Fresh off his Oscar-nominated film “127 Hours,” an Olivier Award-winning stage production of “Frankenstein,” and the triumphant 2012 Summer Olympics Opening ceremonies, Academy Award winning director Danny Boyle revisits the realm that kick-started his amazing filmmaking career. In his directorial debut, “Shallow Grave,” Boyle mixed ink-black humor, psychological thrills and hard-edged style in a story of friends pushed to intense levels of paranoia and deceit. Now with “Trance,” he takes audiences on a visceral thrill-ride into the tempting, unreliable world of the subconscious.
At a recent roundtable interview, Boyle talked about how the nature of the story influenced the film’s unique visual style, how he turned the noir conceit of the classic femme fatale on its head by putting a woman at the center of the action who bests the men at their own game, and why his involvement with the Olympics afforded him a unique perspective during the post-production phase of the film. He also discussed his upcoming “Trainspotting” sequel that revisits characters played by the same actors 20 years later.
Question: It’s always interesting to see how the nature of the story influences how you tell the story. Can you talk about the film’s visual style?
Danny Boyle: That’s what you’re aiming for. The perfect equation is form equals content. The style of the film reflects the story, and that’s what you’re always aiming for. You’re not always necessarily successful at it, but that’s the ambition that you’re trying to do. You don’t just do a story in your old style, although you do have a style, and so some of that inevitably crosses over, but you hope mostly it grows out of the story. In this case, it was obviously the idea that things are not what they seem. It’s an obvious thing. It’s so simple. You use mirrors. You have reflective surfaces. When you’re building the sets and you’re doing the set design and having discussions, you’re talking about how you’ll have these reflective surfaces, not just a mirror, so that you begin to see two or three versions of you. That is sending a clue to the audience, and it’s subconscious, because mirrors are a natural part of our life, that’s saying, “No, no, no, this is not the only story.” There is something else. There’s another version of this actually, if you like. And so, you push it as far as you can at different times. A big element of it was the iPad, because the iPad, of course, is a highly reflective surface in which you can see yourself. But it also is, especially for a modern young professional like Simon (James McAvoy) who is a fine arts auctioneer, something that he would use constantly. He would keep his life in there, as we do. So, when Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) introduces the idea of it to him as a repository for his memories where they can be honed and told, it’s reassuring for him. He’s familiar with it. He knows he can stop it, turn it backwards, turn it forwards, so it’s a lovely extension of the reflective idea. I have to say, there is a danger with technology like that. It dates your movie because the iPad changes size. But I’m glad we did it, because yesterday, Samsung released that phone that is watching you. If you look away from it, it turns off to save battery power. If you think about that, you worry about what is going to happen next. We’re going to get so attached. These things of ours are going to become like an umbilical cord between us. People are going to turn their central heating on before they get home, and Sirius is going, “Okay.” And now, they’re watching your eyeballs, and if you look away, it switches off to save battery life, and you come back and it switches on. So it was nice to be able to use that. And then, we play that trick at the end, and obviously, it’s ludicrous that there’s an app for your memories if you want to forget something. But it’s nice to be able to because it’s quite tense at the end of the movie, and it’s nice to relax with Franck (Vincent Cassel) looking like a lovelorn teenager again. He’s not quite sure how to handle love.
Q: How did you want to play by the traditional film noir rules and how did you want to break them?
Boyle: I love noir. Always one of the ideas of this was to take the noir conceit of crime in a city, because it usually happens in a bubble. It’s not like the characters are just locked inside a bubble. We wanted to use that. We didn’t want to update it. We didn’t want to pay homage, because I think films like that have a very limited appeal. People will go, “Oh, I’ll just watch the originals because they’re great.” It’s catastrophic if people say, “It’s like a Hitchcock movie.” Nobody’s going to watch it, because you might as well watch the original Hitchcock movies. I know that because when “Shallow Grave” was released in America, it didn’t do very well. It had been a brilliant hit in Britain. One of the reasons was they sold it here as a Hitchcock movie. I knew then that people would just go, “Well, if it’s Hitchcock, I can watch those ones. It’s cool. Why would I want to watch this?” So, we didn’t want to make it too much of an homage or an update or anything like that, but we wanted to take elements of the noir, and most especially, the femme fatale idea and that she does appear to behave like a classic femme fatale. She appears to use her allure, her beauty, her sensuality to manipulate the men and gain power over them and influence them. But what we were hoping to do was, unlike in noir where the femme fatale just behaves worse than the men, she’s better at that cold, exploitative behavior than the men and plays the men at their own games, that this had an emotion behind it, that there’s a real story behind it about why she behaved like that. All the films that we make tend to be the same idea. There’s a character that faces insurmountable odds and somehow overcomes them and triumphs. The difference was, in this story, you don’t know which one that is. And, it’s her. If you tell it in sequential, chronological order, she’s the one that faces impossible odds. She’s a stranger in the place. She doesn’t belong to the country. There are forces that are meant to help her when she has a violent boyfriend, but won’t help her, which we know is the case. They often don’t help. They wash their hands of domestics, as they call it. So, she not only faces the reappearance of this violent man in her life, but he’s now got four other violent men with him. So, it’s like, what’s she going to do? And, of course, what she does is she uses her brilliance, her techniques, her skill to triumph in the end. She has the painting in the end, but it’s hidden. The idea of it is hidden. You use elements of noir, but you don’t want it to be too noir-ish. You don’t want it to be advertised as though you’re asking people to go and watch an updated noir. I don’t think they’ll go do that. They want to see a modern story.
Q: Elizabeth is a brilliant hypnotherapist who uses both her smarts and her sexuality to survive. What do you think is her greatest weapon?
Boyle: She obviously makes a decision. She could run away, but as she says, she’s not going to run away. She decides not to run away anymore in her life. It becomes very, very dangerous and she goes with it. She doesn’t have an uber plan because you can’t in these complicated circumstances. You have to roll with it and see what happens and go with it.
Q: I saw her as a damaged woman who was out for revenge and then got sucked into something else because her plan went awry.
Boyle: There is that element to it really. But I think her revenge is not something that’s just for revenge’s sake. We wanted you to feel that because of the damage that’s been done to her, that her revenge is something that you could appreciate and value. It isn’t just a kind of cynical revenge. It’s actually the best way that she could protect her own life. She doesn’t have to run away anymore, and she lives her own life as she wants to live her life. They’re the problem. The guys are the problem. She’s not the problem. That’s the problem with the femme fatale. It is a misogynist idea because it’s invented by men, and it’s the idea of, “What if women were even worse than men? Wouldn’t that be great?” There is a misogynistic idea. She does use that territory. Clearly, cinematically, it feels like that. She’s a very beautiful woman and they’re easily led by her in a way, but actually there is a genuine reason for her to need to protect herself and she uses that. And, good on her for doing that, I think. If you saw the story in chronological order, you’d see this woman get involved in a relationship. Basically, in chronological order, he has a gambling problem. He turns up, he’s super attracted to her, and eventually they start a relationship. He’s possessive and controlling. That’s the other thing about the paintings and the pubic hair and all that kind of stuff. It’s actually about a guy who’s a controller. He wants to control her, and it’s a classic male fault. He wants her to be the image he wants and he wants to make her into that image. He doesn’t want her to be herself, and she goes along with it as women do in early parts of relationships. He becomes jealous and violent, and she realizes that unless she does something, she’s going to die. Nobody is going to help her. She’s going to end up dying. So, her options are: run away or do something about it. So, she uses her skill, and she knows he’s susceptible to it, to deactivate him, but she also plants the idea in him as well that he will destroy himself and steal a painting. You could argue, is she stealing the painting for money? I don’t think so. She’s actually planting the idea. That’s how he will destroy himself. If he steals a painting from his own profession, he’s going to destroy himself. That’s clever. And then, of course, as she knows on some level, he’s bound to come back as he does, but with four other violent men.
Q: Because of the Olympics, you shot the film, had to walk away from it for a while, and then came back to do post-production and editing. Did that give you a unique perspective that you wouldn’t normally have?
Boyle: Yes. It’s huge. It’s weird. Very few people get it. It’s usually associated with an actor changing shape, like Tom Hanks in “Castaway” or De Niro famously in “Raging Bull.” But, even then, you haven’t put the whole movie on ice. You’ve put three quarters or half of it. But here, we put the whole movie [on ice]. We shot the whole movie and we’d really shot it, because we thought by the time we come back to this, these actors will be different and we won’t be able to do pick-ups. We tried to make sure we’d covered everything. I thought this is going to be very strange, and I’ll never forget it, because normally as a director, you know everything about it so intimately. You go into editing with that knowledge. But when we came back after the Olympics, we watched the rough cut that we’d assembled of the material we’d shot, and it was weird. I couldn’t remember this movie, and that was good. I was like, “What happens next? Oh, I didn’t realize… I’d forgotten that.” You’d imagine you’d never forget what you do and that was very useful. And the big use it was to us was that we realized we’d been very, very defensive, and we hadn’t given any clues in any of it that there was something else going on. You get paranoid about the secrets and you think if a character just does that, it’ll give it away. “No! Not that! We’re giving it away.” And so, when we watched it afresh after that gap, we realized that we hadn’t given enough clues. For instance, there’s a bit in the film where you hear him knocking on glass all the time. We put that in earlier, almost like what we’d call the executive in his brain going “Oy! There’s a problem here. It’s not quite what it seems.” It’s like some ding, ding, ding going on in his brain, and we put that in as a clue for people as they watch the movie that there were other forces at work here that will eventually be revealed to you. It’s weird doing these kinds of movies. I’d never done one before. You do have to make sure it works the second time. If people go back to it, it’s got to work the second time. Otherwise, they’re going to go, “Oh that’s bullshit!” So, it does work the second time. And not only that, because most people won’t watch it a second time since most people only watch it once, but part of your brain when you’re watching it is also noticing things and thinking, “I bet if you watched it a second time, that would make more sense.” Part of your brain is also watching it like that. These are the jobs you have to do. The famous case of it is M. Night Shyamalan, who up until the last minute refused to include the line, “I see dead people,” in “The Sixth Sense,” because he thought it completely gave it away. Everybody that was working with him said, “You’ve got to put it in. You’ve got to have that clue. You’ve got to give that to the audience so that when they go back and see it again…” And he did put it in eventually.
Q: What I loved about Elizabeth’s character was that she was viewed as an equal in this group of men, which we don’t get to see in a lot in movies. How important was it to you to have that aspect of her character in the film?
Boyle: The reason to do the film originally was that I have two daughters, who are now in their twenties, and I’ve never made a film where the woman is the engine of the film, and I thought that is disgraceful. Looking at me, that is an absolute disgrace. And that’s the reason for doing the film ultimately. There’s lot to like in the film – the noirish, the thriller, hypnosis. It’s really interesting. But the real reason to do the film was there was a woman at the center of it and increasingly at the center of it as you watch it. Now, having said that, you can’t change your spots. So, I can’t make a feminist film. I can’t pretend. It’s still a boy film. It’s still a visceral thrill ride, but why shouldn’t I have a woman at the center of it? And, it is a problem for the actresses. I mean, Rosario Dawson is an amazing actress with clearly not enough roles for her to do. It’s like a number of actresses. They just don’t have the roles and they often play the girlfriend. It’s a nice part, but they’re often the sidekick effectively. It’s a problem, and it’s wonderful to be able to confront that and to do a part that’s actually about her and to give her that speech in the car, which is an enormous speech where she recaps exactly what has happened. But, in fact, she leaves out a little bit that she hasn’t quite told you yet. The whole engine of the film is increasingly this woman.
Q: What did your daughters think about you doing a film for them?
Boyle: They’re very critical of me. They are really tough to please.
Q: Did they like the movie? Have they seen it?
Boyle: Yes, they did. They’re very tough to please, my youngest one especially who’s 21 and lives in New York. She’s at college in New York. She is a handful. She really does not let me get away with anything, and that’s a good thing. I love it.
Q: Can you talk about James McAvoy’s character? He starts out as a victim in this and then things begin to shift. He is usually the likeable, sympathetic guy.
Boyle: Yes, he is, and that was one of the reasons he wanted to do the film. One of the reasons why it was a great advantage for him to do the film for us is that you start off and you think, “Okay, he’s the reliable narrator guy. He’s talking to us. He’s looking at us. He appears to know what he’s doing. He’s successful. He’s cute. I love his Scottish accent. He’s beautiful.” He has his fingernails ripped off and you think, “Oh, poor James.” And then, it begins to change. That’s what’s wonderful about this kind of film where you have three characters and you do it deliberately. They’re not what they seem. It’s even true of Vincent, because at the beginning, he’s the gangster, which we know him as, in Britain certainly. Vincent does a great gangster. He starts off as a gangster who is ripping people’s fingernails off, but by the end, he’s like a teenager struck by love. He doesn’t know what to do with himself. It’s his heart. That’s lovely to twist the characters around like that. Obviously, James is the biggest example of it. It’s why we put the poster out with a [screaming image] of him like that. That’s a little clue to tell you, because you’ll still go in liking James, but it’s a warning literally in the poster. Don’t go to this expecting a regular movie. This is the evil twin sister, the evil distant cousin of the Olympic Games and “127 Hours” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” This is the devious, twisted, delicious side of all that.
Q: What can you tell us at this point about the “Trainspotting” sequel?
Boyle: We’ve always wanted to do it not in a cheap way, just cashing in on something that’s successful, but always we chugged on. I’m not saying that’s a necessarily bad thing. I’ve done that before with “28 Days Later,” “28 Weeks Later.” (laughs) But this one is a bit more special, I think, because there’s an affection for it and the characters and the actors playing those characters. We always thought that when they got old enough, and it looked like a generation had passed, how amazing it would be to revisit those people played by the same actors, especially because when you first met them, they were hedonists. They’re prepared to do anything to their bodies, and you get away with it when you’re in your early twenties. When you look back, you think, “What did I do that for? I wouldn’t do that now!” But you do, and so, what happens to them? They’re now in their forties and osteoarthritis is beginning to appear on the horizon or whatever. They’re beginning to creak a bit. What have they done with their lives? Presumably, a lot of them are still trapped in the same time. What have they done with their lives? And you’ll get this extra reflex, which of course is that the actors are 20 years older and they look it. They no longer look like those gorgeous guys in their twenties. And, you’ll get it in the audience as well, because people who watched it when it first came out, that time has also passed. But there’s another generation that’s caught up with it as it’s gone along. So, it felt like it would have a value rather than it just being a commercial thing.
Q: What about the effect on you because you’re also coming at it 20 years later?
Boyle: Absolutely. Everybody contributes to that process. It’s not an original idea. Obviously, there’s that ongoing documentary – “7 Up,” “14 Up,” “21 Up” – which is incredibly moving. You watch that and you go, “Oh my God. He was that there and now he’s like that?” We’re all like that. We see ourselves in it. But also, there was a brilliant comedy series in Britain called “The Likely Lads” about two guys who are in their early twenties in Newcastle. One of them was working class and one of them was middle class. It looked at them and then they did a follow-up series called “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?”, and that was then 10 years later and it was very moving. You saw all the things and all the traits that we don’t manage to avoid. You think you’re going to move on, but you don’t. You’re busy. So it should be nice really. It should be good.