Danny Boyle: The Looking Closer Interview (Feb. 2005)

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As Danny Boyle‘s new film Slumdog Millionaire is cleaning up at this year’s various surveys of film critics, perhaps it’s a good time to revisit the conversation I enjoyed with Boyle in February 2005 at the release of Millions, which is my favorite of his films (so far… I’m seeing Slumdog Millionaire this week), and still my favorite film of 2005.

So… here’s a link to my review of Millions, a Christmas movie I highly recommend.

And here’s my interview with Boyle, which ran in an abridged edition at Christianity Today Movies:

Overstreet: In spite of Damian, who’s a God-fearing boy, a friend of the saints, and a help to the poor, Millions never becomes ‘preachy.’ Was that difficult to do?

Boyle:

You can go through the whole filmmaking experience being careful, saying, ‘I’ve got to make sure this isn’t preachy.’ But you can’t make a film like that. What you do instead is concentrate on the essentials, the positives: the character and the kid playing the character. You’re saying that this is the way he sees the world.

If the movie works, it’s because you realize that life absolutely is that simple, the way Damian sees it. It’s not like we’re preaching at people and saying, ‘Don’t you see it’s that simple? Why can’t you do that? Come on, cough up the money!’ We’re actually saying that, ‘When you look back at what you were like [at Damian’s age], it was that simple. And that’s not a bad thing.’ That’s still us, even though we’ve moved on into the venal world of survival and competition.

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Overstreet: Damian and his brother see the world so differently. Damian’s generosity and compassion has its roots in his faith. Anthony’s materialism, anxiety, and lack of trust are rooted in … what exactly?

Boyle:

The whole structure of this story is built around the fact that Damian is eight. This was borne out by the research we did, by the auditions for Damian’s role in this film — all of the ten year olds, like Damian’s brother Anthony in the film, have a foot through the door of adulthood, and they’re greedy for more of it. You can’t turn back at that door once it’s open. But the eight year olds—all of them—they didn’t have that yet. So it’s somewhere between eight and ten that it happens.

I’ve thought about it a lot, because I’ve got kids. I didn’t notice that change in them myself, because when you’re bringing up kids, you’re bringing them up every day. You’re not looking at sample groups like that.

So the whole film is built around the difference between Damian and Anthony and the battle between them. There’s the older brother who sees the world as ‘real’ and he’s always talking about what’s real and what’s not, what the tax rate is and what it isn’t, and what the mortgage is. The younger kid—he’s talking about the ‘unreal.’ He’s not self-conscious about things being unreal, because he doesn’t even think about them being unreal. He sees these figures and he communicates with them, and that’s his world. And it’s tangible and real—it’s not imagined, it’s real.

So when he wins the debate, he gets to spend the money the way he thinks it ought to be spent, because they’ve all tried to do something that they wanted to do with it, and they’ve all failed. It’s like that phrase … what is it? … “You keep what you’ve got by giving it all away.”

Overstreet: ‘You keep what you’ve got by giving it all away.’ That sounds like the refrain of almost every U2 song.

Boyle:

It does! I was actually thinking of that song by Ian Brown, the guy from the Stone Roses: “Keep What Ya Got.”

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Overstreet: So, from what you’re saying, it sounds like we’re to understand that Damian really does have these encounters with Saints. It that what you mean? Or is it instead that he’s a kid with a really active, healthy imagination?

Boyle:

Wordsworth, the poet—in one of his poems he talks about childbirth. You’re born from the sea, and as you walk up the shore, you know where you’ve come from, and you can see your Creator. You can see where you’ve come from. But once language (your ability to describe things) arrives, you’ve just come over the brow of the hill. And you look back and you can’t see it anymore.

Before the point of language arriving, you’re still in touch with your source. When you look at babies, there’s something in their eyes sometimes. They look over your shoulder sometimes, and it’s not like they’re going ‘gaa gaa.’ They’re looking at something. And you look back, but you’ve lost it. And you think, ‘What are they looking at?’ So I think there is something in that.

Overstreet: It’s a brave thing to bring up religion in a movie these days. It was so controversial for Mel Gibson to put The Passion of the Christ on the screen. But that came from a deep sense of religious conviction. Is there any personal resonance for you with the iconography of Catholicism and the Christian tradition that inspires Alex’s imagination?

Boyle:

Oh, yeah, I was brought up a very strict Catholic. My mom was a devout Irish Catholic and she wanted me to be a priest, until I was about thirteen. One of her favorite saints was Our Lady of Fatima. So I was surrounded by it as a kid. My mom has been dead since 1985, but the film’s dedicated to my mom and my dad.

But in the film, it’s not like Damian is a religious child. Before he [develops an interest in] other myths and icons that he comes across, like cinema or women, all the different things that we fill our lives with—our inclinations—then it’s saints, as for me it was, certainly.

I think the important thing about his relationship with the saints is that it’s his imagination. That’s what allows him access to them or not. It’s about whether you believe. Some people believe they’re real—even some people making this film think they’re real. Others think they’re just flights of the imagination. But Damian is an artist, and he has access to that. It will take him different places as he gets older. So it’s not like he’s a religious figure. It’s faith that’s linked to the imagination—the power of taking a leap—rather than it being faith in a strictly conventional religious sense.

Martin Scorsese talks about this book he’s read called The Six O’Clock Saints. It is an absolutely extraordinary book. The stories are like cinema. They’re violent. They’re incredibly racy and exciting and dangerous. The light that shines on these people is different. It’s like the light that shines on Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. It picks them out as being the superheroes, which is what they are—whether they’re antiheroes or not. They’re the super figures, the ultra-figures that deserve to become icons. It’s the same process. Movies have taken us away from it in a strictly religious sense.

Overstreet: You made Millions soon after the zombie movie 28 Days Later. You’ve done wild romantic comedies and now you’ve got a sci-fi project in the works. Is there a central theme or a moral question that threads through the projects you take on?

Boyle:

As soon as you say they’re about morality, you’re heading in that territory where things become preachy. But there is a moral factor to them, yes. I think all you try and do is test your own principles against ideas.

I personally accept that we’ve left behind ideologies. We’ve decided, as Westerners, that we’ve left behind ideological choices. We’ve become what we are—consumers. And we’re all in that race to consume. But within that, there remain principles that you do have or you don’t have. And you can test them in certain circumstances through stories, and that’s the idea behind it.

I think they’re all very moral films, but I wouldn’t particularly want them to be known as that, because they’re not meant to be. That’s like the DNA of them. They’re not necessarily about that on the surface level. They’re entertaining. I want them to be really entertaining. And I want them to play as widely as possible. I don’t want to exclude anybody from them. I don’t want to exclude any of the 28 Days Later audience from Millions, although I suspect some of them will avoid it when they hear what it’s about. I don’t want to exclude any of The Passion of the Christ audience either. Because whatever the film’s about, whether they’re easy or not, I want them to be stimulating for any audience. It’s not about appealing to the lowest common denominator. It’s about working as hard as possible to get as big an audience as possible to see what’s interesting to talk about.

I try to put an energy in my films that’s life-affirming, that’s redemptive. Sometimes what it’s looking at is awful—like Trainspotting: What’s going on there is awful. But there’s an energy level that’s running through it, life pulsing away, in ways that are unacceptable an unpalatable. But it’s pulsing. And that in itself is a victory, I think.

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Overstreet: What’s the most rewarding thing you hear from someone who’s seen your film?

Boyle:

I was in Glasgow. This was after we made our first film, Shallow Grave, and I was walking down High Street, and I’d gone past an HMV, which is a record store like Virgin or Tower. I walked past it and this young guy came out of HMV, and I thought he was going to belt me, because he was running at me! And he came right up to me and he said, “[Bleep]ing great film, mate!” And he went back into the shop. That has stuck with me more than anything. I remember his face.

Overstreet: Tell me about the boys you chose for the roles.

Boyle:

I chose Alex because he walked through the door, and I saw him out of the corner of my eye, and I went, ‘I’ll be that’s him.’ When you do that, you have to be really tough with them because you want to make sure you’re not casting them just because they look right. So you have to audition them quite tough. Alex auditioned and he was really interesting. He wasn’t very good (but you wouldn’t expect him to be, as he’d just turned eight). He wasn’t very good, and that put off a lot of people. And a lot of people wanted this other guy who was a much better actor. But you don’t want an actor—you want a presence who’s actually going to live in this world. You don’t want kids to have that affectation that’s part of being a professional actor—that skill and knowledge.

His older brother is an actor. He’s got timing. He knows how to make things funny. He knows how to pause and then say the line. He doesn’t have to be told it. It’s in his DNA. I don’t care what happens to him between now and 18, that lad will be an actor. I just know it.

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Overstreet: You’ve worked in so many genres. What’s next?

Boyle:

We’re making Sunshine next, which is a sci-fi film. We’ve done about 20 drafts. It’s written by Alex Garland, the guy who did 28 Days Later.

It’s about a mission to the sun. It’s set somewhat in the future and the sun is losing its power. They send this huge bomb to reignite part of the sun. The bomb is the size of Vancouver or Toronto. It’s immense. They built it in space, in orbit around the moon. It’s called Icarus 2. There was an Icarus 1, which failed, and they don’t know why it failed. Once it gets near the sun, they lose all radio contact with it. And they have to find out what’s happened to them. Psychologically it’s about your relationship with the Creator, which in practical terms is the sun, but in spiritual terms you can widen it if you want to. It asks, ‘Can you meet your maker and survive?’

But we’re also working on a book which hasn’t been published yet. It’s called Never Let Me Go, and it’s by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s his new novel which will be published in March. It’s brilliant.

Overstreet: You have a huge platform, but because of the tools you’ve used, you’ve inspired a lot of independent filmmakers. Is that an aim of yours, or just a happy development?

Boyle:

I’m just better at making a film like that. I’m not as good at the big films. I’ve tried to make a big film, with The Beach. It wasn’t a really happy experience. You sort of learn what you’re better at. I love watching films on that scale, and when they’re good, there’s nothing better! You always have that remaining ambition to pull that off—the big one. When Gladiator unites the world, you’re all watching Gladiator, you realize that cinema really is about a worldwide screen wrapping around the globe, watching these myths played out. But I’m not very good at it. You learn what you’re better at.

But I do like to inspire people … particularly those without a voice, people who don’t think they could be a filmmaker. I don’t think it’s a problem in America. People feel much more free in America. I think everybody thinks they could be a filmmaker. You’ve had ordinary kids like Steven Spielberg grow up to be the king. That’s not true in Britain. It tends very much to be a fenced off area, it tends to be the preserve of the intellectuals or the intellectual class, with only a few exceptions. It’s a shame. So I do bang on about it in Britain.

Overstreet: You’re such a creative, versatile artist. When you look at the top ten at the box office, does it discourage you to see such derivative, disposable work like Boogeyman or Are We There Yet? at #1 when there are better films showing?

Boyle:

Imagine what it’s like if you work in a garage, or you work in a superstore, all week, and then Friday night comes along … and you’ve spent all week dealing with whatever you’re dealing with, and you get one chance to take a girl or to go with your mates for a good laugh. That is part of our job. Entertainment.

The power of those people with their money will always make sure that the industry delivers to them certain kinds of entertainment. But you have to be very careful that we don’t turn the movies into opera, which is like, ‘They’re good for you, they’re a bit specialized, and they’ll be a bit beyond some of you.’ Within that, you’ve got to be, like Scorsese says, ‘cunning.’ You’ve got to smuggle good ideas into something that attracts that person to the Friday or Saturday night film. That way they get a bigger kick out of it than they do from those films you’re talking about. That’s the job. It’s not like you’ve got to ban the bad films… you’ve just got to make better films more entertaining.

Overstreet: 28 Days Later demonstrates what you’re saying. In a way, it’s just a big crazy zombie movie. But it an arresting relevance, and moments of powerful emotion.

Boyle:

My favorite bit of 28 Days Later is where the dad gets infected and he has to say goodbye to his daughter.

Overstreet: That’s a heartbreaking scene.

Boyle:

Gladiator does that too. It moves people. We are all moved, en masse. And we’re moved by something common amongst us all.

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