From a circle of heroin addicts to the stage of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” to the mountains of Utah, British filmmaker Danny Boyle has taken audiences on every crazy, dramatic, thrill ride imaginable…almost. With his latest film “Trance,” starring James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson, Boyle takes us on a hypnotic mind trip down the rabbit hole of the art world.
While all of Boyle’s films are wildly diverse, they are united by one common thread: their use of iconic pop music. The memorable songs that both define and defy the pivotal moments of Boyle’s films range from Moby’s “Porcelain” in “The Beach,” to Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” in “Trainspotting,” to MIA’s “Paper Planes” in “Slumdog Millionaire,” to many songs by Rick Smith of Welsh electronic duo Underworld in “Trance.”
At a recent event at 92YTribeca in Manhattan, Boyle sat down with Rolling Stone journalist Logan Hill to discuss the music in his films as well as the upcoming “Trance.” Throughout the evening the endearing filmmaker kept the audience laughing as he discussed his song selection process and collaboration with songwriter Rick Smith, told of his discoveries on hypnosis for “Trance,” and reminisced on the music from some of his most famed scenes — all while bobbing his head and mouthing the lyrics to clips. Below are the highlights from the talk.
Boyle discussed the early accusations that his films resembled MTV music videos.
“It wasn’t here, it was in Britain with the first couple of films. We got a lot of accusations that they were basically just pop videos stitched together. Actually I was quite proud of that, I was honored a bit but they expected me to be defensive. MTV had kind of just got going and I thought that was an amazing thing because I always just believed music was with us all the time, it was just part of us. Why shouldn’t it be in your films? That’s why a lot of the films have a lot of tracks in them, pre-existing tracks. And they’re amazing things to use because obviously they bring baggage with them, because you know them from your own experience of them, from long ago, they may have painful associations. They’re really interesting when they interbreed with the material you’re using. I always loved that, the genuflection of MTV and I also loved the impatience of MTV in terms of peoples’ tolerance levels of the pace of a story and the imperative of keeping the narrative moving forward. There’s a visual dynamic to every song and to every story really.”
Looking back on the history of popular music in cinema, Boyle remembers the first film that inspired his use of it in his soundtracks.
“Everybody has a different opinion about where did it begin. Not music made for films, but when did records that had a life of their own begin to be reused in the movies? There must be a film that’s the first one. But for me it was “Apocalypse Now” because there were two songs in that that bring baggage of incredibly different kinds to the mix of this film’s story. It’s obviously The Doors at the end, but then it’s the opera, the “Ride of the Valkyries.” And yet they somehow expand the film because of their baggage and yet despite it. We try and do that really.
When asked about his song choices with his first film “Shallow Grave” Boyle talked about the way in which the right songs find him.
“The best way is when they drop in your lap. They can find you. When you go out looking for songs and material, which is what happens with a lot of movies now I think, they go out seeking a soundtrack and it all sounds a bit like that. Where I think if you let them find you — it sounds very naive and simplistic — but they sort of just emerge in the film. On “Shallow Grave” we didn’t know what to do with the ending and we were in Glasgow, the film’s set in Edinburgh, which is the capital of Scotland, but we shot it in Glasgow. We were out one night and we got in this black cab and on the radio the cab driver was playing Andy Williams’ “Happy Heart.” My dad used to play that song when I was a kid and I listened it when I was getting into the cab and hearing going, ‘That’s the end of the film.’ Because it had the right kind of insouciance, if that’s the right word, for the end of the film really. And obviously that song is incredibly ironic because she thinks she’s got the money and she thinks she’s used these guys because they’ve fallen in love with her, so when [Andy Williams] sings it’s meant to be ironic. He’s [Ewan McGregor] the only happy one who got away with it in the end. Some people think he’s dead actually, but I don’t, (laughs) but that doesn’t particularly matter it’s what you think that matters.
“When they drop in your lap like that, as “Born Slippy” did for “Trainspotting” as well, you kind of just mustn’t turn them away, you must make them welcome. Then the jarring thing is — that’s much more in “Trainspotting” where I love the fact it gave a very jagged rhythm to the film — one minute it was smooth, then very beaty and backwards and forward like that and that was slightly dislocating. I liked that. Rather than with composing, it often gives a smooth texture that carries you through the film and creates waves in the film itself, I liked the dissonant thing as well.”
Boyle’s process is simply making playlists.
“What you tend to do is compile a kind of playlist of songs that you thought might be interesting for the editor, or sometimes on set for the actors to listen to, something to inspire them or to create the mood for a scene. But you basically give a playlist to the editor and then you start playing with it in the editing. You can tell right away some stuff works that you thought never would and other stuff that you’re certain is going to work is terrible as soon as you try it. And it sort of talks to you really.”
Boyle laments over never being able to use one of his favorite songs in a film.
“White Man (In Hammersmith Palais),” The Clash song. Which is like the greatest song ever written, I won’t hear any arguments about that (laughs). I’ve tried to use that in like ten films, but it doesn’t quite make it, I mean at the time you have to be tough even with your loved ones.”
On both the difficulties and advantages of working with composers.
“I’ve tried a few times. I worked with Angelo Badalamenti, who was a fantastic composer, on “The Beach,” but I couldn’t really give him the film and I’ve apologized to him. There was a very important theme in the film where the composers come across the beach and he wrote this lovely theme for it and I didn’t use it in the end. I used “Porcelain” by Moby because it was a track. And I realize in retrospect it was me kind of not surrendering the film to someone else enough. You’ve got to trust the composer and I’ve learned that. I’ve been very fortunate to work with John Murphy, Rick Smith, and A.R. Rahman and be able to hand over the film to them more. I’d still give them the tracks and say ‘Maybe?’ (laughs). They use it as inspiration, sometimes as a guide, but often the counterpoint it. I’ve learned that and it’s really improved me as a filmmaker working with them.”
Boyle champions for British music, but not British film.
“I think we [the British] are brilliant at music. For such a tiny place — and you often get these things with films and people often say ‘Oh the British are coming’ because the British has successful film parts — but actually we’re rubbish at film really. You know we’re nothing compared to you guys [Americans], you know the Indians, the French, because it’s not in our DNA, it’s not in our blood, but music is. And if you’re talented in Britain you tend to get together in a group with your mates and start making music and for us it’s just more we pour out this music. And it’s not slavish, it doesn’t like follow trends, it’s kind of like it’s own thing. It’s got that slight arrogance about it, that idiosyncrasy about it.”
The music of “Trance” follows McAvoy as he is hypnotized.
“On “Trance” we had a song called “Sandman” by Kirsty McGee Frank Cottrell Boyce, the writer we worked with on my film “Millions,” he sent me that years ago. And we’d been working a little bit on “Trance” and I always thought ‘That’s the song to “Trance” really.’ The way Rick worked on the music with “Trance” it’s not like the standout song, but it was always there right from the beginning. And when you hear the song, if you know the song, you’ll kind of hear how it might be a song about this film when you’ve seen the film.”
“Basically the film is made up of a series of trances. What happens in the film is [Rosario Dawson’s Elizabeth] takes [James McAvoy’s Simon] through a series of trances, deeper and deeper into trances. It is ethically very, very dubious, but clinically possible. It was really interesting discovering that. And professional hypnotists will provoke you to think you’re fine, you’re safe, you’ll never be fully asleep, you’ll always realize what’s going on and you’ll never do something that you don’t want to do anyway. Well that wasn’t quite what we discovered, to be honest. So that’s the interesting premise of the film and it was up to Rick to try and score these trances as you go deeper with him. It’s that weird mixture of, it’s relaxation, but you don’t want to make the audience fall asleep and yet it’s got to make it look like McAvoy’s being taken into a trance, so that was Rick’s puzzle to try and balance those together.”
“The way it worked out is we have a series of songs and they’re trying to sustain an affectionate tone, either enjoyment or relaxation. There’s a couple of songs like that and they’re counterpointed with Rick Smith’s score. And Rick’s score, for reasons that we can’t absolutely tell you because it’d spoil your enjoyment of the film, actually tracks a gathering darkness about the characters as the film goes on. The film is propelling along and that’s what Rick’s score does as well. In the sense of trance music, like electronic dance music, that felt like a really good way. Also it slowly, subtly begins with a gathering darkness that he’s counterpointing with these songs. There’s a song that Rick wrote at the end with a girl called Emile Sande and they wrote a love song which is the Hollywood ending. Which should give you a little bit of hope at the end after all the darkness.”
On how the big songs at the end of Boyle’s films are to leave the audience feeling good.
“The thing that kind of connects all the films, probably not perfectly, but certainly to a degree is there tends to be a character in it who faces really impossible odds. And the surge that you get is obviously that he succeeds or she succeeds in overcoming those odds in that way. You want to kind of lift people with your hero I suppose.”