Danny Boyle has taken us to a hidden paradise in Thailand, a deserted London, the dying sun, and now to Mumbai, which he describes as “the most chaotic place on Earth,” in Slumdog Millionaire. The film has just won four Golden Globe awards, including Best Film and Best Director, and is probably the only thing you’ll see in the multiplex this season that involves quiz shows, M.I.A., and a young boy literally swimming in shit to get a pop star’s autograph.
Before his latest work garnered every accolade in the universe, Anthem spoke with the veteran filmmaker about social realism, how Mumbai’s population could start its own planet, and why he probably won’t become a priest.
28 Days Later, Sunshine, Trainspotting, The Beach, Millions, and now Slumdog Millionaire—these films could not feel any more different in terms of narrative content and visual style. Do you make a conscious choice to genre-hop?
I like to jump into different kinds of films not so much to genre-hop as it inevitably turns out, but because I believe that your best way to start a film is to know as little as possible about what you’re taking on. Some people say that your first film is your best work and in a funny kind of way I find that to be true. It may not be your most successful or your most technically accomplished, but that freshness—you will never see that again. There is magic in not really knowing what you’re doing, as long as you are equipped to handle the confidence issues amongst the crew. The crew could suddenly turn on you when they find out that you don’t know what you’re doing, which can be crippling for first-time directors.
Are there any emotional urges tied to these choices you make?
It’s largely due to the nature of the film business. When you take on any given project, you usually saturate yourself with it for two to three years. It’s always so lovely then to change things up because filmmaking is also about making discoveries—you have to discover something personal. So there is a definite urge to find that change. Having spent three years in space on Sunshine with the sterile, the incredibly confined and controlled atmospheres, you then naturally become attracted to a script like Slumdog Millionaire. I fell in love with that script so deeply. I don’t think I’ve ever done two films in a row that were very similar to one another.
Can you speak a little bit about the use of fantasy in your films?
I like extremes. I’m not a social realist, although I use social realism to cast whether something is believable and true. But I don’t want the fantasy elements to linger longer than they absolutely have to. I just merely push for it when it’s necessary. There are so many crazy things that happen in real life that sometimes make you go “how that fuck could that happen?” That’s what you’re describing as fantasy. But it’s not fantasy when it happens in real life—it’s just an extreme event or an occurrence. A good example is the guy in Austria who locked up his daughter and children in a cellar for twenty-four years. Life is so crazy—your mind will explode if you try to grasp the sheer magnitude of an event like that. I try to push within an established realism. A good example of this is the scene in Slumdog Millionaire where Jamal jumps into a pile of shit. What you’ve got in Mumbai is this intense dedication to Amitabh Bachchan, which is totally beyond our conception in the west. We cannot get a hedge around just how much of a movie star that guy is. You push that into the extreme as much as you can. Then you’ve got shit, which you push to the extreme as well. There are no toilets in the slums so people shit on the spare ground. You bring those two things together and that’s the scene. [Laughs] It’s mad! But it’s based in truth. There is a similar scene in Trainspotting where Ewan McGregor climbs into a toilet. The things we heard about what guys do to themselves physically to get drugs are just unbelievable. Going down the toilet is nothing in their mind—absolutely nothing.
Slumdog Millionaire has a very frantic energy compared to your previous films. What was the reasoning behind this?
It’s what the society feels like in Mumbai. There are a billion people living in that country. That’s enough to start a planet! The overwhelming experience gives you an idea of what it’s like to feel the heartbeats of a billion people. The stimulation you get from everything changing all the time is extraordinary. Nothing even once being the same, except it’s always the same as well. It’s a sort of weird contradiction about the place. It’s almost like the sea. The sea is constantly in motion, so it’s never the same. Yet, it’s always the sea. India is like that. You have to somehow make people feel that without simply describing it to them.
Did you encounter any problems when you decided to recreate the show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” so literally in the film?
I couldn’t think of another way of incorporating the show other than realistically. There is a danger in that it’s very dull when you show it cinematically on the big screen because people are used to watching it on television at home. It’s a show that has been so heavily saturated into the social consciousness. Another big problem we encountered is—it’s really hard to interrupt the show once it starts. We found it incredibly difficult to cut these scenes in editing. We reduced the shots so it wouldn’t feel like the show was dominating the film by keeping the televised show, the questions, and the deliberations to a minimum. It’s solely there to serve as a tool in telling the larger story. In the end, you realize why the show was such a success—it’s almost impossible to tear yourself away from it.
I was surprised at how effectively the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” theme is utilized in the film.
The film is in many ways about memory. Normally, a film about memory has a person who is eighty years old and he or she is reminiscing about their life like in Titantic. The protagonist in Slumdog Millionaire is only eighteen, so his memories are fairly recent. I didn’t want to do rigid flashbacks, but rather make it fluid as if his past memories were bleeding through all the time. The narrative structure in the novel is very rigid and it would prove dull in a cinematic format anyway. The music element definitely helps you jump backwards and forwards in time effectively. Since I wanted to limit the amount of time spent on the show visually, the show’s theme is used as a sort of motif to tie things together as well.
Many of the films you have directed are adapted from novels, including Slumdog Millionaire. Do you go after adapted screenplays?
I don’t choose film projects solely based on the fact that a screenplay is adapted from a novel. It really comes down to the story and how attractive it is to me. You know right away because it hooks you. I read The Beach before anyone else really knew about it and thought it was such a wonderful idea. But books can come quite handy in other respects. A novel like Trainspotting is amazing to have with you on set because there are so many details in it that you can draw from for inspiration—the book becomes a sort of bible. Strangely enough, Q&A [which Slumdog Millionaire is based on] did not serve as my bible while filming the movie. It was another book, a biography called Maximum by Suketu Mehta. Mehta moved from Bombay when he was about sixteen or eighteen years old to New York. He lived there for twelve years before going back to India with his new family to live in Mumbai. In the six hundred pages, he writes about India then and India now. It was incredibly useful for me and I always looked to it for inspiration.
You declined the offer to direct the fourth installment in the Alien franchise and filmed A Life Less Ordinary instead. Why?
I think the Alien films are just extraordinary and I’m a big fan, but I was absolutely terrified of making one. I was onboard at first and met with Sigourney Weaver. Then suddenly, I realized what this project would entail. I’m not really a green screen kind of a person—although I certainly used some of it in Sunshine. It was interesting to work on Sunshine because it’s ten years after I was offered the chance to direct Alien 4. I remember thinking that I could not have coped with this ten years ago, but I can cope with it now. It’s so painstaking, laborious, time-consuming, and slow to get it just right. So that’s why I decided to back out of it and apologize to everybody. [Laughs] I love technical stuff, but I also need the freedom to make decisions on the day of the shoot. On large franchise films like Alien, you cannot do that. You have to give at least a five-week notice to your cameraman and crew to prepare for these complicated shots. I just don’t think like that as a filmmaker. The best ideas that I have tend to come about on the day of the shoot.
What’s happening with Porno, the sequel to Trainspotting?
It’s sort of in suspension right now. I don’t think any of us wanted to do something that was simply a repeat of the first one or go in with the intention of cashing in on the success of the original. I think if you do that, fans will be disappointed no matter how skillfully you pull it off. We have this very strong idea of bringing back the same actors to fill their previous roles—except it would be twenty years later. After having literally abused themselves in their twenties, they suddenly hit the great wall of middle age. Now realizing that the body is no longer invulnerable, they start thinking hard about what they plan to do with the rest of their lives. You will have this great contrast with the way they were in the original film. Their irresponsibility in terms of their own physical and mental safety—they had abandoned it completely. By the time that Porno comes around, Begbie [played by Robert Carlyle] has been in jail for fifteen years. He’s just been breeding violence and resentment toward the other characters when he finally gets released. It’s a great trigger from which to build a story for the next chapter. The problem at the moment is that even though twelve years have passed since Trainspotting, all the actors look exactly the same. They might have put on a little weight, but nobody’s hair has fallen out and they basically look like they did back then. Actors take really good care of themselves. They are moisturizing at night to keep their looks. They would be stupid not to! [Laughs] So we have to wait. Otherwise, you end up using prosthetics and it would work against the raw nature of these films. You can’t have people walking around with wigs on—it would be silly. When they start to show real signs of age, that’s the time to make the sequel.
Is it going to be weird at all coming back to a world you created so long ago?
It will be weird. The actors will have had kids and new family life. But I’m sure they will have plenty of stuff to bring to the table by channeling personal experiences. Edinburgh will have changed as well. I think it will be fascinating too.
I’ve seen your name attached to numerous films in the past few years, but they all seem to have disappeared during development. Are you still involved with Solomon Grundy?
Solomon Grundy was a brilliant idea and a very nice script about a man who lives and dies within seven days. It’s based on a nursery rhyme by the same name, which goes like: born on a Monday, Christened on Tuesday, married on Wednesday, took ill on Thursday, grew worse on Friday, died on Saturday, buried on Sunday, that was the end of Solomon Grundy. But it was too similar to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and my involvement with it has died. I tend to do one thing at a time. I don’t have a great slew of projects on the back burner. The only one that I have planned is the Trainspotting sequel in the far distant future.
I read somewhere that you considered becoming a priest when you were younger. What was attractive to you about priesthood at the time?
I mentioned that because I was brought up like that. I was an alter boy and attended Thornliegh Salesian College, which is a Catholic teaching order. Also, my mum was a devote Irish Catholic who had mapped out my future as a priest. But I didn’t become one thank goodness, and I certainly don’t have any aspirations of becoming one now. [Laughs] Although it’s interesting how a number of film directors flirted with the idea of priesthood like Martin Scorsese and John Woo. I think there is some sort of a connection between directing and being a parish priest.