Director Danny Boyle is hypnotized by the unconventional
05:00 AM, Apr 04, 2013
NEW YORK Danny Boyle, grandmaster DJ?
Not quite. But by all accounts, the director who instigated an Iggy Pop revival with his Trainspotting soundtrack and had everyone hopping to the Oscar-winning ditty Jai Ho at the end of Slumdog Millionaire didn’t miss a beat while spinning CDs in an Austin club at the South by Southwest festival a few weeks ago.
The occasion for his Moby impersonation? Trance, Boyle’s 10th feature, which opens Friday. The deceptive thriller that unfolds through a cracked prism of hypnotic suggestion begins with a purloined painting and leads to a tortured triangle between its main characters: James McAvoy’s cocky art auctioneer, who suffers from amnesia; Rosario Dawson’s therapist, who tries to restore his memory; and Vincent Cassel’s savage gangster, who wants him to remember where a priceless Goya is stashed.
“I saw my daughter last night who lives here,” the 56-year-old British filmmaker says of his youngest child, Caitlin, as he enjoys a fruit platter at The Crosby Hotel, a high-end Blighty hideaway in Soho. “She is 21 and goes to Parsons for design and fashion. She mercilessly took the mickey out of me for DJing at my age.”
Boyle did have a more experienced mentor by his side: Rick Smith of the English techno twosome Underworld, who provides Trance’s throbbing ambient soundtrack. “I would never perform as a professional, but it was nice to do as a one-off.”
While the old (Michael Jackson, David Bowie) and the new (Wretch 32, The Maccabees) made the playlist cut, Boyle also included his personal favorite circa 1978, one that bespeaks of his own past.
“It’s a not-very-well-known Clash song, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, a single that meant a great deal to me, ” he says. “It was my era. A reggae rock song, a beautiful song.”
That Boyle would wax nostalgic about a punk anthem reveals much about his place in the cinematic universe as a sort of elder outlaw who keeps himself pure by eschewing big-budget vehicles, remains suspect of 3-D and retains a refined populist sensibility while pushing traditional genres to new extremes.
While he has seen fellow countrymen such as Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and Christopher Nolan (the latest Batman franchise) move from art-house fare to box-office behemoths, Boyle has been averse to any such potential sellout opportunities, ever since he turned down Alien 4 in the wake of Trainspotting’s success
Asked if studios still offer him such projects, including any superhero adventures, Boyle admits, “They don’t bother much anymore. They aren’t stupid. I have nothing against those films. I really admire some of the filmmakers who make them, because I know what is involved. But I’m not going to do a comic-book movie. I don’t know anything about them.”
This son of working-class Irish immigrants who spent his childhood in Manchester wanting to become a priest concedes that he never acquired a taste for geek culture growing up. He goes right to the crux of the problem.
“When Star Wars came out, I didn’t see it,” Boyle explains. “It was at the time when punk had just begun in Britain. So I was like, what, 19? I wasn’t going to go to a kids’ movie. I was into the Sex Pistols. So my favorite movie from that era is Apocalypse Now, which is much more disturbing. I know all these people, and they talk to me about comic books, and I just go blank. They expect you to be one of the clan that loves Star Wars, and I wasn’t of the clan.”
The punk wannabe who sported a spiky haircut well into middle age is fully capable his own version of anarchy in the United Kingdom, as Trance his first film shot in London since 2002’s pseudo-zombie thriller 28 Days Later duly shows. Rather than buy into a franchise, Boyle prefers to challenge himself, whether it’s dealing with small budgets or redefining the rules of film genres.
McAvoy, 33, for one, enjoyed that his director didn’t have all the answers in his pocket before shooting began. When he auditioned, the actor says, “it was immediately apparent that the script wasn’t 100% there. But it didn’t matter with Danny. He invents as he goes along. For all his visionary-ness, all his boldness with visuals, all his dynamic storytelling, people don’t talk about how he is fantastic with actors. “
With Trance, Boyle pushed himself to break at least one habit: his hang-up with male protagonists who must overcome insurmountable odds. “I never really did a film where a woman was absolutely in the center of it,” he says of the deceptively named Elizabeth Lamb. “Yes, there are two guys, but she is absolutely the engine. I got two wonderful daughters now in their 20s, and it’s about time.” (His other daughter, Grace, 27, is a chemist who works for Greenpeace in India.)
He was inspired by 33-year-old Dawson (in more ways than one they had been dating up until recently), who he believes to have been “very underrated and underused. She disappears inside a part. In fact, I remember seeing a film that didn’t do well called Killshot with Mickey Rourke, and she plays a girl who gets killed off-screen. I was very upset.”
Boyle met with the striking actress years before for a movie that didn’t get made. This time, he found her serene sultriness to be a perfect fit for Trance’s postmodern femme fatale. “She is very beautiful,” he says. “She has very definite features. And she is bright. “
Dawson, who not only allowed herself to be hypnotized in preparation for her role but also has a wow moment when she enters a room fully disrobed, returns the compliment. “When I first met with him on the earlier film, I felt a joy about him,” says the actress, who has revealed that she made the first move after shooting ended and that they have more in common than meets the eye. “He is so kind, so present, so learned. He creates an incredibly generous space. I find his enthusiasm to be infectious and his movies to be mesmerizing.”
Oddly for someone who exposed his romantic streak so unabashedly with the fairy-tale love story in Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle is in no rush to marry. He did have a two-decade relationship with casting director Gail Stevens, the mother of his three children, who also include animator son Gabriel, 24. That ended in 2003, although they still work together and are friends.
Blame the non-conformist in him for balking at permanently settling down.
“Gail and I never felt the need to marry or wanted to,” says Boyle, who much prefers lively discussions about cinema over delving into his private affairs. “We were unconventional in a quiet way. I think it is part of you wanting to have independence from your parents’ generation. I certainly don’t express any opinion to my own kids. It’s entirely their decision.”
But his relationship with moviemaking remains steadfast, and several new ideas are already percolating, including possible sequels to 28 Days Later and Trainspotting (“A proper stand-alone film,” he vows).
After previously delving into the past when he worked on TV, Boyle says, “We are looking at a couple of period movies. I never imagined that we would, and suddenly, we are working on two. I can’t tell you what periods they are. But they won’t be Downton Abbey, that I can assure you.”