For all that his CV only boasts eight features, Danny Boyle has proven himself to be a restless and energetic filmmaker. He’s British cinema’s great chameleon, from indie darling to commercial player, working with Leo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz (admittedly with mixed success), before making a couple of pitch-perfect genre hits (28 Days Later, Sunshine) interspersed with a deftly executed kids’ film (Millions). And now Slumdog Millionaire. He’s unpredictable; slightly roguish; a bit of a reprobate with that insolent northern accent. But when he trains it on you, all you can do is listen – and try and keep up...
LWLies: Here is a film that is a social fable about India made by a British filmmaker, which is kind of a ballsy thing to do. Where do you get the confidence to do that? How much did you have to learn before you felt that you had the right to make that film?
Boyle: Actually, it’s key, and I think if anybody doesn’t really like the film that is what they’ll attack it on. And they’d be right to in a way because it does require a lot of balls. Actually one of the instincts both in the writing and certainly in me directing it about doing it is that we didn’t want to make a film about a white guy going in there and doing it. The conventional film that’s been made in many different ways is kind of a white guy or a group of white guys or a white couple or whatever going through India and you’re seeing the world through their eyes. Simon [Beaufoy, the writer] had been there 20 years ago – he’d done the hippy trip when he left college. He’d always wanted to write about it but he never wanted to write that story. And it was Tessa Ross at Channel 4 who sent him this book and that unlocked him. You could feel it… When I read it, you could feel the energy of the writing, obviously it unleashed him because it’s so different from the book, I mean it’s a complete rethinking of the book. If you want an example of what an adaptor can do that’s different – that’s it. You read the book then you read the script, it’s amazing what he did.
So that gave me confidence to do it. The rest is just the way that ambition overcomes common sense. In a common sense you would think that there’s no way to do it accurately because you’re a white guy, but the ambition and the feel I had for it overcomes common sense really, you just think, ‘Let’s do it.’ And I went there… I remember going there with him, with Simon, on the first trip and just loving it. I thought, ‘Oh fuck… I can just feel it.’ I don’t know what it is. It’s something organic – you don’t get it on every script or every film you do. Some of them you’re really working hard to try and make work; some of them are, kind of, not effortless because I’m sure there is a lot of effort that goes in, but it feels effortless and natural, what you’re doing. The key thing was having these collaborators.
When I made The Beach, which was an example of the way not to do something – we took, like, hundreds of people who were all on an absolute blinder because it was three months in Thailand, per diems, two days off a week, luxury hotel, paradise island, the world’s biggest star right in orbit, everyone wants his autograph, you could go home with an autograph and a photo of him. Whereas on this we took 10 people, that was it for the crew. We ended up casting Dev [Patel] from here, but the idea originally was to cast everybody over there, which we did, apart from Dev. That is the way to do it. And some of the people you appoint then are your key gatemasters – they allow you in really. And it was this woman, who was the casting director originally, Loveleen Tandan. I had her with me every day on the set helping me with the kids and just culturally helping me. So we made her the co-director. Then there was this guy who was the First Assistant Director [Raj Acharya], who I cannot credit in any other way, other than calling him the First Assistant Director, which is a shame because he was my lynchpin, absolutely how to work there, it was just unbelievable the guidance he gave me. Then this other guy who did the live sound, Resul Pookutty. Those three were key – without them it would be a quarter of the film it was.
LWLies: So they’re the people who tell you when you’re making a mistake?
Boyle: Yes, yes.
LWLies: Are there any specific examples of that?
Boyle: The biggest one and the most sensitive one, so it’s a good example of it because it’s the most acute, is when the riot happens and the mother is killed. The clue that it connects to on the show is this clue about ‘What does the Lord God Rama hold in his right hand?’ In the script it was that one of the rioters had it on his T-shirt, an image of the Lord God Rama on his T-shirt, holding a bow and arrow, and one of the Right Wing nationalists, the Hindu nationalists who storm through the Muslim slum killing people, the image was on one of these guy’s shirts. And I remember Loveleen saying to me, ‘You do not wear the image of our gods on a T-shirt. It’s just such a Western thing. It would never, ever happen here.’ And that’s the kind of thing that if you’d made that mistake it would be, like, I mean offensive wouldn’t even be in it. So then you have a big problem because every solution we kept coming up with about how we could depict it, again you just wouldn’t do it like that. They wouldn’t bring emblems with them on that kind of savagery. So then you have to think laterally and you start thinking differently about it, and I tried to think of it then how a seven-year-old would see it. Because you would know that they were associated with that religion, and he sees it like himself as another seven-year-old in a way – kind of hallucinating it – and it becomes a fantastical thing in a way. And it makes the film richer and better because it’s a startling moment. It’s also not offensive really, and that’s the biggest single example of it. There’s millions of little things of course, and sometimes you get them wrong deliberately and they stay wrong because the logic of the film is more important than the documentary elements of it, so you… But again you need people to have the confidence to say, ‘No, it wouldn’t happen like that.’ And then you say, ‘I want it to happen like that – it’s better that it does.’
LWLies: So you didn’t so much immerse yourself in reading and spending time there? Are you saying it’s not like you really had to learn it yourself? Do you feel like you walked away from this being under the skin of India, or is it more the case that you had these people who could sort you out?
Boyle: No, obviously you’ve got to work hard. There’s a great book called Maximum City by this guy Suketu Mehta which is… If you’re interested in reading further just read that. Everybody says, ‘Read Shantaram’, but read Maximum City. That has got everything in it; it’s just the most extraordinary book. It was a huge help, but obviously you stay open to everything really. You’re only going to be there so you’re never going to get under its skin, and it teaches you that very, very quickly – that you’re only going to get a glimpse – and if you work hard and do it right, maybe you’ll get a bit of it. But you’re only going to ever get a little bit of it, you can’t imagine you’re going to get under its skin, for very long anyway.
LWLies: We interviewed Asif Kapadia a while back, and he was saying that shooting in India is a unique experience that has very particular challenges. A huge culture shock. It sounds like even more organised – or less organised – chaos than a normal movie set. Is that how you found it as well?
Boyle: Well, a lot of people said that. I decided very, very early on to very deliberately not think of it as chaotic or a problem or obstacles or all these words – as difficulties. I thought, ‘Don’t think like that. You’re going to get nowhere thinking like that.’ And everywhere confirms that about it. You go in the airport and I remember seeing these businessmen in the airport, and I saw it a number of different times, just screaming abuse at the people – where are their bags? ‘Where’s my flight? I can run this fucking airport better than you idiots!’ You just look at it and think, ‘You’re not going to get your bag, mate.’ It’s obvious. It’s like you have to go as though you’re visiting America – it’s the same thing. You’re in America now, you don’t go around going, ‘Fucking hell, I’m British, come here all you lot!’ You have to kind of absorb yourself in it. And there are hairy moments where you think, ‘Oh my god, I’m not going to get anything done,’ you know? But you’ve gotta trust it, you can’t panic, you’ve gotta trust it and keep calm, and it comes back to you eventually. And it’s just beyond what you could ever hope for. It’s, like, so generous, the place – and I don’t want to overstate it because I’m not trying to make it… Because you do sound like a hippy and all of this kind of stuff. But also, I just… I went with that kind of attitude and I kept that attitude, and we had this fucking disaster in post where Warner Brothers abandoned the film, they closed Warner Independent, and in terms of North America that’s as big a disaster as you could have. Certainly at the point we were at. We’d just finished, or virtually just finished the film. And I remember thinking, ‘No, it’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.’ And it’s amazing – it was picked up by Fox Searchlight, who are a much better company distribution wise, and it kind of like…
It’s very difficult to express, I feel like such a wanker saying it, but there’s something about that that is very powerful thing. I went there thinking that destiny is a very passive concept, and it just made you a victim. But it’s not like that when you’re there; it’s a much more complex scenario than we can imagine, and you only get a glimpse, a little glimpse, of what it means. But yeah, it does affect you in that way and you learn, in accepting things, you learn to grow beyond them as well. Weird. But all the things you have as a director normally, which is control basically, that’s basically what director’s do, they control things until they can shoot the hell out of it. Forget it – you’re just not going to get it, or it’ll be fake, it’ll look rubbish. You’ve just gotta go with it, abandon control and kinda go with it and see what you get. And sometimes you don’t even know what you’ll get but I remember thinking, ‘Don’t get rigid. Maybe we haven’t got it. Don’t get rigid. Maybe we haven’t got it, but maybe we have,’ you know? And you go with it like that. So it’s an amazing experience, a learning experience. You just learn so much about yourself and the people around you that you’ve brought with you – the 10 who you’ve brought. Some of whom didn’t get on with it, at all. And they may say differently now, but they didn’t get on with it, and I could see that and I thought, ‘That’s not the way to do it guys.’ And some of whom did get on with it, and it’s just, you know, like… Anyway, it sounds terrible talking about it.
LWLies: Watching the film, it reminded me of Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary – it felt to me like it would fit really comfortably between those two films.
Boyle: Yeah it does, doesn’t it a bit?
LWLies: That’s unusual for you because your films are so different from each other. Does that ring true to you?
Boyle: Yes it does. Yeah I do think that’s true actually. No one’s said that before. A lot of people have compared it to Trainspotting for obvious reasons – there’s a toilet scene, there’s an energy in it. But I think that’s also true as well. Because there’s also a kind of a fantastical, slightly irrational element to it as well, which we didn’t quite get right in A Life Less Ordinary but which was the idea of it. And it’s very, very difficult to do, but it suits India of course. That it works better I think is because it really suits India because India… You cannot explain it, you can try but, again, you’ve just got to experience and love it and, kind of, learn from it. You can’t pin it down. We used to say this… I mean, some people think… There’s at least a billion people there, and we used to say that that is enough for a planet. If you were starting a planet from scratch, that is a very healthy number to start with, and they’re all in this tiny fucking country. And you’ve just got to kind of go there and learn from it, you know? And there will be… The tools that you normally use to explain things are totally irrelevant, really.
There is an irrationality there. The concept of destiny is virtually inexplicable, and yet it is clearly palpable everywhere, and in an incredibly good way as well. So the connection that stars like Anil [Kapoor] feel with poor people is part of it that you cannot explain in Hollywood terms because that is a PR exercise; it’s a charity donation; it’s like Drew Barrymore going on Oprah’s show and saying, ‘I’m giving two million to this,’ and they get all Drew’s friends to ring up live on air to say, ‘It’s great!’ It’s not that kind of thing at all – this is, like, in your soul you know that your destiny, which is so amazing, is directly linked to theirs, which is not, and you know that you have to behave accordingly because… It’s very difficult to explain.
LWLies: It’s interesting, but to cover it in 10 minutes we’ll end up trivialising it and talking about karma.
Boyle: It’s great: Anil has a line, which he invented himself, he’s in the toilet and he’s giving him the wrong answer, he says, ‘You’re going to win this, I can feel it. It’s a karmic thing,’ he says, which nobody hears of course but he was taking the piss out of it as well as believing it and all that kind of stuff.
LWLies: The thing about seeing echoes of your old films in this one, is that you have gone from genre to genre, and you don’t ever seem to want to stop. Are you not tempted to stay in the same genre for a while and build on the ideas you’ve started with something like Sunshine or 28 Days Later? We don’t seem to have master genre filmmakers today, in a way like John Ford or somebody.
Boyle: Yeah, no that’s true. I think the problem is you – it’s the audience here. They’re much more impatient than they ever used to be, they’re much more intolerant than they ever used to be, I think. And I’m one of them as well.
LWLies: In what sense?
Boyle: If you go back to fine-tune your craft, they’re bored. They’re just bored with you. And I can feel it because I’m an audience member as well – I go all the time to the cinema, and I want to see you take risks, and I want to see you fall and stumble. I don’t want to see it perfected, I don’t want to see it perfected every time. I don’t know whether that’s true of the absolute mainstream audience who just want to see a product, basically, which gives them a feeling on a Friday that they wanna have – and you would think that it suits them, to perfect the craftsmanship and to do that. But even the greatest craftsman of all, Spielberg, has had to branch out because it wasn’t self-sustaining enough to keep going with his mass entertainments, you know, which he is the best at, obviously. He’s the best manipulator and the truest craftsman of all but he’s branched out to try and keep himself fresh. I think it’s about keeping yourself fresh. I think the problem is that when you approach a script there are certain things where you know how to do it, and that’s not that exciting. It’s when you don’t know how to do it that it’s really, really exciting – dangerous and obviously you can get it really wrong, but it is very exciting then because it feels like… I have this theory that your first film is your best film – which would go completely against what you’re saying – but I would quote the Coen brothers as the perfect example of it who are the epitome of probably the most celebrated indie filmmakers that there are, and certainly they’re on another planet compared to most people, but their first film is still their best film. There’s something about Blood Simple, there’s something about the freshness with which it’s expressed – you sense in it frustration that they’ve waited so long to be able to do it, and then the release of being able to do it, you know? And I think there’s something about that. There’s something about trying to get back to that innocence, that, kind of, lack of technique. I guess it is lack of technique…
LWLies: Like, what you gain in craftsmanship, you lose in innocence.
Boyle: Yeah, and you’ve got to be very, very careful with it because film is so manipulative anyway – that’s what it’s designed to do – we cut out all the pauses, all the little errors are all cut out, and then you put the music on and it’s so manipulative anyway that to retain its honesty you’ve got to, to a degree, not know what you’re doing. Certainly that helped me in India big time because I did feel like I was learning, like really, really learning it as I was doing it. It did help me do the film.
LWLies: How did you see Slumdog’s relationship to Indian cinema? It has some of the sentimentality of Bollywood and a certain kind of romance, but were you wary of pastiching Bollywood, and so by extension kind of trivialising whatever you had to say about India itself?
Boyle: Yeah and it really annoys me when – or not annoys me – but when people say, ‘When they dance at the end is that a homage to Bollywood?’ And it wasn’t done like that; it was done because we’re there and we’re trying to make the film there, and it’s about the people who live there and dancing… it’s natural, it’s kind of like because of the culture. So that was the origin of it – it was that feeling, it wasn’t to do with wink-wink Hollywood. It was not to do with that.
The best way to explain it… The first thing Simon said to me about the script, because he’d written the script by then, he said, ‘It’s Dickensian.’ He said, ‘As a writer, you’re aware of it instantly and you can’t help writing like that because the extremes are still there.’ And we have exiled our extremes into superhero movies and fantasy films. The explosion of those – that’s where our extremes are. We don’t see that extreme storytelling, but you see it in those films now. And what’s left, which is the everyday films about real life, are more minutiae really because we’ve tended to… We’ve softened up the corners. In India, or certainly in Mumbai, which is the only real bit of India that I know at all, it is still there and it is every day and it is in your face. And his reference point because we’re culturally from Britain as a writer was Dickens, and certainly for me, reading it, it was Dickens straightaway. And so although, like, the good brother/bad brother is very Bollywood, it also feels like a very Dickensian concept – separated at birth, eventually reunited. So those are the kinds of things that make it feel like it belongs in Bollywood, and yet it isn’t a Bollywood film and I don’t know how it will do in India. Anil thinks it’s not extreme enough, whereas I think it’s pretty extreme, and it’s the limit of where I can take sentimentality and emotion, you know, and coincidence and all those kinds of things – I don’t think I could push it much further than that and still believe it. But he thinks it’s not quite extreme enough for a mainstream Bollywood film.
LWLies: Great Expectations was one of the things I wrote down when I was watching it.
Boyle: It’s funny because we would think that… We were there until 1948 and we would think that the stuff we left behind influences them, but it’s not. It’s because of the explosion of the country, and what Dickens was living through was Victorian London especially, which he took refuge from but obviously that’s where his palate came from, and what happens in a city when it just begins to grow beyond belief, it just begins to grow, and you get it there in Mumbai. And that’s where Bollywood’s from, it’s where its stories come from – they do have country stories, but its sentiment is from the city. It’s a massive population devouring the art form, which again with Dickens there was to a degree, and they’re abject poor but they’re also creating this change ahead of them – vast wealth and opportunity. The show itself, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, is a Dickensian format. It’s, like, if only you were nobody and we could offer you a million. Sadly, most of the people who go on are pretty educated because that’s how you get through. But the concept of the show is Dickensian.
LWLies: Without flogging the comparison to Trainspotting too much, one of the reasons it spoke of that film to me is that I chose it as my pick for the BFI’s 75th anniversary thing – the film for the future. Did you do that?
Boyle: No I didn’t do it. I was meant to do it but I had to go off and… I had a really good idea anyway.
LWLies: Trainspotting was the film that, kind of, opened my eyes to the fact that people were making films that felt like they were for me, and if you didn’t get it, it’s because it wasn’t for you. You weren’t supposed to get it. Do you think Slumdog might do something similar for India? Is it capturing a zeitgeist in a similar way?
Boyle: It’s slightly different there because I think what reaction there has been amongst people is that they are surprised that a Westerner has made a film like that. It’s more in that territory rather than it being a generational thing. It’s more a cultural thing. They do take the piss there behind your back out of westerners turning up, making films about westerners there, there’s always a cow in it and, you know… They used to joke with me, ‘Oh, I bet there’s cows in it.’ It’s that kind of thing that they just… And they’re very respectful when it’s being made but actually what they regard it as is just, you know… So it’s more that kind of reaction that we’ve had. But I know what you mean because for me, when I was that kind of age, when I was in my late teens it was Nic Roeg films which did it for me, which is just like, this was it: it was fractured and it didn’t make sense on a surface level, and I had that thing for him. Interestingly, BAFTA have never given him a prize, and I absolutely had such a row with Duncan Kenworthy about it, and he’s agreed… They’re giving him one next March. Because he, for 10 years, just made films that were it for me. I remember taking my dad to see The Man Who Fell To Earth to persuade him and he’s just, like, ‘What the fuck?’
LWLies: What do you love about movies?
Boyle: What I love about movies I think is the dark room and you sit there with strangers. If you think about it psychologically… If you asked somebody from another planet to ask us about what do you think psychologically about people who go and sit with a load of strangers in a dark room and watch 40-foot high versions of themselves kissing and shagging and hurting each other, you’d think, ‘That’s insane. They’re mad those people, they’re absolutely mad.’ And I love the way we play our madness on it, really.