Big-budget studio pics are great … for other filmmakers. Danny Boyle thrives when things are lean and focused.
His latest film, “Slumdog Millionaire,” is a darling of the fall fest circuit, an English-Hindi hybrid shot mostly with handheld digital cameras on location in Mumbai for $15 million.
But Boyle’s epiphany — and a lesson Hollywood could take to heart — was “The Beach,” the 2000 Fox drama shot as Leonardo DiCaprio’s first film after “Titanic.”
“When I got ‘The Beach,’ Boyle recalls, “I was paralyzed. You could take that money and buy a town where I come from” (Manchester, England).
Fox imposed few restrictions on the filmmaker’s vision and gave Boyle his biggest budget ever after he broke out of Brit theater and television in the ’90s with three energetic Ewan McGregor pics, “Shallow Grave,” “Trainspotting” and “A Life Less Ordinary.” But the helmer wasn’t able to revel in the largesse.
“The more money I take that is not restricted, which technically gives you freedom, equipment and more days, the more the spirit of the film dies, falls flat,” he says.
After “The Beach,” Boyle says he decided “not to do huge-budget films anymore.” He returned to making tiny British TV movies and felt the excitement again: “This is what I should do.”
It’s not that the Brit helmer hates Hollywood studios. They’ve been very good to him, he says, especially 20th Century Fox and its specialty division Searchlight, which backed the low-budget pics “Sunshine,” “Millions” and “28 Days Later,” and is releasing “Slumdog” in partnership with Warner Bros.
And Boyle wishes he could make films like “The Dark Knight,” he says, “but I realize I am not very good at it.”
Boyle was tempted by, but turned down, an f/x-crammed David Benioff script. “James Cameron, David Fincher and Ridley Scott do battles with the studios,” Boyle says. “You have to be difficult to do that. On those huge movies it’s like Aztec sacrifices, where the cameraman gets sacked by the third leading actor.”
But restrict and limit Boyle’s options, and his spirit flies.
“That’s where I come from,” he says. “Where you make the best with what you’ve got. That’s what I am. I’ve never done commercials or big videos where they throw money at you. I am a bit difficult, but I like harmony. I like a smaller group of people all pulling in the same direction toward the same thing. I get rid of them if they’re not.”
Shooting “Slumdog,” which was financed by the now-defunct Warner Independent Pictures, was liberating. Scribe Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty”) took considerable liberties with the original novel, which is based on an apocryphal story about a teen from the slums of Mumbai (played by Dev Patel) who wins 20 million rupees (roughly $400,000) on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
Trying to find out the truth of the tale in India was near impossible, Boyle found. “There’s a billion people racing ahead in a 10% growth economy,” he says, “enough to start up a decent-size planet from scratch. Did a slum kid go on the show? There are lots of stories. Educated people went on pretending to be rickshaw drivers. If the story isn’t true, it should be.”
Boyle used Suketo Mehta’s “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found” as his Mumbai guide, and Beaufoy’s rags-to-riches mystery-romance invented a structure that allowed Boyle to fluidly float back in time without resorting to flashback motifs, cutting back to the past “literally in a blink,” he says, to reveal just how the kid knew the answer to each question. “It doesn’t feel predictable like flashback movies.”
Boyle’s challenge — one happily embraced — was to make $15 million look like a whole lot more.
“I like that tension,” he says. “I don’t want to make a dirty indie film struggling with paltry resources. I want to make a film that looks like it cost $50 million or $60 million.”
To do that, Boyle jumped into a 12-week shoot on crazy Mumbai locations that changed overnight, deploying a nimble cameraman with a hard drive in a backpack and a gyro with an attached camera lens in his hand.
“It’s a different way of grabbing reality and it has an intensity to it,” he says. “It lets the mind float off places.”
Boyle, who had earlier used mini-DV on “28 Days Later,” says the technique allowed his crew and second unit on “Slumdog” to act instinctively and grab shots wherever they could.
But amid all the roaming, Boyle followed a strict rule: Cover the script.
“These instincts you have when filming sometimes are often indulgent bullshit. You feel like a spoiled prince with a hundred people asking you what you want.”
Boyle’s touchstone: “A heightened realism,” he says. “If it doesn’t feel real to me, then I don’t do it.”
Also adding to the film’s texture was a hybrid Western-Bollywood score by composer A.R. Rahman.
“He’s a bit of a genius,” says Boyle, who tagged the film with a boisterous Bollywood dance number. “He responds to something emotionally, not just the frames where the cut is.
“Music in India is louder and more confident. We hide music in Western films because it is a manipulative tool we don’t want people to notice. But here you can mix it quite high and it’s melodramatic. I do feel there is a pulse beating in India, whereas in the West, it’s hard to find a pulse.”
Now, what Boyle wants is to vault his little film onto the world stage.
He’s done that so far via film fests like Telluride and Toronto, “which defined us,” he says.
And Boyle continues to spread his British charm across America’s major movie markets. He is grateful: As Warner Independent was exiting the specialty business, Searchlight took on the pic just before Labor Day. As many larger-budget films fail to pass muster under awards-season scrutiny, “Slumdog” (even with the R-rating Boyle sought to avoid), is proving to be a survivor.