Opening today in select markets is a film I'm sure will carve out a spot on a host of top ten lists at the end of the year (including mine): Slumdog Millionaire. Directed by the spirited and always-versatile Danny Boyle, Slumdog shoots its way into the city of Mumbai (aka the Maximum City) like liquid from a syringe, as it tells the life story of one poor boy from the slums and the girl who always seems to escape his reach.
Directing a film that's both chaotic and beautiful at the same time is not easy, and shooting on location in one of the busiest cities of the world was a task Boyle welcomed with open arms. Cinematical sat down with the director of such films as The Beach, 28 Days Later, Trainspotting and Sunshine to find out what it was like filming with a cast that barely spoke his language, how big a part the real Who Wants to Be a Millionaire actually played, and, among other things, which genre he's itching to take on next ... in America.
(As always, we do have to warn you that this interview might contain movie spoilers.)
Cinematical: Because your last film was this big, expensive sci-fi flick, did you intend to follow it up with something smaller ... which sounds quite silly seeing as Slumdog Millionaire is set in one of the busiest cities in the world?
Danny Boyle: Yeah, it's very funny those words 'big' and 'small', because obviously Sunshine is a big movie in some sense, but then in other ways it's a very tiny movie. You're working in a small studio with just eight actors, and you're there for months and months and it's just so tiny. With India, you've got about a billion people, and they all seem to be in the shot most of the time. It's weird, the biggest thing I thought was the contrast -- the change it was to go from outer space to the heat of this city; what they call the Maximum City. It was just such a refreshing change for me, and I'm so happy I got the opportunity to do it.
Cinematical: Talk about working with the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire people. I heard they're pretty tough on intellectual property; was it difficult getting them involved for a concept that implies the show was rigged?
Danny Boyle: Well it was really interesting, because what happened was the guys who invented the show years ago in Britain, they were a company called Celador. What they did was a couple of years ago they sold the show for a staggering amount of money, and what they did with the money was they set up a film company called Celador, who were the producers of this film. What happened was a lawyer -- presumably a very smart lawyer -- in that deal in which they sold it, put a clause in saying that if there was ever a feature film featuring the show, that Celador would have the right to use the music, the right to use the stage design, the right to use the copyright of the show, blah blah. So we were okay. And we didn't even have to pay for it! It was amazing to be able to use it, and they were a little concerned with how we would portray the show ... but I guess we were just very, very lucky with how we were able to get around it, I suppose.
Cinematical: I know you shot in places that not even Indian productions shoot in. Was this a dangerous shoot? What were some of the obstacles you faced?
Danny Boyle: Dangerous? No. The extraordinary thing about India is that it's such a family place. It's full of families everywhere. I love that because that's my background, and while these places may look dangerous because they feel so different, when you get to know everybody, you sort of recognize everybody -- like, there's a guy who's just like your uncle. With the slums, for instance, you have to go in with the right people, because they're very protective places; they look after their own. Once you go in with the right people, though, they're incredibly generous and warm.
There are some physical obstacles to shooting there; ya know, there are very narrow and small places, and it's quite difficult to move a crew around. But we tried to be as flexible as possible with the crew, used digital equipment -- and we tried to blend in so that we could tell the story from the perspective of the characters who lived there, who grew up there, who don't regard it as a terrible place, but as their home -- as the place where they come from. Like anybody, like any of us. So we tried to view it from that perspective. I'm determined to make these films in the real places, because otherwise how was I ever going to understand it or recreate it as a Westerner? It would be crazy to do in a studio; you'd always get it wrong in a studio. You didn't grow up there yourself, and you'd never be able to recognize what was right and what was wrong.
Cinematical: Exactly ... and on top of shooting in these hectic locations, you had such a young, inexperienced cast -- some of whom didn't even speak your language. How did you adapt to that? How did you direct them?
Danny Boyle: I had a very good casting director (Loveleen Tandan) who I eventually converted into my co-director because she helped me with the kids a great deal. But it's also true to say that they can tell pretty much what you want. You can kind of find ways around language; we actually got on pretty well even though we weren't able to communicate very much directly via language. One of the kids spoke a bit of English, and two of the kids who were from the slums -- who grew up with very poor backgrounds -- they didn't speak much English, but we put them into school now. And the last time I went back a couple of months ago, they were speaking English and I was able to carry a conversation with them which was amazing.
Cinematical: Did you learn anything about India or Mumbai that the rest of the world isn't clued into at all?
Danny Boyle: Actually, I learned a lot. It's not so much what you learn about Mumbai, it's what you learn about yourself, really. It's a funny old hippie thing, but it's true as well. You find out a lot about yourself and your tolerance, and about your inclusiveness. They don't separate the world there. All the world is all the world at the same time. It's all inclusive -- the rich, the poor -- they're all living on top of one another. Most of our cities are growing, and we're going to have to learn to do that as well -- to share and somehow find harmony all living together. And they have that, really. You have to admire that. They may not have some of the infrastructure that we do, but they don't need it in order to get along.
Cinematical: I found it amazing, actually, how you took some of the most claustrophobic situations and made them look so beautiful on screen ...
Danny Boyle: I love cities. It's one thing I've learned throughout my career. I made this film The Beach, which didn't take place in a city, and it didn't really suit me. I grew up in a city, I'm a city person -- I go on holiday and I'm bored. [laughs] All I want to do is get back to the city. And the Maximum City, I think, is Mumbai. It used to be New York in the '80s with that sort of busyness of life ... and I think at the moment, it's Mumbai. It's a city in fast forward, it really is.
Cinematical: Speaking of The Beach, do you have any intentions to work with Alex Garland again soon?
Danny Boyle: Oh yeah, I'd love to work with Alex. We've done a couple of things since then, and, long term, we've got an idea for something that we might move on. There's nothing set in concrete, but I'd love to -- Alex is a fantastic writer.
Cinematical: That's great. I have to ask: How did that final dance number come about? I absolutely loved it!
Danny Boyle: [laughs] Well you can't live there and work there for about eight months without dancing. It'd be like filming a movie about America and not featuring a motor car -- people would be all like, 'What's up with this guy?' So we were gonna try to put it inside the story as maybe one of the questions or one of the things that gave him an answer to something, but it didn't really work out. So we put it at the end, and when they kiss it's obviously their future life together -- their happiness in their union; their future, really. They're celebrating that, and so it felt right for it to be there.
Cinematical: And speaking of that kiss -- that must have been a little controversial for them, right? Aren't they really not allowed to do that in public?
Danny Boyle: That's right. It's very tough for actresses, especially in public because we were shooting in a public place and there's no control there. There's always hundreds and hundreds of people watching, so I had to ask Freida (Pinto) about it very carefully and she was very gracious; she agreed to do it. Because not all their actresses would have agreed to do it -- I think it's sort of like nudity here; how some people will do it and some people won't. It's quite a big thing there, but she understood it was necessary for the story and I tried to convince her that it would be seen in a very gracious and beautiful way. It wouldn't look cheap or tawdry or anything like that. And I felt like it was done in the best taste possible.
Cinematical: Have you shown the film in Mumbai yet?
Danny Boyle: Not yet, no. We're hoping to release it there in January, and it has to be vetted by the Indian government, and who knows how they'll react to it because they kind of control everything that goes in and out of there, ya know. It's a very controlling mentality ... ironically, given that it's a country that's sort of beyond control in that sense ... certainly from a film director's point of view. [laughs]
Cinematical: You're always jumping from genre to genre, which I personally find amazing about your work, and so I have to ask whether you're going to do a Western next?
Danny Boyle: [laughs] Oh God, could he do a Western? I used to love watching them, and it's cops who've taken over for them now, really. I'd love to do a cop film in America. That's a genre I absolutely adore. I remember seeing French Connection and being unbelievably blown away by it. Ya know, these turning points in your life where you see these movies that sort of stay with you forever. Um, I don't know what I'm gonna do next. I was going to do an animated film, but it kinda fell apart for all sorts of reasons ... because they're so expensive and just very, very difficult. So I'm free, actually ... tell your mates. [laughs]