How Danny Boyle followed up 'Slumdog Millionaire'
He made '127 Hours', put on a theatre production of 'Frankenstein' and is artistic director for the opening ceremony of the 2012 games, that's what.
The 30-year career of 54-year-old Lancastrian Danny Boyle has certainly been varied. In the 1980s he was best known for his work in television and theatre, but then he made a memorable shift to cinema, kicking off with ‘Shallow Grave’ in 1994, and of course ‘Trainspotting’ in 1996. The latter alone would have assured him a prominent place in cinematic history, but his impressive output continued, culminating with his triumphant win at the Oscars in 2009 for ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.
Now – just in case anyone should be tempted to accuse him of resting on his laurels – the director has his mind focused on two new monster projects, neither of them a film: his production of ‘Frankenstein’ will open in February at the National Theatre and he’s hard at work on the artistic direction of the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. This doesn’t mean he’s been slacking off on the movie front, though. Boyle’s new film, ‘127 Hours’, should see audiences wincing at the fearless and imaginative true story of Aron Ralston, the young American adventurer who was forced to cut off his own arm with a penknife when he slipped down a canyon in Utah in 2003 and became trapped under a boulder miles from anywhere and anyone. Small wonder that he’s just been handed a British Film Institute Fellowship as recognition of his busy, eclectic 16 years in cinema. Time Out spoke to Boyle in London on the morning after he was presented with the award by his friend and Olympics collaborator Stephen Daldry.
You looked absolutely choked picking up that award last night…
‘I fucked it up because I never prepare anything. I hate people getting things out of their pockets or using an Autocue or all that. People should just speak. We’d been promoting “127 Hours” in America, I got off the plane in the morning, spent the day at the National working on “Frankenstein” and then I went straight there and I couldn’t fucking keep up with my head. Usually I’m all right, but anyway…’
You made some very strong points about the importance of theatre in our country.
‘I tried to, yeah, and I got a bit upset. But I always get a bit upset because you’ve got to speak up for theatre. Theatre will be crucified by this level of cuts, whereas film will always survive in some way. Theatre is different. Look where it’s all emerging from in Britain, and it’s theatre – the actors, the directors, they all come out of theatre, you know?’
You followed ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ with ‘127 Hours’. Did you have to convince anyone it was a good idea to make a film about a guy who chops off his arm?
‘When I told the story to people as we tried to set the film up, you could see them thinking, “That’s never going to work.” It always felt to me like it would work – if you got the right actor, you’d be feeling every minute of it and it would be difficult to watch, but you’d get there. But then they look at you and think, “Well, everyone says that, and from our point of view, this is a guy alone in a canyon for six days and then he cuts his arm off – that’s, like, not gonna work.” ‘So we only got to make it because of how much money “Slumdog” took. We would never have financed it otherwise. They could lie to me now, but I know what it’s like: you cash in your credit, and that’s what we did.’
You knew there would never be an easier time to get it made?
‘You’d never get it made otherwise. I mean, maybe triple-A directors – Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson – people like that would push it through. Chris Nolan would push it through, but even then it would be a struggle because it’s very tough at the moment for this kind of story, for independent films.’
You must have been offered some big projects after ‘Slumdog’.
‘Offers, yeah: you get all sorts of stuff. But I don’t even look through them – I know enough about what I’m good at. I just know I wouldn’t make a very good job of it. I’m not very good at that kind of thing. I mean, I admire Chris Nolan, I think he’s an amazing director, but I just know I couldn’t work under those conditions that you have to with that level of expenditure.’
And now you’re planning ‘Frankenstein’. What’s your take on it?
‘We’re doing it in the Olivier in the National Theatre, which is a vast space, but it’s a two-hander, basically. What we’ve done is cast two actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, in the two roles of Frankenstein and his creature, but it’s all from the creature’s point of view. Then, we’re going to swap the actors, every night or every other night, so they play both parts. The idea is that each actor is looking at the guy who’s performing his part the next night. And obviously in this story he’s created him and the creature wants to know how responsible he is for having created him.’
It’s been more than 15 years since you worked in theatre. Have you missed it?
‘I never thought I was that good in theatre, but hopefully I will have got a bit better once I’ve got rid of the rust. I do love it, and I can see that it is more important to our culture than probably anything else other than music. So I’m looking forward to going back but I’m nervous and apprehensive. You get so much time with the actors, and of course film gets you used to spending very little time with them. So we’ll see.’
Let’s talk about the Olympics. How are you juggling that with ‘Frankenstein’ and promoting ‘127 Hours’?
‘It’s a bit hectic at the moment, to be honest, but I’ve got a team together, a small team of people just like you’d make a film with, really, but it won’t be film based, it’ll be live based. And the key things are obviously I’m not going to try and build on Beijing, because how could you? We can’t, and you wouldn’t want to, so we’re going back to the beginning. We’re going to try and give the impression that we’re rethinking and restarting, because they’ve escalated since Los Angeles in 1984. They’ve tried to top themselves each time and you can’t do that after Beijing. The stadium is not a work of art in the sense that the Bird’s Nest is or even the Johannesburg stadium for the football, but it has something remarkable about it, which is that it has the same number of seats as Beijing but it’s half the size. It’s very intimate. It’s like a porcelain bowl.’
So you’ll be keeping it modest?
‘We’re going to try and make it more personal, a bit more intimate.’
Who chose you for the job?
‘I imagine it was probably Steve [Stephen Daldry, executive producer of the event].’
So he was involved first?
‘I imagine Stephen probably said, “I can’t do it, but I’ll oversee it, and why don’t you get in so-and-so?” I said yes immediately.
No hesitation, and I don’t regret that, even though I’m nervous about it now.’
The global nature of your films must help? You’ve shot ‘The Beach’ in Thailand, ‘Slumdog’ in India, two films in the US.
‘That profile helps for sure. And obviously the glamour of the Oscars, the “Slumdog” thing, must help. I can imagine a lot of people in live theatre thinking, “Why the fuck does he get asked to do it? What about us who do this kind of work all the time?” Fair enough – and I’ll try to employ you if I can!’
A couple of colleagues have suggestions for the opening ceremony. Can I run them by you?
‘Yes! Not that I can confirm any of it!’
How about an egg-and-spoon race?
‘A very noble British tradition…’
The same person wants to see references to the Hundred Years War and the invention of the hovercraft.
‘The hovercraft! Very good! There are some amazing inventions when you start to look into it. The most significant of course is the world wide web, which is what’s his name? He’s still alive…’
‘Yes… Is there anything that has more significance to our daily lives than that?’
The world’s your oyster, then…
‘Except you can easily drown in that kind of stuff, and you’ve got to avoid the danger of what we call “muffin moments” – which are like “muffin movies”, which celebrate the past in a rather affectionate way and could get us lost in pageantry very easily. We’ve got to be careful. I think we’ve got a confidence as a country where we don’t have to go: “Look at us!” We need to be a bit more idiosyncratic than that. If you take a loud pride in anything, people will rightly shoot you down.’
Our Music editor wants you to say ‘yes’ to anything with a shred of dignity and ‘no’ to anything ‘urban’. For the latter, he gives the example of ‘gangs of stage-school kids speed-graffiting the 2012 logo’.
‘I can’t speak about the 2012 logo, although I have my own thoughts about it. Yes to the shred of dignity. It’s interesting: I think music will play a big part, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how strong our pop musical culture is, you know? There’s so many different strands of it. You’ve got to remember that actually what the opening is about is saying, “Welcome to the Olympic Games in London” – because the games are important – not the opening ceremony! I keep trying to remind people of that.’
Sure, but you’ll have a huge TV audience for that ceremony.
‘You can’t really think about it – if you try and think about whatever they say the viewing figures are… four billion people, or something, you can’t, it becomes incomprehensible. So 80,000 in the stadium is big enough. We’ll make it for them first and see how the telly gets on after.’
You live in east London, don’t you?
‘I do: I live about a mile from the stadium, I always have done. I’m proud that investment is going into that area, because it’s about
time. It was the lungs of London in the Industrial Revolution, when London was forged, and we’re still living in the shadow of that in some way. I think there’ll be an acknowledgement of that.’
Well, good luck with the whole thing…
‘Thank you, we’ll need a bit. I’m very relaxed about it now, but I’m sure that won’t sustain for very long.’
When does it kick in for you?
‘The first big step is that we have to do a 20-minute presentation on computer for the International Olympic Committee in March.
So that’s why we’re working on it now, because by the time we’re done with “Frankenstein” it’ll be March already and we’ll have to give them our central ideas, and then they have to give them the nod. Then the IOC will make their suggestions, and there’s a lot of politics as it has to go before the Government and the Mayor.’
Does this rule you out of doing another film before the Olympics?
‘In theory, yes!’
Read our review of '127 Hours'
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