Trevor Hogg profiles the career of Academy Award-winning British director Danny Boyle in the second of a two part feature... read part one here.
“I like extreme films, where you put somebody in the most extreme circumstances you can imagine and see what they can do with it,” explained Manchester-born director Danny Boyle who expanded the opening two lines of a zombie horror script into a dramatic twenty-minute sequence. “A guy wakes up in a hospital and there’s not a single person in the whole city. What a great starting point for a film.” 28 Days Later (2002) follows a small group of survivors trying to find a safe haven four weeks after a mysterious virus spreads throughout the United Kingdom. The $8 million production written by novelist Alex Garland (The Beach) stars Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins), Naomie Harris (Miami Vice), Christopher Eccleston (Elizabeth), Noah Huntley (Event Horizon), Brendan Gleeson (Green Zone), Megan Burns (Liam), Justin Hackney (The Descent), Toby Sedgwick (Safe Conduct) and David Schneider (A Knight’s Tale). Filming desolate landmarks such as Westminster Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, Horse Guards Parade, and Oxford Streets were achieved by closing sections of a street for minutes at a time during the early morning. “He is a big zombie fan,” said Boyle of his screenwriter Garland. “Alex is obsessed with them and I’m not; that’s a good balance to have.” The British moviemaker sheepishly admitted, “There are certain things we did that I didn’t even realize were complete steals from [George] Romero [Night of the Living Dead].”
“It was wonderful to work on digital,” stated Danny Boyle. “I’m very proud of the fact that’s the first proper widely-distributed release on digital, and on a very inferior digital format. It suited the guerrilla nature of the story and that was cool, doing it like that. I began to learn how to contradict film culture just in the way films are made. I got much more into doing it in what you would call an unprofessional way. I’m not a big fan of the tautly professional films that do things ‘the right way.’” Grossing $83 million worldwide, 28 Days Later proved to be so popular that the picture was re-released months after its initial run with an alternative ending. On the awards circuit, the fifth theatrical feature helmed by Boyle won the Saturn Award for Best Horror Film as well as nominations for Best Director and Best Writing at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films; the British Independent Awards nominated it for Best Achievement in Production, Best Director and Best British Independent Film. 28 Days Later was lauded with Best British Film, and received a nomination for Best Newcomer (Cillian Murphy) at the Empire Awards while the MTV Movie Awards and Irish Film and Television Awards respectively nominated Cillian Murphy for Breakthrough Male Performance and Best Actor in a Film. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote “28 Days Later is a tough, smart ingenious movie that leads its characters into situations where everything depends on their [and our] understanding of human nature.” The DVD for the film includes three alternative endings. A sequel was released called 28 Weeks Later (2007) as well as a comic book series called 28 Days Later: The Aftermath (2009) which bridges the gap between the two stories.
“It felt very personal, even though it’s not a script I wrote,” remarked Danny Boyle when recounting the origins of Millions (2004). A young boy who has visions of various Catholic saints discovers a mysterious bag filled with money. “All the iconography of the saints in Millions is very familiar to me,” stated the director. “We wanted the saints to have personality; we didn’t want them to be pious or sacred or sanctimonious.” Boyle added, “The spiritual message of the film…has more to do with having faith in people and that goodness can come out of that.” Performing along with James Nesbitt (Bloody Sunday), Daisy Donovan (Death at a Funeral), Christopher Fulford (Scoop), Pearce Quigley (The House of Mirth) and Jane Hogarth (Married 2 Malcolm) are child actors Alex Etel (The Water Horse) and Lewis McGibbon. “You can’t force them to say things the way you want them to be said,” remarked the filmmaker on how he worked with Etel and McGibbon. “You have to let it emerge from them.” The British comedy-drama which earned $12 million worldwide was crafted for mass appeal. “I wanted it to be seen by as many people as possible because I am very proud of it.” At the British Independent Film Awards, Millions won Best Screenplay and received a nomination for Most Promising Newcomer (Alex Etel); while the British Film Critics Association Awards nominated Alex Etel for Best Young Actor. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “It’s a film about real ideas, real issues and real kids. It’s not sanitized brainless eye candy. Like all great family movies, it plays equally well for adults.”
“What interested me was the idea that it could get to a point when the entire planet’s survival rests on the shoulders of one man and what that would do to his head,” said Alex Garland who wrote the screenplay for Sunshine (2007) which stars Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne (Knowing), Chris Evans (The Losers), Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai), Benedict Wong (Dirty Pretty Things), Troy Garity (Bandits), Mark Strong (The Way Back), and Cliff Curtis (Whale Rider). A group of astronauts are sent to re-ignite the dying sun. “It’s funny, most directors only ever seem to make one space movie,” contemplated Danny Boyle when he first agreed to direct the sci-fi picture. “And then you make one and you know why: they are merciless, the demands on you. More than any other genre, it’s really narrow. Your options as a storyteller are incredibly limited, plus you’ve got these technical limitations you’ve got to get right, every detail – how your shoelace behaves in weightless conditions, how your hair behaves. The precision you have to bring is migraine-inducing, and the patience you have to have while you wait for CG [computer graphics].”
Asked how he determined the cinematic colour scheme for the story, the director replied, “The classic look is the James Cameron-Ridley Scott blue/gray/steel look. That’s the diet everyone expects to be fed in a science fiction movie. We deliberately didn’t have anything inside the ship apart from the carrots that were orange or gold. So, when you went outside, it was shocking to have this colour again. It was like going to colour from black and white.” Boyle referenced a number of classic films when making Sunshine. “The three big ones are 2001 , the first Alien  film, and Tarkovsky’s Solaris .” A German World War II submarine tale directed by Wolfgang Petersen (In the Line of Fire) also had a major impact on the British moviemaker. “The obvious thing was to try and make it like Das Boot , the classic claustrophobia film.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “The interactions are the weakest elements in Sunshine, which is strongest when it focuses on the sheer enormity of the mission and its consequences.” The $40 million production grossed $32 million worldwide and was nominated for the Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films; at the British Independent Film Awards it won for Best Production Design and received a nomination for Best Actor (Cillian Murphy). Empire Awards nominated Sunshine for Best British Film and Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Film while Cillian Murphy was nominated for Best Actor in a Film by the Irish Film and Television Awards. As for Danny Boyle, he competed for British Director of the Year at the London Critics Circle Film Awards.
“The Beach  was a very interesting stepping stone for me to Slumdog Millionaire , because we went to Thailand and we took a huge crew from the West,” revealed Danny Boyle. “When you take a crew like that, you are an invading army. There is no other way you can be seen by the local population. You are this huge, brute force with big elbows coming in. It didn’t suit me, that. And it was compounded by the fact that the characters, I didn’t get to know them for some reason. I’m a city boy and I find myself making a film about paradise hippies. I tried to shift the film to be more about what Thai people thought of them, but you can’t do that with a $55 million film. It’s a huge oil tanker, you can’t move it around. It just goes steadily on its way. So when I made Slumdog, I took 10 people because I didn’t want to have that role of the invading army again.”
Based on the novel Q & A by Indian author and diplomat Vikas Swarup, Slumdog Millionaire stars Dav Patel (The Last Airbender), Freida Pinto (Rise of the Apes), Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor (Taal), Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Tanay Chheda (My Name Is Khan), Irfan Khan (The Warrior), and Rubina Ali (Bollywood Hero). In an effort to find his lost love, a young man from the slums of Mumbai becomes a contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? “In the book, the spine of the story is the [game] show, whereas in this it’s the love story because that’s his real agenda,” said Danny Boyle who conducted the principle photography for the $15 million production in India. “I was determined to make the film in real places because otherwise how was I going to understand or recreate it as a Westerner?” The country left a lasting impression on the director. “You leave India, but it never leaves you. It’s an extraordinary place and you learn about yourself as a person and as a filmmaker. It’s an incredibly generous place and it’s an incredibly contradictory place. And these contradictions are on a viciously extreme scale: the poverty and the wealth, the nuclear status — no toilets. Half the population of Mumbai have no toilets. I was trying to capture some of that, really, and we did it by some extreme storytelling. People say, ‘How can you go from the deliberate maiming of a child to a big Bollywood song and dance in the end?” Well, you don’t try to smooth the path from one to the other. I was trying to put all the elements into the film that belong to the city, that are a part of that city.”
“They tend to film in studios because the crowds get out of hand with the movie stars there,” said Danny Boyle. “We were lucky because none of our actors were known apart from Anil Kapoor who plays the host of the show.” Boyle contrasted the project to his previous cinematic efforts. “A lot of people compared it to Trainspotting  for obvious reasons – there’s a toilet scene, there’s an energy in it.” There is another film of his that comes to mind for the director. “There’s also a fantastical, slightly irrational element to it as well, which we didn’t get quite right in A Life Less Ordinary .” Producer Andrew Macdonald marvels at the creative flexibility of his frequent collaborator. “Boyle takes a subject that you’ve often seen portrayed realistically, in a politically correct way, whether it’s junkies or slum orphans, and he has managed to make it realistic but also incredibly uplifting.” Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), who visited India while conducted research for the script, said, “I wanted to get [across] the sense of the huge amount of fun, laughter, chat, and sense of community that is in these slums. What you pick up is a mass of energy.” A Hollywood Studio had major doubts about the drama. “We had this disaster in post [production] when Warner Bros. abandoned the film, they closed Warner Independent.” A savior was found in Fox Searchlight which agreed to release the picture which won the admiration of Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times who wrote, “Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire hits the ground running. This is a breathless, exciting story, heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time, about a Mumbai orphan who rises from rags to riches on the strength of his lively intelligence.”
Earning $378 million dollars worldwide, Slumdog Millionaire caused Danny Boyle to become one of seven directors to win a Golden Globe, a Directors Guild of America Award, a BAFTA Award and an Oscar for the same movie. At the Academy Awards, the cinematic adaptation won Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Sound, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay; it received a nomination for Best Sound Editing as well as a second nomination for Best Original Song. The BAFTAs lauded Slumdog Millionaire with Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Film, Best Music, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Sound as well as nominations for Best Actor (Dev Patel), Best Production Design, Best Supporting Actress (Freida Pinto), and Best British Film. British Independent Film Awards presented the drama with Best Director, and Most Promising Newcomer (Dev Patel) while handing out nominations for Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Most Promising Newcomer (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar); at the Golden Globes it won Best Director, Best Picture – Dramatic, Best Original Score and Best Screenplay. Slumdog Millionaire was presented with British Director of the Year, British Film of the Year, and Screenwriter of the Year while contending for British Actor of the Year (Dev Patel), and Director of the Year at the London Critics Circle Film Awards; the Young Artist Awards lauded it with Outstanding International Feature Film Ensemble. Danny Boyle was presented with the Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking Award at the 2008 Austin Film Festival; at the same event, Slumgdog Millionaire was named the Audience Award winner.
“What you do is take the power it gives you…and use it to make a film that you believe in,” explained Danny Boyle who was riding a wave of international acclaim. “The danger is that you use it on a vanity project that nobody wants to watch.” The director returned to a project he had been trying to make since 2006, a cinematic adaptation of the autobiography Between a Rock and a Hard Place by mountain climber Aron Ralston who was trapped underneath a boulder for five days until he resorted to a drastic measure to free himself. “[Ralston] wanted to narrate it and be interviewed like in a documentary,” stated Boyle of his initial attempt to film 127 Hours (2010). “The problem is that if you turn it into a documentary you’ll be able to control it and it will be absolutely accurate but the audience won’t feel it other than as a spectator.” Boyle wanted to turn the story into a first-person drama. “The power you get from telling stories with skilled actors is phenomenal; it’s transformational and cathartic.”
“James [Franco] wasn’t an obvious choice,” admitted Danny Boyle who originally planned to select Cillian Murphy as his leading man, “but when he read the script you could hear that he could do it. So we cast him.” To get a better sense of what Aron Ralston went through, the director and Franco watched the actual video messages created by Ralston while he was trapped; the footage had a profound affect on them. “I thought this would be a man on the edge breaking down and crying.” Boyle found himself to be greatly mistaken. “Just what was in his eyes; he was trying to be himself and yet there was this slow inexorable agenda of death going on.” Close attention was paid to recreating the moment when Raltson amputates his trapped arm, using a blunt knife and the weight of the boulder. “I remember reading the chapter and I thought – we’ve got to do it very accurately. We got to reflect the fact that it’s not instant, in reality it took him over forty minutes.” The filmmaker did not regret his casting decision. “What happens in the scene itself is that he occupies these plateaus of pain so brilliantly…that people imagine it’s the sound effects that are [putting them] on the edge – and they obviously contribute to it. But the real issue is that it’s an extraordinary performance by Franco.” The sequence made headlines in the media. “What is astonishing, we did have a few people fainting, early on, but more importantly I don’t remember anyone walking out.” Boyle is quick to point out that the reporting of the fainting incidents was not part of a studio promotional campaign. “Fox Searchlight would have loved to have had the power the studios used to have where they could kill the story. But you can’t now, there are tweeters in the room! It’s out before the paramedics even get there.”
Though James Franco (Howl) spends most of the screen time by himself, other actors in the biopic are Amber Tamblyn (The Ring), Kate Mara (Transsiberian), Sean Bott (Heber Holiday), Treat Williams (Deep Rising), Kate Burton (Stay), and Lizzy Caplan (Mean Girls). “As a director, you like having a real story because that’s what makes it more powerful,” said Danny Boyle. “But it’s also hard because you know you’re dealing with someone’s life.” The director snuck Aron Raltson into the first test screening, “It was incredibly intense. When he cuts his arm off, this being America, they cheered…I looked across at Aron and the tears were pouring down his face. He said what he found hard to cope with was the weird mixture of distance, watching it on the screen, and then sudden engagement, where he gets overwhelmed with it all again.” Aron Ralston was pleased with the cinematic treatment of his story; he remarked, "The movie is so factually accurate it is as close to a documentary as you can get and still be a drama." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “Franco does a good job of suggesting two aspects of Ralston’s character. (1) He’s a cocky, bold adventurer who trusts his skills and likes taking chances, and (2) he’s logical and bloody-minded enough to cut through his own skin and bone to save his life. One aspect gets him into his problem, and the other gets him out.” Ebert also praised the work of the movie’s film editor, “John Harris achieves the delicate task of showing an arm being cut through without ever quite showing it. For the audience the worst moment is not a sight but a sound. Most of us have never heard that sound before, but we know exactly what it is.”
“This is a film about how precious life is,” declared Danny Boyle. “And it’s only precious because of other people.” Boyle explained further, “He doesn’t survive because he is on his own; he survives because he finally realizes how important it is to get back to the people he cares about.” Made on a production budget of $18 million, 127 Hours was nominated for Best Film at the London Film Festival; it also received nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (James Franco), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Song, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Sound at the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards. At the BAFTAs, 127 Hours was nominated for the Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film, the Anthony Asquith Award for Film Music, the David Lean Award for Direction, Best Actor (James Franco), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Sound; while the Academy Awards nominated it for Best Picture, Best Actor (James Franco), Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The real life drama contended at the Golden Globes for Best Actor – Drama (James Franco), Best Original Score, and Best Screenplay; at the Independent Spirit Awards it received nominations for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actor (James Franco). James Franco also received a Screen Actors Guild Awards nomination for Outstanding Performance for a Male Actor in a Leading Role.
Danny Boyle next heads back to where he started his career by directing a stage production for the National Theatre in London. “The last time I worked in the theatre was with the writer Nick Dear, who adapted Don Juan. We did it at the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company], fifteen years ago. Back then we started thinking about doing an adaptation of Frankenstein . We approached Nick Hytner with it and it all started happening.” On alternative nights, actors Benedict Cumberbatch (Atonement) and Jonny Lee Miller (Endgame) switch between the roles of the creature and Dr. Victor Frankenstein. “It’s from the creature’s point of view, which has never been done before,” remarked Boyle. “In a weird way in the theatre you have a lot less control. You do what you can in rehearsal, but as soon as the actors are in front of an audience they push you away.”
Another project for the Manchester native is one that has international importance as he has been appointed the artistic director for the opening ceremony at the 2012 London Olympic Games. Commenting on the epic approach used by China at the 2008 Olympic Games, Danny Boyle said, “The thing is about the stadium is that it has the same number of seats as Beijing but is half the size. It is a more intimate space…We want to keep it on a human scale.” As for the tone of the opening ceremony, Boyle slyly stated, “What I do know is that after a couple of years of this [British] coalition government we may well be looking for a bit of light relief.”
“I want my films to be life-affirming,” remarked Danny Boyle who does have one overriding concern. “The worry I have is that I’ll make the same film again and again.” Rumours persist that Boyle will do a sequel to Trainspotting as well as turn 28 Days Later into a trilogy. “I would find that really difficult to do [a sequel], certainly not without a long gap. You want to approach it with a fresh set of guidelines or rules for yourself.” However, success is never a guarantee. “When you do one you just hope that you get the chance to do another one.” As for offering advice, the director who counts Apocalypse Now (1979) as his favourite movie, pushes the idea of never taking the easy route creatively. “To be a filmmaker…you need to lead. You have to be psychotic in your desire to do something.”
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.