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Nerdlocker Interview: Director Danny Boyle

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Academy award winning director Danny Boyle returns to cinemas with Trance, a hypnotic mind-bending thriller guaranteed to have your mind spinning. Trance stars James McAvoyan auctioneer, who finds himself mixed up with a group of criminals, run by Vincent Cassel, that are hell bent on stealing a priceless piece of art. When things don’t go according to plan, an amnesiac Simon (McAvoy) turns to a hypnotist, played by Rosario Dawson, to help him sort out his thoughts. Things quickly unravel as the viewer travels through time and Simon’s memories to discover the truth of what actually happened. Nerdlocker was fortunate enough to speak with Danny Boyle to discuss his new film as well as his career.

Nerdlocker (NL): When you’re working on a script like this that’s so complicated, you’re working very closely with the screenwriter, you have an advantage in that you get to read the script over and over. By the time you start shooting, you know everything forwards, backwards, and sideways. With the audience coming in and experiencing this plot for the first time, do you have any concerns that they’ll have difficulties following the narrative?

Danny Boyle (DB): It’s a very, very good question. It doesn’t just apply to—it particularly applies to a film like this, which is a puzzle with clues and mysteries, but it’s true of all films actually. One of the ironies of film making is that you’re entrusted as director with presenting the film to an audience, whereas in fact, who are only going to see it probably once. Where as in fact, you, as the custodian of that process, have seen it 200 times. So in fact, there is an argument that you’re the least qualified person to actually do that job because you’ve known the standing of what it’s like to see it first time.

In the case of Trance, actually, because it’s such an important element of it, we were helped by the fact that we shot the film while we were preparing the Olympic opening ceremony in London, but we didn’t edit it until we’d finished the Olympics. There was a six month gap where the footage was put on ice, if you’d like. When we came back to it, it did feel, more than any other experience I’ve ever had on film making, I did feel like I was seeing the story for the first time again, which you never get back to other than the first time you read the script. But it felt like we did a little bit on this and that certainly helped us in presenting the story.

It’s one of the ironies and it’s one of the reasons—I know a lot of filmmakers hate the preview, the testing process. I actually like those screenings because although what people say afterwards can be quite hurtful, it’s actually incredibly useful to experience live an audience watching the film for the first time because you can feel where the rhythm of the film isn’t helping them, where they need more help. I enjoy that process actually, but it’s a fascinating question and it’s one of the ironies of film making for sure, really.

I think what you compensate with, in the sense, because you’re over familiar with the material, you also are passionate about the material in a way. It’s like your own child. You love it, you know everything about it, you want the best for it, and I think people sense that and they’ll forgive you maybe that you didn’t help the audience enough at one point. They’ll forgive you that because of your passion for the project.

NL: What creates the trust between you and Rick Smith of Underworld when scoring your films?

DB: Well, we go back a long way, really. We started off with the song “Born Slippy” in Trainspotting, which was a huge success, wonderful way to end the film. It was really tremendous for underworld as well because it got them to a wider audience and we built on that, really. The next movie we did, A Life Less Ordinary, they wrote a track for it, and each of the films we’ve done since they’ve been involved, and especially on Trance.

I think it becomes—my own personal take on this is that you have a very strong opinion about music, which I do. I love music; it’s a very important part of the films. But I also know I am not a musician; I’m a consumer. That’s important that you don’t delude yourself. In the end, what you try and offer them is inspiration, but what you also must guarantee they get is the freedom to make the music themselves.

Sometimes they’ll take your notes and sometimes they won’t and that’s a good thing. You hope that then people respond with that you can build trust and faith in each other through that. Also, they’re great guys. Rick is a very, very special guy and he’s kind of wandering into film composition having spent 20 years as a techno musician, if you like.

I think that transition for him is exciting. I can help him with it at some times, but also I don’t want to make him—I want him to bring his originality because he’s less familiar with the process than very experienced composers. You want to protect that as well and that means giving him his freedom. He’s doing a great score for us, so we’ve been very fortunate.

NL: You worked with Daniel Craig for the intro you did for the Olympics. Would you be interested in possibly doing a Bond film in the future?

DB: It’s interesting; we sort of feel we’ve done one. It’s very short, obviously, but it had an amazing cast. I love the Bond movies and, listen, the books were part of my growing up. It’s very difficult to convey to you how important they were.  I was a young man reading them and I read them multiple times, all of them.

When you’re 14 and alone in your bedroom and you’re glimpsing a world that isn’t what your Catholic upbringing has prepared you for, you’re seeing something different. It was really special and I don’t think I’d make a good job of a Bond movie and I wouldn’t want to spoil my relationship with it like that. I don’t think I’m the right kind of guy to direct them. I thought Sam Mendes did a great job at the last one and there are some wonderful ones and some good ones. I’m happy to stay a consumer now having had a little taste of it.

NL: I’m definitely interested in how the Olympics came to you. It really seemed like a massive undertaking that mixed your knowledge of filming on a grand scale, but also having an intimate understanding of the stage. I wonder if you can take us behind the scenes, a bit of that process.

DB: Okay, cool. I think you’re right. I think when we spoke they were just about to offer us the Olympic ceremony because I remember it was at the time were we just finishing and promoting 127 Hours. I was delighted to do it, because I’m a big sports fan, and the Olympic Stadium is very near where I live in London and it regenerates an area of East London that needed that kind of work. There were lots of positives.

Also, I was very proud to do it because I wanted to represent the country because we do mock ourselves a lot in Britain. It’s part of our humor and everything like that.  But every now and again you have to stop and say actually, we’re okay. Certainly, it was true. I think that people find our country a beacon and a place where you work hard and you put a lot in, you’ll get a lot out and people can be what they want to be. When you combine that with hard work it’s very special.

We were very proud to represent the country. Working on it is interesting. It’s a huge corporation, of course, the Olympics itself. It’s a weird mixture because it’s as big as Coca Cola, in a way, as a brand and therefore you’ve got all those problems that you get with any working within any huge corporation. That paranoia about how they’re seen and all that kind of stuff, but it also has uniquely, I think, the belief of so many people in it.

The idea of it that we come together in peace, whatever our individual country’s tensions, whatever, we put down our weapons, if we’re holding them, we compete in peace, and the best of us, the absolute best of us, compete together peacefully and represent us in some way.  … is the top of the pyramid, but he’s there on behalf of everybody in the pyramid and that is very powerful, people’s belief in it, and that need to belong and believe in something like that in sports. So that was great.

I guess yes, your analysis of my qualifications for doing it is right. I had a good combination; I’d done theater, I’d done television, done film, had a bit of … because of the Academy Awards thing, so I was able to fend off anybody who came in thinking they knew better than us. You could bash them over the head with an Academy Award, always helps if you can.  But one of the things I love doing, and this is how it connects with film, is that my belief if that film runs through all of us, whether you’ve seen a movie or not. It’s sort of there in you somewhere, the great movies, which is what we try to feature in excerpts.

A movie like Kes, by Ken Loach, has defined an element of Britain and whether you’ve seen it or, not you’ll find it one day. You will come across it or you will fall in love with someone who knows it. I believe that it’s like the sinews that runs through us all, whether we’re aware of them or not and I was really proud to present that. That connected my work in the film world with the Olympic celebration evening and the presentation of the country. I was very, very pleased to be able to do that.

NL: Rosario Dawson played a hypnotherapist. Do you believe in the power of hypnosis and is that a subject that has always interested you?

DB: Yes, it’s very interesting. The reputation of hypnotherapy, of hypnosis, if you like, has changed a bit. It became very legally submittable evidence in cases and then it got discredited because of suggested memories were proved to be trance2untrue. Since then, hypnosis has been trying to rebuild its image.

But what we found is that in rebuilding that image is there’s an idea with hypnosis that you’re never fully asleep, that you won’t do anything that you don’t want to do anyway. But what we found is the in 5% to 10% of the population, there are people who are, what they call in the profession, the virtuosos. These are people who are highly suggestible and who won’t change. Although what we depict in the movie is ethically very dubious, it’s actually clinically possible, certainly with that 5% to 10% of the population.

It makes for a great premise for a movie, really, and a complex and intriguing and puzzling movie that you’ve got to find your way through. Ideally, you may be induced into some hypnosis in watching it as well as you try and puzzle out your understanding of that. Yes, it was very exciting working on it.

NL: Looking over at your career, you’ve had a variety and style of all your subject matters concerning your movies. Is that something that you strive for? If so, where does that desire come from?

DB: It’s a good question. I have a theory that I love. It’s a bit provocative, but I love saying it, which is that your first movie is always your best movie. Technically, it might not be and certainly people’s opinions, it might not be, but in some way there’s something in it that your never, ever, ever quite get back to, which is innocence really. There’s something wonderful about doing your first movie, where you really don’t know what you’re doing.

You’re kind of having to discover it as you make it, under enormous pressure, because you’ll probably not have much money, and yet there’s something released in that journey that you can never quite recapture, but you should always try. What we try to do is we try to make sure that the stories that we tell are very different to each other and feel very different. Hopefully, and certainly what kind people say is that they seem to do that. There’s a surprising departure in the way that these things go.

Having said that, there’s also—you realize when you’ve made a few films that basically you’re making the same film again and again. It’s one of the weird things that happens to you, is you look back and them and you think well yes, that’s the same story isn’t it?  Basically, our story is there’s usually someone who faces insurmountable odds and yet somehow overcomes them. If you look at all the movies, there all kind of that pattern really.

The difference with Trance is that when it starts off, I don’t think you know which character that is and it’s only at the end that you do truly realize which character has faced insurmountable odds and has overcome them somehow. That’s the kind of—hopefully the change that there is in Trance.

NL: Vincent Cassel said something that I love. He said in this movie you get caught when you judge somebody. Were you consciously trying to make the audience question their judgments? If so, why was that important to you?

DB: Yes, I love that. It’s one of the delights of being able to make films that are not huge budgeted movies, where you do not have that freedom really. People need to be able to depend on who’s the hero, who’s the protagonist, who’s the antagonist. You can’t take risks with that. Doing movies like we do, which we make sure we don’t take too much money for them, you have the freedom to take risks with an audience.

In this, we have three characters at the beginning, when you definitely think that the beginning of this movie—it lulls you into believing McAvoy’s the hero, the guy you should follow. Of course, in the twists and turns, you’re never quite sure which of three—McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, and Vincent Cassel—which of the three to follow. Like Vincent says, if you suddenly put your chips on one character, it’s like oh no, I shouldn’t of done that. They’re in a puzzle of their own making and so are we involved in it as well and I love that dynamic in cinema; I really love it.

It’s not for everyone because sometimes people just want a dependable. But if you want that excitement of not knowing quite what to think going in and then maybe not quite what you think coming out either, I love that. It’s one of those things that you can talk about on the way home. I love those kinds of movies.

NL: Were there any scenes in Trance that reaped the benefits or the advantages of shooting digital?

DB: I think it was more—I’ve loved digital since 28 Days Later and before and I’m very proud to have… the first mainstream release of a digital movie, very, very proud. Also, we’re very proud that Slumdog was the first cinematography Oscar for using the digital format. You cannot feel oh wow. I’m very proud to be part of that timeline.

In Trance it’s more to do, funnily enough, with the iPad and the use of the iPad, if you like, the use of the digital storage of information and the transmission of information and the affect that has upon a modern character. Because what happens in the movie is that she reassures him that his memories are safely inside that iPad and that he can control it. He can turn it on and off; he can make it run, pause, all that kind of stuff to reassure him that it won’t overwhelm him. It’s really an interesting use of the modern technology and I say that on the day that Samsung released a camera phone that actually responds to your eyeball movement. If you start looking at it, it is looking at you and watching your eyeball.

This barrier between our lives and these gadgets that we connect to and hold information in and store things in is astonishing and progressing almost daily at the moment and it’s clearly going to be one of the stories of the future. It really is, that relationship between these gadgets and these digital gadgets and our lives. It’s wonderful to be able to portray memories because it’s a memory film in a way using that device.

NL: When you started working on Trance, did you start with the plot and then put the characters into this world you created or did you start with the characters and then built the plot around them?

DB: They came at the same time, really. But yes, you’re right, it’s very much one of the genres that we were interested in exploring is noir and particularly the femme fatale noir idea, like Body Heat and Last Seduction and some trance3great movies. What we wanted to do really was to try and make a modern noir, but not call it that really. You take some of the elements of noir, which usually involve crime, they usually involve characters locked inside a bubble, trapped inside a bubble, as they try to manipulate, control, overcome each other, rise up, and actually end up destroying each other. We wanted to use that element, but we wanted to put a twist on it so that the femme fatale, if you like, who appears to be behaving like a classic femme fatale at times using her allure, her beauty, to manipulate the man, the two men in this case, Vincent Cassel and James McAvoy.

Actually, she’s got a story that is not cold and it’s not about behavior. She’s not just behaving worse than the men morally. She’s actually trying to overcome the insurmountable odds herself that she faces, her character, because of her story, which is unraveled toward the end. There is damage there and emotion there, if you like, by the end. That was intriguing for us to play with those, but the story and the characters all came together at the same time, to be honest.  They develop and change as you work with different drafts of the script, but those key elements were there right from the beginning.

NL: In a recent interview you stated that you would like to revisit Trainspotting and that world.  Are there any of your previous films that you’ve done that you would consider or have considered revisiting?

DB: Not really. We obviously—we’re also working on a 28 Days Later, a third part of 28 Days Later, that’s a possibility. We did talk about at one point about doing a different version of The Beach, of reediting the The Beach, because we left out a lot of material that I think we shouldn’t have done, that should’ve remained in that. That’s one that we’ve talked about. Whether these things are realistic or not, it’s very difficult to say, but certainly Trainspotting will be something that we hope to work on in the coming year, in the near future.

NL: How much time you spent with your editor in the editing room and how much of that was on the page?

DB: We spent a lot of time. It’s true what they say, no matter what you do acting-wise, casting-wise, cinematography-wise, set-wise, concept-wise, films are made in the editing room. You should go into that process and allow everything to change because of the editing process. You must have that clear line of sight that allows the editor to put the story together.

It’s really interesting; they’re never interested in coming on the set. They don’t want to visit the set. They don’t want to see what it is like because everybody else is seeing that. They want to be the pair of eyes who knows nothing other than what you record, because it’s not good knowing a room has five doors if, when you see the film, you only see four of them. Nobody’s ever going to know about the fifth door.

I like to make sure the editor has freedom, so I don’t hover over the editor’s back the whole time, kind of making decisions for him or her. I like them to have freedom and then we view the work that they’ve done and we talk about it together. Yes, you spend actually a wonderful part of the process—and the transition from a crowded set full of people and questions and schedules and deadlines and finance and actors problems and all that kind of stuff, it’s wonderful.  That moment where you change and it’s suddenly just a very nice, quiet editing room with an editor and a couple of assistants and you and that’s it, that transition is a lovely moment and then you go on to make the film then.

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Trance opens in limited theaters April 5th.