Features and Columns · Movies

24 Things We Learned from Danny Boyle’s ‘Shallow Grave’ Commentary

“It’s appalling really.”
Commentary Shallow Grave Red Stairs
By  · Published on May 3rd, 2018

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Danny Boyle has had a steady career as a film director over the past twenty-four years with both box-office hits and critical acclaim. His next project has been confirmed to be the as yet unnamed 25th James Bond film, and we’re obviously looking forward to his take on the Daniel Craig’s (supposed) final turn as Bond.

I’m a fan of many of his films, but as much as I love the likes of Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine my heart belongs to Boyle’s very first feature, Shallow Grave. It remains as tight, charismatic, and engaging a thriller as you’re likely to find, so after a recent re-watch of Criterion’s spectacular Blu-ray I decided to give the first of two included commentary tracks a spin.

Keep reading to see what I heard on Danny Boyle’s commentary for…

Shallow Grave (1994)

Commentator: Danny Boyle (director)

1. They were given one million pounds for the film including 150k from the Glasgow Film Fund and the remainder from the production company Channel Four Films.

2. His advice on making a film for this low of a budget comes down to two things. Have a great script, and make it ninety minutes long.

3. The opening scenes in the woods and down the street were shot on a 10mm Zeiss lens, and Boyle loves its fish-eye quality. “I’ve tried to use it in virtually all the films I’ve done since then.”

4. Kerry Fox was their ace in the hole at the time as she was hot on the art house circuit and guaranteed them home video sales. The two other leads, Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston, were nobodies who had to be screen-tested.

Shallow Grave Three

5. Boyle stayed in a four-bedroom flat with his leads leading up to production. “We rehearsed all day in the flat,” he says, and together they’d interview crew members.

6. The flat in the film is a set built for nearly three quarters of their budget.

7. He was warned by people not to work with Keith Allen, who plays Bruno, but Boyle loves him and had a great experience working with him. “He felt like a person who was gonna move in and take over the film,” he says, and that sleight of hand helps the film when that doesn’t happen.

8. The painting at 9:24 is an original by Stephen Conroy and came with its own security team.

9. Writer John Hodge is also a doctor, and this was his first produced script. “They get so much life passing in front of them, so much drama, so much horror and tragedy,” he says about doctors turned writers, “that they somehow have to maintain a detachment.” The result can sometimes be a darkly comic story.

10. “We hired a million pounds for a day,” he says regarding the suitcase filled with cash. “It’s astonishing,” and adds that it cost them a thousand.

Shallow Grave Money

11. They made a specific point of avoiding guns in the film. “We didn’t want to Americanize the society.”

12. The postman glimpsed only by his image through the opaque window is played by Pat Harkins who went on to direct 2002’s The Final Curtain from another Hodge script.

13. They advertised for a “really good” swimmer to cast the part of the poor nameless fool being dunked in the tub by the two thugs. As a result this is Glen Glendinning’s only acting job.

14. David’s (Eccleston) glasses are modeled on David Cronenberg’s.

15. When they dumped the car in the water-filled quarry it included ballast meant to inflate so they could then retrieve the vehicle after filming. It’s visible beneath the surface at 45:22. It didn’t work. He thinks the car is still there.

16. They used a crash test dummy for the bagged body being carried down the stairs, and they re-used it later as the thug’s body being tossed down from the loft.

17. There’s a moving shadow visible behind Alex (McGregor) at 57:28. It’s an assistant getting into position to drop dust into the frame.

18. Hodge plays the younger detective.

Shallow Grave Hodge

19. The film’s editor, Masahiro Hirakubo, is one of the only people he knows who actually listens to commentaries “so I should definitely mention him.”

20. Alex’s dream where he’s hiding beneath the floorboards is what gives him the idea about hiding the money there.

21. “This was a big thing,” he says regarding the decision to have David punch Juliet (Fox), but they decided it was fitting here because “it feels like it’s jet black what’s left here, and she’s just as bad as either of them.”

22. The shot of a dead David took longer than expected, and it led someone on the film to insist that Boyle be fired. Boyle instead promised to remain under budget and on time in exchange for this unnamed person being fired. The producers complied.

23. Eccleston agreed to be put into that very real morgue drawer but only if someone else was in there to talk with him.

24. He heard Andy Williams’ “Happy Heart” in a taxi while they were in pre-production, and he thought immediately that it should be used for the end of the film.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“The first thing is you gotta have a good script.”

“People of this age really wanted to see something irreverent, violent, black as coal, and funny about their lives.”

“Keith was delighted to take his clothes off.”

“The whole film owes a great deal to the Coen brothers.”

Buy Shallow Grave on Criterion Blu-ray from Amazon.

Final Thoughts

Good gravy I love this movie. Just a fun, nasty, immensely entertaining ninety-minute watch, and Boyle’s commentary offers an insightful look into filming on a budget and his production style in particular. It’s his smallest feature, but his affection for it is clear and understandable. Shallow Grave is worth owning on even a bare-bones DVD, but I highly recommend the Criterion Blu-ray featuring a sharp picture and lots of extras including two commentary tracks. Hell, watch the movie on streaming if you have to… just watch it.

Related Topics:

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.