Danny Boyle Talks Sunshine, Space, and Sci-Fi

And what he really thinks about Eli Roth and Michael Bay...

Danny Boyle is a British filmmaker with a reputation for gleeful genre revision. His first international release, Shallow Grave, turned trendy Scottish urbanites into money-mad killers; Trainspotting placed heroin addicts in business and philosophy; and 28 Days Later turned the zombie movie uside down by putting the live dead on speedy feet. Though Boyle’s career has been built on playing with convention, the director reports that on his newest film, Sunshine, a science fiction feature in the tradition of Scott’s Alien, Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Kubrick’s 2001, he had to play by some very strict rules.

Boyle’s a hot commodity, and with good reason. It’s estimated that his next many years are taken up with possible projects, including Porno, the sequel to Trainspotting. Based on the novel by Trainspotting writer Irvine Welsh, Porno is reportedly on the horizon for Boyle and cast but Boyle hopes to let his actors age a bit more before putting them up to the test a second time.

Boyle’s immediate future involves two films set in wildly differing locales. Slum Dog Millionaire, about a boy in Mumbai who wins the Indian equivalent of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” appears to be next up, along with Frank Cottrell Boyce’s adaptation of The Bromeliad Trilogy originally penned by popular Brit humorist Terry Pratchett.

In a recent roundtable hyping his deep space odyssey Sunshine, Danny Boyle talked about bursting his actor’s “bubbles,” the rules of space and space movies, his favorite film and facing the sun. He also sets us straight about the possible 28 Months Later and what he really said about Eli Roth.

Boyle on the set of Sunshine

Q: Everyone’s comparing Sunshine to 2010 and 2001 but I am always looking for flavors of Apocalypse Now — which I’ve heard is your favorite film. Is that film relevant here?

Danny Boyle: It’s quite interesting. There is an easy sound bite to say that, thought I’ve never been asked that before. It (Apocalypse Now) is my favorite film and it’s known as “The Heart of Darkness” Film because it’s loosely based on the Joseph Conrad book. And we always said that our starting point for this film was a “Journey into the Heart of Lightness.”

That’s the quick answer. There are certain rhythmic similarities — it’s a journey and at the end of the journey is a fantastic, a madman who’s seen the light in his own way. Structurally you could compare it to Apocalypse Now which has a similar journey as far as shape is concerned.

Q: What other films influenced Sunshine?

DB: Well, the big space movies. There are three huge, titanic, space movies which if you ever make a film like this you cannot avoid. You may want to avoid them but you cannot. I’ve never known a genre like it where you are dictated to by these films, 2001, Alien, and Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Believe me, they hover over you the whole time and sometimes you just have to tip you hat to them — reference them in some way. They are there and you’re judged against them, not just [on] whether the film ultimately works as a film but technically. The way you depict space has been dictated by those three films and you have to get to that level. And I had no idea how intimidating that level was when I set out to make it.

There are a lot of space movies that don’t get to that level, because they don’t have enough money or time, or people weren’t willing to make that effort but the effort involve in depicting this place is staggering. There were other influences as well like Das Boot, and Wages of Fear. There are lots of films you use as a kind of help to you but [I used] those three in particular.

Cillian Murphy straps on a space suit

Q: In the past you haven’t been afraid to tweak a genre. In 28 Days Later, you turned zombies on their ear. The thing that really struck me about Sunshine was it’s pace. 28 Days Later is so fast and Sunshine is not. How did you determine the pacing?

DB: I tried to cut it quick. It doesn’t work. Space doesn’t work that way; it’s one of the rules that you learn. It just doesn’t work. I remember I saw Ridley Scott interviewed back when they re-released Alien for it’s 25th Anniversary, and he said, ‘I don’t think it would work if you released it now because the first 40 minutes is so slow.’ And I have to say I disagree with him. My feeling is it wouldn’t work if you re-cut Alien and sped it up for the modern attention deficit audience or whatever you like.

To create the reality of space with this sense of suspension: nothing’s happening, it’s endless; we’re traveling at 28,000 kilometers an hour but nothing’s happening. Nothing! And you have to do that! (Laughs) There are all these rules you have to follow, I’ve never known anything like it.

You mentioned 28 Days Later and you’d think that the zombie genre is much narrower, but I say it’s a complete open field. You can do anything you like — really — but this [Sci-Fi] is absolutely disciplined, it’s Zen, you have to be absolutely focused in an area. You have to zone into an area and you then you can achieve when you get there. It’s really weird! No director goes back into space. It’s the ultimate experience making one [sci-fi flick] — maybe a modern musical…maybe making a modern day musical is tough but I’ve never done anything like it. I loved doing it but I fell out with a lot of people – because you have to be really tough with your crew to get there.

Q: Who was your editor and how did you work with your editor to reach that pacing?

DB: It’s the same guy I worked with on 28 Days Later — Chris Gill. The material dictates itself, the way you shoot it dictates itself, [and] we tried cutting it in a slightly different way because I was aware that the beginning is quite slow. It just doesn’t work. I think it is the discipline of space. Maybe a more pop-y fantasy film you can speed up, like “Star Wars” or whatever, but this kind of film, this hard-core, eight people in a steel tube fired out into the eternity of space, basically works at this pace. You wait.

Q: How did you develop chemistry with your actors? Each one is a specific type. What did you do to bring out their best sides?

DB: There are all sorts of reasons why they came from all over the world. They’re from all the corners for the world really. The first thing I did was put them in a dormitory and they were really shocked. I think, because they were expecting to be put in a place like the Ritz Carlton or whatever the equivalent is in London. I said ‘No, you’re going to be staying in a university dormitory by the canal in East London.’ And they accepted it because they want to please early on — actors.

What it does is it bursts their bubble, when they arrive. I know this from working on a number of other projects. Basically, actors arrive in a bubble. They have a little sealed bubble around them and it’s basically [comprised of] their agents, their last film, their next film, their press agent, and their per diems…all these things, they cocoon themselves with and you have to puncture that bubble on each of them to make them be in your film.

What was great about the dormitory was it did that. It created a kind of siege mentality because they were sort of on their own. They lived in this place and they cooked for themselves and they’d come to rehearsals and have to go back there. It kind of creates a bigger bubble, which is all of them, which is, of course, what you’ve got in a space movie, because they’re in a steel tube and hermetically sealed in. I think that helped enormously.

DB cont’d: The other thing, interestingly — bizarrely — is their deaths. They all, pretty much, had a reeeeeeaaaaaally good death. And you give an actor a good death and they just love it. If they can die well, they love it. They’d prefer to be the hero and live on but that’s not possible for all of them, so gimme a good death then, gimme a good exit. That helps as well.

Q: You had Brian Cox, physicist for consultation but you also went to the Cosmonaut School in the former Soviet Union. What did that experience bring to the project?

DB: We were initially going to make the film there. We looked for ways to make the film cheaper — but not just cheaper, so the film feels original, different, and has an identity all it’s own. You stamp it. The way you make it often identifies the film for what it is. That’s certainly what happened for 28 Days Later. So we thought, let’s go to Star City and make it there. It’s cheap to work in Russia, at the moment, they’re dead keen on dollars coming in, all these films being made there and they’re beginning to revive their own industry. But interestingly its [Star City’s] technology is all 1970s — still. In fact, it’s alarming because you think, “You’re not going to send someone up into space in something that old, are you?” But it works and it always has worked and it doesn’t fail and it’s incredibly reliable.

We sent this one guy, an expert — we told him what the premise of the film was, we said, “What would you do to create this mission?” And he said, “The first thing you would do on a long term space travel like this is you would try and get computer chips from the 1980s because they’re way more reliable than computer chips now.” Although computer chips now are thinner, they’re more powerful, they’re not as reliable. You’d harvest computer chips from the 1980s from all around the world because they’re reliable. And that’s the most important thing out in space, when you’re far away, is reliability and the Russians are very good at that. So, they were really annoyed when. I told them the crew was a mixture of Americans and Asians and they said, “Where are the Russians?! Look at everything we’ve ever done in space and we don’t even get a cosmonaut on board!” I had to squirm out of that one!

The sun deck on the Icarus II

Q: Your films are dynamic and I hazard that comes from your interest in extreme contrast: the claustrophobic ship against the expanse of space, for example. Another extreme that recurs is the man against the infinite. Your films, in one way or another, involve characters that ‘meet their makers.’ Why is extreme contrast important to your vision and how does the search for greatness fit in?

DB: I haven’t got anything against films that are about the minutia of relationships or customs, but I love extremes. I love taking a bunch of characters and it usually is a bunch of characters, and you throw something at them that’s usually extreme, like a bag of money, or you send them out to explode a nuclear device on the surface of the sun. And those extremes are wonderful for drama, for me. So you get a scene that wasn’t in the original script but because of the circumstances we built into the film, where they vote on whether or not they should kill another human being. That’s as extreme as you can get! What would you do? You’re a liberal democrat — we’re all liberal democrats. If a vote came, would you put your name to it?

I love that kind of stuff; it’s my kind of drama, really. I’m not as much a fan of the minutia drama. I like those extreme canvasses, I watch them but I like those big extreme canvasses. I like action movies, even though I think action movies are kind of derided now. But there is something extraordinary about action movies, which is absolutely linked to the invention of cinema and what cinema is and why we love it. (Excitedly he talks with his hands) IT’S 40 FEET HIGH AND IT’S ABOUT MOVEMENT AND DANGER.

You think about Buster Keaton and the other performers. It’s absolutely linked to that! We love that adrenaline! Otherwise, why go to a dark room with a lot of people you don’t know (gasps) and do thinks like that?! There’s something incredibly cathartic about that, don’t you think?! It’s quite difficult to talk about [a character meeting his maker] because it sounds trite, but the big issues come up. What I tried to pummel the actors with is everything we have here: your shoes, your computer, your eyebrow, everything, is a bit of exploded star. That’s what everything is. It’s stardust. Everything organic and inorganic is just stardust, from one star or a number of them that exploded and [is] sustained and maintained by this other star now. You are going to go out into there; you’re going to be aware of the questions on a big level. “Is there a God? Is there something that created all this? Is there something beyond our rational capability?” Quite clearly there is. And also, on a macro level, what we are — what makes us go there, into this hostile terrifying place, what makes us want to go there? There is a danger, it sounds a bit trite to try and talk about it a bit so we tried to visualize it as much as we could.

Q: Recently, you said you had an idea for a third 28 Days Later that you might be interested in directing. Can you talk a little about that?

DB: (Laughs) I can’t really, but I’ve got an idea for it, which I didn’t think I would have. I didn’t want to do the second one, I couldn’t have anyway because of Sunshine but I did do some second unit shooting for them because I could. I wanted to get out of the cutting room because I’d been in so long doing this film and I really enjoyed it — you know — doing something trashy like zombies killing people. Especially since it was all I shot one weekend and I was like ‘Wow, this is really great! You just come in and kill him and that’s what we’ll shoot today.” It’s fantastic release.

I did have this other idea; I don’t know whether it’ll happen or not. It’s to do with Russia, that part of the world. Not France, in the second film it gets to France and wipes out the French but the third idea has more to do with Russia but that’s all I can say.

Staring into the sun…

Q: Returning to the pace for a moment. I see a mythic gradient to the film. You are dealing with what Sara was referring to: an encounter with the ineffable. There’s a Mayan glyph that is a verb for “to witness” and the glyph is the sideways view of an eyeball. And the eyeball, with the sun reflecting in it, is a repeated image in your film. Can you speak about what witnessing means in this film in pursuing the theme of encounter?

DB: The biggest fakedom of the film, but the most important thing, is that there’s a room that they can sit in that allows them to see the star as they’re approaching it. In retrospect, NASA would never give them that room. Although psychologically you’d think it’s good to be able to see out the window it’s a recipe for disaster to witness this thing, [a recipe] for ineffectiveness, for realizing how meaningless we are compared to this glowing globe as they grow closer to it but it was the drama really — all drama — for them to have the room and have them witness it, and witness Mercury and where he [Cillian Murphy] witnesses the most important thing, ultimately, Pinbacker.

That scene where he comes in and Pinbacker is burning himself in front of the sun. I don’t think people get this from the film, which of course, is the fault of the film, but it’s not so much about what Pinbacker is — he’s represents fundamentalism — but he’s really a challenge to Cillian’s sanity. That’s what it would be to go out there. Is it possible for someone, for seven years, to have burnt themselves and still speak to me as a human being. How is this possible? That’s the key and that’s the way the scene is played out.

He tries to touch him and there’s no touch, of course, because in a way he’s not human. He’s the Taliban, or whatever. The interesting thing about the eyeball is that when you get light like that all eyeballs are interchangeable. It’s absolutely incredible, it doesn’t’ matter what race you are. One of those eyeballs is the Japanese guy’s eyeball. We just mixed them about. One of them is Cillian’s, one’s not and there’s no difference at all.

Q: Which is to say that witnessing is universal.

DB: Absolutely! I love the fact that you could mix them up and no one could tell whose eyeball is who’s eyeball. I thought that tells you all you need to know about us all, doesn’t it? That’s also what I love about space! Apart from that little blip where (Troy) Garity wanted to have that star wars up there, it’s always been on the behalf of all mankind. I think that’s one of the few times we’ve achieved that in all our history. I pray that continues and is not divided up.

Q: Cillian Murphy. He was in 28 Days Later, and now he’s in Sunshine. What is it about him that draws you back to him?

DB: The biggest thing that shocked me was how much he changed. When we did 28 Days Later he — well, both he and Naomie [Harris] were quite reluctant. I think they thought it was a bit of a trashy film and — “what were they doing in it?” They liked the idea of me directing because of my reputation but they thought, “Wasn’t it a bit [trashy] with lots of violence and trash?” And even though they did exactly what I asked, I could feel them being a bit reluctant.

They hadn’t learned what cinema is, really. It’s many, many things and there’s many, many ways with it to get where you want to be. And he’s [Cillian’s] learned that since then. He’s done a series of really good things in which he’s being exceptionally excellent. You think about Batman {Begins], in which he nearly stole the film, and The Wind That Shakes The Barley, in which he’s extraordinary, and Breakfast on Pluto and Red Eye. So he’s learned to do a variety of films: an art film, a trashy mainstream film, and he has become a proper cinema actor. He understands the process and it’s really cool. I’ve never seen that as graphically as I have in the way he’s grown.

I think you can see that in Naomi (Harris) as well. She’s done Miami Vice and Pirates of the Caribbean so she’s seen the big end side of it. It’s really interesting watching them grow as actors. One of the things you have to learn as a director — and it’s really important that you learn it — although you’re interested in who directs the film, nobody else is. Ninety-Five percent or more of the audience is only interested in who’s acting in it and if it’s any good. They don’t give a hoot about what your theories are or anything like that. And you have to learn, even though you’re in charge of the film and actors only appear for a few weeks — whereas you’re on it for years — basically the film’s for them and it has to be for them. Basically that’s all we go to the movies for. There’s a tiny little slip of us that go to see an interesting director but not really – they go for the actors. You have to find a way around that for yourself, to accept that.

Q: In the press notes you mention how optimistic your films are and I immediately thought of Mark Renton’s “Life” speech in Trainspotting which is one of my all-time favorite movie monologues, and the ending of Shallow Grave. Can you talk about why optimism is important and why it’s there when you wouldn’t really think about it in stories about zombies or junkies and roommates over each other’s throats for a dead guy’s money?

DB: I love humor — well, not so much for this movie. Humor is very difficult in space…No jokes.

Q: Dark Star
DB: Well, Dark Star, yeah. We managed to get a few in, mostly through Chris Evans [Mace], but it was very, very tough. I try to put a lot of humor in my films.

It’s interesting, the worse things get in cities, the tougher that cities get, the more brutal the humor is. The tougher [things] people face, the darker the sense of humor gets and I find that incredibly optimistic. I find that people find a way out of misery through humor and it’s humor that’s often unacceptable to people who are not in quite such a state of misery. People find [those] jokes objectionable but I find that a sign of life and it’s something I believe in and always try to put in the films. I think the only film [of mine] that doesn’t have it is The Beach which is a miserable-ist film in the end; because of the way we made it. There’s an ending put on it to try to lift the spirits but it is artificial, you can see that. The film is a miserable-ist film and I’m not usually like that, at all.

I believe in a kind of optimistic, life enhancing spirit. It’s easier to talk about that here because America tends to be like that as well. In Britain, people are very anti-American because of that. They think that’s too easy. The spirit is still there [in Britain] but it’s too easily acknowledged [in America]: the “happy ending syndrome,” that kind of thing. But I personally believe in it. I have always loved playing films here. What we’re talking about though is the intelligentsia. Mainstream audiences, in fact, are exactly the same in England and here.

Murphy as resident physicist Robert Capa

Q: Recently you made some comments about Eli Roth in the press.

DB: Did I?

Q: Sometimes we do twist words…

DB: (Flirtatiously) Surely you don’t. What did I say?

Q: His films aren’t scary…

DB: I shouldn’t have, for professional reasons. (Laughs at himself) I have spoken about what’s his name…Transformers…Michael Bay. I was lured into talking about him once. I don’t think I have an opinion about Eli Roth, or if I do I haven’t expressed it. That’s as far as I think I’m going to go right now! (Laughs, slaps knee). You didn’t lure me in successfully enough there!

RT: I had heard a rumor that you denied some comforts in order to make this film.

DB: We should have made the film for a lot more money but it would have been different. We would have needed a bigger name. I personally think they’re all fantastic actors but they’re not really matinee names or whatever you describe it as. We did it under out own terms in order to keep the structure our own.

It’s very easy to turn this film into a Michael Bay- type film. All you have to do is cut back to Earth a few times and you have a disaster movie. You think about it’s dead easy. Just have a couple people on the Earth related to people on the ship and you have a disaster movie. Then you have an ending with flags waving and people cheering and in fact we wanted to make the audience feel sealed into the tube with the crew. Like in Alien, there’s no other scenario or other place — you are on the ship with them all the time. There’s no respite. You don’t cut outside much either. When the triumph does come and they succeed at the end, it is modest, really. I think that kind of victory, when you intercede with nature, we now know there are consequences for that further down the line somewhere. So you can’t get loud and brassy about the achievement.

Crewmembers Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), Ace (Chris Evans) and Cassie (Rose Byrne)

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