Over the last 20 years, Danny Boyle has emerged as one of the most versatile filmmaker success stories, capable of working in a wide variety of genres and finding success in all of them. From his acclaimed debut “Shallow Grave” and the cult favorite “Trainspotting” to the Oscar success of “Slumdog Millionaire” and the daring feat of “127 Hours,” the British director has never lacked a willingness to play with film form without alienating his fans. While Boyle arguably took on his most ambitious project to date last year, by producing the opening of the 2012 Olympics, he has yet to abandon the lurid, viscerally engaging narrative techniques that put him on the map.
Now he’s back with another seedy underground tale filled with pop music montages and murky agendas: “Trance,” which opens in North America on Friday, follows James McAvoy as a fine art auctioneer forced by an aggressive criminal (Vincent Cassel) to undergo hypnosis performed by a mysterious doctor (Rosario Dawson) to recall the location of a priceless painting. Filled with misdirection that shifts audience sympathies and calls into question the story’s true meaning, “Trance” is vintage Boyle, providing yet another opportunity to explore his distinctive approach to cinema. In Austin last month to promote the film at the SXSW Film Festival, Boyle sat down with Indiewire to explain his intentions with the film, how he gets away with making movies on his own terms, and why you should never describe his movies as Hitchcockian.
In the public conversation with you moderated by David Carr, he seemed alarmed that the clip you shared from the film revealed too much information. But I thought you made a good point: Cinema, particularly in this case, has a hypnotic effect on viewers. It’s easy to forget what you know about the plot once it washes over you.
I think it also happens that — well, it happens to me — that when I go see a movie and I’ve read articles telling me exactly what the plot is, I don’t care. I go in there and once it starts I’m like, ‘Oh, well, she’s that, and she’s this. He’s that, he’s this.’ And I can’t forget it.
There’s a texture to this film in particular that is completely divorced from the plot to some degree. Early on, the buzz surrounding “Trance” suggested in had more in common with the frenetic style of “Trainspotting” and your other earlier films. That’s what got me excited, because that element of your filmmaking has always struck me as its defining quality. So I wonder if for you it felt like a return to your roots — with ingredients that, with your last couple of films, you weren’t as interest in.
I think most obviously [people thought that] because “Trainspotting” was a three hander and “Shallow Grave” was a three-hander. I quite like that dynamic of two guys and a girl, because “Slumdog Millionaire” is that — people forget that. It’s two brothers and a girl and I like that. We’re working on another film and that’s a similar dynamic.
Which film is that?
It’s a period film we’re working on so we’ll see what you think if we get to make it.
You mentioned before that sometimes you have to lie about the content of your films to get the money you need to make them. So this period film is filled with action, right?
(laughs) Yes, I’m sure we’ll have to tell all sorts of lies about what that is before they’ll give us the money. I think it was in a funny kind of way that we started setting up “Trance” after “Slumdog.” Christian [Colson, Boyle’s producer] and I talked and we got John [Hodge] involved and working on the script. It takes a couple of years working on them so you have no idea where it’s going to fall. We knew we were going to do “127 Hours,” because that was the only time we were going to be able to do it, on the back of a success. Because normally they just wouldn’t let you make a film like that. But after that it became complicated, because we did this play at the National and we did this Olympics thing and it all became very complicated. But it suddenly seemed, in a very clear way, that we could make something that contrasted with the Olympics’ opening ceremony. That was family entertainment; it’s for the whole nation, the whole world, the whole family. We to do something dark and a bit fucked up because it would feel like a refresher. It didn’t feel like we should’ve taken a break; in fact, the break was doing something so different. And then we finished the film and people thought it had more in common with the untrustworthy world of “Shallow Grave.”
So when you say “take a break,” you were overwhelmed by all that patriotism from the ceremony.
Yeah, you know it’s wholesome. You’re telling wholesome tales, that’s the nature of it. And part of your brain doesn’t want to do that. It’s where a lot of our humor comes from, from cynicism, and that perspective that the devil has all the best tunes. It’s that pleasure you get from telling such a delicious, dark tale.
I suppose that’s partly why Hitchcock is such a lasting icon. Do you feel a kinship with his work?
Yes — but Hitchcock is death. I have some evidence of that. Because we did “Shallow Grave,” and it was a nice hit in England, but then we brought it here, and they sold it as a Hitchcock movie. And it did nothing. If you see any film advertised as a Hitchcock movie — nothing. I think the public goes, “If I wanted to watch a Hitchcock movie, there’s a whole series of them I’ll watch. Don’t tell me that this Hitchcock movie.” So we borrow from him because we’re all indebted to him, but don’t market that, because it’s death. There’s something about him that the public just goes “Oh no, I’ll watch my Hitchcock, thank you.”
That may explain what happened with the recent Hitchcock biopic. If they want to watch “Psycho,” they can just go watch “Psycho.”
They just go and watch “Psycho”! Don’t tell me about how you’ve redone it, or re-shot it, or whatever you’ve done or you’ve made a modern version of it. They just want to watch the original. But you still use him, because he’s a great storyteller — a delicious, dark storyteller, and yet he works within a framework that’s acceptable for all. They’re not like horror films, they’re not absolutely excluded. They’re for everyone in a way, so I love that. So there’s a lot of that in my films, and there’s Nicholas Roeg in it, and there’s a bit of noir in it as a genre. I take elements from all of those.
Your earlier films were criticized for borrowing the language of MTV music videos. But since then you’ve made it your own — inherited the tradition that inspired you, if you will.
I remember the freshness of it at the time, of pop videos. They were hit and miss, of course, but there was something exhilarating about that connection of visuals and music. And it’s a modern phenomenon that we should be proud of because, you know, there’s classical cinema where there are scores and it has a certain pace about it and the narrative goes in a certain way. And then there are more modern phenomena, which I think began with “Apocalypse Now,” where you take music that exists, has its own complete cultural identity and you make it connect with a different identity, which is your visual story. It also draws from opera — and then it brings in this psychedelic kind of sixties mentality.
I think you may need to draw a whole chart explaining that breakdown.
It’s modern storytelling and it will evolve in so many different ways. People re-record songs by someone else, or they do a stripped down version. It’s a lovely part of our culture and it’s great. I mean, people walk around with music in their heads anyway — and now they do it literally — but people have always walked around with music in their heads and one of the great things about pop music is that it’s a refresher. It’s constantly reinventing itself and it’s built into the process that it reinvents itself. I love that.
In the case of “Trance,” how did you map out the film’s flow? Do you have an idea of the rhythm you want to follow while you shoot it or do you figure it out in post?
It’s true what they say, that all films are made in the editing room. It doesn’t matter what they tell you about cinematography, or actors, or that magic moment on set. Believe me, because after that magic moment on set, when you’re in the editing room two months later, you think, “Why did we think that was magic? The other take is so much better!” It’s just bizarre. So these things are made in the editing room. Obviously there are certain plans and ideas you try to execute and some you do successfully and some not so successfully. But it’s in editing that you start to map out the rhythm of the film properly and how you’re going to experience it.
In this particular case you also had to figure out a strategy for drawing viewers into this world in which hypnosis has such a dramatic effect on the plot and make them believe it.
That’s certainly true. Obviously, we’ve got plausibility issues. Could you drive a hole in the plausibility of it? Well, you can, but actually what we found out is that the stuff that goes on in the movie is actually ethically dubious, but clinically possible. And that’s really scary. Whether the characters would go to these lengths — you could always argue that. But can hypnosis do what it does in the film? Clinically, yes it can. Not to many people, just this 5-10% group. But there are people who want it to happen to them, and it may not be good for them because that’s the fucked up nature of our desire sometimes, but it can work like that. The hypnotist profession is trying to rebuild itself since the seventies when it was discredited. But it was discredited because it was beginning to be used as legally admissible evidence. And it was discredited because they were planting memories. Therapists were planting memories unaware, deliberately unaware sometimes, and this was discovered under the eye of the law so they got discredited. And they’ve been trying to rebuild the profession with this idea that you will never do what you don’t want to do, and you will always be awake and aware. That’s true of 70% of the population. You will never go fully under. You could still benefit in a meditative kind of way, but there are some people that will be fully traumatized, fully under the dramatic effect.
It’s too bad you can’t hypnotize people into making them see your movie.
(laughs) Just press here and you’d discover two days later that your credit card was charged $30 and all you’d want to do is see it again, because you couldn’t remember it!
You have a very comfortable relationship with Fox Searchlight. On the SXSW panel, you made it clear that they’ve given you plenty of room to mess around. Are there projects that you want to do that will require you to work with other studios?
You should never exclude anything. But I shouldn’t have said “mess around,” that was wrong of me to say.
I think what you actually said was that they let you “fuck with genre.”
You can take more extreme risks within a relationship like that, and it’s a good, solid relationship when you know that you can do something like that. And you also know that you’re not just pissing people’s money away on a wild idea. You’re just stretching an idea as far as you can. So it’s very healthy. I wouldn’t exclude doing anything. It may well be that some ideas come up that you think you should be made for a lot less money or for no money at all. And then there are other ideas that may prove to be much more expensive. For instance, if we decide to do a period movie, that would exceed our cap at the moment.
What is your cap?
It’s $20 million, which is a lot of money. But I think a period movie, especially one of any scale, would have to exceed that. Which means you would have to move into a different area. You’d have to go to big Fox. But that’s very good for us. They’ve got a great little track record with us.