Danny Boyle on blending Trance’s noir and heist elements with his own sensibility

Danny Boyle on blending Trance’s noir and heist elements with his own sensibility

Since Danny Boyle last talked to The A.V. Club in 2008, he’s won a Best Director Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, been nominated for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay for 127 Hours, and directed the massive spectacle of the Summer Olympics’ opening ceremony in London. While he’s had a fervent cult following since directing his first feature film, 1994’s Shallow Grave, and he expanded his fan base with Trainspotting and 28 Days Later (and had at-least-interesting missteps with other films, including Sunshine, The Beach, and A Life Less Ordinary), he’s tapped into a mainstream fandom over the past few years, while never lessening his penchant for flashy visuals and an ambitious, nervy directing style.

He brings both back to the table with Trance, a twisty thriller that starts with James McAvoy and Vincent Cassel working together to steal a valuable painting, which somehow goes missing during the heist. When McAvoy can’t remember what happened, Cassel employs hypnotist Rosario Dawson to plumb his subconscious, with unexpected results. Boyle recently talked with The A.V. Club about the original 2001 version of Trance, making his first film with a central female character, and once more working with screenwriter John Hodge, who also wrote Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, The Beach, and A Life Less Ordinary.

The A.V. Club: What’s the relationship between Trance and the 2001 TV version scripted by Joe Ahearne?

Danny Boyle: We made Shallow Grave, our first film. And I was sent this script by Joe Ahearne, a film script called Trance. I read it and I said, “Let’s start working on it, let’s do it.” And he said, “No, no, no, no. I want to direct it myself.” And I said, “That’s probably not a good idea, Joe, because it’s very difficult with your first movie to do something like this. People will try to change it.” And things like that. But he was adamant. So he went off and eventually made kind of a TV movie of it. And I could never forget the central premise, and it kept bugging me. So I started—with John Hodge, who wrote my early movies, like Shallow Grave—we started working on our own version of it, really. The central premise is the same, but it’s not really comparable. It wouldn’t really be fair to compare them, because Joe obviously made his for very little money. It’s a very small TV movie. We used it as a launching pad for our own story. There are a couple of scenes that are basically very similar, but otherwise, it’s very different. You probably wouldn’t even recognize it. 

AVC: Did you work with Ahearne at all on the new script? He has a screenwriting credit on this version.

DB: The version you see is very much John Hodge’s version. We credit Joe because it would be wrong not to, but it’s very much John Hodge’s version, for sure. 

AVC: You’ve worked with Hodge on so many projects. How has your working relationship developed over the course of making all these movies together?

DB: It’s interesting, because he started off as a doctor, so it was always like a hobby to him, writing. And then after the first couple of movies, he stopped being a doctor and became a professional screenwriter. And he’s become quite skilled at it, as you’d expect them to do, after getting more experience at it. When we started off, it was very much hit-and-miss with John. He couldn’t really rewrite, or think about a story differently, or things like that. It’s usually a two-year process when working on a script. And he’s become much more adept at that. A lot of screenwriters work for a number of different people, but we’ve been very lucky. We worked with him on this, and it was great, a very enjoyable experience to come back together on this one. We worked on the screenplay for a couple of years, and then we made the film, and we’re working on a couple of other projects with him as well.

AVC: What does he bring to a script that makes you want to work with him over and over?    

DB: Well it’s classic. Doctors do make very good writers, really. When he was a doctor, he was in accidents and emergencies, so they see the most extreme examples of our behaviors and our pain, and yet have to keep a slight distance from it. They can’t get pulled in. And that’s the writer thing—they’re able to look at the extremes of human behavior and note it.

And that’s what you do in movies: You take a kind of realistic base and stretch it as far as you can; you push the characters to extremes of behavior or drama. I think that’s what he has. And he has a wonderful sense of humor, as well. It’s a very dark sense of humor, really. The other thing he does, which I share with him, is, he enjoys playing with expectations. You take a genre or a genre element, and then you mess with it. We often say we take the genre element, and that’s the mothership that allows us to get to the mainstream world of cinema. And yet you’re radically redecorating the interior of the mothership, so you’re changing it to confirm expectations. Like, this one has several similarities to Shallow Grave, because it’s three characters who are not what they seem, really. You don’t know who to root for, if any of them, and yet you’re lured into thinking it’s one of them. James McAvoy seems like an okay guy at the beginning. He’s a narrator, he takes you through it. He has a sense of humor, and yet he turns out very differently. 

AVC: When you’re playing with archetypes—here, the heist movie, and the classic noir, and the femme fatale—do you go back and look at how classic movies use these ideas? Is there a research process or period?

DB: There is a research process, but one thing I’ve learned is, you have to be very careful. What we don’t do is try to make an homage to something, or indeed, update something. It’s more like, you take influences from films that are in your library. It’s not like you seek them out. You’ve seen them years ago, and maybe you rewatch them, and they’re kind of like the culture that is in you. It’s what you like and what you’re drawn to, and you try and use the essence of that, you know? So Shallow Grave was, some people say, ripped off from the first Coen brothers movie. It’s not really the same, but there’s a sensibility that is similar, if you like. So it’s often the sensibilities you are messing with a bit, so you hope it’s unrecognizable, because you don’t want anybody going in thinking, “Oh, this is a homage to Hitchcock,” or, “Oh, this is an update to noir.” There are noir-ish elements to it, but you want it to be a modern story more than anything. Its own thing, really.

AVC: You’ve done so much genre-jumping through the course of your career, and you’ve stated that you never want to do something twice. Do you have to fight for that? Hollywood generally wants people to reproduce their biggest hit over and over.

DB: Understandably, really. From a financier’s standpoint, you think, “If one thing works, why not do it again? We’ll know what we’re dealing with this time, and we’ll be able to sell it more precisely.” But I like going into something and not quite knowing how to do it. Because you have to discover it, and it becomes a proper journey, where you’re trying to figure out how to make the movie while you’re making it. So it results in the appearance of genre-hopping, but it’s not like, “How about a spy movie next?” or, “Right, it’s a musical next.” It’s not that deliberate. It tends to be that I’m drawn to stories or projects—sometimes scripts, sometimes books I want to adapt—that clearly don’t rely on the last one.

There’s a naïveté in filmmaking, which if you can protect it and sustain it, it’s really helpful. And that’s counterintuitive, because you imagine you become a better filmmaker as you get to better understand the techniques, etc. But I don’t necessarily think that’s the case. They might be better movies technically, but they’re not necessarily what will pull you in as an audience, I don’t think. That’s my own personal take on it. I like getting back to that feeling I had on my first film, where I genuinely didn’t know what I was doing, and I was lucky to get away with it, which I managed to do. And then I’m sort of looking for ways to re-create that innocence, really. It’s trying to avoid self-consciousness, I think, in the way I tell stories.  

AVC: You discussed something similar in a previous interview with us, about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone over and over. What are you doing with Trance that you haven’t done before? Is it a question of the context and the world, or more the story structure and how you tell it?

DB: It’s story structure, I think, because I’ve never done a movie with secrets. You know, with the classic, you chop up the narrative or whatever, and you tell it in a non-linear way, or you use motifs like the motifs in Trance, where you disguise the true chronological storytelling. I’d never done one of those before. And you do learn. We shot it while we were working on the [2012 Summer] Olympic Games, we didn’t edit it, because we had to go back to the Olympic Games and do that for six months. But when we came back after that six months to look at the movie, we had a rough cut of it, and I realized straight away that this was fortunate, because the distance of that six months had made me forget that draft a bit. So it was almost like viewing it as a first-time audience. I literally couldn’t remember what came next sometimes.

But I did realize we hadn’t given enough clues, we’d been too paranoid about giving it away. And one thing we learned about telling a story like that is, you have to allow clues to breathe. So in the audience, you may not totally assemble all the cues in real time, but part of that is knowing, “That’s a clue. I may not know what it means yet, but that’s a clue.” [Laughs.] “And if I go back and watch it a second time, I’ll understand what that clue is about.” So for instance, there’s a bit early on in the film where we introduce a motif of James tapping on a glass surface. That was only added at the end of the process. We deliberately dropped it in as a recurring motif, because it suggested, on some level, that James knew something was wrong. And the audience knows something is wrong, but they aren’t quite sure what it is yet. [Laughs.] But everything isn’t as it seems. He seems to be in a goldfish bowl, and he can’t quite perceive or hear, and he is trying to tap his way out of it, it seems. 

AVC: You’ve never made a film with such a central, active female character before. Did that affect your thinking ? Were there things you had to learn how to do that you hadn’t done before? 

DB: Yeah. If you really have to ask why we did this movie, for me, it was because we’d never had a woman in the engine room. And I really wanted to, and there aren’t many stories I’ve come across that have that. It’s the blight for actresses, because there just aren’t enough roles for them where they can dominate movies. So often, they play the second fiddle, or the sidekick, or the girlfriend, and we wanted something where she was the absolute engine room of the film.

And it’s interesting where it leads—you talked about genre. Through one element of the story, Rosario Dawson deliberately inhabits this femme-fatale character. She uses her sensuality, her allure, and her beauty to manipulate men. And yet it isn’t a straight-noir, femme-fatale movie, because you realize there’s real damage and emotion there, and she had something much more important to protect than greed. She was trying to save herself, in effect, from violence. And when he comes back into her life, which she knows he will, she doesn’t change addresses. She stays there. And he brings four violent men with him, and it’s insurmountable odds for her to overcome, and she becomes the secret hero of the story, in a way. And that connects with other films that are about a guy who has insurmountable odds and a journey to overcome, and somehow does get there. But in this case, you’re not sure who that is at the beginning. At the end, you might decide it’s her. 

AVC: You’ve included sex in your movies before, but you’ve never done anything this erotic or graphic in such a sustained way. What was that like for you as a director?  

DB: It was good, actually. I’ve done a bit—there was a bit in Trainspotting, and I’ve done onstage nudity. So I kind of know how to help actors through it. You have a smaller set, and you make sure everyone on set knows what they’re doing, and there’s no uncertainty. You have to be very careful when they’re vulnerable, and they’re naked, that nobody is faffing around, not knowing what to do. [Laughs.] You’ve got to be quite clear and know that it’ll be over as quickly as possible, because no one wants to be hanging around naked all day while you’re making up your mind about a shot or something.

And the rest of it is really casting. Because you have to have a sense of whether they have the confidence to present that side of themselves for the story. And we were always very clear, in particular with Rosario in this particular story, that it’s a plot element that’s absolutely crucial. There’s an intimate secret that the two characters share that is used as the ultimate trance to bring him to the place where she wants him. And it has a visual appeal, as you’d imagine, because she’s very beautiful, but it also has a narrative function in the story.