Danny Boyle On Lessons Learned, From ‘Shallow Grave’ to ‘Steve Jobs’

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Seven years ago I sat down with Danny Boyle to discuss “Slumdog Millionaire,” at the time on its way to a release and, eventually, an eight-trophy tally on Oscar night. I wanted to know what he felt he had learned from each of his experiences as a feature film director, to chart his growth as an artist.

With a new film on the way (“Steve Jobs”) and with Boyle being feted at the Telluride Film Festival this weekend, I caught up with him so he could bring us up to speed. We’ve seen “127 Hours” and “Trance” in the years since (as well as an Artistic Director stint with the 2012 Summer Olympic Games), while his latest marks a remarkable departure from what we’re used to out of the filmmaker. Naturally, he admits — two decades into a career in features — he’s still learning.

“Shallow Grave” (1995)
“I was very lucky to get a really tight, 90-minute, taut script. 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.”

“Trainspotting” (1996)
“‘Take risks’ is the one I got from that. Really take risks. I haven’t always clung to it but I certainly always return to it. And I love that. That’s what people go to the movies for. They don’t go to see what’s acceptable. John [Hodge] adapted it in a way — it was impossible to adapt, so he didn’t try. He sort of was inspired by it and went off. And I love that in adaptations. It’s really irreverent to the skill.”

“A Life Less Ordinary” (1997)
“Originally the script was set in France and Scotland, and we moved it, foolishly as it turned out, to Utah and Los Angeles. 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 things about films, where they clash together, where they’re not smooth, where they are inappropriate for each other.”

“The Beach” (2000)
“‘The Beach’ was a very interesting stepping stone for me to ‘Slumdog,’ because we went to Thailand and we took a huge crew from the West, I mean a massive crew. 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.”

“28 Days Later…” (2003)
“It was wonderful to work on digital. 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.’ I think it’s not a great spur to creativity sometimes.”

“Millions” (2004)
“It felt very personal, even though it’s not a script I wrote. Frank [Cottrell Boyce, the screenwriter] and I were both brought up very religiously but we were both very imaginative. It was probably a reaction to the excesses of ’28 Days Later…,’ to find a different mood, a different tone from that. You’ve got to set challenges to see if you can do it. The most obvious scene in it that was missing was, there was never any scene with his mom, and I said to Frank, ‘You’ve got to write a scene with his mom.’ He didn’t want to but he wrote this scene and it’s the most beautiful little scene. You learn sometimes that the most obvious f*cking thing is the thing we need. And don’t try to avoid it, because sometimes you get all wrapped up in subtlety, but sometimes it’s the most obvious thing that you need to do.”

“Sunshine” (2007)
You go into it, you think, ‘It’s funny, most directors only ever seem to make one space movie. I wonder why that is.’ 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 the fact 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. If I ever did another movie like that, I would take a break during editing. Editing is such an organic thing; you keep editing, even though you should have stopped. What you’re really doing is waiting for these CG effects to arrive and we should have taken six months off. Because what you’re doing is cutting the film and there are huge swaths of it you haven’t got. But the fact that they’re not there affects how you cut after it, so actually you’re distorting the film. I’d certainly advise anyone about big CG to build in a break.”

“Slumdog Millionaire” (2008)
“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 [but] 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.”

“127 Hours” (2010)
“The same as this one [‘Steve Jobs’], I learned that just because something isn’t factually correct, doesn’t mean it’s not truthful. That was the experience with Aron Ralston. Because he had been through the experience and had a photographic memory about it, everything had to be exactly as he’d seen it and experienced it. Obviously you trust that to a degree. It’s a first-person testimony. How could you not? But actually in reality, making a film, if you just make the facts, it doesn’t necessarily work and it doesn’t look truthful. And it’s because something else happens in art and film, which is that you have to represent truth rather than photograph it.”

“Trance” (2013)
“‘Trance’ was interesting because it was our relaxation. It was born out of doing the Olympics, which was hugely insane and stressful. So we made what we wanted to be a fun thriller. But it’s a pretty tortured idea and I think that comes out of the fact that our minds were tortured by the responsibility of doing the Olympics. None of the dark stuff could go into the Olympics, because it’s a family show, obviously. So it went into ‘Trance.’ I learned that the dark stuff is always there. You might be doing the wholesome family entertainment as your day job, but at night the dark stuff is still there.”

“Steve Jobs” (2015)
“I learned more about film acting. Especially these two [Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet]. A lot of it is their mental preparation. And it’s not about slavishly learning lines, though in this case it was, because of the nature of it. But the execution of it is simple, in a way. They just step into it. It was extraordinary. There’s no demarcation: ‘Stop that fun, everybody! Stop everything! Action!’ It was just, like, ‘Go!’ That was real film acting, and I loved kind of recording it, watching it happen. And something extraordinary happens to Fassbender in act three where he just is the guy. We set out not to make it slavish and gestural with the hair and everything, because that would be boring and we’d be concentrating on that. We just wanted to flow into it.”

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