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This had to be the most deceptively easy and rewarding interview I have done all year.
When I had a chance to speak with Danny Boyle I was brimming with questions even prior to meeting him. I had seen his movie weeks prior to talking the man, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, when it was just a whisper on cinephile’s lips as the one to watch out for. There was no trailer, no marketing, no clear direction of how to bring this movie to the masses. The story’s tough and it’s hard to explain to someone looking for a jolly flick to catch on the weekend but this film rewards you tenfold if you just give in to where it leads you. Every moment where you have a talking head talking about this film’s chances for Oscar gold isn’t just baseless chit-chat but the movie is a bonafide contender against any of the mindless noise that are going to be propped up against it.
Talking with Danny was a delight in that he was expressive, excited and simply open to discussing the nuts and bolts about why this film was a different process to make when you compare it SUNSHINE, 28 DAYS LATER or even TRAINSPOTTING. The latter of which holds a special place in my heart, almost literally, as it was the movie I took my bride to on our first date. True, this really bucked against every innate voice in my head that said it probably wasn’t the perfect choice but I was not expecting to meet the man who made it to give me the response he did when I divulged the eventual Cupid’s arrow that came out of that viewing.
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is currently in theaters.
DANNY BOYLE: Where are you from?
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: I’m from here. I live in Scottsdale but I came from Chicago.
Boyle: Are you? A bit warmer here isn’t it in the summer? But it’s hot in Chicago too I suspect but the winters are pretty brutal.
Boyle: The winter is pretty brutal. I’ve been there in the winter.
CS: Oh, but I miss that. I don’t like living here at all. I pine for colder days.
Boyle: Why do you live here then?
CS: Family. Wife. Kids. So, I’m here but planning for colder days someday soon.
Boyle: I’ve just come from New York and it was one of those days in New York where the sun is blistering but the temperature is cold. I love those days.
CS: I love those days as well.
Boyle: You can just walk and walk and walk and feel good about yourself. Anyway…
CS: But we digress. Off the bat, I’ve been reading a lot about this film even though there has been no promotion at all for this film as of yet. This is no hyperbole, it is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.
Boyle: Fantastic. Cool.
CS: It seems like it’s in the vein of everything that you’ve done. I took my wife on our very first date I took her to see TRAINSPOTTING. I still have my movie stub from our first date.
Boyle: It’s a weird one to take her on a date but…
CS: It absolutely was looking back on it.
Boyle: At least you won’t forget it.
CS: No. This movie fits within that but I wouldn’t say it’s weird. In fact, I took the wife to see this one she agreed that it was a breath of fresh air of what’s out there. I read how when you initially got the germ for this film you read the initial treatment but you essentially said, “I’ll do it as a favor…I’ll read it and say it’s not my thing.” At what point did you read this and say, “I simply have to do this.”
Boyle: 10 or 15 pages. I remember that feeling. I can’t remember exactly what scene it was but I remember it being about 10 or 15 pages and thinking, you can just feel it. You read some scripts which are better probably. I read a script the other day by David Benioff who is a brilliant writer and it’s a brilliant script and you just have it in your head but if it doesn’t vibrate or if you don’t think it’s anything special you can bring to it personally – I remember reading the first 10 pages of TRAINSPOTTING and having the same feeling. All three of us were reading the book because we hadn’t adapted it yet and just thought, “We are going to make this film. I don’t care what anybody says.” And you have to trust those instincts.
It’s such a calculated business this business, because there is so much money involved, even at a very low level. A very calculated business on everybody’s behalf. So when you get a chance to be instinctive you’ve got to follow it. You mustn’t abandon that because you are not going to have that all the time. You are going to be making calculated decisions. But, you must keep enough organic decisions going as well. If you follow them and you’ll be OK. What that means is, I think the higher up the ladder you go into the money the more difficult it is to retain those instincts because there is just so much at stake financially. At the kind of level I work at now you can stick to certain decisions.
For instance it’s clear when we got there you could not do the film in English and have 7 year olds. You just couldn’t do it. You had to translate it into Hindi. Now that is an instinctive reaction. You can just see that straight away. So you ring them up and have these terrible conversations about what they are going to think about that but you can follow your gut instincts. But if you make a film for one hundred million dollars, you gut instinct wouldn’t be important because what would be important is the hundred million dollars. Obviously. And do it in English. Find kids who could do it in English or you’d make them older so they could cope with English, the kids you are casting. And that’s the result you would see. You would never see the result that we did. So that is why It’s really important not to take too much money. You’ve just got to not take too much money. Sometimes you are tempted because people say, “Listen, we could do this, we could do that.”
You gotta keep your focus on as many of those gut instincts as you can, you know?
CS: Right. And on that point that it was almost a run and gun approach – you did it in three months, was it January, February, March?
Boyle: No, November, December, January.
CS: Sorry, right. But you had it ready by this September.
Boyle: Well, August in fact. Yeah.
CS: That’s a very tight, tight schedule.
Boyle: We didn’t really get back from Mumbai until March with all the equipment for editing, so we did March – basically – finished by August. And that was deliberate because of the energy of the city.
Instinctively you just thought “We’ve got to do this quickly” and I remember being in the editing room and the editor saying, “Oh, I think we should tell them we are not going to be ready for that day.” And I said, “No, we are going to be ready.”
I was just hell bent – I did a sci-fi movie before that which took an eternal time to edit, too long, [it's not] creative when it’s that long, you distort it when it becomes that long because you keep editing and you’re distorting and you arrive at where you should be but actually you keep going because there’s another 6 months left before the CG is finished so I knew there were advantages to just push it through, push it through.
The city felt like that.
What was wonderful about Fox Searchlight about picking it up and saying “Let’s release it before Christmas” is that you thought “Yeah, but it’s over that day” already because that city is just in fast forward. So get it out there as quick as you can. Just absolutely do it. And I can’t believe like Pathe and Europe are waiting until January. What’s the point of that? Do it now. Let’s just do it. Let’s get it out there and let people make up their own minds. They are all so nervous about things. They want to have a proper run up, they want to get their materials right and the web campaign, and blah blah blah. And Searchlight hadn’t had enough time really to get it out there because you can talk to a lot of people who still have not heard of it yet you feel like you’re doing massive publicity. But I much prefer it that way because it reflects the momentum in the way the film was made.
CS: And speaking of momentum, the way your approached filmmaking within the city of Dharavi, one thing that genuinely struck me when I read about what it was like to shoot there was that when you asked to film in that location you were told that National Geographic had once been there and they said to them “Just please don’t say we’re poor” and they promptly did. A couple of times. And you were subsequently not allowed to film there. How did that affect you when you went in there, and you were in the middle of it, as you essentually had to say, “I’ve got to make my film.” Obviously gurella style isn’t what you wanted to do but how did you handle that?
Boyle: I come from a very small place and not a poor background, I come from a very nice background, a working class background. So I understand that feeling of it’s kind of fierce dignity and shame and it’s all mixed up together. It’s a mixed up, weird feeling, about your background. So I thought, I’m not going to lie, you are poor, to the people looking at this it’s going to look poor but I knew the spirit of the film it would not be pitiful. That’s the way you balance it. Because you can’t lie. You aren’t going to say they are all millionaires in spirit. That’s a whitewash. But you show it like it is. There is terrible poverty and there is incredible cruelty that goes on but there is also a spirit that transcends it, so the journey of the film moves toward that and that is accurate.
I don’t care if people say that’s sentimental. It’s accurate how I find Mumbai, which is resourceful how the people are. I think it’s absolutely exhilarating that this kid is typical of the place that this kid can get on that terrible glitzy, glamorous TV show which thinks it’s going to eat him up and spit him out and he can run it, he can hijack it. That’s the spirit of the thing. That’s what they want you to show. Not, oh so poor. Oh what a shame. And oh, what can we do about it? Let’s give him some money. They don’t really want that. They want to harbor a figurehead like that who goes and uses it for his own and then he hijacks the show for his own ends. He’s not interested in the money. He’s beyond them. Way beyond them. He’s actually on for a different reason. I love that spirit.
CS: Which leads to the poster itself. It’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire with the answer being Destiny. What does that say about the movie? Was this really made as a love story between these two individuals who are trying to find…
Boyle: It’s not really a full love story because she’s absent too much to be a classic. To be a classic love story she’s absent too much I’m afraid. Which is one of the reasons we cast it. She’s so extraordinary, memorable. And you need someone like that because she ain’t going to be there. So she has to be worth all this trouble and she’s got to be remember her in a way. So, it isn’t really a love story like that. It’s a life story. It’s ironic that life stories usually are fed from an 8 year old death bed, they are usually reminiscing from the death bed. Extraordinary tale of the life is told.
And it’s told from an 18 year old who’s going to walk off at the end with 20 million rupees and he has set his life free by his memories and he’s still only 18. So it’s incredibly a radical idea in a way. The problem with memory films is they are old. And he’s got a lifetime of memories already and he’s only 18. It helps he wins the gold, it helps he wins the girl and it helps he walks off in the distance.
CS: And that’s part of it too. It felt fluid. The whole process. The first time you see it you wonder if it’s going to go back and forth, back and forth, but it’s seamless.
Boyle: It starts with the writing. Doesn’t feel like flashbacks. Very few people describe them as such because they don’t work like flashbacks. Everything feels like it’s now. Even though you know it’s not because he’s 7 and he’s the same guy and we’ve see him and he’s 18. He’s obviously different but it feels like now. It feels like it’s all happening now and you can visit - and you can go backwards and forward just for a line. You can go back 10 years just for a line and then come straight back again. There’s no whiplash. His mental strength going on that show and being able to access this terrible past and some of the things that has happened to him – to access that and use it is amazing. I love that kind of determination. You need to have that in the actor. And he does have that despite the rather charming exterior. The only thing he’s done before was kind of a goofy comic part in a TV show in Britain. He’s got that kind of determination. He was 17 when we flew him to Bombay and dropped him in it and sent him to work in all these terrible places to give him a taste of the city and he was shocked but also determined to get through it, you know?
CS: It’s shocking to us as Westerners but to them it’s their life. It’s what they do and how they survive. When you went there…
Boyle: And you would go there too if you were there. We are like that. We forget that because we surround ourselves with such comfort now and we’ve separated everything from us but basically if there’s no where to shit you are going to shit there because it’s just a human function and that’s it and you have to confront that in Mumbai because, boy the first time you see the people on the street…it’s just nature. And they make best use of it always. The city is built on recycling and has been since time immemorial. Not like the last 10 year fashion that we suddenly realize we are ruining the planet. Their whole lives are based on recycling. They throw stuff away in a way that is shocking. They eat something and just chuck it away. The reason they do it is because there are people who’s life is built on picking that up and recycling it. Everything is inter-connected. The most extraordinary thing. You don’t find any loose ends.
Everything is built in to everything else and it’s inseparable. And you can’t discern it as a pattern – you can’t go “Oh, I see…” you get little glimpse of it but most of the time it’s way too complex to understand. You just have to go with it to understand and learn from it really. And you would fit in there if you were dumped in there with no return ticket, you would make your way and you would benefit from it as well. You would find yourself a better person in a way. I did. I certainly learned from it and you do learn from it. The hippies were right. I’m not a big hippie fan but you do learn about yourself. It takes you back to something very pure about humanity as to how we are all connected. Basically what we do in the West is separate ourselves from other areas. We pretend it’s a free movement society but actually we secure our place. Clear away people from the bottom of our buildings.
CS: Talking about actually making the film, you had a smaller crew than you’ve had, you were physically in a tighter spot than you’re used to. What kind of opportunities did that create for you? I would say challenges but you are obviously thinking, “How can I do this? We will do this.” What kind of opportunities sprung up for you?
Boyle: It’s just exhilarating to kind of abandon – I mean we had a very good narrative which gives you the confidence to abandon objectivity – so you abandon objectivity and you make it subjectively as possible. And by that I mean, sometimes you’d shoot and have no idea if you got the scene in the way conventionally as a director you are controlling the scene until you think, I’ve got it enough sufficiently. There you cannot have that coldness when you look at something with a steely eye and go I’ve got that or no I haven’t got it, let’s go again. Often you can’t go again. It’s just impossible to go again so you go with what you’ve got and find out – I’ve sensed it enough that I thought – it’s when you get to the editing you realize that you have much more than you ever thought you’d get. Much more, you know?
CS: What came through in the editing?
Boyle: The sense of the city. That’s what we abandoned everything to try and get. The sense of the city, the energy, the exhilaration of the city living there, the cruelty, the randomness of it, and that came through really, really strongly immediately and I kept that. Didn’t try to clean up the sound too much because again – we would try experiments to clean it up and it seemed fake. I’d come in the morning and look at it and think it doesn’t feel like the city. You know when you clean up the sound so that somebody’s voice sings clearly and then you add a bit of background noise, the miasma of sound there is just unbelievable and you can hear it when it’s convincing, so you go with that. And you go with people who know the city and know how to deliver the city to you. Whether that’s the first assistant director, the casting director became the co-director, or whether it’s the composer
Boyle: What’s happening in India is this huge fusion of different influences at the moment. And a lot of that comes from America – rap, hip-hop is just pouring in, R&B. The Euro disco house from London and European cities – they love that – connects with the dancing – pushes the dancing much further in their music videos. He just uses that. You say use that and that’s the city. That’s the heart of the sound of the city blazing away at you. Very tinny. Very loud. Hysterical strings spill in. A sitar buried in there somewhere. I never thought I’d make a film with a sitar in it – used to make me grate – but you get there and you know it’s just got to be heard.
CS: I know we have to wrap up but one of the final questions I have for you – I keep coming back at how you made this film so swiftly, you edited it swiftly, so what has it told you about the movie making process? You learned – you obviously went to Mumbai and had this experience there – went to editing and did it fast – how have you reflected on SLUMDOG as to how you want to make movies? Has it changed it?
Boyle: Definitely. It makes you much more able to deal with extremes really, which is obvious, but it’s true. The only way you can survive there is you accept the extremes. You can’t do anything about them. You have to learn to accept them and see them side-by-side and that’s what it’s like making a film sometimes. What happened on this film, 10 weeks ago, is that we lost the North American distribution because Warner Brothers closed down Warner Independent but that normally would make you fly into a rage, an impotent, vengeful rage because it’s a big a blow as you can get. It’s like losing your actor to illness halfway through the film. There’s just about nothing worse than you can think of. And I remember not thinking like I would have. You just learn being in India you go, “OK, maybe that’s for the best actually.” And extraordinarily it was. And you get a different distributor, Fox Searchlight is actually a better distributor for the film than Warner Brothers because they are skilled at this sort of difficult sell and they not only wanted that, they wanted to put out the film immediately which was extraordinary because we weren’t ready with all the materials like a poster, the campaign, the trailer and all those marketing things, the soundtrack. None of them were ready to sell. You need four months to get all those things in place. But they said they wanted to release it now because it was the right time and you think, “Yeah. It’s already out of date because that city changes so much.”
So it’s wonderful to get it out that quickly so I think you make benefit from stuff really without really knowing it. It’s like abandoning yourself to it really rather than trying to get a rigid kind of control of it, you know? Anything, that the thing I love about filmmaking. You probably can’t do it on a lot of different films and a lot of places, but certainly for that place I learned a lot about that. I learned to not have that kind of control we have here.
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