On Saturday morning at the South by Southwest Film Festival, a special retrospective of the works of chameleonic British film director Danny Boyle was presented. Moderated by craggy New York Times reporter David Carr, who spent a copious amount of time with Boyle during the extended Oscar campaign for “Slumdog Millionaire” (and remains an avid fan), the presentation also featured Rick Smith who, as one half of electronic music duo Underworld, has been working with Boyle since his landmark “Trainspotting” in 1996 and who, most recently, provided the score for Boyle’s new psychedelic mind-bender “Trance,” opening in April. (We’ve seen the movie but are under embargo, but suffice to say the filmmaker has scored once again.)
The panel started off with a stunning montage combining footage from all of Boyle’s movies, including “Trance.” (Boyle fanatics will notice some notable exclusions, most glaringly that there was nothing from “Vacuuming Completely Nude In Paradise,” the TV movie Boyle did as a test for the digital cameras he would later use on his revisionist zombie epic “28 Days Later.”) The footage, like “Trance,” mesmerized – it made you really appreciate Boyle as a filmmaker able to tackle a breadth of genres and styles, all while remaining a singularly visionary artist. Even though he’s got Oscars under his belt for Best Picture and Best director, he still feels hopelessly underrated. He’s less a director than a force of nature. Luckily, Boyle and Carr chewed the fat well, and when Smith joined the conversation, it pivoted to Boyle’s unparalleled use of music and film. Check out the highlights of that conversation below, and in case you missed it, be sure to catch up with our separate interview with Boyle, in which he revealed his plans for the long talked about “Trainspotting” sequel.
David Carr: I’ve heard you say more than once that the first film is always going to be the director’s best. Do you think that’s true?
Yes. I think there’s something wonderful about your first time, in so many ways – in so many walks of life. Film is so technical and there are so many elements that are manipulative, and there was always a danger you lose a kind of innocence you have on your first film. But it’s a wonderful thing. You’re working out your knowledge as you go along. If you change genres each time at least you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. You should be trying to work it out as you go along.
How old were you when you made “Shallow Grave?”
I was 37/38. I wanted to make a film by the time I was thirty.
[In the scene when they’re sitting around the table deciding what to do with the money] it’s interesting – what you shouldn’t do, in a scene like that, is keep cutting with the same thing in the frame the whole time.
No that’s what makes it work! But I remember discovering that on the day. And the other thing is those things that you shouldn’t do, is probably what you should be doing. You take those risks and it makes people feel like they’re seeing something fresh.
I think there’s a danger to that. I think I know how to get this effect or start double-bluffing. You should be hunting in the story for a way to tell it in an original way. The other reason I asked for that clip to be shown, it’s quite rare to see what a director does sometimes. I know actors in Britain and whenever they’ve worked here with great directors – I always ask, “What did he say to you? What did he do?” There is an element to that. Talking to these actors, a lot of times they say, “He didn’t say anything, they just said ‘Do it again.'” But that was an example of I did say something on the day. I remember saying to them, “Do it like you all want to go for a pee.” And they all loved that and made them all laugh and giggle. Because it’s not often that you think of something good to say.
You directed a lot of plays.
Oh a load of them. 10 or 15.
What made you decide to do movies?
I always wanted to work in movies. Since I saw Nicolas Roeg movies. I wrote to a lot of people – who I now know – and they never replied. So I got a job in the theater, which is a much easier place to access. And I learned amazing skills with actors.
So tell us one of those secrets?
Actors want to change on our behalf or do something that changes them. I think that’s what you get with an actor. They want to change on our behalf and have an instinct as a storyteller. There’s something about an actor that you have to trust them as a storyteller. People want to go to the movies to see an actor, hence the star system.
I want to talk to you about Ewan McGregor. How did you know to balance him?
The person who was a big deal at the time was Kerry Fox, because she was in a Jane Campion movie that was a big art house hit at the time [“An Angel At My Table“]. And we cast Ewan McGregor, who became Obi-Wan Kenobi and Chris Eccelston, who became Doctor Who. You audition them and you can hear it. You just know, somehow.
[Rick Smith joins the conversation]
This is Rick Smith, from the band Underworld, and at the end of that film we had a song called “Born Slippy.” That was the first time we met. And the last couple of years we did a “Frankenstein” play…
And you guys worked together on the Olympics.
And we did “Trance” as well.
When you did the Olympics, they tried to make you a knight. And you turned them down. Any particular reason?
It just wasn’t my cup of tea. That kind of world isn’t my cup of tea. I have no interest in that preferment. But Rick did the full score, of “Trance,” so we worked up from small beginnings.
I’m Interested in how you guys work together.
Rick: When we worked on “Frankenstein,” there was a lot of “Riiiiiick,” in the big theater. I saw a different side to him but it was never cruel.
Danny: I do have a terrible temper. But it’s very rare. There were a couple of moments on the Olympics and we were in rooms with people and I was quite vile. It was surprising, especially like that. But in a huge corporate world, you have to defend your patch.As a director, whether you have earned it or not, everyone fears you. Everyone wants to know what you’re thinking about.
Danny: Yeah, you can see that sometimes. There’s not a great deal you can do about it, besides try and get them to relax. I try to take an approach of enthusiasm to try and get people to contribute to your film. Besides getting the characters together, you have to try and get the best out of them.
What I like about your movies – a lot of directors use music like a neon sign – sometimes your visual narratives and your sound narratives will divert and come back together. You’re not super didactic.
Danny: No, and I’d like us to listen to lots of music and kind of organically evolve. For me, that change came about with “Apocalypse Now.” Because those two tracks was a big change. I was watching “The Big Chill” on the plane on the way over here. But they were preceded by “The End” and “Rise of the Valkyrie” in “Apocalypse Now.” There’s a whole, incredible, realistic world here being reflected through a new prism – it’s suddenly a whole hall of mirrors that opens up through pop culture. It felt very natural to do that, but the films were attacked for being “too MTV.” Like they were a series of pop videos, which I thought was a compliment. So you tell your stories through that prism.
There is a narrative element to your music.
Rick: Yes, and for me, film has always been important to my music career. I was fortunate enough to be force fed and taught music as a very young boy. And in the nineties, there’s a very filmic quality to Underworld’s music.
How did you end up doing business together?
Rick: I seem to remember that we got a call. We were doing okay for an underground dance band. We would get a call once a week from somebody, “Can we use your music…” And everytime we asked what it was, it was like a violent death drug dealer thing. We weren’t interested in it, we were much more interested in things being positive. Danny said, “Well it’s about heroin addiction.” And he said, “Come along, I’ll show you 15 minutes of the film.” There’s a humor, compassion, intelligence to it. At the end it became, “You can use ANYTHING of ours that you want.”
Danny: The truth is, I was born in 1956, so I was a kid for The Beatles. My coming of age was punk. It was really amazing for me, musically. And 15 years later, rave culture started and I was just about old enough to go there and not embarrass myself. And that’s right when I started doing films. Although the book is about heroin addiction and the film’s spirit is about dance culture and that’s a different drug – ecstasy. We did that unapologetically. We wanted to make a drug movie that you could watch – most drug movies are so depressing. And if you made a movie about heroin, they throw up and then go sit in the corner. So it’s a film about a different type of drug mentality. It becomes then about their relationships, but the rhythm of the film could be told with a different tempo. And that’s why the music in “Trainspotting,” tracks from punk days to electronic dance music and then Brit pop, which was kicking in at that point as the next musical movement in Britain.
About his work on Alan Clarke’s “Elephant”:
Yeah, I wanted to work on camera so I got a job at the BBC in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland at the time, there were significant religious and political troubles. So we made this film called “Elephant” – it’s something significant…these murders were happening and everyone on the mainland was avoiding [the issue]. It has an extraordinary effect on you. Sadly, Alan died shortly after.
On what he hopes audiences experience with his films:
Often, people say, “What do you want your films to do?” I want them to mesmerize people. I want it to pin you in your seat. I used to get that from Nic Roeg movies. I want to do that. Because that word “mesmerism” comes from the godfather from hypnotism. And I do want that rabbit in the headlights. We don’t go to a dark room to discuss a film, we go to a dark room to experience it. You take it away with you, after that. But in that moment, when you’ve paid your $12, I want you to be assaulted by the film. There can be silence and reflective moments but I want the film to assault you.
On his current ability to get movies made:
Well it’s great because we have this relationship between Fox Searchlight and Pathe – we have a cap on our films but within that cap we can fuck with genres. We can mess about with character’s sympathies. That’s one of the appeals of “Trance.” The truth is that you try and make a different film every time but you end up making the same film again and again. And there is something that connects all the films – there’s usually someone who has insurmountable odds in front of them, and somehow they get over them. And you get a buzz off of them.
On working with composers:
Danny: I have been able to work with some of the best composers around – A.R. Rahman, John Murphy, and Underworld. I’ve been very fortunate to work with them. That’s one of the lovely things. What we tend to do is have a bunch of music, and lay that on top, and now everything has temp because you’ve got to show it to people so you use temp score.
On the current return of zombies to pop culture:
I didn’t like zombie movies much, which is part of why we made it. Because I wanted to bring a new energy to it.