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Sunshine in His Life: Q&A with Danny Boyle

Introduction and transcription by Rob Vaux

Danny Boyle spent a decade directing projects for television before exploding onto the cinema world with 1994's Shallow Grave -- a taunt three-hander that evoked comparisons to Alfred Hitchcock. He followed it with the cult classic Trainspotting, which is still considered one of the definitive statements on drug culture. Subsequent projects were hit-and-miss, until his reinvention of the zombie genre with 28 Days Later and the equally well-regarded Millions, which cemented his reputation for working in a wide variety of genres. His latest film, Sunshine, is a foray into science fiction, and has drawn considerable praise for its emulation of classics like 2001. Prior to its American release, he was kind enough to sit down for a brief interview.

Question: What first inspired you to work on this movie?

Danny Boyle: Well, the genre's obviously very different. Although I was a fan of sci-fi, I didn't realize how much of a fan I was until I looked at my track record and realized I had watched everything. I love them, and the chance to make one with an original idea -- this journey to the sun -- was fantastic.

Q: How does it differ from your previous films?

DB: It's much more classical. I tend to make high-energy pictures that try and disrupt things with odd camera angles and the like. Sci-fi tends to be much more classical... at least this kind of sci-fi, which is '70s-era sci-fi and leads to philosophical ideas. It isn't like a playground. It's very serious, and much slower. It's the slowest film I've ever made, especially in terms of the opening. You can't speed it up; I tried, and it doesn't work. It has to go at that pace. Something about the eternity and the distances involved. So that was a big difference for me -- how elegant it has to be in order to convince you that we are weightless and traveling through space.

Q: Were there any specific films of that era (the 1970s) that you studied or referenced, or was it more of an instinctive feeling?

DB: There are three, in particular. Every time you think you're being original, they're there waiting for you: 2001, the first Alien, and Tarkovsky's Solaris [the 1972 Soviet original, not the remake with George Clooney]. Different reasons with each of them, but they're all there. So you either have to stop filming and give it up, or say, "I acknowledge that this is borrowed from Alien or lifted from Solaris." It's actually a very limited corridor that you're working in, because all of these films seem to break down into three ingredients: a ship, a crew, and a signal that changes everything. I think it's because that -- until we start colonizing space -- you're always going to have this steel tube and a crew inside of it.

The connection with many of my other films is that they basically involve a bunch of people who are isolated together, either by choice or through circumstances. It's how they disintegrate, or how they cope, that provides the drama. The Beach is a group of people in a hidden paradise. Shallow Grave is three people living in this flat. Trainspotting is a sealed group of friends kind of destroying each other. I like films that have that kind of group dynamic within them.

Q: How did the visuals and the production design of Sunshine support that group dynamic?

DB: I always try to work with a very close-knit group of people: the designer, the cameraman, the costume designer, etc. We work very much as a team; like a little family. Obviously, we're professionals, but it's not just a professional occupation. I don't want people to just deliver the goods. I want them to feel like they belong to the film, and that we worked the film out together. I treat them all as little mini-directors. I don't expect them to just contribute a "bit." I want them to say what they think about how things are going, and so on.

That's actually a bit like the dynamic of the cast. I have these two things going -- the cast and the crew. I expect the film -- all elements of the film -- to evolve from those relationships, so that the design of the film comes out of those relationships. Sunshine came out of a lot of time spent with the designer Mark Tildesley and the cinematographer Alwin Kuchler, working on what we wanted the film to feel like. We went to a nuclear submarine, because that's the closest thing there is to this kind of isolation in a modern industrial world. We couldn't get on an oil rig. It's interesting -- because of terrorism, it's easier to get on a nuclear submarine than it is on an oil rig. We couldn't get on an oil rig for love nor money, but a nuclear sub we got on. So it grew out those kinds of experiences, and the working relationship of all the people.

We wanted to create a claustrophobic-but-realistic environment for them to travel in. You can make it super-claustrophobic, which has got attractions, but we talked to NASA, and they would never send anyone on a three-year mission in such a confined space as a submarine anymore. You would go mad. So they'd give you some amount of space. Not too much, but you'd have things like an oxygen garden, which is beautiful and a relief from the technology that they [the characters] are working with all the time. So that's how it evolved. But it's still claustrophobic, because they're all trapped in the same space together and there's no escape.

Q: Did you have the cast working together beforehand to get used to that?

DB: Yes. Because they were all coming from different places of the world, I very much thought that we've got to sort of pop the bubble around them. I did it by getting them all to live together. They had student digs, and they all had separate bedrooms, but they had a shared kitchen and a shared living room. They basically lived there for two weeks. They had to cook for themselves and entertain themselves. In that way, the group spirit is established: the only way, really, that you can quickly establish the kind of group spirit that would exist with a bunch of people traveling through space for 16 months.

Then we showered them with all these different experiences to give them a kind of brief insight into what it is to be an astronaut. They flew a 747 in a simulator at Heathrow, which was an amazing experience because usually only pilots are allowed on the thing. They got to land -- or try to land -- a 747 in this simulator. They crashed it every time. They may tell you otherwise, but I was there, and each one of them crashed it. [Laughter.]

Q: Did you take part in any of these exercises?

DB: I did. I didn't live with them, because it wasn't practical, but it also wasn't about me observing them in a kind of Big Brother way or anything like that. I had to reassure them that there were no cameras hidden in the apartment. [Laughter.] But I did do some of the things: weightless flying, the experiences in the simulator, things like that.

Q: The press notes mentioned that you like to make optimistic films, and yet much of Sunshine has these characters grappling with their self-destructive impulses. Do you think Humanity -- capital "H" -- has that kind of an urge, an urge for its own destruction?

DB: Yeah, it's certainly that, and that's why these scenarios are sometimes apocalyptic. I love that setup... though we do battle against it. I wouldn't define it quite so cleanly as you, but I imagine that's true to a certain extent.

Having said that, I think I am still optimistic. I'm positive, and I want that to be in all my films. The only one I think it isn't in, in a funny way, is The Beach, which is a very depressing film in the end. A very negative film. That surprised me when it came out like that. Normally, even in the bleakest scenario, I dig out some spirit, some hope.

Q: The Beach didn't turn out as you expected? Is that a normal part of your process? Do you have a very set vision, or is there some play in how it develops?

DB: Well, you try to keep them organic, so they will change... even though there's a lot of discipline involved, technically. You write the script, you shoot the script, but often they don't quite turn out like you thought. I suppose in a way... it's kind of a mixture, isn't it? A director has to be a control freak to a degree, but also has to be loose as well. Otherwise, you just get a product -- something that you define beforehand -- and there's been no reason to have spent two years making it. It's balancing those two instincts as much as you can.

Q: With this movie, did you get the ending that you originally planned for, or were other endings discussed?

DB: There is a slightly different ending, which is on the DVD [in the UK]. But it's something that we shot after we'd shot our initial ending. We did a bit of an experiment, with a little more of a "debate" ending. We never finished it; it's incomplete, even on the DVD, because it never seemed to be right from our point of view.

It's complicated because there's another ending -- an actual epilogue ending -- on the DVD, which we shot as a test in a park in London. We sent it to Fox because we'd run out of money, and said, "This is the ending we want to do; we need to go somewhere with snow to shoot it." They let us, and that's the ending you see in the movie.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about the casting?

DB: The script didn't define anyone's gender or race or anything. Space movies tend to be quite colorless like that. It's just a group of people, and they don't have any social conventions that they would obey on Earth. They have nothing really to define them in that way. For me, I felt that it should be an American/Asian mission. All the advice was that in 50 years time, the only economies that will possibly be able to pay for the staggering cost of space travel would be the American economy and the emerging Asian economies. They actually said India and Brazil as well, but we sort of ignored that because it was getting too disparate. So we made it American/Asian. Then I just started to search for actors -- an interesting mix that I could get out there. Michelle [Yeoh] was the first to be cast. I remember saying to her, "You can play any part you want." She could have played any of the eight parts, and she picked Corazon.

We went on from there. I found a Japanese actor [Hiroyuki Sanada] who I loved for the captain. A couple of actors here, Chris Evans and Troy Garity. A couple of actors from home -- Cillian [Murphy], who I knew, and Benny [Wong], who I knew a little bit. Rose [Byrne] from Australia, Cliff [Curtis] from New Zealand. What's lovely about an ensemble like is that you don't really know who's going to dominate at the end, and you can also kill them in any order that you want. [Laughter.] And there are great deaths available in space. It's so hostile, you can kill people in interesting ways. That was one of the joys: getting all these actors together, and then killing them. [Laughter.]

Q: Taking this notion of the sun dying, you stepped away from giving any real cause for that. Did you think of any causes?

DB: Yes, there are scenarios, though they're unlikely. The biggest one is called a "Q-ball," which are these enormous forces of matter that fly around the universe, completely invisible to us. This is a real thing. The only thing that stops them is incredibly dense stars. They pass right through planets, but if they hit something as dense as a star, they get caught and start to eat it from the inside out. That could happen, and if it did happen, then the sun would begin to die. In fact, if it dies naturally, it will heat up and expand and kill us that way.

It blows my mind. The sun loses five thousand million tons of matter, of mass, of weight every second. Every second. And yet it will burn for another four billion years. I can't get a hold of that; it's just so beyond imagining, the scale of something like that. And yet it's actually quite a small star in comparison to some of the others. And there we go, in this little steel tube like a cigar box, heading out there to have a look around. It's astonishing what we're made up of, that we think we can do that. It defines us really, unlike the rest of the inhabitants of this planet. None of the other animals are interested in making a steel box and flying up into outer space to have a look around.

Q: In a way it's natural to us.

DB: It must be. That inquisitiveness. But why have we developed that? Where does it come from? They say it comes from science. Personally, I think it comes from art. I'm biased like that, but I think it's the artistic impulse, which is just to look beyond. Science kicks in immediately, but it starts with that instinct -- to imagine things other than yourself, other experiences. That's an artistic impulse.

Q: There are very few science fiction film that have focused on the sun specifically. Was that the start of this project, or was it more the people in the little tube?

DB: No, it was always the sun. The first words of the film are, "Our sun is dying." Three years ago, when we started, everybody was heading towards global warming as a concern -- thankfully. But we thought that we should look the other way, at a topic where man wasn't to blame. It was actually a question of what we're going to do to save ourselves, and that's what we wanted to address.

Q: Was there anything about the production of this film that was a departure from the usual routine?

DB: Well, the scale of it was staggering. I mean, The Beach was a big film, but it wasn't a "big" film. It shouldn't have been big, but it became big.

Q: Because of Leo [DiCaprio]?

DB: Not Leo, he was fantastic. But he's a big movie star and it's a big studio, and it suddenly becomes a growth-inflated thing. There's 400 people working on the film every day, and you think, "I don't need 400 people to make this film. It's about a bunch of hippies in a jungle." You need maybe 30 people. It just grows like that.

But this [Sunshine] was big. What we did differently was to control it. We kept the ceiling down. I didn't want money. We wouldn't have gotten it, because we didn't have any big stars in it, but I didn't want a big star in it or a bunch of money to help make it. I wanted to try and make it with restraints -- with real disciplines that we had to work around and be creative about how we worked around them. To make it feel like $150 million and not $40 million.

Q: You've worked in a lot of different genres now. Would you ever do a western?

DB: [Laughs.] The western's interesting, isn't it? It was quite interesting doing Sunshine because we shot it on anamorphic, which I've never used before. That really wide screen is perfect for westerns, because obviously it's great for landscapes. But it's also an amazing tool for huge close-ups, and in fact, if you go back and look at Sunshine, it's made up mostly of those kind of shots. It's a great psychological weapon, and it made me think about westerns when we were shooting it. I don't know whether I would, to be honest. You should never say never, but I don't think so. They don't belong to me the way they belong here. It's a different tradition in Britain, I suppose.

Q: That brings up an interesting point. There's a lot of talk in Europe about "national" cinema -- British cinema, French cinema, and the like. When Trainspotting came out, there was a lot of talk about "the return of British cinema." Do you consider yourself a fundamentally "British" filmmaker? Do filmmakers have some kind of obligation to their country of origin, or should the artist just follow his vision, whatever it may be?

DB: I don't know whether it's an obligation. I prefer to work there because I know it. I can answer things that are important to me, I don't have to ask other people. But you know, it's different things for different people. The film industry in Britain is... I always describe it as "occasional." Occasionally, we have a decent film. But we don't go to the cinema enough. We just don't. So why should we have an industry like America or France? That's what everyone sort of whinges about in Britain: why don't we have an industry like the Americans or the French? Because nobody goes to cinema in Britain. If it's a sunny day, the cinemas are completely empty, because everyone's in the pub or in the park. There isn't that love -- that fanaticism about film that you get here, and in France, and in India.

What we're good at is music. In the 40 years since the Beatles? Music. For such a small little island with a tiny number of people, the number of bands we've turned out is just phenomenal. That's what we're good at, and that's the industry we deserve, I think. Music is in people's hearts in Britain: in kids, in young people with things to say. They do it through music, not film.

Q: What would you like an audience to take from this film?

DB: I think it's a statement about how crazy we are, really. Because of science, because of our dedication to science. And we are dedicated to it. We're not going to go back and live in villages and do subsistence farming. It doesn't matter what disasters strike cities. We're committed to cities; they're ever-growing and they're going to keep growing. And because of that, we have put all our hopes in science and technology. There's good sides to that and bad sides to that. In the end, I think it's a good thing -- that science can do something like travel to the sun. There's this thing of immeasurable scale, and we think we can change it if necessary. And you talk to scientists, and they say, "Yeah, we'll be able to do that one day." And you think, "That is so arrogant." And yet so necessary to our survival. We think we can maintain and enhance the life that's first given to us by this star. If something happens to it, we'll solve it. I think that's what makes us what we are, really, and I love that about us. When Cillian reaches up at the end of the movie, he's sort of reaching up on behalf of us all, but he's also seeing something that's way bigger than we can ever imagine. He's trying to find it... and that makes it optimistic to me.

Article published 08.05.2007.

Also read: Rob Vaux's review of Sunshine.



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