Preview 2009 - Danny Boyle
From director Danny Boyle ‘s upcoming opus to the best in music, fashion and technology, 2009 kicks off in rude health. First up, Miles Fielder meets cult director Danny Boyle to discuss Slumdog Millionaire
It’s not uncommon for the films that turn out to be the best of any given year to have been released at the beginning of that year. Think of Lust, Caution, No Country for Old Men, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Juno and There Will be Blood – all released before the end of February last year and each a contender for best film of 2008. That confluence of quality is explainable largely by the early new year being the awards season – Golden Globes, BAFTAs, Oscars, etc – so it’s no coincidence that all of the above films were in the running at last March’s Academy Awards.
Word of mouth has it Danny Boyle’s new film, Slumdog Millionaire, will be in the running at this year’s Academy Awards. It won the coveted audience award at the Toronto Film Festival in September and closed the London Film Festival in November with a standing ovation. Even if it fails to pick up an Oscar in March, it’s a sure bet that, come the end of 2009, it’ll be on many a film of the year list. In fact, reviews published in January are likely to bear that pre-emptive – though in no way premature – slogan.
Shot on the streets of Mumbai by Boyle and a small British crew (including the director’s supremely talented regular cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle) working in conjunction with a larger local team, Slumdog Millionaire is a tough and tender, hilarious and heartbreaking, realistic and fairytale-like adventure that mix-matches Bollywood melodrama (and musical), Dickensian street urchin yarn, gangster movie and love story. Lucid, coherent and dynamic, it’s as good as anything Boyle’s made yet, and quite possibly his best film to date, which is saying something given the Mancunian’s credits include Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Millions and Sunshine. As impressive as the film and its reception has been, however, like its protagonist – a kid from the slums who finds himself one question away from winning the jackpot on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? – the making of Slumdog Millionaire is the story of an underdog.
‘My agent said, “I’m sending you a script about Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” and I thought, “I don’t want to make a film about Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”’ says Boyle, who’s still trying to get his head around how the film came to be, let alone how it came to be talked up for Oscar glory. ‘Then I saw it was written by Simon Beaufoy, who wrote The Full Monty, so I thought I should read it out of respect. I was gone after 10 or 15 pages. I said, “Let’s do it. It’ll be great”.’
In the film business, however, just doing it, never mind making it great, is easier said than done. And as Boyle would discover, making a movie in Mumbai is unlike making one anywhere else on the planet. ‘You get this kind of amnesia about making films,’ Boyle laughs. ‘It’s a bit like what they say about women and childbirth: chemicals are released into a woman’s body to make her forget how painful it was to have a kid. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it certainly happens with films.’
The first hurdle was that every stage of shooting in the Bollywood capital had to be vetted by the Indian authorities. ‘You have to be creative in the way you present the material to them,’ Boyle says, ‘although some things you can be surprisingly honest about. For instance, we told them there was a torture scene. They said, “That’s no problem, provided there’s no one above the rank of inspector involved”.’ Next, working with kids cast from the slums proved as difficult as it was rewarding, because they spoke only Hindi, which meant Boyle had to shoot in a language he didn’t understand. ‘In the end, it was a blessing shooting in Hindi,’ Boyle says. ‘For example, they have an expression for being hungry, which is: you’ve got rats running around in your tummy. That’s a wonderful expression.’ Then, there was the constant threat of committing cultural gaffs to film. ‘People tend to do what the director says,’ says Boyle, ‘even if it’s wrong. So we had Loveleen Tandan, who was initially the casting director, there every day. Ultimately, we decided to credit her as the co-director.’ But despite Boyle surrounding himself with local help, there was nothing to be done about the sheer chaos of Mumbai. ‘Everything is changing,’ Boyle says. ‘Nothing is the same from one day to another. You just have to go with the flow and you feed off the story and the people and the circumstances. I felt like there was this incredible energy in Mumbai and I wanted to capture that.’
It’s evident from the way Boyle turned negatives into positives that his experience in India was a good one. ‘Yes, I fell in love with India,’ he says. ‘I loved Mumbai and the people there. We had an amazing time making the film. I hope that comes across.’
It certainly does. Watching the film produces the same kind of rush you get from the backpack-clad exploration of a foreign city and its alien culture, and Slumdog Millionaire is a genuinely optimistic crowd-pleaser. And for our troubled times this is no bad thing. The year in cinema starts here.
Slumdog Millionaire is on general release from Fri 9 Jan.