English director Danny Boyle started out in theater in the early '80s and moved to television in the late '80s, but his first feature film, 1994's edgy, low-key thriller Shallow Grave, was the project that announced him as a nervy stylist deserving of a larger stage. He found that stage with his 1996 follow-up, Trainspotting, a terrifically giddy, gritty adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel about down-and-out Scottish heroin addicts. Trainspotting became a huge hit, in spite of criticism from the likes of Bob Dole, who claimed it glorified drug use; its multi-platinum soundtrack spawned a CD sequel, and it launched the international career of Ewan McGregor, whom Boyle had handed his first major film role with Shallow Grave.
Boyle, McGregor, and Shallow Grave/ Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodges worked together a third time for the messy, maligned, surreal 1997 romance A Life Less Ordinary, but after that film flopped, Hodges and Boyle left McGregor behind for their underrated adaptation of Alex Garland's novel The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. When The Beach failed at the box office as well, Boyle returned to Britain and shot a couple of smaller-scale digital-video films, Vacuuming Completely Nude In Paradise and Strumpet. But in 2002, he returned to the world stage with the kinetic, forceful DV zombie movie 28 Days Later, and this year, he follows it up with Millions, a charming family-friendly film about two young brothers who find a bag crammed with cash, and set out to spend it before the Euro conversion renders it all useless. Shortly before the Millions première, Boyle spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about working with kids, working with Ewan McGregor, and fantasy vs. realism in his films.
The Onion: Where did the idea for Millions originate?
Danny Boyle: The writer, Frank Cottrell Boyce, had written the script, and they'd toted it around London. I've learned, subsequently, that a lot of directors turned it down. I think I was a last resort, to be honest. I think either they thought I wasn't the right guy for the story, or that I would do something violent to it. But actually, I loved it, and I said immediately that I would like to do it. We met up and talked about it, and we started to change it, because it was a period film, originally–it was set in the '60s. So we kept the characters the same, but we updated it. In fact, when we finished, Frank told me that the only scene that remained from the original was the train robbery. But we'd no idea that we were changing it that much, because it was kind of creative updating, really. So we then raised the money to make it, and I was lucky, because 28 Days Later had been a hit, so you get credits, literally. I think whatever apprehensions people had about me making a film like that, or, more worryingly for them, I suppose, how you market a film like that, you're allowed to bypass them, because you've got credits, because you had a hit.
O: What's your personal role like when you collaborate closely with a screenwriter?
DB: I'm not a writer, and that's very much part of the process. I don't take over the script, in that sense. I try to inspire the writer to do something more with the premise than is there. We sort of work through the film beforehand, between the two of us, kind of living out bits of it and exploring it. We come up with ideas, some of which work, some of which don't. It's a two-way thing. I have to admit, "I'm not a writer, and whatever you do, you mustn't write what I say," because when they do that, it comes back disappointing. Meanwhile, the writer has to not be overly sensitive or precious about keeping stuff.
O: Millions has some themes in common with your other films, but it's tonally very different: much less aggressive and much more polished. Are you looking for a younger audience?
DB: No, not necessarily. In fact, ironically, it's the young who seek out my other films. I think when you hit your teens, the last thing you want to see are films about being a kid. All you want is the promised land: adulthood, which is just out of reach, still. I remember when I was a kid, sneaking into films, doing anything to get into films that were above my age certificate. So I don't think it's that kind of market that it's after, really. It might be after a more family experience. It's interesting and entertaining, hopefully, and as a family unit you can go see it, because there are lots of different things to relate to. But it's not knockabout like a kids' movie. It's funny, really–you have to think in marketing terms after you make a film, but then it's too late to change it. I just wanted to make something truthful and honest about this lad, and you hope that it resonates. But you have to live in hope rather than expectation, you know? Especially with a film like this, because it didn't cost a huge amount of money to make, and if it doesn't work, it's fine, because nobody's going to go home broke. So you don't have this pressure on it that's specific, that it has to work with this box, this market, or otherwise it's a catastrophe. It can seek out its market.
O: There's an old adage in show business about never working with animals or kids. How were your experiences with Millions' two child stars?
DB: The main thing is that you learn more about yourself than you learn about working with kids. Really, you learn what kind of director you are. I tend to repeat myself. I learned that right away. If they're interested, their brains are like sponges. They just go, "Got it! Why are you telling me that again?" You realize that you're probably overdirecting as well, because it's very easy to leave your thumbprints on them. That's not a pleasant sight, because it feels like they're plasticine, and you're manipulating them, whereas it's the fact they don't have thumbprints all over them that's what's fascinating about them. The older boy does, because he's already got one foot in the adult world, so you're beginning to see him stained by our obsessions and preoccupations. But the younger lad isn't.
O: Child actors tend to grow up very quickly because of the environment and the expectations. Does that worry you?
DB: Oh yeah, I was very worried about it, and still worried about it now. Part of me wants the film to be a big success, but part of me fears it becoming a success, from their point of view, because the world of glamour and success in films is impossible to resist. Yet you know that it will be immediately followed by a canyon of disinterest. It always happens. I am worried about it. We tried to prepare them for it; we treated them very much as equals when we were shooting, I was insistent on that. And yet I knew that inevitably, once we reached this stage, the poster would probably only feature one of them, because that's the main draw of the story. You have to prepare the older boy, Lewis [McGibbon], for that. You can see that that's going to hurt him, because I've already told him he's an equal, and then immediately I'm saying, "You're not an equal," or that's what it feels like. All you can do is try to prepare them for it. They're canny people as well; I think they know a bit about what the world's about. But it's hard.
O: You obviously weren't a child when you directed your first films, but you went through a similar early-career boom of success. Do you feel that Trainspotting's immense popularity warped your expectations for the rest of your career?
DB: Absolutely, yeah. You've got to be honest about it. In the British arts, we tend to be quite careful about getting too overexcited about things, but you can't help but do it. So when your follow-ups don't work as well, it's very difficult, it's very painful. But it's also very important that everything's organic, everything feeds off everything else. I know 28 Days Later wouldn't have worked if I hadn't made The Beach and A Life Less Ordinary before it. So it all works like that, they feed off each other.
O: In what ways?
DB: It's what you learn. You react to things, you build on things. You think, "I'm not going to do that again." You change things. It's like they say, if you change the first scene of a movie, the whole movie changes. If you change one cut of a movie, the whole movie changes, straightaway. It's an amazing, organic thing. It's not set in stone. And I think your career is like that, as well. We tried to stay true to originating the material ourselves. All the building blocks that films are based on, you try to keep control of, and you hope that will make the films feel genuine and honest, no matter what kind of genre they're actually in. I want people to trust the films as being honest depictions of what the story is and what the world is that they're looking at. That doesn't mean that they're documentaries or realism, because I'm a big fan of the fantasy element, of exploding the cinematic world a bit, but I still want the overall thrust to be truthful.
O: All of your films do have that touch of visual whimsy. What's the relationship for you between fantasy and realism in a film?
DB: It's an energy level. I want the whole world to have a sort of energy, and I want it to be like a geyser, that it explodes occasionally, just erupts. Sometimes people find that a distraction, because the diet tends to be realism, but I think it actually reinforces your immersion–in the character, especially, in his or her world. And it's the same thing as a nightmare, of course, and they always work in movies. A fantastical daydream is always more difficult to make work. But the nightmare usually does work. I love to have both those things in a film.
O: Your more conventional films have been criticized for not having as much of a fantastical bent as some of your work, but you also take flak for being unconventional. Which criticism would you rather hear?
DB: I always wanted to make mainstream films that appeal to as many people as possible, but are as difficult as possible within that. I don't want to make art films, which by their nature exclude people. I always wanted them to be accessible to everyone–not that everyone would want to see them, not that they'll appeal to everyone, but I do want them to feel like nobody's excluded. But within that, I want to make them as interesting, different, and unusual as possible. So it's a tension that's running the whole time between those two things, what you can get away with in a movie that can be played to everyone.
O: Do you worry about maintaining a consistent tone in a film that combines fantastic and realistic elements?
DB: I think the big thing is you don't, really. You kind of just go for it. Because I think if you start worrying about tone too much, you don't take those risks. And it's in those risks that I think it gets really interesting. I wanted to take a risk in Millions by having saints appear to Damian, so that it's there, visually, for you. And that is a risk, really. It's the same with the baby on the ceiling in Trainspotting. I was desperate. I thought that was crucial to the whole film. People said, "Don't do it. We haven't got the money. It'll look shit. It'll look terrible." And it does look terrible. [Laughs.] But it's fine. I think you buy into that and accept it. In The Beach, Richard becomes a kind of cartoon character at one point, marching like he's in a video game. And people really hated that. We had all sorts of test screenings where they hated that. But I didn't change that, because I thought, "This is where you have to push out like that." And it's precisely that where you aren't trying to control the tone. That you kind of flex, and sometimes people love it, and sometimes people hate it. But if you start controlling the tone, you'll start excluding things that would have worked, which would have been wonderful. So it's a risk, really. But I want to make it as vivid as possible, so that you are mesmerized by it on the screen and that you're not cool and distant from it, because it's got a lovely tone and you can assess it. I want you to feel a bit overwhelmed, ideally. So that it's like you can't resist it, or you can't make your mind up about it until afterwards. I like that feeling, personally.
O: Trainspotting is often credited as the film that made Ewan McGregor a star, but you also gave him his first major film role with Shallow Grave, and worked with him again in A Life Less Ordinary. Do you also feel that you left your thumbprints on him as an actor?
DB: You do, obviously, when you do some films with someone. But I don't think you really affect them as actors. I think they're on their trajectory, and they make some good choices and some bad choices, like everybody does. I do think when we didn't cast him in The Beach, he was very hurt. He got a surge from that, I think. Good for him, really, basically going out to prove us wrong. We weren't trying to prove anything against him. It was just a financial thing to do with the cost of the movie, and things like that. But he's gone on to–he'll be opening in Star Wars for the third time, so I'm sure he's–I'm sure he's proud of the work we did together, but I don't know whether I have any lasting influence over him.
O: When you say casting Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach instead of Ewan was "a financial thing," do you mean it was something you were pushed toward by investors?
DB: No. We made the decision, but we do budget the movie. You find out how much it costs. Then you find out what you can raise from people, what people will give you to actually make that film. It's an absolute economic equation. There's no saying, "Leo's a better actor than Ewan, or Ewan's a better actor than Leo," or anything like that. It's just based on economic exposure, really, of that actor. It's not just America. You're not just talking about America or Britain, where they are probably opposites. Ewan was, at times, probably bigger than Leo in Britain, and Leo was certainly bigger than Ewan in America. It's about all the other markets as well, all the other markets around the world.
O: Was working with someone at Leonardo DiCaprio's star level a significantly different experience for you in any way?
DB: Only in some of the incidentals, like the adoration. If you are doing street scenes, it's very difficult, because there would be just mobs of people. Particularly at that time–it was after Titanic, and we were in the Far East, in Thailand. The film was ginormous there. So the number of people who wanted to just be able to see him–that's a pretty freaky thing. When you're walking down the street with him during a setup for a street scene, and there are thousands of people just staring at the person next to you… If attention could have evaporated him, he would have evaporated. Because it's unblinking staring, like he's unreal, like he's Jesus or something. It's just incredible.
O: What's it like trying to maintain equanimity toward someone when you're seeing people around you react to him that way?
DB: He's a smashing guy, so you don't have any, there's no problem like that. He's just interested in the work. The problem that affected me, frankly, was some of the other actors. Some of the other actors, particularly the Thai actors, were just–I'd auditioned them myself, and they… [Laughs.] They were very confident people. And they got in the room with him, and they're like jelly. There was nothing I could do with some of them. One scene, in fact, I had to ask Leo to leave, and I shot the scene without him there. Because the guy just couldn't even put two words together. You accept that at first, but all day? So it affects that more than anything, I think.
O: You said very early in this conversation that by the time the marketers get a film, it's too late to change it. But 28 Days Later ended up with a different ending because of audience testing. What influenced you to bow to the feedback in that case, when you were vehemently against doing so with The Beach?
DB: It wasn't so much the audience-feedback cards on 28 Days Later, because we'd made the film for so little money. If you spend a lot of money on a film, you have to obey the cards, what people say, because that's the economic equation with the studio. With 28 Days Later, it was more the effect of the film on the audience. The good thing about test screenings is that you get a chance to feel the film with an audience. Once the film's over, they immediately become less and less use. So if filling in the cards takes 10 minutes, and the focus group afterward takes another 20 minutes, [the responses are] getting less and less useful every minute that passes. Because the people that are talking are becoming self-conscious of what they're doing, of what they're there for. But while they're watching the film, if the film's working, you can feel them getting caught up in it, and you can feel when they're confused. You can feel when they're lost. You can feel when you can exploit the situation more, or you should exploit it less. So it's very useful from that point of view. I personally wouldn't make a change that's influenced by that, by the cards. I would make a change that's influenced by my feeling as I watch the film with an audience. The good thing about test screenings is, it gives you a chance to do it before you finish the film. The changes in 28 Days Later were very much based on that.
We had too many screenings of The Beach. One of the problems with editing is that you lose sight of what you're doing sometimes. It's especially true if you have too many screenings. So many people with so many opinions of how it went. Then there's all the cards, which you sort of ignore, really. Unless there's something obvious in the cards that they're telling you. If you're asking for a confusing moment, and the cards say, "We didn't know who the girl was. We didn't know the girl's name," and that comes up on every card, then you should make sure you plot in the name earlier or louder or whatever. But it's more valuable to react to the people. Incidentally, as far as I can tell, all the films that I've done have scored virtually the same. All of them have been roughly the same in their scores, which is amazing.
O: Does that indicate a consistency in your style or your audience?
DB: I think that those kind of films, they're not full-on mainstream films, which are big-scoring because they rally the audience. There is an element of that in them, but there's also difficulties involved as well. So they tend to end up as they've all ended up, below what would be ideal. Be it with Leo or not, be it with the first film or this film. They of all ended up at about the same level. So you think, "What is the point of having test screenings? Because I could predict this for you." Before we showed Millions, I thought, "I'll bet the score is exactly the same as the last one." They were. They were exactly the same.
O: You've mentioned the "difficult" nature of your films a couple of times now. Are you trying to challenge your viewers to think?
DB: Yeah, a bit. You make a film about drug addicts that isn't a kind of cold condemnation. It's a kind of hot experience you have to get involved in. That's not something you can stay away from and morally condemn the people, which is usually what happens in those kinds of films. You're always trying to do that, and throw up ideas that connect some way with what's out there. Try and make the films as contemporary as possible so that they always feel like they're up to date, like they're now. And that it's what it's like to be alive now. That's really what they're about.
O: What's your next project?
DB: We're doing a film called Sunshine, which is a sci-fi film set in space on the way to the sun. This mission is flying a massive bomb to ignite or re-ignite a section of the sun that is failing. The bomb has been built in space in orbit around the Earth, so there's no weight restrictions on it–it's like the size of Kansas. But the story is really about a mission that went earlier, on the same journey with a similar sized bomb, and it failed, or they've never heard from it again. So there's a mystery involved.
O: Your films tend to follow a theme of lower-class people with upper-class dreams, trying to escape their situations. Is Sunshine the radical departure it sounds like?
DB: I don't know yet, to be honest. Sometimes the themes emerge as you're making the film. It's the story that you're concentrating on, and sometimes they're locked in there, and you think they'll always be there. Sometimes they'll get jettisoned by the story taking a different turn. It's difficult to know. I'm not sure, to be honest, certainly in regards to the new film. I'll let you know about that later.
O: You've said in other interviews that you're not a big fan of storyboarding, that you like the freedom to improvise a little in shooting. What do you get out of that method that you'd miss otherwise?
DB: It's not improvising in terms of dialogue. I don't do improvising in terms of dialogue. We tend to work a lot on the script beforehand in almost every way we can–acting out bits of it, filming bits of it. Then once you start principal photography, you stick to the script. Having said that, the ideal way for me personally is to have a plan in mind that you share with people. But that's plan B. Plan A is actually just to turn up on the day and make it up. So we always start the day with a rehearsal of the actors. And again, this is this organic thing–if their mom has died the night before, or god forbid, something terrible has happened to them, they are a completely different person than if you had shot the scene a week earlier. And that's going to affect the minutiae of the scene. It certainly affects their creativity. So you sort of make it up on the day.
It's very alarming for people. Because often you're asking for things, technical equipment, because you want to shoot it in a particular way that has to be ordered in advance and they can't get. So it keeps people on their toes, you know? It's impossible to do, to be honest, on a big film with a lot of money. Because there are so many people working on those films. They all have to have a memo telling them what's happening. Then, if you depart from that memo, it's just chaos. Whereas on a smaller, more family-sized film, you can kind of manipulate people to think it's a good idea that you're going to change, that you're going to do something different than plan B. That's what I get out of it. That's what I like doing as much as possible. You have your best ideas, to be absolutely honest, not in advance, but on the day. You walk in, and for some reason–maybe it's because the pressure's on you–you know if you don't make this decision a good one, the whole scene, the whole day could be wasted. I think that's when you make your best decisions, really.
O: How does a pre-prepared special-effects sequence, like the video-game scene from The Beach, or the house-building segment from Millions, affect that flow?
DB: It does a bit, really. There's only, we haven't done that much of it. When we use CG, it tends to be self-contained. It tends to be a particular sequence. The house scene in Millions was a big collaboration of many, many different techniques and live footage, some CG, some scale models, and some wonderful stop-frame animation and stop-frame photography. I loved putting that together. I don't know why. Because normally, a technical sequence like that, I don't really understand in my blood, you know?
O: You've done several digital-video features in recent years, including 28 Days Later and Vacuuming Completely Nude In Paradise. How does that medium affect your work?
DB: It's so lightweight and easygoing that it takes away some of the mystique of cinema. There's good things and bad things about that. The first thing it does is, it breaks down the slightly reverential attitude of the camera crew. It's not that you have a battle with camera crews, but there's sometimes an attitude where they think, "Well, we've done this before. This is the way we do it." That's because they're shooting movies every day, whereas you're shooting one every two years. It helps to break that down. Because you can just buy a camera and walk in with it yourself. There's also a liberation for the actors. You don't have to keep switching the camera on and off. You can just leave it running. The cost space of them is so low. You can set up a scene, and in the conventional way, you would shoot one way, then strip it down and then shoot another way. [With digital video], you can set up a scene where you spend half the day hiding the cameras in position, then let the actors get on with it. You can either tell them where the cameras are, or not. But you can also have the same discipline of a feature-film shoot, where you're setting up particular shots to get particular effects with particular lighting.
Digital video is very good for stunts. Normally, unless you're working at the level Ridley Scott's working at, where for a big stunt he can have 12 movie cameras–on the kind of films we do, if you have a big stunt, you can really only afford three cameras. Whereas with digital, you can have 20. That's how we did the deserted London scenes in 28 Days Later, where we could only stop the traffic for a minute at a time. In that minute, you shoot five or six different angles, and it allows you to cut it so that it feels like the scene is taking a long time.
I do think that however you disguise it, the audience is still aware that there's a loss of quality about digital video. You certainly could not shoot a Jane Austen period film like Sense And Sensibility or Pride And Prejudice on digital video. It would seem wrong. It would seem dislocating. Because it's very urban. It feels very urban and modern-technology. It's a bit decayed-looking, quality-wise. It doesn't have the lusciousness of film. It doesn't have the richness of colors of film. That's why we used film on Millions, because we wanted the colors to be as vivid as the boy's imagination.
O: How did the look of 28 Days Later evolve? How much of it was preplanned, and how much of it was developed in production, as you saw what the cameras could do?
DB: Some of it was preplanned. I kind of experimented to try and find a look. I'd explored this menu in the camera, and found this shutter effect. For everything about the zombies, I wanted to use that. I wanted them to move quickly, for their movement to be unreliably recorded, so that you weren't quite sure how quickly they were coming, and to give it a sense of panic. That affected everything that we did. I found that first, and then it affected the way that we built up the movement on them. We then developed movements that were very jerky anyway, so that camera or the shutter speed snatches at the information. It's unreliable. It's not confident, and that makes you also feel a bit insecure. And that was ideal for the kind of story.
O: Some early reviews have compared Millions with your first film, Shallow Grave. There are a few plot similarities, but did you intend thematic similarities as well?
DB: It's only the bag of money, really. There are a couple of things, like the guy waiting in the ceiling, which I suppose is similar. But when we did Shallow Grave, that was very much part of the country at the time. Britain felt very corrupt. But not like a Latin American corrupt state. It was like open, almost sanctioned corruption. There was an MP, one of our members of parliament, accused of taking a huge wad of money from an Arab in order to ask particular questions in Parliament, and this guy was almost proud of it. And there were these soccer managers who were also taking money, backhand money, to buy certain players. It was almost like people were saying, "What's wrong with this?" Margaret Thatcher kind of instigated it, although she was out of power by then. It was her successor then that was in charge. It was the Gordon Gekko "Greed is good," the Wall Street movie speech. It was that feeling of, "It's good to let individual people do whatever they want, because the ultimate wealth will benefit everybody." That kind of feeling. That's why we made the film about this bag of money and about what it does to people, what it does to those three individuals. Whereas Millions felt like we were in a different era, because since then, we'd elected a Labour government, and whatever its shortcomings, it has tried to reintroduce a sense of public pride in public service, and it's put money in schools and hospitals. It's tried to reintroduce the idea of a common good, rather than individual good. So it felt like a very different context for that bag-of-money trick. Because it is a trick, to get things going, for characters to pounce on. So I wasn't too worried about that, no. Although I can understand. People say it's Shallow Grave for kids. Because people just do things like that. There's nothing you can do about that.
O: What's the current status of the adaptation of Porno, Irvine Welsh's sequel to Trainspotting?
DB: Just waiting, really, for the actors to get a bit older-looking. They don't age very quickly, actors. They all moisturize and use masseurs. They all look after themselves. Even though they want to give you the impression that they're out at night in clubs, they're not. They're tucked up in bed with their face-masks on. So we wanted to wait until we felt like these guys that we looked at in their early 20s were now in their mid-40s. It wasn't makeup, we didn't want to try to do it through that. We want to do it through natural aging. Because then all the ingredients you get are really rich, because the actors have aged. Who knows how they'll have done over their careers? The characters have aged, obviously, in the fiction. But also, the audience would probably consist of people who had seen Trainspotting when they were in their 20s too. We would try to lure them back to the cinema. You know, because your cinema-going attendance drops off as you get older. We'd lure them back to the cinema, and they would contribute to it as well, because they also would age that amount of years. So it's probably going to take us another 10 years before we could do it, I think. So who knows where we'll all be then and what we'd all be doing. But that would be the idea.
O: Would you be interested in doing it if you couldn't get all the original cast members?
DB: I don't think so. You never know, but I don't think so. I think we'd want to try and stick with all the original cast members. We'd want to set it up in a way we set up the first film, revisiting that territory. We'd want to make it democratically, like we made the first one, where everyone was equal.