Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
British director Danny Boyle is one of those filmmakers (much like iconic director Martin Scorsese) who makes movies that generate a buzz—just because his name is attached to it—regardless of its stellar cast. Ever since the 52-year-old Boyle made "Trainspotting," a story of a group of shambling Scottish drug addicts, his kinetic, crazy-quilt visual style combined with an ever-twisting storyline has a defined a sort of contemporary filmcraft. That approach was employed with subsequent films like his hyper zombie thriller, "28 Days Later," the sweet-hearted "Millions" and the dark apocalyptic sci-fi tale, "Sunshine."
Now with "Slumdog Millionaire," Boyle has not only has applied his signature visual and storytelling attack to a classic rags-to-riches teen tale but has located it in one of the most crazy-qulit locations of all time, the Indian mega-city of Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay). And at a time when grappling with the clash between local culture and the new globalism is a necessity, a film like "Slumdog Millionaire" comes in handy as an aid to understanding a 21st century world.
With the help of a full Indian crew, Boyle tells the tale of slumdog teen Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) who becomes a contestant on the Hindi version of "Who Wants to be A Millionaire?"—something he does in an effort to find his true love, Latika, who is both a high class whore and an ardent fan of the show. With Oscar-talk buzzing in the background (the film won the People's Choice award at this year's Toronto Film Festival), Boyle talked with a small set of writers in anticipation of the film's release.
Q: As a stranger to India, how was it making a film that's a portrait of this incredible country?
DB: You obviously feel a lot of responsibility. You worry about yourself as a westerner. I didn’t want to make a film where westerners go around India, or anything like that. But still, you are a westerner.
I just wanted to make it distinctively and subjectively as possible, so you felt like you were looking at it from the inside. One of the dangers of India is that it has that "wow" factor where you go, “Look at that!”
It feels like you’re using it as some kind of thing to just stare at, and they hate that. We did these film tests at the beginning, and it was a bit like that. There’s a danger with cameramen. For a cameraman to shoot in India is a dream come true.
Photographically, it’s the place for coffee table books. So it is a danger for cinematographers, because they go, “Wow! The colors!” I didn’t want that. I wanted to be hurtled into it.
I love action movies, even the bad ones, because there’s something about why films are called "motion pictures." It’s where it all began when our ancestors sat there and saw motion, moving. And I really believe that about films. There’s a kineticism about them that’s wonderful; they shouldn’t always be a reflective medium. It doesn’t suit reflection.
I remember meeting [actor] Tim Robbins. I was trying to get him to play this part in a film. It was a really good part but he said he wouldn't do it. I said, “I can’t understand why you won’t do it.”
He said, “Because he dies at the end.” I said, “What?” He said, “Nobody remembers anyone who has died.” And it’s true.
You just move forward; it’s all about forward motion. And I tried to bring that to it, really. Bombay feels like it’s living in fast-forward anyway.
Q: So then how did you, Danny Boyle, come to do "Slumdog Millionaire?"
DB: They sent a script. The agent said it’s a film about "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" And I said, “What?!”
My agent wants me to do American films. He’s always trying to get me to do a film here, but I never do. And then I saw screenwriter Simon [Beaufoy]’s name on it. I’d never met him, but I thought, "I'd better read at least five pages of it. "
As soon as I read 10 pages of it… You know when you’re going to do something. I doesn’t always happen, but sometimes you just know. And you shouldn’t wait until you get to the end, because when you get to the end all the realities of filmmaking kick in: how will we cast? Will we be able to raise enough money? Who will distribute it? All that.
Q: Your films are known for their kinetic charge, for the frenetic editing and the wonderful shots that you get. When you read the script, did that start bubbling up right away? Is that what you see? Do you have a vision?
DB: It’s very difficult to describe; it sort of vibrates. There’s a great screenwriter named David Benioff—I read this screenplay he wrote the other day; it’s excellent. A piece of skilled screenwriting, and yet you don’t feel that vibration yourself, personally about doing it. And probably, the stuff you do is probably not technically as good as this screenplay. But for some reason it vibrates.
I remember with "Trainspotting," when I read the book [by Irvine Welsh]—I can virtually quote it verbatim—I remember reading that first page and thinking: "we’re going to make this." And that’s just one page. I remember thinking that. You have these instincts. I remember meeting Freida [Pinto, who play the adult version of Jamal's love, Latika] for this and thinking, "I bet that’s her."
You don’t get that for everybody or everything, but when you do get it, it comes naturally. It just pops. You should always follow that instinct because there’s something there you don’t really understand fully, and that’s a good thing. ‘Cause you’ll find out about it when you’re making it. It’s funny like that; I can’t explain it anymore than that—that’s the truth. It’s not more complex than that, or more cunning than that or anything.
Q: I was amazed to see how you applied your style to this film. At first I didn’t see how it made sense; then it did. When did you know you could apply the Danny Boyle style to this movie? How did you figure out how it worked?
DB: A lot of it’s the script. Beaufoy did an amazing job. The book is rigid. The book is like 12 chapters, 14 chapters, and each chapter is a question and answer—and it’s like a series of short stories. It would never have worked as a film like that. What Simon did was this very clever thing where he fed the material in early, so sometimes you got the answers way before even the question was asked. Sometimes you didn’t; you had to wait. And it makes you feel very intelligent—it made me feel intelligent, and I always love that [laughs].
You feel it, and you start to see it. We went as soon as we were there and walked through areas of Bombay. There’s nothing to look at, really. There’s no architecture, just people. And you’ve got to like people, and I do like people a lot. If you like that, you’ve got plenty of them. A billion people live there, and that enough for a plant, never mind quite a small country, really. That’s where you get your energy from.
Q: You had the great makings of a documentary with the wild scenarios and experiences that came from this.
DB: There’s a guy who shot the whole time, and they say it’s very good. I haven’t seen it yet, but they’re getting it ready for the DVD. There are so many stories, and yet what matters, more than anything, is your attitude. You have to go in with the right attitude. You can’t control it.
Directors are really about control, and that’s one of the things you try to do all of the time: control experience, capture it. And you can’t do that there. It’s like trying to stop the sea; forget it. You’ve just got to plunge in and go with it. And it’s a lot of risk taking. You’re not certain that you’ve got stuff—you have to wait till you get back. Actually, you’ve got a much greater result than you thought you had.
Q: Co-director Loveleen—what was that about?
DB: She was the casting director, Loveleen Tandan, who did an amazing job. It was quite a big cast, and I didn’t know anybody, virtually no one. And I realized that I needed her on the set. She wants to be a director as well, and she can do it, you can tell. It wasn’t just for the kids—who only spoke Hindi—it was for everything, really. And I could test things against her, culturally, and stuff like that. When I knew I wanted to make a mistake, do something incorrect, because you do do that—films have their own logic which isn’t applicable to the country necessarily. Then I sent her off to do the second unit.
The second unit had been shooting very badly, and then I realized, I should send her out with it… As soon as I sent her out with it, the stuff that came back was like fantastic. So we called her "co-director" because she deserves it. [She] and the first assistant director, this guy called Raj Acharya, and the guy that did the live sound, Resul Pookutty—they were very special for the film.
Q: What did you do to balance the grim moments with the happier parts?
DB: It’s very difficult to answer that question because you don’t think about things like that till you talk to journalists. Then journalists come up with things like that; then they come up with things that connect films. But you don’t think like that when you’re making them. Well, I don’t anyway. I don’t think, “This bit’s so tough. How’s it ever going to fit with the happier here.” You try to make each bit as intense an experience as possible. And if they don’t go together, you’ll probably never see the film.
Q: There’s an intuitive sense of what’s balanced?
DB: Yeah, and I think a writer writes like that intuitively as well. You also, for me anyway, you love variation; and that suits India because there are such extremes. And I love that sense of hitting a different note in a film. That’s one of the reasons I love music in film because you can often have a tone of a film that’s just similar or too flat, and you can pop it with music. And it just suddenly feels like a different film. It’s one of the wonderful ways music works.
There’s lots of ways you can work on it, but without intellectualizing it. It’s weird doing these kinds of conversation because you become aware of things like that. I always worry about doing things like that because you can carry these conversations over the next film. But you don’t; you have a kind of amnesia. It’s weird—you also have amnesia about the realities of filmmaking, about how difficult it is sometimes. You never consider that. You think: that’s great! Let’s do this.
Q: You used M.I.A.'s song “Paper Planes” during that train sequence; it was heard everywhere this summer.
DB: I know. I came back from work one day, I’d been editing, and my daughter said, “You should see this trailer.” She’s 17—she spends most of her time on Japanese websites downloading illegal copies of "The Office." “You should see this,” she said. “It’s really good. It’s a really good use of ‘Paper Planes.’” I thought, oh no; but it’s a great trailer.
We’ve got a lovely remix of it, too. I met [singer M.I.A.], because originally she’s from London; she's Sri Lankan [by heritage]. She lives here [in New York City] now. I called her in to see the film, because I like the musicians to see the film. And she liked the film a lot. She's a very smart girl—she gave me a couple of really good notes, which you don’t get from people—really good notes. Then I phoned her up to do the rest of the music, and she’s a big fan of [soundtrack composer A. R.] Rahman’s. When she was a kid she worshipped him.
Q: Did you make changes based on her notes?
DB: Yes I did. We were chatting and she said, “Do you want me to say a couple of things?” because she was very complimentary. She said, “We don’t really know how he got on the show. How did he get on the actual show?” And I hadn’t really answered that question.
Often times you get very bad notes from people. Someone who sits there, who’s from another world completely—this hip-hop, cool New Yorker she is now—she’s really smart.
Q: Were there specific films—either Bollywood ones or just films about India—that you looked at before or during production?
DB: Not so much on this film. I don’t know why.
Q: Do you do it on other films?
DB: Yes, definitely. Usually, when we have these conversations, I’ll mention the kind of films.
Q: Did you do a lot of historical research?
DB: Yeah. The main book I read, the only book you need to read, is [Suketu Mehta's] "Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found." I read that all the time, and part of the time I thought I was adapting that, and not "Q and A" by Vikas Swarup, the book we were actually meant to be adapting.
I’m a bit worried about [author] Vikas Swarup seeing it. He’s seeing it soon. I’m a bit worried about a) him not liking it, b) him suing us [laughs]. So my main research was, I guess, that.
But when I got there, there were three films that I had never heard of that I did watch that did influence the film in some way. One’s called "Satya," and it’s as good a film I’ve seen. It stars and is written by our police constable, the guy who tortures [Jamal]. He’s called Saurabh Shukla. He’s an amazing writer, and a terrific character actor.
There’s another film called "Company," a film about gangsters in Bombay. And another film called "Black Friday" which is about bombings in Mumbai, made by a young guy called Anurag Kashyap, a fantastic film made with very little money, but is a really good film. They were like inspirations while we were making this film. It’s good to know that it’s not all Bollywood musicals. It’s not [only] the kind of standard stuff that they do.
Q: What was it about novice actor Dev Patel that made him Jamal?
DB: I met all these guys in Mumbai, and the casting was done in Mumbai. I met loads of them, and they're really talented young guys there. But if you want to get in the movies in Bollywood and you’re 18 or 20, you’ve got to be able to get a shirt off.
They stand under waterfalls in Switzerland and they do these song and dance moves, and they’ve got to be ripped. And they're all like beefcake, and you know when guys can’t put their arms down cause they have all this muscle mass? They're 18; they're only just beyond kids—and their heads are really small. They haven’t put any weight on their heads. So you’ve got these tiny little heads and big bodies; that was just wrong for the film.
Jamal's an underdog; he’s supposed to be a guy who apparently has nothing. So, my daughter said, “You should see this guy in 'Skins'.” It’s this [television] program we have in the UK; it’s quite a racy program. I watched it, and he played a fairly small comic part in it, but he was very good, I thought. He was great, very serious in the craft.
And he had that… well we didn’t always agree about stuff. We fought a couple of times, which is good, because, honestly, I have a bit of a reputation. And he was prepared to say, “No, I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think I should do it like that.”
When you get that, it’s good. If they just do what you tell them, it’s kind of one dimensional in a way. They’ve got to take it over themselves—that's a lead actor. He’s got that. He’s stubborn. That’s good; that’s what he had.
And Jamal’s like that: nothing’s going to stop him, whatever it is... That scene when he jumps in the shit, that’s his character. His dream is to have Bachan's autograph and nothing will stand in his way. He’s a bit like that.
Q: Was it important to have that connection between the three different actors [who play Jamal at the ages of 8, 12 and 18]?
DB: Yeah. It’s tricky because if you find one person, you might not find someone else that look like each other. Mostly you just hope the audience will just go with it. That they’ll just accept. It’s great to have some kind of connection between them. We had to all together in rehearsal—I tried to get them to copy each other’s mannerisms. I wanted it to feel coherent.
Q: How did you find the children in the movie; were they from the slums?
DB: The performances weren’t difficult because they’re all really good actors. The kids there love acting. They say, “Do you want the look? [laughs]" Once you get them to understand the world that they’re in, they're terrific. They don’t feel a separation between themselves, and film. It’s like here—film is a natural part of life. It is in India as well. Everybody’s been to the cinema, and all the time. Even seven year olds have seen lots of stuff. Finding them was really down to Loveleen [Tandan, the co-director in India].
Initially the film was written completely in English. When we got there, and saw the seven year olds who spoke English, it didn’t work because they’re not that deft with English at seven and eight. They get better when they get into their teens, and it wasn’t really working, so [Loveleen] said, “We should really do it in Hindi.”
I thought, what is Warner Brothers going to say? She translated it. She adapted it, because you can’t literally translate it. As soon as we did it, it suddenly came alive. It felt so real. So I rang Warner Brothers, and said, “We’re going to do the first bit in Hindi with English subtitles.”
Q: They dumped the movie.
DB: That was for different [reasons].
Q: So what happened with Warner Brothers?
DB: When they closed Warner Independent, we were just one of a number of films that [were in limbo]—we were shot; we were edited; we were very far down the line when we heard [about that]. And you just thought that’s going to be it. We won’t get theatrical release. In the melee, there are so many casualties in the process, we’ll wind up on DVD, especially because we don’t have a star in it. It’s got no platform, no profile, nothing. I remember thinking about what I learned in India, and I thought, "it’ll be okay. Just go with it, we’ll see."
And then things began to happen. We got to make shuffling noises at Telluride and Toronto [film festivals]. Suddenly the studio goes, "What? What was that shuffle noise?"
Then you get a couple of journalists sniffing around it. John Hall at the LA Times was sniffing around it. And that makes the studio go, "What? What?" And then, to give Warner credit, they showed it to Fox Searchlight, which they shouldn’t have done technically because if you’re going to show it, you should show it to all the buyers. But they showed it to him because they thought if anyone could release this film—a third of which is in Hindi [laughs]—it would be him. And he picked it up and ran with it, and here we are.
Q: What led you to put this Bollywood ending on it?
DB: If you’ve lived and worked there for eight months, if you live and work in Bombay, you can’t leave without a dance [laughs]. You can’t. It would be like making a film about America without a motorcar. You just can’t do it. It would be wrong. It would be so fake.
The key thing was whether we should put it inside the film linked to a question, or whether we put it at the end of the film, as it is. So we decided to put it at the end of the film to celebrate [Jamal and Latika’s] love. It’s not actually a sendup of Bollywood. It’s genuine, absolutely genuine. Their love of movies, and love of dancing, and their love of song is something to be absolutely celebrated, even though we may not be able to watch some of the films.
Q: Did you have any trouble with ratings [for "Slumdog Millionaire"] here?
DB: Yes, it’s an R. They said it was because of the intensity. There’s nothing we can do about it.
Q: Is there a message you want people to get out of this? I know after "Millions," kids were inspired to raise money to build wells in Africa. Is there something you want people to do after this or take inspiration from it?
DB: I think when you elect Barack Obama, the world’s going to become a bigger place again. That’s all you get from doing something like that. You’re not there to teach anybody anything; you’re there to learn about yourself. These people that live in slums are extraordinary—so generous, so resourceful. I want it so it will be something that they’ll like, really. I hope they get to see it on a pirate copy somewhere [laughs].
Q: Will we ever see your much-missed "Alien Love Triangle" come out?
DB: It’s sort of beginning to become a bit more visible. They showed it at this little cinema in Wales, in the UK—the smallest cinema in the UK—they have twelve seats. It was an old railway carriage, and this guy converted it thirty years ago into a cinema. He was retiring it, and closing it. He asked if we could show it as its final film, and they did. They showed it. Kenneth Branagh, who’s in it, went along—I was in India—to present the film. I think that’s a sign, that hopefully, it will appear somewhere soon.
Q: Is there anything else in the pipeline?
DB: Nothing at all. I tend to work on one thing only at a time. It drives my agent mad.