Far From Ordinary: A Danny Boyle Profile (Part 1)

Trevor Hogg profiles the career of Academy Award-winning British director Danny Boyle in the first of a two-part feature…

Danny Boyle“I come from a very ordinary, working class family in Manchester,” explained British filmmaker Danny Boyle. “It was a very strict Catholic family. I was an altar boy for eight years. I am supposed to be a priest; it was my mother’s fondest wish that I would become one.” The religious aspirations of the teenager were called into question by a man of the cloth. “I was going to transfer to a seminary near Wigan, but this priest, Father Conway, took me aside and said, ‘I don’t think you should go.’ Whether he was saving me from the priesthood or the priesthood from me, I don’t know. But quite soon after, I started to do drama. And there’s a real connection. All these directors – Martin Scorsese [The Departed], John Woo [Face/Off], [and] M. Night Shyamalan [The Sixth Sense] – they were all meant to be priests. There’s something very theatrical about it.”

Stepping into the theatre for the first time, the eighteen year old discovered his new vocation – a career in the arts. Boyle joined the Joint Stock Theatre Company dropping out of the University of Wales; he thrived in the new environment and eventually moved to the Royal Court Theatre Company based in London. The rising theatrical talent was made the Artistic Director from 1982 to 1985; he oversaw productions of Howard Benton’s The Genius and Edward Bond’s Saved, the latter resulting in his winning a coveted Time Out Award. Boyle, who was promoted to Deputy Directory in 1985, did not work exclusively for the theatrical organization; he also directed other stage productions such as The Pretenders and The Last Days of Don Juan for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Looking to expand his career horizons into the realm of television, Danny Boyle applied for the drama producer’s job with BBC Northern Ireland during the late 1980s. “Supposedly I was the only applicant from outside the region and they weren’t going to appoint inside the region for their own reasons – political, religious – so they appointed me,” recalled the Manchester native who transitioned from producing to directing for the acclaimed detective series Inspector Morse (ITV, 1987 – 2000) and the period miniseries Mr. Wroe’s Virgins (BBC, 1993).

Shallow GraveTeaming with the grandson of screenwriter Emeric Pressburger (The Red Shoes), producer Andrew Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland), and doctor-turned-writer John Hodge, Danny Boyle made his theatrical film debut with Shallow Grave (1994). Three friends turn fatally against one another when they discover that their dead flatmate has left behind a suitcase filled with money. Cast in the dark thriller are Kerry Fox (Bright Star), Christopher Eccleston (The Others), Ewan McGregor (Big Fish), Ken Stott (Charlie Wilson’s War), Keith Allen (The Good Night), and Colin McCredie (Taggart). “I was very lucky to get a really tight, 90-minute script,” stated the rookie director. “Because you kind of don’t know what you’re doing on your first movie and there’s something wonderful about that. You can never get back to that innocence. It’s a good thing to start with a thriller, because you’re not going to have a lot of money and thrillers don’t depend on a lot of money. I say sort of semi-controversially or provocatively, your first film is your best film, always, because it has that innocence about it, about not knowing what you’re doing.” Completing the $2.5 million production required some drastic measures. “We were literally selling furniture to pay for the film stock by the end.” Reflecting on the picture which grossed $3 million in the United States, Danny Boyle said, “It was very much like the film Wall Street [1987] and Gordon Gekko’s ‘Greed is good’ speech; Shallow Grave was very much influenced by that cynical self-interest.” Shallow Grave was lauded with the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film at the BAFTAs; Best British Actor (Ewan McGregor), Best British Film, Best Director at the Empire Awards; and the ALFS Award for British Newcomer of the Year (Danny Boyle) at the London Critics Circle Film Awards. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “All of the materials are in place for a film that might have pleased [George] Orwell. But somehow they never come together. One of the problems, I think is that all three conspirators are so unpleasant.”

TrainspottingShallow Grave looks dated, fashion-wise, but Trainspotting [1996] has an abiding style,” stated Danny Boyle of his cinematic adaptation of a cult novel about a drug user (Ewan McGregor) who attempts to break his heroin addiction thereby complicating his relationship with his friends and family. “Andrew Macdonald gave me Irvine Welsh’s book,” remembered John Hodge. “It was very good but it was hard to think how it could be a film. There’s no story; it’s a collection of anecdotes and short stories. The challenge was to make it a narrative without imposing too much structure.” The screenwriter came up with an appropriate solution. “Renton [McGregor] is the main voice, and I realized he would be the guide. I chose my favourite bits of the book, wrote down in what order they might appear, then that expanded into a script.” Asked about the most memorable moment in the British crime drama, Hodge replied, “My favourite scene is the one that has become famous, where Renton disappears down the toilet.” The notorious sequence left a lasting impression on the man behind the camera. “I remember shooting the loo scene very clearly,” recalled Danny Boyle. “Credit to the designer Kave Quinn and to Brian Tufano, the great cinematographer, because we did it without CGI. We did it the old fashioned way, like you would in the theatre, with the cut-away toilet. And the camera trick, the illusion, is that it’s a complete toilet. We were a bit stuck and then Brian said to Ewan, ‘Why don’t you just twist your feet round at the end and it’ll look like you’ve disappeared down the U-bend.’ That was all it took, a little twist; it clinched that scene and made it one everyone remembers.”

“What stands out in my memory now is that we had such a great cast,” enthused Boyle who worked with actors Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner (Black Hawk Down), Jonny Lee Miller (Hackers), Kevin McKidd (Kingdom of Heaven), Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty), Kelly Macdonald (Gosford Park), and Peter Mullan (Braveheart). “We took a risk making it extremely funny and extremely disturbing. One bashes against the next one. It’s very risky, but I love doing that.” The combination turned out to be potent mix as Trainspotting, which cost $3.5 million to make, grossed $16 million in America. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “The movie has been attacked as pro-drug and defended as anti-drug, but actually it is simply pragmatic. It knows that addiction leads to an unmanageable, exhausting, intensely uncomfortable daily routine, and it knows that only two things make it bearable: a supply of the drug of choice, and the understanding of fellow addicts.” Trainspotting received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay; while at the BAFTAs it won Best Adapted Screenplay and contended for the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film. The BAFTA Scotland Awards lauded the picture with Best Actor – Film (Ewan McGregor), and Best Feature Film as well as nominations for Best Actor – Film (Robert Carlyle), Best Actress – Film (Kelly Macdonald), and Best Writer. Along with the picture winning the trophy for Best British Film at the Empire Awards, Ewan McGregor won for Best British Actor, Danny Boyle was lauded with Best British Director, and Ewen Bremner was presented with the award for Best Debut.

Gaining the attention of Hollywood, Danny Boyle was given the opportunity to helm Alien: Resurrection (1997). “There was this great script by Josh Whedon [Serenity] – more like the first film – very psychological and quite sexual. I remember talking to Sigourney Weaver, and she said that’s why she wanted to do it,” recollected the director. “The studio really wanted something like the second Alien film – an action movie, for the crew to chase the alien and be chased by the alien.” Boyle felt the project was out of his league especially with the number of special effects so he chose to do a black comedy.

A Life Less Ordinary“Originally the script was set in France and Scotland, and we moved it, foolishly as it turned out, to Utah and Los Angeles,” stated Danny Boyle who worked once again with John Hodge and Andrew Macdonald on A Life Less Ordinary (1997). “I’ve always wanted to make popular movies and make the films appeal. And if you’re going to do that, you’re going to have to, at some point, embrace America. I think we should have made the film more extreme. The original script was intensely violent, I mean hideously violent, and I think in retrospect we should have kept it like that. But we thought that’s not compatible with the romance. But in fact, the clash of things is often the most interesting thing about films, where they clash together, where they’re not smooth, where they are inappropriate for each other.” Two angels sent to orchestrate a romance result in a fired cleaning man taking the daughter of his former boss hostage. Starring in the $12 million production which grossed $4 million in the U.S. are Ewan McGregor, Cameron Diaz (Gangs of New York), Holly Hunter (Broadcast News), Delroy Lindo (Get Shorty), Dan Hedaya (The Usual Suspects), Ian McNeice (The Black Dahlia), Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones), Tony Shalhoub (Men in Black), Ian Holm (Chariots of Fire), and Maury Chaykin (Dances with Wolves). Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “It’s a conventional movie that never convinces us that it needed to be made. Most films with angels depend more on supernatural intervention than character development, but in this case the film seems completely confused about the nature the intervention should take, and so are we.” The story was serialized as a full length comic strip and was novelized by screenwriter John Hodge. For his acting efforts Ewan McGregor won Best British Actor at the Empire Awards while the A Life Less Ordinary contended for Best Dance Sequence and Best Movie Song at the MTV Movie Awards.

Working on a feature movie which was to consist of three short films, Danny Boyle directed as his part of the contribution Alien Love Triangle (1999) a sci-fi comedy which stars Kenneth Branagh (Henry V), Courtney Cox (Scream), Alice Connor (A Knight’s Tale), and Heather Graham (From Hell). A Physics professor (Branagh), who perfects a teleportation device, discovers that his wife is not what she appears to be. The project was cancelled when the two other shorts, Mimic (1997) and Impostor (2001), were expanded into feature films.

The Beach“I could have used Ewan McGregor, but I wanted to branch out a bit and make the story a wider one by using Leo [DiCaprio],” remarked Danny Boyle of his cinematic adaptation of The Beach (2000) by author Alex Garland; the casting decision sparked an ongoing feud with the actor who starred in his first three pictures. “Boyle and his people didn’t treat me very well,” stated McGregor. “It wasn’t just about The Beach – it was that they were dishonest with me about it.” Boyle remains unapologetic. “Leo is an amazing movie star because he’s very director-oriented. When he commits to a project he just goes, ‘I’ll do whatever this guy wants.’” While filing a night scene in Phuket, Thailand, the director became keenly aware of the international celebrity status of his leading man. “I don’t know what’s it like being him, but I got a little sense of it and it was incredible. You had thousands of people lining the street and I was walking back with the actors to the start of the shot and every single person was looking at him.” During the principle photography, Danny Boyle had a near death experience on a reef when the tide turned, sending water churning around the production crew. “All of the camera equipment went overboard, and we were in the water, Leo, and everyone, and this incredibly heavy stuff was being hurled about on eight-foot waves,” remembered the horrified filmmaker. “All I remember thinking was, ‘I’m not going to see my kids again.’” Boyle and his crew were saved when a diver suggested that they swim out to sea rather than back to shore.

Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio) travels to Thailand and with the aid of a strange map seeks a legendary island paradise. Besides Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception), the $55 million production features Virginie Ledoyen (8 Women), Guillaume Canet (Last Night), Robert Carlyle, Daniel York (Doom), Patcharawan Patarakijjanon, and Tilda Swinton (I Am Love). “I collect books of photos of people so I always have something to refer to. Sometimes I stick pictures of actors in it, but often it’s just advertisements and magazine clips. I’d stuck a picture of a girl in a hotel lobby and when we got to France I asked the casting director if he knew anyone like the girl in the photo. He didn’t even have to think, he just said Virginie Ledoyen.” Boyle received no arguments from the originator of the tale in regards to the casting director’s recommendation. “Alex Garland said the most frightening thing was looking at Virginie [who portrays Francoise] and Guillaume Canet [who plays her boyfriend Etienne] because they looked exactly how he envisaged [the characters] when he wrote the book.” The director had some doubts about the role of Francoise. “I was a bit worried about how the idea of an unavailable French girl would translate to an American audience, but Leo told me Americans are no different from anyone else in the world; they can’t get enough of French girls.”

Danny Boyle Leonardo DiCaprioRegarding the issue of female nudity in the secluded island paradise, Danny Boyle stated, “We had a big discussion about topless women, as to whether breasts should be shown or not. In rehearsal, many of the actresses were topless. We thought the danger was that it would make the movie prurient and people would watch it for the wrong reasons. There was one big topless scene in the film, where all the women are bathing in the sea, but we ended up cutting it.” The adventure drama grossed $144 million worldwide. “It’s damn hard to find a rural film that captivates an audience, which is doubly ironic when you think the only reason we go to the movies is for escape,” observed the moviemaker who worked with screenwriter John Hodge. “The Beach was well done, though it had a lot of people pulling it in different directions,” remarked Hodge whose sentiments were echoed by film critic Roger Ebert in his Chicago Sun-Times movie review. “The Beach is a seriously confused film that makes three or four passes at being a better one and doesn’t complete any of them.” The movie contended for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival while the Razzie Awards nominated Leonardo DiCaprio for Worst Actor.

Heading back to television, Danny Boyle helmed two BBC television movies, Strumpet (2001) and Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise (2001), the latter earned Timothy Spall (The Damned United) a BAFTA TV Award nomination for Best Actor. Collaborating with novelist Alex Garland, the native of Manchester returned to the big screen with a zombie horror tale which spawned a sequel and a comic book series.

Continue to part two.

Read our review of Danny Boyle’s latest Academy Award-nominated film 127 Hours, along with a report from its screening at the London Film Festival 2010.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada. 

External resource for New York heroin addiction treatment.