Danny Boyle and Underworld's Rick Smith
Danny Boyle and Underworld's Rick Smith

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.

"Shallow Grave"
The Criterion Collection "Shallow Grave"

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.”