Interview: Danny Boyle has us in a Trance
- Credit: PA
James McAvoy, the star of Danny Boyle’s new movie Trance, succinctly summed the director up when he said: “Danny has an advantage over us mere mortals in that he has a nuclear station in his belly fuelling him 24/7.”
You can understand where he’s coming from. Boyle is the man who simultaneously oversaw an adaptation of Frankenstein at the National Theatre that earned a Laurence Olivier award for Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller; developed the screenplay and directed the aforementioned noir thriller starring McAvoy - and somehow found time to create and co-ordinate one of the most spectacular opening ceremonies in Olympics history.
But far from being the workings of a madman, Boyle says the combination of projects kept him sane.
“The Olympics ceremony was two years [in the making] and the two things we did during it, as little mini sabbaticals, were two dark stories - Frankenstein and Trance,” says Lancashire-born Boyle, who’s lost none of his northern accent despite living in London for the last three decades.
“It’s clearly a balance of the light and the dark and it does refresh you physically because you’re not doing the same thing again and again,” he adds, before wearily recalling how he’d spend part of his week attending to all sorts of admin as part his Olympics duties.
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“And then you’d go off and make a film about sex and violence and the psychological landscape of a psychotic. It was like, ‘Wow, great!’” says Boyle clasping his hands.
In the flesh he is the epitome of what he likes his films to do - “burst into the room and be noisy”.
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Tall, and slim in his mustard-coloured trousers and with the collar of a dark shirt peeping over his jumper, the 56-year-old is a mass of palpable energy.
Rosario Dawson, who also stars in Trance and dated Boyle (it’s rumoured they recently split but Boyle won’t be drawn on his private life), describes how he’ll rock to-and-fro while watching the monitor on set and, today, he continually alternates between sitting back and perching forward in his armchair.
It’s the day after the London premiere of Trance but if he’s tired it doesn’t show.
You wonder if the publicity-shy Boyle, who declined a knighthood in the New Year Honours list, enjoyed the red carpet event.
“Yes it was lovely,” he says. “Actually it was very...” he pauses before bemoaning the actual calculated and financial reasons behind any premiere.
“You’re meant to believe in it as, ‘Ta-da! Here’s our film everyone’, but still, it was very nice because there was a lot of cast and crew in the audience.”
Boyle puts great emphasis on creating a family feel on set and regularly works with a small, well-trusted group of people.
Among those is the writer John Hodge, with whom he worked on his directorial film debut Shallow Grave in 1994, Trainspotting in 1996, A Life Less Ordinary in 1997 and The Beach in 2000 (all bar the latter starring Ewan McGregor). He and Hodge reunite on Trance.
“The impression you try to give is that you’re joining a family because obviously big films aren’t like that,” says Boyle.
“They’re huge enterprises, where people don’t know each other’s names, which I don’t like. They don’t really bring out the best in me,” he adds.
He could be referring to The Beach, in which McGregor was usurped by Leonardo DiCaprio. The studio thought a bigger name would equal better box office takings but the film received mixed reviews.
Boyle now reportedly prefers to keep his film budget within the relatively low-key sum of 20 million dollars.
“I like being evangelical about trying to sell someone a reason for joining us on a film, like a vision or a quest that we’re going to go on together. That’s always been my instinct,” he says.
He credits this approach to his theatre background. Boyle began his career directing productions for The Royal Court Theatre and RSC before moving to TV, where he directed a couple of episodes of Inspector Morse.
Since Slumdog Millionaire, which won eight Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture in 2009, he feels a dependable troupe is even more of a necessity.
“One of the problems of having a big success like that worldwide is that nobody will tell you when you’re wrong,” says Boyle.
“You can get a very distorted impression of your own self after a big success like that. People want to please you and they think you know everything, which you don’t clearly.”
As Shallow Grave did 20 years ago, Trance pits three protagonists against each other.
There’s Simon (McAvoy), a fine art auctioneer, who gets caught up with a gang when a blow to his head means he can no longer remember where he hid the painting.
When a touch of torture (the sight of nails being ripped off won’t be for the faint-hearted) doesn’t work, Franck, played by France’s leading actor Vincent Cassel, hires hypnotherapist Elizabeth (Dawson), to delve into the darkest recesses of Simon’s psyche.
From that point, you can expect to embark on a visceral, mind-bending trip. The sort we’ve come to expect from the man who brought us Trainspotting’s trippy toilet scene and 2010’s 127 Hours, which actually induced fainting among some audience members.
“I do like the films to be visual, otherwise, particularly coming from a British culture, you end up literary based. It’s too theatrical,” says Boyle.
“I don’t want you to do a lot of work, it’s all going to get done for you, so it’s like, ‘Whoah, big personality, big canvas, colour’, I like that in films,” adds Boyle of his big opening sequences.
“And then, especially in this film, a bit more is asked of you.”
Continuing to defy the confines of genre, Boyle was keen to avoid the detached air of many classic noir thrillers and instead inject an emotional charge to the film, while refreshing the traditional notion of the femme fatale.
“Elizabeth’s obviously a classic femme fatale, using her allure, her beauty to manipulate the men but I didn’t want the icy blonde Hitchcock kind of thing,” Boyle explains, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose for the umpteenth time.
He believes Dawson has never been fully exploited before. “It’s a big problem for a lot of those actresses,” he says.
“They play the apparent lead in a film but when you look at the part it’s not that great, they’re like a figurehead. It’s nice to give them a role that puts them in the engine room of the film. I’ve been guilty of not doing that.”
Like the characters, the audience are also left wondering who to trust in Trance.
It’s the first time Boyle has made a psychological thriller. “It was interesting to learn [how to do] it as you went along,” he says.
Of course, cinema itself is a type of hypnosis and Boyle, who admits he’s “too much of a control freak” to be hypnotised, is only too aware of the power he has when helming a movie.
“You’ve got to be wary of being too manipulative and too knowing and too technical,” he says.
“I think also audiences sort of spot that, they’re quite canny actually. They may not be able to articulate it but they know. It leaves a funny taste in your mouth.”
As this is Boyle, he’s already looking ahead to future projects. Speculation about a follow-up to Trainspotting has already generated plenty of excitement, and Boyle says: “I’m very flattered that it has the kind of cachet among people.
“It certainly won’t be the next one but we are looking at trying to work on a sequel.”
In the meantime, we’ll just have to wait patiently and see what he conjures up.