Danny Boyle is at the start of a long journey and already swamped. Last weekend, he attended the New York Film Festival for “Steve Jobs,” the first public screening of the movie since it premiered at Telluride in early September. The same day, he participated in press conference; on Monday, he engaged in a public conversation about the movie, and over the next few days participated in a handful of other Q&A’s and press conferences. By Thursday, he was en route to Los Angeles for more promotional shenanigans.
Fortunately, Boyle has a lot to discuss regarding “Steve Jobs” — from the multiple formats for the unconventional biopic, which stars Michael Fassbender in the lead role, to the challenges of tackling Aaron Sorkin’s script — but when he called Indiewire en route to the airport in New York, he focused on the unique nature of “Steve Jobs” in the director’s career: Released by Universal this week, the movie marks Boyle’s first genuine studio production that he didn’t originate. Boyle summed up his relationship to film industry, addressed the benefits of working with producer Scott Rudin, and why Apple isn’t supportive of the project.
You premiered the movie in Telluride, brought it to New York, and now you’re off to Los Angeles. Eventually, you’ll head to London for another festival screening. How are you holding up?
Good, I think. It’s just the biggest release possible. I mean, it’s terrifying. You get the film out properly and people begin to really experience the film, know what people think about it. That rolling stone begins to gather. It’s interesting then. Whereas when you’re launching it and no one’s seen it and you’re trying to talk about it, that’s tough. But we’re almost there.
You’ve been through this whole rigamarole before. Awards season looms. Is the road ahead daunting?
It’s part of the process. I quite enjoy it, or at least I try to enjoy it rather than feel like it’s a burden. With the kind of films I make, it’s an essential part of it. I don’t make the tentpoles that self-advertise themselves.
Those concepts, the comic book movies, or whatever. So you understand that in terms of what you make that you’re going to have to work hard to get people to give your film a chance. I’m happy to do it.
“Steve Jobs” was the first big studio project you’ve done. Even your other relatively big projects beforehand were handled by indie subsidiaries of studios. You’ve been at this for a long time. Why didn’t you make a studio movie before?
I’m not very good at them. They usually involve Americans, growing up in America, which is something that I don’t intimately know. It’s a native industry. Unless it’s a very particular kind of property where I feel I can fulfill my duty. Your duty as a director is to know and be able to tell everybody, “This is what it’s going to be like.” Everyone needs a leader. They like to challenge that leader occasionally, but boy, give them a leaderless project and they’ll wish for one. That’s what you do as a director. So I can’t answer the simplest questions about a country I didn’t grow up in. I tend to be an outsider, dipping my toe in occasionally — which is by nature restrictive. I can’t pick up everything I need to know. It’s not confidence I lack, it’s just essential experience for me.
But you do make movies that have the appeal of tentpoles — exciting, genre-driven experiences.
Yes, I suppose I’m trying to have my cake and eat it, too. Ideally, I’ve got to make a very personal film that appeals on a huge level. I love the public nature of cinema. It’s not a private art form. In a way, the more people that experience it, the greater the film. It belongs to ordinary people. That’s where the art form came from — along with music, it’s unique in that respect. I want to make the films challenging and interesting, but I also want to make them accessible. I don’t always succeed. [laughs] The definition of success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm. So we stumble on.
Needless to say, you haven’t made a superhero movie yet. But I imagine people have asked you about it.
Yeah, I think I’ve been offered a bunch of those. Different kinds. I mean, that’s the industry. They’re trying to create interesting ingredients of creative people to make the films for them — whereas what we’re trying to do is say, “These are our movies.” I mean, the Jobs one is unusual. It’s the first one I’ve ever done that we didn’t originate ourselves. So it was exciting. Because when you’re working with Scott Rudin and Aaron Sorkin, these are top people and they’re good to work with. You can learn a lot. You don’t work with Rudin without learning a lot. He’s an extraordinary man to work for.
He’s not listening right now, right?
No, I called you to make sure this isn’t circuited through his office. [laughs] He is a very controlling, very Jobsian. But actually he left us alone to do the film, which was very good. He’s tremendous on script and edit notes. I have a very good producer of my own with Christian Colson, so for both of us, it was a fantastic experience to work with Scott.
How did it compare to working with Searchlight on films like “Trance” and “Slumdog Millionaire”?
It’s quite different this one, because Christian and I sort of develop the films ourselves, originate them with a bunch of writers that we work with and then take them to the studio. With this, we had to catch up on the project. It was fun to be part of that process. It was lovely to see Rudin and Sorkin together. They clearly work very closely together on the whole dramaturgy of all of it. I was very impressed with that.
Did Rudin protect you from the studio?
He did, yeah. Totally. He won’t let anybody at you at all. I’m sure there’s a downside to that kind of control, but our experience was all upsides. We were free to make the film we wanted to make. We didn’t have huge amounts of money, but we got to make the film we wanted to make.
You didn’t watch “Jobs,” the Ashton Kutcher movie, until after you were considering the project. Why did you even bother?
It was part of the research we did. It was good confirmation that we didn’t want to make that kind of film. And that’s what’s exciting about this approach, which is full of confidence. That can often be misplaced, but I think it does work. We’re just going to do these three real-time 40 minute segments — and the deal is, you’ve got to learn as much about Jobs, if not more, than you do in traditional films. Of course, the model is different, so you’ve got to really make sure you have really good structural reasons for how you’re going to do it. You you can’t just jump in the pool like everybody else does. Aaron says you couldn’t enjoy a movie about yourself, but if Jobs saw this kind of approach about someone else, I think he would have approved of it. It’s typical of him: it’s imaginative and intelligent and it doesn’t take anything for granted.
In the case of the other Jobs movie, are there things you wish you had tried or were glad you didn’t?
I watched the other movie just to make sure we weren’t repeating anything, because obviously you can do things by accident — especially when you’re dealing with true things and a public figure. We didn’t want to overlap. I watched it to make sure that we weren’t crossing over. I was relieved that they were two different films.
Obviously, Apple isn’t pleased with this movie. But have you had any constructive interactions with individuals from the company?
We have lots of people helping us. We talked to lots of other people as well, but that was on an individual level. The company itself hasn’t helped us and as you can tell, they’re not going to help us, but it’s important when you do things like this that you know there are going to be forces involved. You have to be very clear about why you’re doing it and what you’re not going to compromise on, and you keep your faith in the process and the fact that you are entitled to free speech.
You’re not slandering anybody or being irresponsible in addressing these key elements in these lives. Jobs is a huge factor in two of the most precious things about human beings: How we communicate with each other, and how we use knowledge — how to spread it, share it, manipulate it. He was a massive public figure in that respect. You’ve got to keep making stories about people like that. That’s the meat and potatoes of it. With any artistic expression, you look at real life and you make something like it — not a copy, but something just as intense, a version of it. And in the case of Fassbender, even more intense than the thing itself in a way. Through drama, you can compress, and you can clear away stuff, so your experience is clear of any different input. Like I said, it’s uncompromising in its approach.
The movie ends in the nineties. A lot happened with Jobs after that point. What do you make of those limitations?
You have to choose, when you do a biopic, whether you’re going to do cradle-to-grave or if you want to be selective. I think the choice behind the place to stop is kind of interesting, because that was the launch of the iMac was the one moment that really changed everything. It made computers sexy and desirable and began the process of bringing the Internet into everyone’s home. He wanted us to trust them intimately. Now we take them to bed. It’s the last thing we do. We wake up with them and we leave them on overnight.
Steve Jobs” opens in limited release on October 9, with further expansion to follow.