August 28 2010: A battered Mini Cooper, a modest house in London and an unfailing work ethic – so much for basking in the success of Slumdog Millionaire
While Danny Boyle pads around his kitchen making fresh coffee and hot milk, I take in his East London house. Outside, a perfect expanse of grass stretches from fence to fence. Freshly washed jeans and shirts stiffen in the sun. The open space downstairs is crammed with neat piles of art and photography books. There’s an endless supply of novels, from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Alan Warner’s The Stars in the Bright Sky. Above the dining table is the only hint at Boyle’s line of work: a framed poster of his sci-fi epic, Sunshine. There is no sign of the phenomenal success of Slumdog Millionaire, which won eight Oscars, picked up more than 100 other international awards and grossed nearly $400 million (£255 million) worldwide.
He’s lived in this surprisingly modest house for a decade; an ageing Mini Cooper sits in the drive; Boyle himself is dressed, as ever, in jeans and a shirt. There is certainly no sign of his Best Director Oscar. I remember him taking it to his father’s social club in Radcliffe, Manchester, and wonder if it might still be up there. Eventually, a little self-consciously, I ask if the Oscar is around and whether I can see it. He brings it down from his study, wrapped in a plain blue shoe bag, and hands it over. It’s ludicrously shiny and incredibly heavy. As I stare at it, he busies himself in the kitchen; he is now embarrassed. I ask what he remembers of the whole Oscars process. “We were in India, doing a live interview on America’s Today programme, when we first heard. It was incredible: ten Oscar nominations! Dev [Patel] and Freida [Pinto, the film’s stars] were so excited they started Bollywood dancing.”
The night itself flew by. “Before you know it, you’re in the theatre and the ceremony has started. The fact that it was a live show made it feel very quick. Suddenly, I was up there and I decided what to say almost there and then. It was a blizzard. In fact, I watched it back at my sister Maria’s house four or five months later and I couldn’t remember any of it.” He pauses and smiles. “Well, I do remember Penélope Cruz’s friends walking around with the letter ‘P’ written on their foreheads. It was a fantastic evening. But the glory is temporary, believe me.” Have the Oscars changed him? He squirms slightly. “You see people look at you a bit differently. It’s all a bit… strange, because essentially I’m the same person. I think the best way of dealing with it is to ignore the pressure and expectation and get on with the work.”
When we talk, Boyle is already focused on his next project. 127 Hours is inspired by the true story of Aron Ralston, an experienced mountaineer who is on a one-day hike through a remote area of Utah when a falling boulder traps his right arm against a canyon wall. He has told no one where he was going and, as the hours pass, it becomes clear that he must either cut his arm off with a blunt penknife or die.
The film is both an obvious and impossible subject for a feature film. It’s a risk, even with the handsome method actor James Franco – Sean Penn’s boyfriend in Milk – playing Ralston. It’s certainly not what Slumdog’s fans will be expecting. After its Oscar haul, Boyle was offered $2 million (£1.28 million) to direct an indie film and some £800,000 for an advert. Instead, he turned his attention to Ralston’s adventure; an enthralling story, but one that could end up as a desperately claustrophobic horror film with the boulder cast as the villain. Boyle doesn’t disagree. “But if you could pull the audience in, it would be incredible.” His eyes shine with enthusiasm. “What happens to Ralston’s mind during the 127 hours he’s trapped?”
Boyle – 53, tall, lean, intense, fizzing with energy – pushes his hair up. “I don’t really know how to make this film work, and I love that feeling.” He grins. “Deep down, I’ve absolutely no idea how to make this film.”
Danny Boyle delights in being out of his depth; it means he has to work harder. His work ethic comes straight from his working-class background and his Catholic, Anglo-Irish roots. His mother, a hairdresser, came over to Lancashire in the Fifties and met his father, a self-educated farm labourer, at a dance in Bury. His parents married in 1954, moved to Radcliffe and had three kids: Danny and his twin sister Maria, then Bernadette. “My mum and dad were desperate for us to get into good schools. They got us through the 11-plus and into single-sex grammar schools. Having a decent education changed our lives.”
While Maria and Bernadette went to a convent in Bury, the young Danny – a skinny lad with glasses – used to travel five or six miles every day to his grammar school in Bolton. His parents were ambitious but very loving, and it didn’t occur to him to rebel against their educational directive. “Part of me hated school, but I pushed myself really hard. Because Maria and I were twins, my dad was very comparative. When we were at the same primary school, he used to do this terrible thing of putting our school reports down side by side on the table. The competitive relationship forged by my dad benefited me most, despite the fact that I always felt my sisters were much brighter than me.”
Did he think the twins would thrive on the competition? “I’m sure he did. He looked at me and thought: ‘He’s not going to be working where I’m working. He’s going to get a better job.’ It’s also important to remember that punishment is the key to Catholicism. When I was growing up, there was certainly very little of the modern ethos we embrace about encouragement. If we fell below a certain level of achievement or behaviour, we had to be punished. We had to feel guilty.”
As Boyle was growing up, he hated his dad in a typically teenage way – although, he is keen to point out, they have got on well since he outgrew adolescence, and he still makes regular trips back to Radcliffe – but he was always very close to his mother. When she died in 1988, he was devastated. “I learnt things from my mum that I really value: tolerance and respect. I inherited things from my dad that you can’t really do anything about: stubbornness and doggedness. All of which are great value to me as a director – it means I just keep going and going.”
Yet he almost didn’t become a director. When still a schoolboy, he was allocated a place at the seminary in Upholland in Wigan – until a certain Father Conway told him he wasn’t cut out to be a priest. “He must have passed his thoughts on to my mum, because the whole notion just vanished. I didn’t wonder if I’d made the right decision, I just played more football. And then I started to be interested in music and girls and smoking.” If Father Conway hadn’t advised against it, would he have entered the priesthood? “Yes, because it was my mum’s dream.”
Instead, he read NME and watched art-house movies at a cinema in Bolton with a friend. “Being at a boys’ school was frustrating. I was 15 and, looking quite old for my age, could just about get away with buying us tickets for an X-certificate film. The sex was blinding: Decameron; Nada, the 1974 Claude Chabrol film; Blow-Up; La Grande Bouffe; Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo. I remember those specifically. There was so much sex on screen, it was fantastic.” He laughs. “Some of those films I’ve seen subsequently and they’re terrible. Awful.”
He was also turned on by more mainstream films – first A Clockwork Orange and then Apocalypse Now – but, growing up, the limit of his world was wanting to be a train driver. He didn’t think a lad from a working-class background could get into film-making. Yet, through sheer determination, he made it. He immersed himself in films as a teenager, got into Bangor University to read English and drama and, later, impressed everyone at the Royal Court in the early Eighties with his energy and enthusiasm. He worked as a producer and director for the BBC in Northern Ireland and, finally, in 1994, directed Shallow Grave, his first feature film.
He has, you might say, made his own luck – and yet still the guilt lingers. I ask if he can finally enjoy his success, and he laughs. “I have always felt guilty about my sisters, who became teachers, doing more important jobs than me and getting paid f*** all, comparatively. So the answer to enjoying success is: no. Only in a very private way. I always doubt my success, which is a good thing. I see other people enjoying it in a more emphatic way, and I think, fair enough, but I could never naturally do it. I can only pretend to do it.” How? “You watch how it’s done and think: I can do that. But I never genuinely feel it. Part of me always thinks I’m a charlatan. Alongside every other creative person, I’m always waiting to be found out.”
All that Catholic self-reproach and creative doubt mean that Boyle is slightly embarrassed by the extraordinary success of Slumdog. He shows no interest in upgrading his modest Mile End home; he takes the Tube everywhere; he rotates the same three or four pairs of shoes. When asked how he spends his money, he says his only weakness is photographs (Sebastião Salgado is a favourite). I don’t doubt his honesty; he doesn’t seem to be secretly harbouring a huge ego or hiding a luxury yacht. He seems, rather, to be contained, private, remote even.
In 2002 he separated from casting director Gail Stevens, with whom he has three children, all adults now, and he seems content to live alone, insisting that he is not lonely but “solitary”. None of which helps to describe his innate joie de vivre. He is a workaholic, but not a bore; when he talks about art, television or films (not his own), his enthusiasm is contagious. He is also – unexpectedly – charismatic. The dynamics of a room change as he enters, even though he does so with no fanfare. On a separate occasion, I watch him being interviewed by a female journalist, and when he shakes her hand to commend her for asking a smart question, she blushes furiously. For all his distance, Boyle is able to turn his charm on; it’s what makes actors want to work with him time and again, what keeps his crew with him film after film, despite the insanely long hours he works.
Boyle goes out of his way to treat his cast and crew with respect. He is clearly frustrated by criticism regarding Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Rubina Ali, the youngest kids in Slumdog; some complained they were lifted from the slums, taken to Hollywood and dumped back in Mumbai again, despite Boyle and his producer Christian Colson providing education and housing followed by a lump sum at 18.
“I feel responsible for Azhar and Rubina, although I shouldn’t really. They have their own lives to lead. But I see that a film can distort their lives for a while and then vanish. You want to make them feel it’s something they can still have access to; that it’s a time in their lives they should be able to call upon should they want to.” He sighs, but manages a smile. Grateful though he may be for its commercial and critical triumphs, he wants to put Slumdog behind him. He knows that success is the greatest enemy of creativity and he wants to move on – to the film he has no idea how to make.
We meet again in Salt Lake City, Utah, where Boyle is filming 127 Hours in an old furniture factory housing two fake canyons. Time is tight – they will move into the real canyons soon – and he is beyond distracted. So focused that you wonder if he even really sees you when he says hello. After a brisk lunch at 4pm, in which he laughs about auditioning local pole dancers the previous day for a naked snow scene, I hang around. Nothing ever happens quickly on film sets, but after checking out a room full of prosthetic arms and 12 pairs of Ralston’s trainers, I begin to feel stuck in the canyon, too. Even the monitor is frozen, at an earlier scene of James Franco drinking his own urine.
Then, around 9pm, the monitor bursts into life and, behind a set of black curtains hanging around one of the fake canyons, Franco performs the most extraordinary scene. Recording himself on his video camera, he pretends to be an overenthusiastic chat show host. “Good morning, everyone! It’s seven o’clock in Canyonland, USA. Today, on the boulder, we’ve got a special guest – the self-styled American superhero, Aron Ralston. Shout it out, Aron!” The scene unfolds with Ralston playing both the show’s host and himself. It’s a faultless first take, full of pathos – and much funnier than you’d expect from a man slowly dying from dehydration.
Later, Boyle appears, like Banquo’s ghost, from behind the curtains. He talks about some of the ideas behind 127 Hours. “When Aron sets up his camera or his video, they’re like CCTV cameras. It becomes a story about how we record ourselves.” It’s also about America. America may celebrate the individual, but Ralston survived because he was part of a community; he fought for his life because he felt loved. Boyle nods. “People may think that 127 Hours is about individual superheroism – I’m thinking of Lance Armstrong, Michael Phelps – but my take on Aron’s story is that there’s something wider and bigger that sustains us in the end.” He takes his glasses off, rubs his eyes. “The film is not a polemic, but I hope it will very subtly suggest that Aron wasn’t almost destroyed by nature, he was saved by society.”
Ralston is, prior to the entrapment, a remote, emotionally contained man transfixed by mountains and canyons. It’s no coincidence that Boyle relates to his story – although his addiction is to film-making. And, in this instance, making a film that most directors would disregard. “In theory, it’s unwatchable. You see this guy stuck on his own, and then you see him cut his arm off. I don’t think so! On a Friday night? No thanks!” Boyle is striding around. “The challenge is to get as many people as possible to want to see it.”
I ask how fans of Slumdog might react to 127 Hours. He laughs and his voice is a little squeaky. “I don’t know. I’ve no idea. I can’t think about it too much. It’s made with real attention to detail, with real courage and love, and therefore you hope that those attracted to it will be rewarded by it. But you can’t say: ‘Right, all the ticket holders for Slumdog have to come and see 127.’”
Danny Boyle has gone from making a film about millions of people in Mumbai to making a film about one man in a canyon. The film world is waiting eagerly to see if he can pull it off. As early as March this year, when filming had only just commenced, the Los Angeles Times featured it on its Oscar Bait 2011 list, but at first I am more cynical. Before its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, I see an early preview.
The film is nothing like Sean Penn’s Into the Wild or Kevin Macdonald’s Touching the Void, the two films with which it is mostly easily linked; instead, the high-energy opening is reminiscent of Boyle’s heroin-soaked Trainspotting, made back in 1996, while the life-affirming ending recalls Slumdog. 127 Hours is an urban film in a rural setting, a brave and at times brilliant action movie with a perceptive subplot that echoes Renton’s sentiments in Trainspotting – choose life.
I see Boyle briefly again in the thick heat of Soho in late July. He is unusually busy, even for him. As well as working on 127 Hours, he has also been appointed artistic director of the 2012 Olympic Games opening ceremony (“I’m trying to gather a small group of people, just as you would in a film”) and will return to the theatre for the first time in 15 years in mid-December to start rehearsals for Frankenstein at the National. It’s nearly 8pm and he’s knackered but, instead of sitting slouched in his office chair, he whizzes from one side of the room to the other.
I ask him when he last did something not related to work, and he says, triumphantly, that he played tennis a week ago. I then ask what he thinks might happen if he were to take six months off work and there’s a sharp intake of breath. Followed by a loud clap. “I’d end up doing things that are peripheral to work, like going to film festivals.” That wouldn’t be allowed. He frowns; he’s stuck for a moment. “I’d read. Improve my serve. I know! I’d follow the Tour de France around. I love watching it on TV. But I’d miss working…”
For a moment, I see the young Danny, a skinny lad with glasses, eager to please his mum and dad. Then he packs up his stuff and, as he heads off to the Tube with a big grin on his face, tells me what I already know: he is going home to work.
Danny Boyle: In His Own Words by Amy Raphael will be published by Faber & Faber in January 2011. 127 Hours will close the BFI London Film Festival on October 28, and is due for general release in January 2011