Danny Boyle: 8 things I’ve learned from my career in features

Posted by · 10:14 am · November 7th, 2008

Danny Boyle on the set of SunshineFilmmaker Danny Boyle is set to be feted this evening by the American Film Institute, but with just eight feature films under his belt, the dynamic director of such milestones as “Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later” and this year’s festival favorite “Slumdog Millionaire” is hardly due for a career retrospective.  He’s still going strong, excited by each new project and willing to take his time on whatever strikes his fancy along the way.  But as “Slumdog” begins to stand out as, perhaps, Boyle’s greatest cinematic accomplishment to date, the director shares with us what he’s learned along the way, film-by-film.

“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.”

“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.  That’s television.  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.”

“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’ is 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 accesses 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 fucking 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)
“The biggest lesson you learn is, 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.”

“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.”

Have your say.  What’s your favorite Danny Boyle film?  Tell us in the comments below!

→ 16 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Featured · Interviews

16 responses so far

  • 1 11-07-2008 at 10:45 am

    mike said...

    After seeing Slumdog last night, it is by far my favorite film of his, but I also really enjoyed Sunshine last year… so that is a close #2. Can’t wait to see what he does next

  • 2 11-07-2008 at 11:13 am

    CinematicallyCorrect.com said...

    Even after loving “Slumdog Milli0naire”, I am going with “Trainspotting”.

  • 3 11-07-2008 at 1:53 pm

    Patrick said...


  • 4 11-07-2008 at 4:27 pm

    John Foote said...

    “Trainspotting” was the best film of 1996 and Boyle should have won the Oscar for best director — friggin’ brilliant from beginning to end ii is Robert Carlyle not one of the most chilling sociopaths ever? A masterwork of modern cinema.

  • 5 11-07-2008 at 5:00 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    I love “Slumdog,” but I’ll be boring and say I still think “Trainspotting” is his finest film.

    On a more contentious note, however, I love “A Life Less Ordinary.” I don’t know why.

  • 6 11-07-2008 at 5:31 pm

    Chris said...

    I haven’t seen “Slumdog Millionaire”, because obviously it’s not out in UK yet, but I’d have to agree with Guy. “Trainspotting”‘s the boring choice, and I do love “A Life Less Ordinary”, as well without knowing exactly why.

  • 7 11-07-2008 at 6:24 pm

    Liz said...

    Guy, I love “A Life Less Ordinary” as well. I guess I can understand why it got a bad rap, but it’s a thoroughly refreshing spin on the rom-com, in my opinion.

  • 8 11-07-2008 at 11:18 pm

    BurmaShave said...

    Unless Danny Boyle is under consideration for Vice President, I think you mean ‘feted’, not ‘vetted’, haha. Sorry, but I’ve become a stickler these days. It’s recently become part of my job to edit other people’s reports, and it’s driving me insane.

  • 9 11-07-2008 at 11:22 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Oy, of course. Too much presidential talk has crept its way into my subconscious lately. Thanks for the catch.

  • 10 11-09-2008 at 9:02 am

    Sebastian F said...

    I love Shallow Grave. That ending with the girl screaming in the car, Ewan smiling in the floor, and the image of the three friends laughing whith the Happy Heart song is so bittersweet. A corrupted frindship.

  • 11 11-09-2008 at 10:16 am

    Chad said...

    I admire Boyle. I’ve liked all of his films but loved none. If pressed, I’d pick “The Beach” as a favorite, irony-free.