The same forward-leaning kinetic energy that marks a lot of British filmmaker Danny Boyle‘s work is also present and accounted for in any conversation with him. Ask him a question, any question, and he’ll enthusiastically rip into a breakneck-paced response, sometimes tripping over his words. There are no runaway, performance-instinct answers, a la Robin Williams. Rather, it’s just that Boyle seems to have a genuine joie de vivre that colors everything he does. His favorite word might be “extraordinary,” which he frequently delivers with punctuated, wide-eyed sincerity of a child.
Diversity and culturally explorative filmmaking is nothing new to Boyle, but his latest film is something of a departure even by his own bold-stroke standards. A most uncharacteristic underclass love story, the bristling Slumdog Millionaire is an engaging, exotic drama about a dirt-poor, 18-year-old orphan who stands poised on the precipice of winning 20 million rupees on an Indian game show. It’s an ironic protagonist, given that the movie, the People’s Choice Award winner at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, was originally set up at Warner Independent Pictures, then itself orphaned when corporate parent Warner Bros. saw their release slate swell after the acquisition of New Line, and cooled on the commercial prospects of the film, despite its unique combination of energy and heart. After some cattle-trading, Slumdog Millionaire was finally picked up by Fox Searchlight, who’ve released Boyle’s last three films, and with whom he has a relationship dating back more than a decade. Now, on the eve of his film’s Oscar-buzz-heavy release, I spoke with Boyle; the conversation is excerpted below.
Brent Simon: Were you familiar at all with the novel Q&A, by Vikas Swarup, before tackling the project?
Danny Boyle: They sent the script and the only description that they really gave was that it was a film about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and I remember thinking, “Well I’m not going to do that.” But it was written by Simon Beaufoy, who is a terrific writer, and so I thought I’d better read it, out of respect, so at least I could reply to him in a decent way. And I completely fell in love with it. But I read the book and it was irrelevant, really, to this extraordinary screenplay, because what he’d done is just kidnap the central idea — slum kid goes on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and wins it, because his life experiences enable him to answer the questions they just happen to ask. But beyond that everything is Simon’s invention.
BS: To me, a portion of the film felt like a tweaked, re-contextualized Oliver Twist, with the character who rescues young brothers Salim and Jamal coming across as Fagin-esque. Was that a parallel that struck you?
Yeah, when I met Simon and talked to him about writing about the city,
he said, “It’s completely Dickensian.” He would feel it most acutely as
a writer, of course, but everybody else observed that in certain
scenes. It’s the extremes of the city; there are clearly parallels with
London in the Victorian era, which is what Dickens was writing about,
and led to that heightened, melodramatic, very story-oriented
storytelling. The city is like that, just throwing stuff at you the
entire time. I mean, if you keep bored there you need to get medical
help, because it’s so extraordinary. And obviously London must have
been like that when it was growing, and I guess Manhattan as well, in
those periods when they’re just exploding, and you have these vast poor
populations helping create this enormous, staggering wealth on top of
BS: So many times when we see a film set in a slum there tends to be
a tendency on the part of a lot of filmmakers to ennoble and
romanticize the area, and this film doesn’t quite do that. Instead, it
aims more to capture the vivacity of an area like that, where many
people have so little and yet there’s this shared, surging, aspirant
DB: It’s also pride, I think. We worked in a couple of the slums, including Dharavi, which is a massive slum; they think about two million people live in it. Everyone was so helpful to us, you know? All they said was, “Just don’t keep saying we’re poor the whole time, because we don’t think we’re poor, we don’t look at it like that. We’re trying.” They’re very industrious, very organized, but they don’t have any sanitation, they don’t have any running water, there’s unreliable electricity, which is stolen and fed-in and stuff like that. But none of that’s their fault, really. They’re making the best of what they’ve got, and they are doing a remarkable job, really. So you can’t help but feel tremendous admiration for them. You can’t not show that they’re poor — and there are some horrors, you can’t stint that either — but it also has this extraordinary redemptive energy about it, and it’s because life is lived there in fast forward. I think in modern society we stare in wonder at these cities that explode; we’re pouring into cities, all of us. And I think also you get a sense of how cities are going to have to be in the future, because you can learn a lot. Although it looks behind us in terms of infrastructure, you get a glimpse of the future, ironically. It’s too many people sharing too few resources, and how are you going to do that calmly and peacefully? For the most part they do, somehow. There are these occasional, terrible religious riots, which are shockingly violent, but most of the time they do manage to live side-by-side, and on top of one another, and with not enough water to go around. And maybe not in our lifetimes, but that’s going to be a massive problem in the next 50 or 100 years.
BS: In that regard, at least, Kevin Costner’s Waterworld will prove prophetic.
DB: (laughs) Yes!
BS: You’d worked previously with your cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantel, but I was interested to learn that you had to scrap the initial visual approach to the film.
DB: Well, I wasn’t sure about doing it in film. Anthony, like any cinematographer, to be honest, wants it to endure on celluloid, because it’s such a gift for a cinematographer — there’s so much to look at, so much color range, and the light is so extraordinary because of the pollution and the dust, and the mass of humanity that’s there. So we did a test on it, and I didn’t like it. It confirmed what I felt, that I didn’t want to make it in that way. So, credit to him, he came up with this digital system called an SI-2K, which is a hard drive that sits on the cameraman’s back in a rucksack. And the camera is then quite small in the hand, and it’s very flexible and very dynamic for city scenes. I absolutely loved it. So we set out to try to capture the city, but in an accumulative way. We didn’t set out to say, “Wow, look at that,” which is sort of very tempting to do in India, because there’s so many extraordinary pictorial moments. But we abandoned that, we just tried to accumulate the city, and felt that by the end of it the audience will have felt the color, the light, the vivacity of the place.
BS: To my mind, so many films that use a hand-held style use it in a default lazy fashion, as if hand-held camerawork by itself equals intense. With this film, while watching it, I scrawled in big letters in my notes, “visual/character identification,” because the visual approach underscored and implored a deeper identification with the space, and therefore the characters themselves.
DB: Absolutely, I hope so. The film begins very deliberately with huge close-ups, and then you literally drop off a cliff and start hurtling through the city, and it’s a completely subjective approach to the film, so that you’re with the characters. There’s no sense of objectivity, standing back, wide shots, things like that. Because you’re a white guy, and a white writer going in there making a film about local residents. And the only way that you’re ever really get inside those characters is by literally trying to live their lives with them with a camera just beside them. It felt very much that we should subjectify the film like that, and these digital cameras really helped do that because they’re incredibly flexible. There were teething problems with them, because they’re a prototype, and the biggest one was keeping the hard drive cool, because they didn’t have a fan system worked out. So we had to have blocks of dry ice around the notebook in this rucksack. So there were extraordinary moments in these slums where we had a dry ice factory pouring out dry ice in the middle of this blistering heat in Bombay. It was bizarre!
BS: Your also filmed rehearsals. Was that atypical, and dictated by the new environment?
DB: It was partly that. I’ve also learned to do that. What you get when your crew turns up, especially when you’re abroad, is this very lazy time that you’re paying for when they want to settle in. They call it checking camera equipment, doing the tests, all this. And of course I’ve seen it. There’s just settling in, hanging around. And so the advantage of digital is that it doesn’t really cost anything to shoot, not like celluloid, where you’re paying money to buy, develop and print it — so on Slumdog Millionaire I said straightaway that I’ll do half a day’s rehearsals with the actors, and you can do your preparation, and then for the other half of the day we’re going to go out and shoot. And everyone said, “Whoah, whoah, whoah, we’re not ready!” And I said, “No, it’s fine, it’s a test, really. If it’s not good, I won’t use it.” So we did two weeks of this, and managed to accumulate stuff for the (aforementioned) chase, for instance, but also there was a hotel called the Tulip Star, which was empty and locked in a decade-long court case. But they do hire it out by the day to film crews. So we rehearsed and shot a couple scenes set in a busy hotel there, and then ended up keeping it, because I thought we couldn’t better it in a crowded hotel. So you end up making little incremental gains like that, that get you ahead. And then you have a chance to then use your budget to make the film appear bigger, and more epic than your six or seven million British pounds suggest you’re going to be able to do. It’s just being canny like that, really, but it’s also the best way to learn to use new equipment — to get out there and use it. And if it’s a disaster and we don’t use anything, it doesn’t matter because it was a rehearsal day, you don’t have to fill in any report forms.
BS: What about casting the child actors — how difficult was that?
DB: The kids were a really interesting case, because the film was written and financed because it was in English. I had to reassure the financiers that the accents would be fine. But when we got there and started casting, the kids that we started seeing who could speak English at seven years old were not the right kids. They were very middle-class kids, different than the slum kids that you would see. So we brought some of the latter in, but it meant we had to translate it into Hindi, which we duly d
id, and of course it became completely alive. The kids, so many of them there, are fantastic little actors, because they have no fear, they love movies. It’s like America, just a part of life. I remember ringing up Warner Bros., having to tell them that a third of the film was now going to be in Hindi, with subtitles.
BS: And how did they take that?
DB: (laughs maniacally) Oh, you can imagine, they were over the moon — so delighted! They would say, “Oh, well we can enter it for Best Foreign Language Film.” But because we hadn’t taken too much money, I can just about get away with it, bully my way through something like that one. And I also said, “Look, the subtitles will be really exciting once you see them.” So anyway, there is a barrier, because you can’t communicate directly with them, and judge it as accurately as you can normally. But basically you can tell, even in a foreign language, whether someone is doing it right, it’s just a feeling you get as you watch them. And then I had a casting director, Loveleen Tandan, who we made the co-director, because she spent so much time on the set with the kids and then helping me culturally.
BS: What about Dev Patel, who plays the 18-year-old Jamal?
DB: I’d phoned everyone in Bollywood, really, everyone in Mumbai, but I couldn’t find the main guy because the guys there are like bodybuilders, that’s the look everyone is looking for. So all the young kids, the 18-year-olds, looked wrong — they would have sat in that chair, on the show, and just looked like a fucking wrestler or something. I thought that wasn’t right. And my daughter recommended that I watch this show Skins, and I watched him and he had a small comic part and was good. And so I met him and he looked right, he looked vulnerable and fragile. You got to do that, because he’s cunning. What he does, as well as in an obvious but predictable way, is win the show, but also he’s hijacking the show because he has a complete other agenda that nobody knows about. He’s going on the show not to win the money, really. So he’s got to be tough as fuck to do that, but he has to look vulnerable so that you can’t quite work out what his game plan is. So Dev was wonderful, because he has a tough side, is very funny and enjoyable, but is also serious about the acting, and has real application as well.
BS: To your mind, is there a legitimate ratings controversy with the film?
DB: I was very disappointed, yeah, because in the original contract with Warner Bros. in America you have to say that the film will not be longer than a time you agree on — with us it was two hours — and you have to agree that it’ll be a PG-13 or lower. So I deliberately shot everything to get that certificate because I take those contracts very seriously. And then the MPAA saw it and said it was too intense, and we said OK, we appealed for advice about how to reduce sufficiently. And they came back and said there’s no point in trying to do anything about it really, because the overall journey is too intense. Because in fact I think they realized when they went back to look at it that I had shot it to get a PG-13, there’s no particular moments in it where you see anything that shocking, really. It’s implied. I guess it is intense, because it’s an intense city. But you’ve got to do it justice, both in joy and in horror — they both sit alongside one another the whole time.
BS: Do you have anything else definitively on tap next?
DB: No, there isn’t actually. I was going to do an animated film, but that’s fallen apart, sadly. It doesn’t look like something I’d return to, which is a shame, because it really would have taken people by surprise. (laughs) I mean, I loved it when George Miller, who’d done Mad Max, turned up with Happy Feet, this all-singing, all-dancing animated film about penguins — talk about blindsiding people! And it’s unusual for me to even have anything partially set up, because I tend to do one thing at a time.