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Q&A with Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire)
Danny Boyle's films have always made a splash, going all the way back to his feature debut, Shallow Grave. Very few of them have ever been associated with the word "Oscar," however... not until this fall's Slumdog Millionaire, that is. With its vibrant energy, Dickensian storyline and winning mixture of technique and heart, it looks poised to become a major player during this year's awards season. Boyle spoke to the press about the film shortly before its release several weeks ago. A transcript of the interview follows. (Note: These comments took place before the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai.)
Question: You've worked in a lot of different genres, and yet you periodically come back to the notion of a giant pile of money and the way it affects people. What's the attraction of that idea?
Danny Boyle: Jean-Luc Goddard says that all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun. I think it's a bag of money too; those are the three ingredients. I suppose you just get attracted to stories like that. I do come from a poor background, not a wealthy background at all. I've got access to money now, and yet I've never been a money person. I'm not especially good at business and I don't really understand how money works. I'm lucky because I have enough of it right now that I don't have to worry about it, but even when I didn't have money, I was still pretty ambiguous about it. I've never been oriented towards it and I can't understand the desire for it in some ways. Mikhail Gorbachev has changed the world and yet he's done a Louis Vuitton ad. I can't understand him wrapping his arms around Louis Vuitton luggage or why he would promote Louis Vuitton luggage. It almost makes me cry. Is money that important?
Cinematically, of course, it's very rich. It changes people; everybody knows that. There's a scene I'm fond of in Shallow Grave where they have the bag of money on the table and they're just looking at each other. Everything's changed. Everything's different. That can be hard to resist as a filmmaker.
Q: Why this film?
DB: They sent the script, and rather lazily described it as a film about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and I immediately thought, "I don't want to do that." You do tend to make instant judgments like that, unfortunately. But I saw Simon Beaufoy's name on it. And after I started reading, I just tore through it. There was this compelling story, and there was also the intrigue of this city, Mumbai [Bombay]. It just blazed across the pages. I love cities, I love their energy, and I felt like this one lived and breathed in the script. So that was it: I was sold.
Q: The movie certainly loves Mumbai, but it's not always a flattering picture of Mumbai. Did the civic authorities have any kind of script approval?
DB: You have to submit the script to the civic authorities, but you know what bureaucracy's like. It's infinitely flexible in a way about what you submit, what stage the script is in when you submit it, how it develops later after they've given you permission, and things like that. The government of India has to see the film before it's released in India, so it will be interesting to hear what they have to say. If it's coming from India, you don't have to submit a detailed script, but if it's from outside India -- like ours -- they ask for much more information. We submitted it through an Indian production, but you need to be honest and we were very clear that it was coming from outside. We didn't bring many crew: we only had about ten people altogether, so it wasn't like an invading army moving in. That probably helped.
It's funny. We had a guide there, who I've since become good friends with. He said that the biggest thing we were going to have problems with was not the blinding of the kids or things like that. It's the scene at the Taj Mahal, when the German tourist says, "This isn't listed in the guidebook" and the kid turns around and says, "Madam, the guidebook is written by a bunch of lazy ignorant good-for-nothing Indian beggars." The guide didn't think that line would ever get through.
Then there was the torture scene. We submitted the torture scene for review because it's set in a police station and you have to stay on the right side of the police, and all that. They wrote back and said, "The torture scene is fine provided nobody above the rank of Inspector is involved." It's such an extraordinary place that you can't double guess what's going to happen. You just have to wait and see.
I think and hope that the portrait of Mumbai is incredibly enthusiastic. I fell in love with the place and I hope that comes across. But I wouldn't want to hide some of what goes on, and some of what it's like. I wouldn't hide that from anybody. In fact, I think that's one of the reasons why it's one of the world's greatest cities. It is the Maximum City: you have those extremes going on the whole time.
Q: Were there any difficulties with shooting?
DB: I tried to be very philosophical in my approach and roll with the punches. There were fewer of them than I anticipated. The big issue, again, was the Indian bureaucracy. You have to run the film in this sort of parallel universe: we would shoot it at the same time we were trying to get permission to shoot it. We just assumed we had permission while the production folks kept working to get permission. That's how you operate. Does that mean we shot without permission? Sort of... and yet we did get permission. That's what I mean when I say it's such an extraordinary country. You can't nail anything down; you can't quite say, "That's definitely going to happen." It doesn't work like that, it's much more flexible.
Let me give you an example. We applied for aerial permission to shoot from the sky. You can't do that without permission, because there's a lot of naval bases in Mumbai and they're really paranoid. They don't like any foreigners up in helicopters with cameras. So we applied for an Indian DP to go shoot it for us: Mrinal [Desai], who was our second unit cameraman. It took just over a year to get permission, which arrived about two weeks before we took the finished film to Toronto. Mrinal shot the aerial shots for us and they were in the film by then. So does that mean we didn't get permission? Well, yes and no.
Everything works in the end -- you think it can't and yet somehow it can. That's what the country's like. There are patterns there that we, as Westerners, can never define. You just have to go along with it, and if you have the right spirit, it's an incredibly generous place. It's bizarre and contradictory, and the contradictions are absolutely everything. As a rationalist, you want to resolve that contradiction. "Let's decide whether it is yes or no." But that's just not the way to do it. It's infinitely complex and you're lucky if you can just grab a bit of it. You're never going to decipher a city like Mumbai, you just have to try and engage with it.
Q: How deeply did you engage in the Hindi culture?
DB: It was mostly focused on the narrative for the story and the locations. Basically I got to know a bit of Mumbai because I was doing location work and prepping the story. I flew over a few other cities, casting mostly, but it was mostly Mumbai and the big slums there. I like those places very much. They're very wrongly described in the West. The word "slum" is a very pejorative word. Over there, it has more of a geographical meaning. Even though there's no running water, and no sanitation, and no electricity (or intermittent electricity), they're amazing places. The people are resourceful and business-like. They want to get on with their lives. They're busy. They're trying to get their kids educated just like everyone else. They're trying to run small businesses. They have a sense of community. They don't want to live in these new high rise tenements in Mumbai. The community is more important to them than the bricks and mortar. But there is a tension because the land is now worth so much money and there's so many votes in the slums that some politicians daren't support the government against them. I can't imagine how they make democracy work in such a massive country: there's a billion people. It takes five weeks to count all the votes!
Q: Was there a concern with casting unknowns in the film?
DB: Not really. Big stars aren't necessarily good actors. We have some good actors. They're just not very well-known yet. I love the freshness that they bring. The risk was changing personality three times: using three different actors for each character at different stages in their lives. That terrified the studios. America will basically cast one twenty-nine-year-old woman to play the character at twelve, seventeen, and twenty-nine. They believe -- not unreasonably -- that it has more emotionality and you stay in touch with the character better. But I don't really believe that; I think you go for realism. You cast a seven-year-old, a twelve-year-old, and an eighteen-year-old, and the audience will do the rest for you. They'll go for it with you if you do it well.
Q: What about the kids? I believe you literally picked them up from the slums.
DB: We saw a lot of slum kids. You organize things with the community leaders in the slums, who allowed us to gather up a load of kids and bring them along for a workshop. A lot of them were really good. In fact, all the kids who are running at the beginning are the ones who didn't quite make the final cut. You want to give them something to do. They're very different from middle-class kids. They're very wily and they live on their wits. They just look at things differently; they're more alive in some ways.
Q: The slum scenes also invoke City of God. Was there any concern about treading too close to that?
DB: Well, it's a different film than City of God. It's more picaresque, more Dickensian in terms of where it goes. The one thing I worried about was Ashutosh [Gajiwala], who plays Salim in the middle scenes. He's the one who shoots the gangster in the head. He had curly hair like the guy in City of God. I fretted about whether or not to shave his head. City of God is an absolutely fantastic film, but obviously I didn't want it to look like that film. I wanted Slumdog Millionaire to have its own identity. In the end, I left him with the hair, because it's more natural that way.
Article published 12.07.2008.
Read Rob Vaux's review of Slumdog Millionaire.
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