Last night in New York, the 92YTribeca presented a Conversation with Danny Boyle; an hour-long conversation with the Academy Award-winning filmmaker (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire”) about his career, his oeuvre, his iconic use of music in film and his upcoming mind-bending art heist movie, “Trance.” Hosted by Rolling Stone’s Logan Hill, the conversation hewed closely towards Boyle’s use of music in film. From the big-beat eclecticism of “Trainspotting” (Underworld, Iggy Pop, New Order), the pacific lilt of “The Beach” (Moby, Underworld, UNKLE), the crescendoing guitars of “28 Days Later” (John Murphy as influenced by John Cage and Godspeed! You Black Emperor), the worldbeat flavor of “Slumdog Millionaire” (M.I.A. and A.R. Rahman) and more, Boyle’s always had a distinctively dynamic style of using music in his films, many of them giving them the kinetic energy that has made them so popular.
Boyle, a lovely man as always, reminded once again why he’s one of the most down-to-earth and likable guys in the movie industry with his entertaining, candid, self-deprecating and absorbing conversation with Hill. Here’s 7 highlights from the night.
1. Critics in the U.K. criticized his movies for being too much like MTV. Boyle didn’t mind.
Critics came at him early on and said, “your film seems to be just a series of MTV music video pieces strung together,” Boyle recalled, but quickly turned the censures on their head. “I inadvertently caught them off guard because I really did take it as a compliment. MTV was just starting out and well, we did want to become a hit. Not realizing till years later what they really meant by it all. Oh well,” he laughed.
But the filmmaker then stressed the compliment still applies. “I love the impatience of MTV, in terms of people’s tolerance levels for a pace of a story and keeping the imperative of a narrative moving forward,” he said, suggesting he wanted the same in all of his films. “There’s a visual dynamic to every song and every story.”
2. Boyle isn’t particularly interested in James Bond or big-budget spectacles. At least not making them himself.
We recently did a feature discussing directors who could take on the Bond series now that Sam Mendes is gone. Twitter and our comments section seemed to think we left out Danny Boyle. Coincidentally, an audience member asked Boyle if he would ever take on a big-budgeted tentpole and said personally, he would love to see Boyle take on a Bond movie and would he if offered?
“No,” Boyle laughed, joking that he had already made one (honestly, maybe I’m thick, but this joke was lost on me, someone fill me in). “I much prefer to have a ceiling,” Boyle said about lower budgets that force creative decisions (he noted most of his films are in the $20 million dollar range). “A ceiling that is limiting us and you try and break through. We want our films to look like $100 million dollars, that’s for sure. And we want them to sound like $200 million. But you try and do that with that cap on them. And that’s where the energy, belief and evangelical nature of the process comes from.”
The filmmaker said for him the personal journey taken in the films he makes is hard to create within the big-budget confines. “I love watching those movies, I’m a big fan,” Boyle stressed. “Chris Nolan, Ridley Scott and they mustn’t stop making them, but they are not really the ones for me.”
Btw, Boyle was much more explicit about Bond in a recent interview out of SXSW. “It’s not for me, I’m afraid,” Boyle said with a laugh. “Because of the Bond thing in the Olympics, I visited the [Skyfall] set a few times and saw Sam, Barbara Broccoli, Michael Wilson and Daniel Craig and everybody. They’re different kinds of films, you know? They’re huge. They’re just huge. They wouldn’t get the best out of me, doing that sort of thing.”
2. Boyle once contemplated directing “Alien 4.”
“I got involved briefly, with ‘Alien 4.’ After ‘Trainspotting’ my head was turned,” he admitted of the way the business affects one’s creative decisions. “Partly because I loved the ‘Alien’ movies, but I realized very quickly that I couldn’t make one. You wouldn’t get the best out of me at all.”
3. Danny Boyle loves The Clash.
Asked by the audience if he’d ever tried to stick a song into a movie before and it just didn’t work, Boyle didn’t hesitate and said he’s tried to stick The Clash’s “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” in about “10 films.” He described the song as “the greatest song ever written,” and lamented the fact it would never work, but the Boyle’s theme of the night was never forcing things, being open to discovery and letting the songs (and moments) speak to you.
He described two such instances. The slyly ironic use of Andy Williams’ “Happy Heart” at the end of “Shallow Grave” which he had heard while entering a black cab taxi and just knew, it was the song for the ending (his Dad was a fan too) and Never Hear Surf Music Again’s “Free Blood” at the beginning of “127 Hours” which he heard on a location shoot and knew it would be the opening song to the film long before even a frame of footage was shot.
4. Speaking of “127 Hours,” Danny Boyle doesn’t like Phish
Boyle’s mountain climbing drama starring James Franco is based on the story of Aron Ralston, a climbing-enthusiast who survived a near fatal canyoneering accident in 2003 by amputating his own arm with a dull knife. If you’ve seen the movie and ever seen real clips of Ralson’s would-be goodbye messages to his parents, you’ll know no attention to detail was spared. Franco wears pretty much the exact hat and shirt and the videos he shoots in the film are directly inspired from the videos Ralston shot when he assumed he was going to die. But there was one detail that was a dealbreaker for Boyle: Ralston’s love of the jamband Phish. Boyle’s said his iTunes “most listened to” section could attest, he went and bought all the Phish albums and tried to find a song he could put into the movie. “I tried with Phish,” Boyle laughed. “I bought everything and listened to it multiple times, but I found it very, very difficult.” (Trainspotters will note: Trey Anastasio‘s “Sleeping Monkey” is used in the film so that’s kinda close).
5. Speaking of The Clash, Boyle tried to use another song in one of his films, but backed out on his own accord.
“The business does hover over everything and it’s waiting to destroy you if you let it,” Boyle said at one point about the machinations of the film industry. He even said a variation of it twice and said he was once duped by it too. He wanted to use the Clash’s “Hitsville U.K.” at the end of his pandemic movie “28 Days Later,” but was talked out of it by a studio exec. Boyle said he wouldn’t have admitted it then, but now deeply regrets the decision. “I got talked out of it by the business,” he said. “The way it can slightly change and poison things… a record deal was offered if we used this other song at the end and we did and I always hated myself for that.” Boyle says he slightly corrected himself by using the song in his sweet children’s movie “Millions” (another riff on money and greed that’s seriously underrated, btw). “But they do mean that much to me personally. They are your life,” he said. “Your relationship with songs, especially your favorite ones exist over decades. It’s like a family photograph. They’re something that shouldn’t be missued and should be used [in films] with as much care as possible.”
I also overheard Boyle telling someone after the Q&A that his favorite album was Sandinista because it was a type of a “fuck you” to the record label (because it’s triple album and 36 tracks long), but that everyone also obviously loves London Calling (obviously).
6. “Trance” has two David Bowie references in them.
Boyle told the audience that a sequence from “Trance” (which he showed the audience) had a David Bowie reference in it and in fact there were two. Yours truly spotted both, called them out and was told I was getting a prize (it never came, but bragging rights is more than enough). Without spoiling too much, one reference is a musical cue from 1977’s Low and the other is an album cover reference from Lodger (both classic albums produced by Brian Eno; another Boyle favorite). Both of them are blink-and-you’ll-miss them references so keep your ears and eyes attuned in the opening heist sequence of the film.
Extra credit: I asked Boyle afterwards a question I had meant to ask in the Q&A and got picked over: after a career where music is so important, why not a musical? Before I could bring up “My Fair Lady” (something he was rumored to be attached to), Boyle gave a kinda disappointed, head shake and agreed, that he should have tackled the genre by now. In fact, he said, in retrospect, he should have done “Millions” as a musical even suggesting that if someone were going to do a stage version of one of his films, that should be the one.
“Trance” opens in U.S. theaters on April 5th in limited release.