By Hannah McGill
01 January 2011
It’s a safe bet that any new Quentin Tarantino film will involve a measure of creative swearing and grievous bodily harm; equally, that a Mike Leigh title is going to concern ordinary English folk having whiny squabbles over cups of tea. A new Danny Boyle film is a less predictable entity. Since making his name as a film director with Shallow Grave in 1994, Boyle has worked in such an array of genres that one rather suspects him of ticking them off on a big list, like bagged Munros. Shallow Grave might have led on fairly naturally to 1996’s super-hit Trainspotting – with its Scottish setting, dark humour, visceral violence and surreal, theatrical production design – but Boyle’s ensuing catalogue of films has darted all over the cinematic spectrum, taking in romantic comedy, big-budget overseas adventure, horror, charming children’s fare and sci-fi. More recently he’s taken to projects that defy easy categorisation: the Bollywood-inflected coming-of-age quest Slumdog Millionaire, and the grisly 127 Hours, based upon the true story of a trapped mountaineer who sawed his own arm off to escape death. According to Amy Raphael’s zesty and engaging career study, Boyle still yearns to make a musical. Perhaps some of those instincts towards spectacle will be sated by his upcoming gig directing the opening ceremonies for the 2012 London Olympics, along with Billy Elliot director Steven Daldry. The latter commission, coming in the wake of Slumdog Millionaire’s eight-gong triumph at the 2009 Oscars, confirms Boyle beyond doubt as a pillar of the UK film establishment, and as one of a select handful of British-based directors whose names carry serious weight in Hollywood. Before the surprise success of Slumdog, however, Boyle was hardly regarded as a hit machine: big projects such as A Life Less Ordinary (1997), The Beach (2000) and Sunshine (2007) had performed poorly at the box office, while the stylistic diversity of Boyle’s output had rendered him hard enough to pin down that the status of a revered auteur remained elusive. It’s probably safe to assume that Faber and Faber would not have opted to include him in their excellent series of book-length director interviews had Slumdog not been the populist slam-dunk that it was.
(Boyle hasn’t thus far attracted the sort of solemn academic appraisal extended to previous subjects of the series, such as David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam and Krzysztof Kieslowski.) However, as Raphael’s work reveals, it’s this very absence of a settled identity that has encouraged Boyle’s rapid-fire and sometimes reckless experimentation. Without an established schtick that it would be risky to drop, but with a reputation that keeps actors and crew keen to work with him, he has been free to make leaps of genre; and faced with intermittent disappointments, he has striven ever harder to find and quicken the commercial pulse. And therein lies another interesting facet of the Boyle creative persona: he cares deeply about attaining broad popular appeal. It’s a complaint frequently levelled against the UK film scene that it’s too wedded to the dour, arty social statements of self-important posh blokes, and thus disconnected from the sparklier and more escapist requirements of the common multiplex-goer. Boyle works hard against that grain. Having, as he confesses, got a Tarkovsky fixation out of his system in his early BBC television work, he now expresses a profound respect for popular audience opinion and for the work that most positively and powerfully sways it: Titanic, Notting Hill and Avatar are all admiringly cited. Accordingly, in his own work, Boyle is willing to test-screen, to listen to focus groups, and on occasion to nip and tuck his films for greater impact. Not for him the disdain for mass-appeal product that characterises the wilfully misunderstood starving artist. He wants hits – hence, presumably, being attracted to the massive platform offered by the Olympics. One might argue that the clash between a rebellious creative identity and a desire for mainstream acceptance has created unevenness in some of his films; but nonetheless, his consideration for and concern with audiences sets an interesting alternative model for film school hopefuls who have borne a surfeit of anti-mainstream snobbery. And his lack of loftiness seemingly operates in a direct sense also, in the planning and preparation of his films, and on the set. In his early working relationship with writer John Hodge and producer Kevin Macdonald, which birthed Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and The Beach, Boyle sought for press interviews to be conducted together and profits to be shared three ways – an unusual approach, as Raphael notes. “I always used to say I preferred the rock band model, in which a group of individuals collaborate on a record, as opposed to the traditional film industry model, in which the focus is very much on the individual director or star,” Boyle explains. Democracy is a tough thing to attempt in the movie business, and it didn’t work out over time with Macdonald and Hodge (Macdonald, most recently, passed on Slumdog, only to confess after its runaway success that he rather wished he’d got on board).
But Boyle’s eagerness to share credit, and to sidestep what he calls “the dreaded auteur word”, endures; and it’s in no small part his enthusiasm for his colleagues’ contributions that makes Raphael’s book so informative and enjoyable to read. An enthusiast for the ingenious creative shortcuts that can elevate low-budget films to compete with blockbusters, Boyle responds to Raphael’s questions with copious detail about how he and his collaborators have worked to achieve certain effects – and is full of praise for the creative individuals he calls “mini-directors”. From costume and production designers to editors, music supervisors and first assistant directors, Boyle calls attention to the often unsung labours of those that make the auteurs look good – which is not just right and just, but tremendously valuable for those with an interest in film craft. Working relationships are also analysed in frank detail. Most intriguing is the schism between Boyle and his early muse Ewan McGregor, the result of the latter’s rejection in favour of Leonardo DiCaprio for the lead role in The Beach. As recently as 2009, as one poignant anecdote reveals, the two sat near one another for the duration of a flight from Shanghai, but found themselves unable to speak. Such raw feeling is, as Raphael points out, relatively rare between an actor and a director; but then as her book shows, Boyle is an unusually emotional example of the latter breed. One might, therefore, be tempted to regard him as overly malleable, too in thrall to focus groups or outside opinions; but his openness to others’ views coexists profitably with a strong sense of his own creative identity. The interviews herein – which analyse in detail each film up to 127 Hours, and conclude while that most recent film is in production – dispel any notion that Boyle’s flexibility might signify a hack-for-hire. Each film comes across as a passion project, each failure an opportunity to learn. Raphael – a star music journalist, and the author for Faber of Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh – is an unabashed admirer; but even those not seduced by Boyle’s output are bound to warm to his giving and insightful persona on the page. Most gratifyingly, this book emphasises and to a degree celebrates the sheer complexity of filmmaking. Closing roads for the extraordinary opening of 28 Days Later is a semi-legal lark, involving enlisting good-looking girls to sweet-talk motorists; weather alters all sorts of best-laid plans; a key scene in Trainspotting has to accommodate McGregor and Jonny Lee Miller still being inebriated from the night before. As well as being a fun, anecdote-packed read – and a prompt to re-watch the films through the lens of what’s been revealed – this book is a frank repudiation of the romantic notion that with enough genius and determination a director can simply walk on set and manipulate the elements until they fit his vision.
Fuelled by a fan’s enthusiasm, but cool-headed enough to address problems and failures as well as triumphs, it achieves a rewarding intimacy with its subject, and captures a mercurial, optimistic and driven individual in full career flight.