. It was a film that clearly influenced Gus Van Sant’s Elephant.
A: Elephant was an upsetting film to make in many ways, but Alan attacked its moral purpose with just phenomenal focus. And he brought everything to it: technique, acting, editing, everything. He did everything within that focus. It was a kind of beautiful, pure thing. And on the other hand, he was so easy and equable with everyone; it was a wonderful combination. Terrifying concentration and obsession with an idea, and yet at the same time garrulous. He was obsessed with the rushes. I would try and get him to go out for a meal, but he’d say, ‘No, I’m eating in my room watching the rushes.’ I learned that from him. Watch the rushes. Watch the rushes. Watch the rushes. Watch what you’ve done. It’s boring, but you learn all the time from it. It was a huge thing for me.
Q: At the time, did you feel like you were getting ready to direct a feature?
A: I made a couple of Inspector Morses, very high-end television at the time. They had a feature film-length, and were hugely successful, which meant you had a budget that gave you a bit of money. Plus they had a crew that would work on them for six months and the other six months they were off working on Raiders or some other Spielberg movie. So you were working with crew who had a fantastic attitude to visual storytelling. Then a lovely producer called John Chapman introduced me to a cinematographer, Brian Tufano, and to an editor, Masahiro Hirakubo. And they were both people that I went on to other things with. This is what I mean about learning from other people. Brian’s sensibility as a visual storyteller was much richer than anyone I’d worked with so far, especially in terms of lighting. And so you suddenly feel it all filling you up with ideas.
Q: How did you come to make Shallow Grave?
A: I got this script, Shallow Grave. [Producer] Andrew Macdonald and [writer] John Hodge were literally looking for a director. I went into the interview with them and John said to me, ‘Did you produce Elephant?’ And I said, yeah. It was one of his favorite films. So that was a huge help. And I said to him, ‘Did you steal a lot of this from the Coen brothers?’ So we bonded!
Q: So was your first feature a good experience?
A: I loved the script, it was funny, and sharp, and so it was all about bringing it out in the best way possible. I was totally dedicated to the script, and fortunately John was totally dedicated to the idea of never being a director. He really thought: When I can write, why would I ever want to deal with all that shit! We all thought of each other as creative; we arrived at key decisions with consultation. Partly it was the discipline of not having very much money, but feeling very ambitious about how we were going to do it. They were very sensible and knew that when you got somebody to direct a film, whether you liked them or not, you just had to let them get on with it.
Q: Trainspotting marked a real leap forward in your filmmaking, particularly in the development of your visual style. How did you approach it?
A: You have to acknowledge the book [by Irvine Welsh], really. Everything John [Hodge] did, everything I did, and everything the actors did came out of the feeling for the book. If you look at it now, some of the performances are huge, over the top, to the extent they would be unacceptable on a regular film. But it came from something true—[Welsh’s] observation of people. So the visual style was trying to capture some of the brio of the book. I mean by that it could take any turn. It didn’t have to be measured: You could go from obscene to surreal to comic without a problem. I suppose drug movies can give you that opportunity, but you could mishandle it and be awful.
Q: I still remember the scene in which Ewan McGregor dives into the toilet after his drugs. What was that like to shoot?
A: That was one of scenes we storyboarded, because it was tricky, but we didn’t storyboard much of the film at all. We built a disgusting toilet, which was great fun to film because of course it’s chocolate, not shit all over the walls. What we did was interesting, because at the time CG was just beginning to arrive properly. I remember seeing a film that Christmas called The Santa Clause in which Tim Allen had been CG’d down a chimney. And I thought, if we used that technique in Trainspotting it won’t work because you can see it’s fake. It’s not like CG is now, where it’s impossible to tell. So we decided not to go down that route. We basically worked out that we should go back to theater. The way you make something disappear down the toilet on stage is you would turn the toilet sideways to the audience, and then just have half a toilet. So it was very, very simple. We cut the toilet in half, and built it on a platform with a chute underneath it for the actor to slide down.
And then when you have good people working on it, you get all these extra little ideas. I remember Brian Tufano, who was shooting it, said: ‘Tell Ewan [McGregor] to twist his feet as he goes down, because that’ll make you think he’s going down the U-bend.’ And … it does! And then one of the props guys, chips in and says: ‘Right! I’ll chuck some water in at that exact moment so it’ll look like he’s flopping into the U-bend.’ So he chucked some water in. And it worked brilliantly.
Q: You had your first interaction with Hollywood after Trainspotting, when you were attached to the fourth Alien film. Why didn’t that work out?
A: Well, I loved the Alien movies. There was a wonderful script by Joss Whedon, and I went to meet Sigourney Weaver, which was absolutely a buzz. But then I began to realize that the franchise was in transition between the way that Ridley Scott had done it—just old-style physical acting and effects—and CG. And I felt I was not the guy to negotiate that transition. Maybe looking back, I could have probably said, ‘No, we’re going to do it in the way that Ridley did,’ but the industry as a whole was in transition, and CG was inevitable. It made sense. So I decided to do A Life Less Ordinary (1997) instead. Which was a disaster, commercially. That was a salutary experience.
Q: You did eventually get a Hollywood project off the ground, The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. That was on a whole different scale than the relatively small British films you’d done.
A: It’s simple really, if you’re going to take $50 million from somebody, they want certain things in return. But they didn’t put us under any extra pressure, and in fact, Leo protected us from the kind of natural pressure that a lot of directors feel when they take that amount of money. It was also a time that, if you made a film abroad, it was expected you would take a huge crew. And we did take a huge crew. And you do behave imperially. There is no way you cannot do that. You arrive in a foreign country with your per diems, and you go: We’re going to do this. It’s not for political reasons, it’s just the filmmaking reasons. I say that because when we were setting up Slumdog, we decided to do the exact opposite and to take hardly anybody. We took a huge crew to Thailand for The Beach, and when you take a huge crew, you’ve set in motion what the film is going to be. I’m not saying this applies to everyone, but this is the lesson I learned, and why I think Slumdog was the film it was and The Beach was the film it was. I learned from doing The Beach that, in this day and age, if you want to try and capture something about a place, you have to be flexible. Not necessarily indigenous, but you have to simply use local knowledge and local crew, and trust local crew as well. Not just as a minor element, as the key elements of the show. We did that in Slumdog and it was a hugely profitable experience. Whereas Thailand, which is a wonderful place, I couldn’t wait to leave.
Q: So the way you shot Slumdog was a reaction against the way you had made The Beach?
A: Yeah. It affects everything if you can make the film for $15 million. So we were very clear that we were going to strip it down. It’s so obvious, I know, but you then come up against this: When you get to India, what you discover is that although you can cast kids in their early teens who speak English very well, very few 6- or 7-year-old kids speak English. So you immediately decide: we’ll do the first third of the film in Hindi. That’s a correct decision artistically, and it bears a lot of fruit all the way through [production]. You don’t have the pressure of people saying: Listen, mate, you’ve taken $40 million, you’re not making a film in Hindi, those kids have got to speak English. And it makes the whole film more organic really, you are making decisions for the right reasons. Even so, $15 million is still a lot of money.
Q: Can you talk about how you worked with your DP. How did you establish the visual style of the film?
A: I love talking with the DP about equipment early on, which dictates the feel of the film—whether it’s going to be handheld, or the smaller cameras we used on Slumdog so that we could hide them. And they were very flexible to shoot with, even though the backing-up of the footage was incredibly laborious. The actual operating had a kind of flexibility that could go with the chaos that was all around. Because the [place] is just changing all the time. They weren’t huge units that couldn’t move.
In general, you might not necessarily have a visual style to begin with, even if sometimes you have one and then abandon it. You really find it as you’re shooting. There’s a naturalness that benefits everything if you come on the set of a scene, and it suddenly feels wrong to be shooting it the way you thought you’d shoot it. Suddenly it feels right to do it another way. Then that becomes the style. It sort of emerges over time, over the first few days. And it’s weird, you can often spot, when you look back, which were the scenes that were shot first. But you have no idea what style the film was in at all. However, that wasn’t true of 28 Days Later (2002). We did the deserted streets scenes first. So they dictated a kind of style by necessity because of the way we had to snatch them.
Q: You went right from the streets of Mumbai on Slumdog to a guy stuck under a rock in 127 Hours. Do you make a conscious effort to switch from one type of film to another?
A: I really like to do something different each time. I find that very stimulating. If I have some hesitancy about how in hell am I going to do something, that makes me vulnerable and I think more interesting in my approach to it. It’s not like I have an auteur agenda where I think: This is my worldview, and here’s another version of it. I don’t know what my worldview is really, and I discover it by making the films. With 127 Hours, I’d read the book; the chapters about him trapped in the canyon were as exciting a read as you can ever have. It felt a bit like Trainspotting: Why am I so excited about this guy’s suffering? I mean, he’s trapped. He’s drinking his own urine. Then there were these other chapters, which were his thoughts on it. And I just knew that if you made a film from those chapters about him being trapped in the canyon, it’d be the most immersive experience because you can’t watch something like that as a spectator. You have to feel it as well, otherwise you’d just turn away. Otherwise, how are you going to get someone to watch a guy cut his arm off? You’ve got to feel like you’ve got to do it as well. That was my thinking anyway.
Q: James Franco captured that intensity as the trapped man. Are there techniques you use to get performances from actors?
A: It’s interesting, I did learn things like that in the theater. Max Stafford-Clark, the former artistic director of the Royal Court, has something called ‘Actions,’ in which actors say in rehearsal what they are going to do with each line, before they say it. And I initially copied that. But then I realized it didn’t suit me at all, and I realized that directing is the feel. You have a feel for a script and you cast it, and then it’s the feel for the actor, and then it’s trying to find the best way for that actor. There’s no prescribed method that’s best. With some actors, if necessary, I will make lots of suggestions, but then other actors don’t want any suggestions at all—they’re on a journey on their own. So then it’s about the best way to capture the performance and to monitor it and to nurture it.
Q: After that you undertook a massive project, the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Summer Olympics. How did you approach something as big as that as a director?
A: You can’t be a different person. Fundamental principles always apply: Surround yourself with great people and try to inspire them. The rest is Mr. Wilder’s Nine Commandments: ‘Thou shalt not bore.’ And his Tenth: ‘Thou shalt have right of final cut.’ We wanted to make the experience acute for the audience in the stadium believing that would then somehow transmit to the audience at home. So they weren’t witnessing a billion person experience but something more personal and touching. About a year beforehand we did a dry run with a production of Frankenstein broadcast live from the National Theatre in London with all the same crew. That got us focused on the importance of the live tactile experience dominating rather than the big elbows … of live TV coverage.
Q: Are you the kind of director who likes to do a lot of takes?
A: You read about Kubrick doing 70, 80 takes, but I try to do under 10. I’m happy sometimes just doing two. I have done one, but it’s obviously very risky for all sorts of reasons. I like to do rehearsals and I hope that when actors arrive at a scene they feel confident. I clear the crew when the actors arrive, so they have total control of the set. Sometimes I might bring the cameraman in or the script supervisor or somebody like that if necessary. But basically it’s theirs. They can do what they want. I can suggest blocking and ways of staging the scene, but the best way is to have a plan but not to revert to it till you need to. The best things tend to happen on [shooting] day. The energy of the day itself, knowing this is your one chance at it, makes everybody different anyway.
Q: Do you set up the action and the actors and just keep the camera out of it? How intrusive do you want the camera to be?
A: It really depends on the material. Sometimes, you’ve just got to, as cleverly as possible, let the camera observe. But at other times you have to build the scene out to certain angles, which are very particular. It’s always difficult to explain, but you can feel the scene, that it should happen in a certain way. In that case you have to constantly try to illustrate it to people. Not by acting it yourself, but by showing them where you’re going to place the camera, so that they know it’s going to be beneath them and they’re going to be on top of it, or it’s distant, watching them through a crack in the door. It’s about expressing the feeling you have as a storyteller of how you want the scene to be conveyed.
And again, sometimes it’s healthy to do a number of takes where you have deliberate variation. Actors help to prep you for editing, giving you alternatives. When you start off your career you think there’s only one way of achieving anything, but when you get to work with really experienced actors, they’ll give emotional differences between scenes—hotter, cooler—so that you have choices in the editing. It’s been interesting with actors like Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet who I’ve just been working with on Steve Jobs. They’re brilliant at finding variation in multiple takes, rather than just doing the same thing again and again.
Q: Speaking of Steve Jobs, that’s another major about-turn for you. A biopic about a quintessential American character, with a script by Aaron Sorkin. Did you feel at all inhibited in the way you work?
A: Well, you wouldn’t want to mess around with it. It’s a wonderful script. I never read a script like it. It’s not pictorial storytelling; it’s essentially actors talking to one another. As it’s mainly dialogue, you have an enormous amount of freedom in one sense. In another sense you don’t, because it’s very clear what [Aaron] means. I guess the challenge was to find actors who could do it, really. And that’s what we set out to do. So it’s been exciting like nothing I’ve ever done before. Are we all minnows floundering in the Steve Jobs pool? I don’t know. I can’t tell you much more about it than that, other than it’s been an extraordinary kind of privilege to be able to do it.
Q: What kind of shooting style did you adapt for Steve Jobs? Did you use the West Wing style of walk-and-talk?
A: Actually we looked at Social Network more than West Wing. I was flabbergasted to discover how much of that movie was sitting down. A major motion picture where most of the cast is sitting most of the time and when they do stand it’s for significant reason. So we decided to make a film where if anyone sat down it had enormous significance. A standing-up movie. Funny, because Jobs loved to walk and talk. Technically doing that within the three buildings where the film takes place was an enormous challenge for sound and lighting, most especially sound as there are 200 pages of dazzling dialogue coming at you, and almost as many corners and staircases and blind alleys to block radio transmissions. [Our] real interest was not the clean and precise technology but the emotional hinterland of the characters—damaged by their own single mindedness—and whether they can be saved.
Q: You mentioned earlier about coming to the DGA to screen Shallow Grave. Later on, you won the DGA Award for Slumdog. How did that affect you?
A: It’s quite weird as a director how little you know other directors. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that. You think we should get together, but we don’t. So it’s a chance to get together in an informal way—and obviously it’s in lovely circumstances, because you’ve all been nominated. [At the nominees’ feature film symposium] when you’re answering questions, you realize everybody in that room knows exactly what you’re talking about. Having that community, and being able to speak to that community, is lovely, especially as you rattle on about all the technical stuff because you know it makes sense to them.
But the amazing thing is that the DGA Award is not just for direction; it’s actually for the whole directing team. It’s for the 1st AD and unit production manager, so actually the people who do a lot of the work get recognition. Normally when you do interviews if you talk about the fact it’s all teamwork, everybody’s eyes glaze over. But when you come to the DGA Awards, you bring your 1st AD with you. And in our circumstance on Slumdog, to be able to bring the guy who made all the difference in the world to the film; my 1st Raj Acharya, was wonderful. And to make that connection between Bollywood and Hollywood like that was a really special moment. Of all the awards, actually, it’s the one that you feel most strongly about, because you’re literally given it by the director who won last year. To get an award from the Coen brothers is like, holy shit!