A blurry peek into the work of our current favourite Englishman.
Danny Boyle never wanted to make a zombie movie.
After a rushed prologue, 28 Days Later opens with a long, haunting scene showing Cillian Murphy’s haplessly normal character Jim wandering through London. He walks through Westminster Bridge, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Bridge, staring confoundedly around him because these unmistakable London landmarks — areas of the city that define the word ‘bustle’ — are empty, and so Jim, who has just woken from a 28-day coma, finds himself lonelier than a woman at a comic book convention.
Shot on digital video, the impossibly empty London sequences are disconcertingly haunting, showing the city in an unlikely desolation that seems endless. Before the zombie virus called Rage strikes, that is.
The scene is a watershed moment in modern horror cinema, and even though Boyle refers to the film as a drama set in a zombie/horror backdrop, the fear generated by the film and that landmark scene is pretty darned intense.
Talking about the film now, sitting in Mumbai opposite director Sudhir Mishra at a Masterclass, the 52-year-old Boyle tells us that this specific London sequence was the only reason he did the film, before going on to elaborate how digital cameras were much, much cheaper than their film counterparts, and how they got 70-odd cameras and scattered them around the place and only held up traffic for a few minutes, early in the morning. And then it’s on the editing table that the sequence is intercut using various angles, cut to excruciatingly slow speeds, making it seem endless.
Boyle isn’t a big fan of the genre at all, but screenwriter Alex Garland — who also wrote The Beach — is a massive zombie nut, and insisted on this film. Boyle then drew parallels between his film’s Rage virus and England itself increasingly mired in day-to-day incidents of road rage and a general unease, and used the tension between himself and his zombie-lovin’ writer to give the film greater edge.
Danny Boyle never wanted to make a first film that was derivative of the Coen brothers. Danny Boyle never wanted to head down to Thailand with an invading army to shoot a film. And Danny Boyle never, ever wanted to make a film in India.
The thing explaining this here obvious pattern is that what Danny likes is discomfort. One look at his extremely varied filmography shows us the need to constantly squirm.
He begins with the fantastically dark thriller Shallow Grave, moves on to seminal heroin addiction film Trainspotting, makes the daft romcom A Life Less Ordinary, trips through Thailand with the coming-of-age The Beach, churns out the aformentioned zombie movie, makes a lovely children’s movie called Millions, heads to science fiction with Sunshine, and, most recently, does the whole Mumbai thing better than any Indian director with Slumdog Millionaire.
And it’s not just genre. One of the first major filmmakers to entirely embrace the digital format, Boyle made his way up from theatre to television to cinema, and has persistently tried to find friction in his projects. He has experimented with moods, cinematographers, cast, locations, equipment and subject, and clearly likes to find himself at least a little bit out of sorts.
The one time he got everything he asked for, Boyle grins, is the time he really flubbed it up. The Beach gave him a big budget, a successful novel to work with, one of the biggest superstars in Hollywood, and complete freedom — which is what he then used to — in his own words — “invade Thailand like an army, one that knows everything and takes over whatever pops up in its path.” The approach was a huge mistake, he admits, which is why when he decided to do Slumdog Millionaire, he went with as local a cast and crew as he could get for the whole film.
India came out of nowhere for Boyle. But — leaving Slumdog for a little later — so did John Hodge’s screenplay for Shallow Grave, a script he auditioned for as a filmmaker. Hugely encouraging the primarily British process of directors having to compete for a good script, Boyle is a gushing fan of good writing, citing how the words and dialogues so often drive the action, and how the first great page can set everything up, no matter what.
The original Grave script, Boyle admits, was almost completely copped from the Coen brothers. A group of quirkily developed characters finding a pile of money through highly unlikely yet meticulously plotted circumstances, and then exploding into chaos — the blueprint seems obvious. And even while Danny’s a huge fan of Blood Simple — “the Coen’s best film” — he fought to change the script and push in lots of originality, resulting in a very edgy motion picture debut.
He still considers Shallow Grave his finest film, revelling in the fact that there is such purity in not knowing exactly what to do. “It isn’t your finest crafted film, sure, but it’s your most unaffected piece of work, one that you make with the most instinct,” he says. Which would explain just why he tries so, so hard to make sure his films don’t give him any comfort space.
His second film was the big one, the benchmark, the movie that will invariably go down as his legacy. When Boyle read Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting, he knew he had to make it into a film. “And it’s such an incredibly written book that a hundred different filmmakers can make a hundred entirely different films out of it,” he trills. He also explains that while his film was about heroin addiction, his hyperkinetic treatment was far more appropriate to the new drug then sweeping across dance-floors and private parties in the UK. He tried to capture a rush much more like those caused by ecstacy or speed, drugs that drove the user to an extreme instead of an inert heroin-based stupor.
As is now typical of Boyle’s style, the film is iconically thrust forward by an insanely frenetic chase scene. This one happens at the film’s very beginning, Ewan McGregor’s Renton breaking into a law-evading gallop in the streets of Edinburgh as that instantly mythical voiceover of his asks us why in the world would we want to choose dental insurance, matching luggage, or a job. It is a remarkable moment in cinema, and decidedly one of the most influential scenes of the 90s.
The film also highlights Boyle’s obsession with setting his best scenes in the toilet, Trainspotting’s magic moment coming when Renton dives headfirst into ‘the worst toilet in Scotland,’ battling faeces and filth to enter impossibly lovely blue water and regain the rectal suppositories he needed for his next hit. The scene — just as in the 2008’s single-finest motion picture moment — isn’t about the shit or the eventual goal, it is about a person driven to do anything to get what he desires, and, most importantly, about the immense, irrational joy on achieving said target.
That, Boyle agrees, and the fact that British film and television is ridiculously obsessed with toilets to begin with.
Boyle was next offered a huge project, part of a rare franchise which was only being worked on by top-level directors. Ridley Scott made the first Alien, James Cameron made Aliens, and Fight Club director David Fincher — the man slugging it out with Boyle for the Best Director Oscar this year with his The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button — made his directorial debut with the third film of the series, Alien 3.
But Boyle passed up the chance to make film number four, because while he loves watching “big, big action movies” and promises to be “first in line whenever Cameron’s [sci-fi] Avatar comes to theatres,” he’s clear on it not being his kind of genre. “In a way a lot of my films are like action films, with chase sequences and all, but films with action aren’t action movies.” And Boyle likes making one kind and watching the other.
What did he make instead of Alien 4? A quirky little goofball romantic comedy called A Life Less Ordinary, another film clearly derivative of the Coen brothers’ early schtick, one with his favourite actor Ewan McGregor fooling around with Cameron Diaz in a plot about self-organised kidnapping, weird villains, nothing going according to plan, and a terrific karaoke scene. He winces as the film is discussed, but, grinning sheepishly, confesses that he thought the chemistry between the lead pair was fantastic, which is why he had a ball making that film. Fair’s fair, and why does the Trainspotting man have to make important movies all the time anyway?
Then came that smashing zombie movie — undoubtedly one of the finest of the genre, one that looked at inner horror gnawing at us rather than just creepy corpses chasing our bodies — which he, in traditionally flip-flop manner, followed up with a children’s film. Nice.
Millions, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and turned into a novel during the film’s production, is a genuinely inventive children’s film, with a plot that doffs its hat to the filmmaker’s own Shallow Grave as it starts with two disparate young brothers finding a bagful of money. Like all truly great children’s films, it works just as well for an adult audience, and while it has its share of special effects — used judiciously alongside cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s (28 Days Later, Slumdog) expert lenswork — the film has a gloriously joyful heart, and the end result is absolutely irresistible.
Another Alex Garland film, Boyle’s 2007 release Sunshine, can visibly be recognised as his ode to Andre Tarkovsky’s Solaris and, to an extent, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. What seemed to turn Boyle on about this project was the prospect of getting a method acting ensemble together, and then experimenting with them under claustrophobic conditions. The film received high praise for its detailing and possible spiritual themes, but the overall third act disappointed, with a peculiar jump into slasher-genre proving particularly jarring.
It can be argued, Boyle jokes, that he remakes all his own movies. The topic of discussion moves on swiftly, but the point has been made. In a way, his latest film, the marvellous Slumdog Millionaire, is a delightfully Bollywoody excursion through Danny Boyle’s Greatest Hits. Millions had a good brother growing up alongside a selfish brother growing up, both looking at money very differently; The Beach trips briefly into wonderment as Leonardo DiCaprio looks at the jungle as a video game; 28 Days Later shows us a familiar megapolis and makes it appear completely, fascinatingly new; Shallow Grave is all about how far one can go for money; and not just does Trainspotting have a beautiful sequence mired in shit, but it’s all about an irresistible protagonist going through hell yet keeping us staunchly on his side during a breathlessly wild ride.
And, depending on how whimsically you want to look at it, the soundtracks are all interchangable. You could plug the Oscar nominated O.. Saya right on top of Shallow Grave’s money shots, Liquid Dreams could be a part of 28 Days Later, and Jai Ho could open Trainspotting with a bang. Blasphemy, of course, but it just goes to show the passion remains bass-thuddingly the same.
Speaking of Slumdog Millionaire, why haven’t we yet salivated about what could well be Boyle’s finest film? The film shot in Mumbai, starring a bunch of us and with music by *our* resident genius? Because the hype is too deafening, and right now everyone has an opinion, and, seemingly, a self-righteous agenda to have a contrarian opinion, and there’s no use adding flak to the fire. The film is a masterpiece, and deserves full-length features on its merits, but lets save that till the ignoramuses have quietened down. Till after the Best Picture Oscar.
It is, as you might have surmised, hard to pinpoint an overriding theme running through Boyle’s genre-defying body of work. It is likewise difficult — when dealing with a director so alarmingly willing to discard any sort of established cameras and toy with the newest, most experimental gizmo on the block — to sum up a visual grammar or technique distinctive to his cinema.
What is unmistakable about Boyle’s films, though, is the sheer, madcap energy. Not just in chase sequences and flashy edits, not just in plucky bursts of rebellion and characters soaked in defiance, but in every single frame, as it pulsates and throbs with a life of its own, yanking the narrative and the viewer by the collar and leading them into the next scene, as if there is no other way forward.
Actually, strike that out. It’s as if there are a million other ways to go forward, but the one Danny Boyle’s taking you on is the single awesomest.
Published in Man’s World, February 2009