SXSW 2013: Danny Boyle Goes Noirish With ‘Trance’
One event that was a must-attend at this year’s SXSW was Danny Boyle’s panel, which happened this morning. Besides the fact Boyle is behind some of the most acclaimed films of the past 20 years ‐ Slumdog Millionare, Millions, 28 Days Later, Sunshine — his personality is as invigorating as his movies. Boyle, as one can hopefully tell from our conversation with him, is drenched in enthusiasm when it comes to film.
He’s one of the few filmmakers out there who mainly discusses the joys of filmmaking, not the pitfalls. Whether he is talking about his own movies or someone else’s, he usually has a big smile on his face. If you missed his panel at the Vimeo theater or are unfortunately not in Austin right now, make sure to catch it when it inevitably appears on youtube.
When it comes to Boyle’s latest film, Trance, he’s made what has been described as “a trippy, noirish thriller.” Boyle is back to full-on genre, where he can twist expectations, give us a monstrous James McAvoy, and, as he tells us, the power of a good Scottish accent.
Thanks for making the time.
I’m sorry I had to pull out on Thursday because I forgot, and then we were off to India, on a kind of lightning trip to India. So I’m sorry about not being available Thursday. Anyway, so I apologize.
It’s no problem. Did you have a good trip?
Yeah. We had two kids in Slumdog who had very poor backgrounds. We try to see them at least once a year ‐ sometimes twice a year, ideally ‐ just to see how they are getting along, because we’ve got them in school, and there’s a trust to look after them a bit, and we’ve got them flats to live in and stuff like that. It’s not always easy. I don’t want to give a false impression. But this trip was particularly good. They seemed as if they were maturing. They’re 14 now. And when they get to 18, you know, they get the rights to their flats that we’ve got them in. You’ve got to watch out for people stealing and… Anyway, but it was good. They were in good form, so it was nice, actually. They’re lovely kids.
That’s really great to hear. Obviously you have your panel coming up and it’s always nice seeing filmmakers opening themselves up to fans and aspiring filmmakers. Is that something you’ve always tried to do?
Yeah, I do. We can talk and everything, but I love it when there is quite a bit of Q&A, because it’s lovely for people just to get the chance to go and ask stuff. I remember what it’s like. I remember going to, well, I worked in Northern Ireland. Before I got into movies I worked in television in Northern Ireland. I remember going to one with Alan Parker in Belfast, and I was in the audience. It was quite wonderful just to sit. I didn’t ask any questions, but just to have the guy there that made these films. I think it was Angel Heart he was promoting at the time. It was this fantastic feeling of, “Bloody hell, look at him!” Maybe there is some magic involved a little bit, but mostly it’s just like bloody… Like any job, it’s just really getting on with it and getting stuff done. It was lovely to see him. I’ll always remember that.
It’s funny you mention Angel Heart because Trance seems similar in the way of having a noirish tone.
Oh, I love doing those movies. People here deny this now, but people were sneery about these movies. They thought it was too commercial. There’s always this thing in Britain where they are very suspicious of anything that appeals to too many people. [Laughs] They slag them off mercilessly, and [guys like] Ridley Scott. That’s why I definitely work in America, because that film was… People go to the movies to lose themselves. They don’t go with a lot of baggage, going, “How am I going to criticize this?”
Anyway, I used to love his films. I loved Angel Heart. [Laughs] I haven’t seen it, actually, for a few years. It would be a good one to do at a film festival. We’ve got a little…I live in the East End of London and there’s an old mental health hospital that closed. They are rebuilding it as community housing. These pop-up people have gotten involved in it. They want to do a pop-up film festival this summer. They’re thinking of what to show, films that will be interesting to people and maybe people haven’t seen, and yet there’s enough in them to make them come. That’d be great. Funny enough, I watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest the other night with that in mind because I haven’t seen it for years. It’s brilliant, of course.
[Laughs] I actually re-watched it a week or two ago as well. I went on Rotten Tomatoes immediately afterwards and thought, “How can there be negative reviews for this movie?”
Oh, my God. And Danny DeVito! I forgot Danny DeVito is in it! He’s amazing in it! Absolutely amazing. The film is incredible!
For that film festival are you going to suggest any of your own films?
I don’t know, actually. The one that they would show, I guess, is Trainspotting. But, 28 Days Later, it’s quite scary [Laughs]. If you get into it at night, it would be quite scary. They might show that, I suppose. I wasn’t going to show any of mine. I was trying to think of an eclectic mix that is like, “Oh, I haven’t seen that…” People have probably seen them, but drag along people who haven’t seen them and you can see them in an environment that’s interesting rather than on a DVD.
You mentioned the idea of directors getting flack for making movies that are for everyone. What’s your relationship with an audience? Are you very audience conscious when making a movie?
What we try to do is kind of find a balance, really, between… I suppose it’s genre, really. We use genre because that’s how movies are sold and that’s how you get to people often. It’s a good way to get to people. Especially if I’m going to use big stars or tentpole type ideas. You know, huge CGI effects ideas or things like that. It’s a good way to get to people. So I’m very happy to do that. And then you try to twist it a bit so it isn’t just the genre that you expect. There’s something within it that actually takes you on a bit of a journey that’s a bit unexpected that refreshes the genre for you, conflicts it and refreshes it at the same time. That’s what I love doing.
I kind of know enough about what I’ve done now. You do look back a bit or you get to a certain point and you go, “I can see.” You sort of do it accidentally. You’re not really thinking about it when you are setting up a project, but clearly you see a pattern. That’s what you do. You take an idea and you kind of pervert it for some reason.
So for 127 Hours, we all saw it as, in a really perverse way, as an action movie where the hero can’t move. But that keeps you kind of like, “Oh, right. OK.” Can you make it compelling for all that time? The guy can’t move.
This one, Trance, has got kind of a noirish feel… But it’s not a noir. We wanted it to look like a noir. We wanted it to update noir, really, if you can. Take some of the ingredients of it and kind of update it. That’s what I love doing. And that lets you get an audience, which I’m very prone… I don’t want them to play just to a small group of people in the BFI. I want them to get out and compete with the wrestling on television. That’s the competition.
I can see that noir influence in the trailer. Rosario Dawson seems to fit the femme fatale archetype.
Yes. That was one of the selling points of the film, actually, was that I realized I’d never made a film with a woman at the center of it. We’ve done a couple of triumvirate. Like Shallow Grave is a triumvirate. And Slumdog Millionaire is a triumvirate, actually.
But we haven’t really done one with a woman who is pivotal and comes into focus more and more as the film develops. So that was one of the attractions of doing it. I love attacking the femme fatale idea, which is, in many ways, a male construct. And yet, we wanted to do it in a modern sense in, could you actually make a character that isn’t a construct? That actually has an emotional journey as well? She’s not just a product of a male fantasy imagination. She uses that fantasy, her attractiveness, to control a man, to progress with the man, but actually she has her own story as well, which the film unravels eventually. That was a sort of starting point.
After the starting point, how much do your films evolve? Do they change significantly while filming or in editing? Or is it usually pretty much what you initially saw?
I think while it’s true that films are made in editing, it depends what order you cut them in, and what pace you use, and what music you use and all that kind of stuff. It really is where films are made, is in the editing. While that’s true, one of the things that we do to try and make the films look like more than they actually cost, we cap our films. We have this deal with Searchlight for $28 million. Everything has to be under that.
So what you try and do is explore as much as possible in this script. We worked very, very hard on the script, so that when you actually come to the shoot you just shoot the film. You just shoot the script. And that’s pretty much true for virtually like 90% of the days that you have. You might experiment a little bit, but you can waste a lot of money and you can get lost very, very quickly. So we tend to be quite tight. We experiment like mad in the scripting and have a great time in the editing, but shooting we tend to be quite disciplined. It’s one of the ways that you can make money go a bit further, really.
Genre really seems to let you run loose as a visual storyteller. Is there a little more freedom when it comes to the camerawork on films like Trance?
Yeah. That was obviously one of the wonderful things about it, is you get a chance to… The film is a series of trances, really, and there’s really four. I mean you can argue how many trances there are, and that’s one of the… As people get to discuss it afterwards, that’s one of the things is, how many trances are there going on? But you get to detect them. And I love that, because movies are amazing because they are… It doesn’t matter what you put on the screen. It is acceptable… I mean as long as you are doing well enough, it’s acceptable at the present time. So you can have memories. You can have illusions. But they are like present time. This is the 90 minute to two hour journey that you are on.
This is present time until it cracks and dissolves or whatever. I love that about it. And you become transfixed in ideas that eventually may have no substance other than the intention of a character to manipulate, another character in this case, or to delude people, delude the audience. Characters deliberately do that. That’s the delight of doing these kinds of constructs. And that territory is noirish because, in the end, and this is the other thing about the film, is that you don’t know who to trust. You set up James McAvoy. He’s a very nice guy in most of his movies. And he’s kind of like very lovable, really. And he seems smart and sorted out. You think, “Oh, he must be the hero, he has the voiceover in the beginning!” And then, of course, it begins to change a little bit. The guy is ripping fingernails off. He feels like a bit of a monster. He’s the guy at the end who, actually, in a way, has something off to him, which is totally unexpected.
Anyway, so you don’t know who to trust, really. It shifts. That’s true of the illusion of the film as well. You don’t know whether to trust him or not. I love that. You kinda get lost in that bubble with the characters, really.
It sounds like you enjoyed twisting the persona we expect from James McAvoy. Is that something you look for when casting?
Well, he was really… He loved that idea, I think. I think what they do, actually, is they know they are getting cast as the good guy. If they are good actors they are always looking for something contrarily to test themselves. I think it was a very difficult part for him to track. He loved that challenge, I think. It’s a challenge. It’s such a cliché, but it’s true. For him it’s like a big challenge because he’s the funny guy at the beginning, and then you kind of go, “Oh, poor guy. He’s getting his nails ripped off!” And then, of course, by the time you get to the end it’s a very different story entirely.
So yeah, I thought he was a bit young. I think it was the casting director who first suggested him. I thought he was a bit young, which is why I hadn’t really thought of him. I love him as an actor. But he came in and he wasn’t boyish anymore. He’s hit 30. That’s the other thing about him. He wants to do stuff that is a bit more manly, I suppose, not quite so boyish. That’s another thing they face, actors, that transition. So I like that about him.
And, of course, the Scottish accent. I adore the Scottish accent. Any sort of Celtic accent and I’m there, really. I don’t know what it is. I blame Sean Connery. He transfixed us. He’s got that… And you know he’s international. Because everybody tries to stop him doing Scottish for the American films. I think, “No, no, no, no! The Americans love Scottish! They love it! Look at Sean Connery! Look at The Untouchables!”
[Laughs] It’s all his fault. I don’t know if you’ve seen him in Welcome to the Punch, but he gets to play at what you’re talking about there as well.
Yeah, and he’s got another one coming out later in the year called Filth, an Irvine Welsh novel, which is very disturbing. So you can see that’s his challenge before he goes back into X-Men. Anyway, so that’s certainly James’s challenge. And he’s had a good time doing them I think.
Before I let you go, I have to ask about A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach. They’ve always been your two most divisive films. Why do you think that is?
It’s funny, isn’t it? John Hodge wrote this and wrote Shallow Grave and Trainspotting and Life Less Ordinary. We were talking the other day about how we are very fond about A Life Less Ordinary. But nobody thought anything of it at all. I mean it was like… I suppose it was a bit understandable. We had a certain impact with Trainspotting. It’s understandable that if we pick a different tone with a love story, then you are vulnerable, I suppose. But I like the film, because I think it’s quite interesting. I think it’s quite an irrational film about love. Love isn’t really rationale. If it was it’d be so easy. It wouldn’t fit so many of our stories. I quite like that thing about it.
The Beach is a great story. I think The Beach is just a great kind of story idea, really, about an amazing place and an amazing idea about a bunch of westerners hiding there in a kind of world that we take our sins to, really. We think utopia will replace all our sins, but we take the sins into utopia. It’s not utopia’s fault. It’s our own fault we carry them with us the whole time.
Trance opens in theaters on April 5th.