Director Danny Boyle got his start in theater and then moved into filmmaking. But for all his experience with actors and the stage, he’s made his name as a propulsive and relentless visual stylist with a knack for kinetic viscera. Having directed “Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine” and the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” Boyle’s omnivorous taste has seen him jump from genre to genre, challenging himself with each picture with restless verve.
But for his latest drama, the unconventional biopic of Apple founder “Steve Jobs,” Boyle was faced with an entirely different challenge: how to reconcile his dynamic visual style with 185 verbally dense pages of Aaron Sorkin screenplay. With so much electricity coming off the script, Boyle made a counter-intuitive but wise move: the film’s energy emanates from through the dynamism of performances, rather than his signature visual verve. In the symphonically-charged “Steve Jobs,” Michael Fassbender plays Jobs, Kate Winslet portrays his dutiful marketing exec and work wife, Seth Rogen plays the unheralded Apple genius Steve Wozniak, and Jeff Daniels, Katherine Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg and Perla Haney-Jardine round out the cast. It’s a thrilling and dynamic depiction of Jobs’ persona manifested through three iconic Apple product launches (read our review).
Know for his energetic style, Boyle maturely tames his instincts in the film, respecting Sorkin’s massive script which he repeatedly says that he and the cast had to “get on top of” and wrestle to the ground. The Playlist recently spoke to Boyle by phone about “Steve Jobs,” figuring out the strange verbal rhythms of Aaron Sorkin, the possibility of more “28 Days Later” films, “Trainspotting 2” and much more.
At a distance, a “Steve Jobs” biopic doesn’t sound like a movie I think Danny Boyle would make.
I think you’re right. When Scott Rudin rang up and said, “Do you want to read it?” I thought, “Well, this is Rudin and Aaron Sorkin. [They] can’t have done a kind of regular bio pic, could they?” I don’t even think Rudin even told me what it was. I just read it. You just thought, “That is brilliant.” If you’re going to look at a guy who’s motto was, “Think Different,” you better do it different.
If you do a traditional biopic, it’s wouldn’t be a betrayal of Jobs, but it wouldn’t really have taken on board the challenge that he always set for everybody, which is you just do something different. Don’t look back. Look forward. The freshness in looking at the three product launches was exhilarating. And I believe in this kind of approach of focusing on specifics, rather than that kind of general skimming stone approach to a life —that’s boring, gosh. This gets you closer, I think, to your subject in the end.
Was there a key to unlocking it? I imagine it was dense on the page.
You want it to be a process of the heart and the mind. It’s for getting inside the guy, and we always said that the script is the sound of his mind. That was always our definition. His is a “monster mind” and I mean that in terms of behavior and scale.
Jobs is humanized by the drama, especially by the two women in it, by Joanna [Kate Winslet] and [his daughter] Lisa [played by three different girls in the film]. They took him to task in the end. All the success in the world; all the most beautiful products in the world; all the vision being delivered; finally people agreeing that he is a genius —this all means nothing if he hasn’t fixed it with Lisa. That’s a wonderful thing to do with a guy who can be almost untouchable because he has such a mythological status. With all the success in the stratosphere, it brings him back to Earth and he’s one of us. He has the same flaws we all have. And I love that about drama —humanize these people and you realize they’re just one of us. They represent our visions and our dreams and our faults as well.
I’m assuming the long monologues and swaths of dialogue in Aaron Sorkin’s script presented enormous challenges.
Oh yeah! You have a moment where you think, “Oh shit, how are we going to do this?” It’s literally like 185 pages of dialogue and you literally can’t read it in two hours. Then there’s a shift, and you realize all he’s doing is a dramatization. Sorkin’s not trying to control everything, but at first you think he is. As he’s a writer, it’s actually an invitation. It’s like a provocation. What can you do with this? How can you make this seem not like a play? It’s written like a play. It could be done as one and yet it’s not.
I like the current of presentation throughout. Three product launches unveiled to the world —meanwhile, you’re learning about the characters on the go, through their actions rather than being told “this is who these characters are.”
[That’s] because Sorkin’s script is asking for the immersive, which is what the film hopefully does: to make you feel part of its electrical current. You’re not watching it in a “perceiving art” way. You’re actually in it. It’s begging you to come up with an immersive technique that will actually feel organic and that suits it. It actually makes you feel like you don’t know what’s going to happen. “What are those depth charges going off?” “What’s that?” You feel involved in a way that you recognize and empathize, really. Who would’ve ever thought that you would empathize with Steve Jobs? But you do by the end of it.
In that sense, does your theater background help or hurt? Because you could think, “Well, I’ve done theater, but I don’t want this to be theater. This is cinema” and be torn between those two impulses?
Well, I always tried to do very visual theater and I got lucky that i was able to. I’ve never personally found much contradiction between the two, but what it does give you is a kind of confidence and love of actors. For a project like this, you obviously need that as well. You’re going to try and mobilize and inspire actors to own this material and get on top of it. We were very lucky to get a cast who really allowed us to do that. You have a great script. That’s a big helping part of it, but you’ve also got to inspire them with a vision there. And you want to assure them they’re not going to be a big talking head.
In a lot of movies, the script starts to change a lot when the director comes on board, but maybe the architecture a Sorkin script doesn’t allow that?
We had lots of dramas going on around this film —the Sony [hacks], some of the early reported information— but we worked on the script. And Sorkin is really wonderful to work with. The actors came in and they wanted a few things changed and stuff like that, and he was wonderful about it. So flexible. If you can explain what you want, he just goes and does it.
We made a few changes. The biggest one was the amazing scene between Woz and Steve in the first launch when they’re in the theater itself. They have that amazing battle about acknowledging when you’re standing on the shoulder of giants and [Jobs] won’t admit something good happened that he wasn’t in the room for. That originally was in the dressing room and we said, “No, this should be public.” Then that allows you to create this army of young people who are Steve’s acolytes now and they are loyal to him. It was lovely to see them hear the argument. Aaron [changed it] beautifully like that for that scene. It’s great. I find him infinitely flexible, unlike his reputation.
Sorkin scripts often read like a house of cards, like if you try to move things around, the whole deck could fall down.
That’s absolutely true. He incrementally builds meaning through rhythm. You’re building this rhythm and you’ve got to get on beat. It’s almost more important than understanding what you’re saying. That’s sounds weird, but, it’s true. If you get the rhythm right, you understand it.
It’s like Shakespeare. You read some of it and you’re like, “What the hell does that mean?” But you say some of it out loud and it’s, “Oh, I see what he means.” He’s a dramatist like that. That was the big thing, to get the actor’s ear and start speaking it. You can hear them hear the rhythm and then it just flows. They get ownership of it. The confidence comes. They go, “This is mine. It’s not ours anymore, it’s mine.” Which is absolutely essential for an actor in this piece. You’ve got to get on top of it and grapple it to the ground.
Jeff Daniels must have been a good guide. After “The Newsroom,” he seems to take to Sorkin-ese like a duck to water.
Oh my God, he’s incredible! If they handed out awards or for the facility of doing that dialogue, he would dominate. Jeff taught us, saying, “Once you get on top of it, it’s just like a tidal wave. You just sail in on it, but if you don’t, you can just forget it. You’re crushed.”
The actors looked to him?
Oh my God, yeah! You could see them head over to Jeff to talk to him about it. Jeff was very nurturing: he knew they could do it. But the caliber of the actors in this film could get on top of it. They’d have insecurities and he was fine helping them handle those, but they found their way on top.
Were there moments where you or the actors felt overwhelmed by it?
It can feel like that, yeah. Again, that’s part of the process and that’s why we have rehearsals. That’s why we split it into three separate sections that we rehearsed separately and shot separately so that it was manageable. You could fit it in your pocket or hold it in your hands. It didn’t feel gargantuan, which it could have. And they wrestle to the ground and pin it down, and then they can run with it.
This movie has tremendous energy and propulsion. But it feels reverse-engineered to your usual method, more about harnessing the story than propelling it.
Yeah, that’s kinda right. That was really nice to do. [I’d] never really done it like that before. I hope it’s fairly classical in many ways. Your job, ultimately, is to clear a path for great writing, but even more importantly, great acting. When you clear that path, what you can put on that path to help them move along it, is just intimate. You can do what you like. And I love doing that. I’ve never done it so internally before, where it’s coming purely from the actors rather than necessarily from the technique of filming so, I hope the process feels very organic.
Would it be fair to say that you had to serve the material more than many of your other films?
I know what you mean. The dynamic of it all it comes from the internal life of the actors and their command of the material. That’s what I was encouraging. You alter it occasionally, but really it comes from that. And that was an exhilarating and exciting challenge to do it that way.
And I learned that from “The Social Network,” because the energy of it comes from the actors’ command of it. Because, damn, they’re all sitting down the whole time. Incredible. Everyone is in seats all the time. This one is slightly different, of course, because Steve is a walk and talk kind of guy. It feels like the film has a physical restlessness, which of course I responded to, because I love that kind of thing. We’re not engineering displays of visceralness. It’s kind of internalized. And you hear it, and feel it, and then see it, of course. It’s there for you visually as well, hopefully.
Did “The Social Network” factor in your mind? Did it loom over this film?
Actually, I was always championing it to everyone. I loved the film when it first came out. It was lovely to go back to it and know that since we’ve been through this process once. And I really said that if we can do it half as well, we’ll be all right. And the lineage of it is something to be encouraged, because it is important that these people are written about commandingly, and that their lives are examined for whatever reasons. It can be political, it can be analytical, it can be personal, whatever it is. But you’ve got to deal with these guys. These guys have made our world and increasingly so. The rate of change has been staggering. Almost impossible to keep a grip on.
And they’ve changed so many industries overnight, and you have to bring them to account. The corporations that now dominate the world clearly don’t want you to make this kind of stuff because they want to keep control. Just in the way Steve resented IBM’s control of the market and wanted to smash it.
I heard you suggested a title change for this movie.
I was going to call it “King of France” [laughs]. So, Jeff Raskin, whose baby really was the MacIntosh until Steve kind of replaced him, used to say that Steve would have made a great King of France with his behavior, and I love it. I thought it was wicked. But it ultimately doesn’t help you get the film out there. So we ended up with the titular title.
So “Trainspotting 2” is in the works obviously, but there’s a few others percolating, yes?
Yeah, ‘T2,’ if we can call it that [laughs], is on the runway. We’re loading it up, to continue the metaphor. We’re loading up the cargo, at the moment, ready to go on that one and we’ll shoot it next May and June.
Are you going to be doing any more of the 28 Days’ films?
[Continued from a longer excerpt where Boyle talks about “28 Months” later here] [Zombie movies are] like everywhere, really. It’s interesting how that happened. Of course, you’ve got to be able to something a bit different with another sequel. That’s always the thing. You try to do something different, original and fresh and I think there’s a part of people who want to see sequels in the movie theaters. But they also want you to keep refreshing the tank and take as well, if you can.
The “truth” is something that gets harped upon with biopics, as if representing a true-to-life story with actors that aren’t the actual people and dramatizing a real event isn’t some kind of massive manipulation already. Even documentaries are a form of distortion or shaping “truth.”
Facts are always tricky, aren’t they? Although the idea is that they’ll prove everything, it’s very difficult to get everybody to agree on them. But then, it depends on who you talk to about facts. There’s a process involved in drama which is both reliable and unreliable as facts themselves. Kubrick said the truth is not necessarily in the facts, but it’s in the feel. And it’s weird doing drama because you have these filters you go through.
You’ve got many here: Sorkin, your own reaction to the script, the actors and then the audience. Whether based on facts or not, Sorkin’s got an inherent truthfulness and honorability about his approach, and there is still lots of research. And actors are not interested in the events that make an interesting film. The good ones, like we had here, are just looking for the truthfulness of the moment. It’s an enormous filter for the film to pass through. And then the most important filter: the audience. They tell you in the end, “Is this true? Is it believable?” You hope that they believe it is. But they’re your ultimate judge in a way.
Humanization and empathy must have been tricky, because Jobs in this movie such a enjoyably colossal megalomaniac, but we do ultimately understand him even if we don’t “like” him.
What you’re looking for is for the portrait to be uncompromising. It’s not been comprised by likability, which is like one of the force fields that studios try to apply to you. “Can’t we make him a bit more likable?” They don’t care who he is. He could be Hitler. “Can’t we make Hitler more likable than this?”
So what you do is hire actors who are uncompromising. You want your writer to have written uncompromisingly and you want yourself to have done it uncompromisingly. Whether he’s likable or not is really part of the whole point of doing it.
The golden thread that runs through the whole film is, “Can you be decent and gifted at the same time?” Woz says it specifically, and it’s up to people to ask that question. How do you answer that? There isn’t a definitive answer. Woz says it’s possible, and he illustrated it by the way he behaved through his whole life. He gave away stock options to people who he thought were being poorly treated. He’d give his last dollar to people. And he’s the guy who technically invented the personal computer. Steve sold it. Steve had the vision to take it to the world or else it might still be lingering in a garage.
Briefly on “Trainspotting 2,” what’s the impetus or upside of doing a sequel to a film that people revere twenty years after the fact?
It’s a couple of things, really. In most films you watch, you may remember the actors who played the part. You never remember the characters names. Maybe Jack and Rose, or the “Star Wars” characters. But when people talk to me about [“Trainspotting”], they all talk to me about the character’s names. It’s just incredible really. That’s just part of it. You saw the fascination that these characters have created in people.
And then it’s the fact that when we did it the first time, the actors and the characters were in their mid-twenties, and in that time of life, you can get away with almost anything if you’re lucky. And then that changes. And it’s changed in the audience as well, who were maybe that age when they watched it. And you think, what a great way of looking at time passing and what it’s done to these people.
That sounds like a pretty dull thing to make a film about, but actually it’s a really good script, so I think there’s enough there for people. It’s attracted the actors back and they were not keen to do it unless it was really good, because I think they felt, rightly, that they wouldn’t want to disappoint people with an easy or lazy sequel. We waited a long time and we worked on it very hard. So that’s why we’re getting back together.
“Steve Jobs” opens in limited release on October 9th opens nationwide on October 23rd.