“Days” of the Dead: Danny Boyle Turns Apocalyptic With “28 Days Later”
by Wendy Mitchell
It takes a bold filmmaker to make a zombie film with a straight face. For “Trainspotting” director Danny Boyle, his apocalyptic thriller “28 Days Later” actually turns out to be a smart zombie flick that doesn’t try to incorporate any postmodern irony. The film, a hit at home in England, is about a psychological virus that overtakes England, turning ordinary folks into blood-spewing zombies trying to attack innocent people. The few survivors band together to try to outrun “The Infected,” fleeing through the eerily deserted streets of London and highways around Manchester.
The special effects here aren’t those of a big budget summer blockbuster; Boyle says he shot the whole film “guerrilla style” on a budget around $10 million. It worked: “28 Days Later” is so stylishly shot (on DV) that even art-house snobs will want to get a look at these infected creatures (Fox Searchlight releases the film today). And Boyle gives us a couple of determined characters (played by newcomers including Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris) to care about. indieWIRE managing editor Wendy Mitchell talks with Danny Boyle about this, and the possibility of a “Trainspotting” sequel.
indieWIRE: What was the genesis of “28 Days Later”? Did Alex Garland just come to you with a script?
Danny Boyle: Alex and Andrew had been working on the idea. Alex wrote a draft of it. It was a very genre idea, and then we started working on it together, as we always do. We spent many months working on it very intensely. When I read it, the first draft that Alex wrote had this fantastic idea in it — the cliche of a virus escaping from a laboratory but there was this twist on it; it was a psychological virus, which lifts it away from the biological realm. Also, the film concerns social rage as a phenomenon, certainly in Britain.
This was around the time of foot-and-mouth disease, which doesn’t affect human beings, but it did lead to these Biblical images of cows and livestock being slaughtered in the millions. At the time, they felt apocalyptic images in the British countryside. They were followed by this absence of many months of any livestock in the countryside. If you took a train journey, everything was still and motionless outside the train or outside your car as you drove through. All this kind of fed into it.
iW: Were you worried about feeding into people’s hysteria? This film seems more relevant now — with SARS and anthrax scares — than it may have a few years ago.
Boyle: You can’t claim responsibility deliberately. But darkness is what is always fascinating. When you sense darkness on a wide scale in a country, then you feel like you want to make a film about it in some way. Certainly that’s what we did.
We made the film based on that, and of course while we were making the film, September 11 happened. People see new things in the film, and that’s a really interesting phenomena. Now, of course you’ve got SARS, and then there’ll be something else. So it’s extraordinary, really. It addresses a kind of public anxiety that we have, which we’re responsible for. We always try to externalize the threat, and make it the bad guys over there but actually the real problem is us. I think on some deep level we know that, that we’re always the problem ourselves.
iW: Why did you think that DV was well-suited for “28 Days Later” aside from than the budgetary considerations?
Boyle: I’d just shot a few films on DV, and the only way to shoot London on our budget was to use the DV technology. The DV technology felt absolutely right for an apocalyptic setting.
There’s also a very pretentious reason: this story felt like a circumstance in which a camera like this would work. If you could find batteries they would still operate. At one point [the character of Jim] was going to find a camera and look at it and look back at what had been recorded. He found one in the street. We didn’t use it in the end. But that felt sort of appropriate, really. Besides which, it’s very much an urban story, and our cities are full of these cameras.
And I think [DV is] extraordinary for urban stories, especially as the medium improves technically. They’re progressing technically the whole time. I think more and more urban pictures will be done on it. I’m not sure it’s right for all films.
iW: How did you shoot the London sequence? Did they let you block off the streets?
Boyle: It is possible, usually big Hollywood movies, like “102 Dalmatians” can close off Westminster Bridge for a Sunday morning. With big bucks it can happen. With a film of this scale, you cannot do that, and you certainly cannot get permission to do that scale of work. So we said to the authorities, “We’d like to go in on six or seven sequential mornings and we will ask the traffic to stop” and because we’ve got the DV cameras, we can set up six to ten cameras looking at a very particular part of London and we’ll just ask the traffic to stop and try to shoot for a minute or 10 minutes. It worked. We couldn’t believe it ourselves.
iW: We’re you inspired by any classic horror films?
Boyle: Alex Garland, who wrote it, is a big genre fan, particularly of zombie movies. He’s a real aficionado. I thought, “Well, I’m not going to dwell too much on them, so that’ll be a good balance between us.” So I tended not to.
iW: Did you have to work with the cast a lot to get them into character and get them into the mindset of people who would actually be going through this kind of crisis?
Boyle: It’s a tough one, that, for any actor, playing the last people on earth. Nobody can know what that’s like. It’s a big imaginative leap. We didn’t want stars in it. We wanted people like Cillian [Murphy] who, if the first image was of him waking up naked in a hospital, he literally is a white sheet that you can draw on. There are no preconceptions about him.
iW: In working with actors do you tend to be hands-on or hands-off? What’s your style as a director?
Boyle: I love working with actors. I come originally from the theater, so I love working with them. I love having the rehearsal period, all that stuff. You find out so much about a film by bouncing it off actors. I think it’s partly because they see it from an entirely selfish perspective. They concentrate so exclusively on their own dilemma in the piece. As a director you don’t think about characters the way they do. Sometimes you have to dump it and say, “No, you can’t do that, you’ll ruin the film because you’ll make it too much about you.” A lot of the time, they illuminate whole areas of it that you never thought about.
iW: What was the reaction like at Sundance for “28 Days Later”?
Boyle: It was very interesting. It was the first time I had seen it with an American audience. For a Brit, watching a film with an American audience is fantastic. It’s so much more vocal, the relationship with the screen. It’s so much more relaxed and open. We [in England] just sit quietly. In America, it’s a bit of a celebration of being in a public space together and watching something together. It was wild.
iW: What’s the new film you’re shooting now?
Boyle: It’s called “Millions.” It’s beautiful. It’s very, very different. It’s set in the time when the Euro replaces Pounds Sterling in this country. It’s about two boys who, who because of a robbery, come across 237,000 pounds of this money. The older boy wants to spend it. The younger boy is a bit more spiritual; he wants to redistribute it to the poor. The film’s really about how it’s impossible for either of them to do either of those things in the modern world. It’s beautiful and very affectionate, very different than “28 Days Later.”
iW: Do you think that the projects you’re choosing are going in a softer direction?
Boyle: It’s great to change. It’s scary as well because you can’t use any of your old thriller tricks or anything like that. You have to get on with warm human drama. That’s a good discipline for anybody. We’re sort of working on a sequel to “Trainspotting” as well at the same time, which is pitch black. So I expect I’ll be back there at some point.
iW: Would that “Trainspotting” sequel would be based on “Porno” [Irvine Welsh‘s follow-up novel]?
Boyle: It is. We’ve only just started it. It’s hard because it’s a movie that so many people adore. That’s the quandary because people want a sequel yet they’ll lacerate you for doing it at the same time. The only way we’ll ever get that original cast back together is if they tempted were that rare chance for an actor to literally be 10 years older, which they will be by the time we shoot it if it happens. It will be interesting.