The mastermind behind films like Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, the underrated Sunshine, and the newest, Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle introduces himself with a big genuine smile and a firm handshake. When he starts talking, (immediately, about his take on British toilet humor), he has the intrigue and charm reminiscent of a nice chap at the pub who loves to tell stories. In a cozy room at Chicago's wonderful Hotel Sax, Boyle discussed with great enthusiasm his latest and possibly best achievement, Slumdog Millionaire. The film is a unique take on the concept of the underdog that, with amazing visuals and storytelling, catapults us headfirst into the life on the streets of Mumbai, India. Slumdog focuses on a young man named Jamal, whose life story is incidentally told through the questions he must answer on "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." The film was very well received at the Toronto and Chicago Film Festivals, and opens in select theaters on November 12th. Award-season buzz is pondering the possibility that Slumdog Millionaire will be Boyle's first film to earn some type of Oscar recognition.
Along with another reporter, I tried to fully grasp within my fifteen minute interview time how something so winning and visually arresting such as Slumdog Millionaire truly came to be.
What first attracted you to this project?
It was the script. [The producers] sent the script and they said it was about "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire", the agent rather lazily said it was about the show - which it clearly isn't. And I was thinking, "I don't really want to a do a movie about that show." I mean, I watch the show, I've been addicted to it like we all have, but I didn't really want to make a film about it. But it's written by a guy who is a serious writer - Simon Beaufoy, he wrote The Full Monty. I had never met him but I thought I should read the script so at least I'm not ignorant and just turning it down. And I was lost - thankfully I did read it because 10-15 pages I kinda knew I was going to make it. Which is the best place to make a decision about a film, not to wait until the end, not to think about "does it work?". You just feel apart of it, 10-15 pages in. We took a trip to India to kind of check it against reality. To see if it was fake - but it felt completely real. Also, [the script] was the classic underdog story - I loved the underdog story, that always appeals to me. I don't want to make period films about the British upper class with country houses and things like that. I can't connect with any of that really. I'll watch it, sometimes its good, but the underdog story was great. And then you've got this life in India which is just overwhelming. You just think, "I'm completely roller-balled by this - what a great opportunity to make a film.
With some of your films like Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and now Slumdog you've explored the idea of survival in a destructive environment. What attracts you, or inspires you, to this particular theme?
Well I think it's...I like extremes in films. But I don't want to make fantasy films, superhero films, or Narnia or Lord of the Rings type films. That's become the de-reiguer of filmmaking of the day. I think we've pushed extreme storytelling into this fantasies. Now regular films, like everyday realistic films, don't have those extremes anymore, but I like those extremes. I tend to choose subject matter that's obviously got that inherent within it. Which obviously, Sunshine has got that, and the kid's experience in Slumdog has that kind of extreme. India lets you do that of course, because there is the extremes in their society that we tend to - that's not to say there's not poor or rich - but we tend to put in comfort zones to protect people from either experiencing it. Or if you are poor there are some structures for help and blah blah blah, and we've built societies like that. India is not like that - you're just on your own. Except there's a lot of you. When we film it, you're on your own.
How did you decide on Slumdog's unique visual style and how does it differ from your approach in the past?
I never really thought this, but I was just talking to the guy from Time Out, and he was saying that normally with a film that you do like this where you have three distinctive time periods like thirteen years ago, seventeen years ago, and now, you separate them visually. But I didn't want to do that - I didn't want to do it anyway, and I didn't have the money to do that. And also, I thought it would be completely irritating if you keep cutting back. I remember reading the script and it didn't feel like backward in time - at all. It felt like now, although the kid is seven years old and now he's eighteen years old. I looked to work more with the energy of the story. And we used this Silicone 2K camera, which is very light and we had a lot of problems with it, but it's basically a hard drive like an Apple notebook on the back and a camera in the hand of about literally that size (Boyle lifts up his coffee plate) with a gyro on it. And you can strap it to a crane so it's a regular camera and move with that in one hand, it's like nothing I've ever worked with. So we focused on that really, to give a visual sense of storytelling and not a particular look for a period. It' because when you work there (in Mumbai), you have to got to work out a way that you work within the city. You can't control the city - it's just beyond control. You can't kind of "lock it down" - just choose this bit of reality, it just doesn't work like that. It's just this heaving mass, and within it the way I would tell is that we had this very flexible camera. So we weren't interested in continuity, we weren't interested in the "fourth wall". There's lots of people looking in the camera, but you don't really care about it. At one point, this security guy goes "no filming here" and we just left it in because we thought "that's what it's like." And there's an exuberance that overcomes the minute detail that filmmakers get obsessed with. You just go with the flow, really.
But did you have certain things planned out when you shot them, like the chase sequence in the beginning?
Not really. Some bits become impossible, so you just move on and do another bit somewhere else. You're never gonna plan that they're going to bump into a car, because you need that for later. And we shot a lot of stuff, because we kept coming back to that sequence to make sure there would be lots of choices with it. There's a longer version of it that will be on DVD. There's a part where [the kids] go into a cinema and some guys go "get outta the f***ing way!" and then [the kids] pretend to fence like they're the Three Musketeers. So there's lots of other bits like that. You sort of have a plan, but you go along with it at the same time. You've got to be loose. And flexible. And not get annoyed - because there's no point. All you're doing is just boring holes into your brain.
How difficult was it to shoot the street scenes, and what were some of the bigger obstacles that you encountered?
Well that's the thing. I tried really early on not to think of them as difficult or obstacles. Because they are, in one sense, but I thought: "I'm not going to think like that." You see these guys at the airport, they're usually Americans, Britains or Germans, just shouting at these "stupid Indians" that "this is no way to run an airport" and "where are my bags!" And you just think, "that's not the way to get on it, guys." It doesn't work like that, it doesn't work like the west going [makes a cutting motion]. We're beyond that now - you've got to go with it. And I've always thought that you go with what could be obstacles and actually they become your achievement. They become the film. The fact is that there are a lot of people. There isn't really time to stop everything for the movie, so they're going to spill across the movie, and that's fine. It gives it [the movie] life. I always tried to think of it like that. To be really positive.
Did you shoot the entire movie in India?
We shot everything in Mumbai, apart from the game show which we shot in a studio outside Mumbai. And the Taj Mahal we shot in a place called Agra, which is about five hours from where the Taj is. Everything else we shot in Mumbai.
Before your work with Slumdog how familiar were you with India, and had you always been a fan of Bollywood films?
My dad was in India in the second World War. He was a part of an army waiting to invade Japan and he'd been there for about fourteen months. And he's very interesting because the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, he told me about that, and he said "we all knew then that we were going to come home." And they were very, very, very happy. I remember him talking about celebrating in Mumbai because this bomb had dropped killing 100,00 people but he was happy - he and his mates were coming home. And he loved India. The television in Britain when I was growing up in the 60's and 70's was full of this racist s*** about Indians and my dad just got really annoyed about it. I remember saying, "that's so untrue, that's not right!" So I remember that, but I've never been to India - but I loved being there. You can make a lot of movies there. There's a lot of other films you can make - you could make a great thriller there. It's got so many ingredients, like gangsters and corrupt police - absolutely essential ingredient in a good thriller I think. There's a lot you can do there. And also they've got this weird thing where the Bollywood stars are deeply involved in the gangsterism. The actors are not like actors here, who pretend to get involved in charity work to raise their public profile. They are like the politicians here - they are the central lives, these stars. But I hadn't watched that much Bollywood - I watched quite a bit when I was there. There are some very straight films, some very good films which are not Bollywood. There's a particular homage in Slumdog to Satya, which is written and acted in by the big fat guy, the police sergeant that tortures Jamal in the beginning. He's a brilliant writer, actor, and filmmaker. And there's a film of his called Black Friday, there's a couple of references to that in Slumdog. There's also another film called Company. Fantastic films. And they're straight films - not song and dance.
What was the best part about shooting in India?
It's not the kind of place where you pick out one thing. Mumbai is not the kind of place where you can say...it's not like Chicago where you can look at the lake and the visual of that city. Mumbai is not a very pretty city, it's very unfinished, there's no particular thing you'd say "look at this landmark." You can't go there for the whole thing. And that's what I wanted the film to look like. I argued with the cinematographer early on because he wanted - a lot of cinematographers want to "go there", have that Chicago lake effect, key shot, "everyone look at that - beautiful." I didn't want to look at any of it like that. [I wanted to] feel you'd been there - at the end of it, you'd feel you'd been there. Not in a picture postcard way, in a way that you kind of felt it, so I wouldn't pick out any particular thing really. The one thing that you get more than anything is the people, really. That's the most experience you get - because there is so many of them. And there's so many on top of each other. And you do think, "how do they manage not to kill each other?" And they do kill each other some of the time, there are some riots, usually religious riots. But they kind of live in a harmony, which is a complete mystery to us. We are all going to have to learn to live like that in cities. A city is getting smaller. You never hear about a crisis, you know, "Venice is shrinking", it's "Venice is shrinking." It's people pouring into the city from everywhere. In America it's true - the cities are just growing and growing. And there's not going to be enough water, just like in Mumbai. There isn't going to be enough sewage. It's just going to be, "how are you going to do it guys?" So there's actually an incredible amount you can learn from being there and about yourself and our future down the line, how lots of cities are going to be like that.
Was the idea for the incredibly elaborate credit sequence yours or that of your assistant director?
I always wanted a dance at the end. You can't live and work in Mumbai without dancing. It's natural - it's just like where I come from, Manchester in England, it's like music or football. You can't live there without feeling it, it's like the blood of the city. And you're being a moron if you ignore it. You might as well get involved in it because you're going to learn about the city through it. It always felt like we should have a dance so we put it there at the end. It came late to put it in with the credits. I started to work on the credits and the subtitles which are more exciting than they normally are...
Was there a reason the subtitles were scattered around and so forth?
Originally Slumdog was written in English. When we went there the little kids couldn't do English. It's because they don't speak English until they're about teenagers. I mean, a lot of people do speak English but they pick it up really in their teens when they get into fashion and the west and they look at America - so they pick up English really fast. But seven year olds don't. So I remember ringing up the studios, Pathe in Europe and Warners here, and saying "Look, guys. I'm going to do a third of it in Hindi." You can imagine what they said. They said, "you've got to be insane," blah blah blah. And I said "listen, all I can guarantee is that it would be even more exciting than doing it in English." And they went, "yeah, yeah". And I thought "no, I'm going to be true to that." So then we started working on subtitles and I thought "let's make it exciting and different." So you're not thinking, "oh f***. A third of this is in Hindi." And then we got to thinking about the end credits, and I didn't want the end credits just to be a roll. I wanted it to celebrate a bit.
Has working on Slumdog changed the way you see or the world, or see where the world is going?
In terms of where the world is going, it doesn't take a genius to work it out. In fifty years time, I think Hollywood is going to be over there (in India). It's just extraordinary there. You know, this crisis that we're in at the moment, this credit crunch crisis, whatever you want to call it, the real reason that it's a problem is that
for capitalism to really work it needs to expand. It's based on expansion. It has to keep growing - its markets, its credits, and the mistake has been made that they just expanded too quickly, didn't they? They gave a lot of sub-prime mortgages to a lot of people who shouldn't have had them, but it's a wall, BANG! F***! Disaster. If you want somewhere where you have no danger of hitting that wall you look at India and China. It's just the potential for expansion, it's just phenomenal. So that is where capitalism will go and the industry will follow it. I absolutely guarantee it. The whole language problem - I have no idea how that will be sorted out. I'm not the guy to sort that out, you and your contemporaries sort that out. You know, software will be invented where the equivalent of Tom Cruise can speak in Hindi and English at the same time. With lip sync, and it sounds absolutely 100 percent. I don't know it's going to be. Maybe someone will come out with a software that does that. And that may solve the problem, but that's what is going to happen. So, to work there now is very exciting. Because you get a slap in the face early on, that says to you, "this isn't the old colonies, guys." It's a reminisce of what it was like when the British ruled, we're looking at where we're going in the future. We're an anecdote - the British now. A quaint anecdote. So that's what it feels like. It does change. You're waking up the whole time and you've got to say open to it. Some people don't like it, some people find it very difficult. I only took about ten people, but three or four really didn't like it. They just didn't want to know.
Kind of like in the movie, where it just throws you right in there.
Yeah. I just loved it. I had a great time with it.