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An Interview with Danny Boyle Print E-mail
Monday, 23 July 2007
If you’re any kind of credible film fan you should know who Danny Boyle is: He’s the type of director whose successes (“Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later,” “Millions”) are destined to become classics in their (very different) genres, and whose failures (“A Life Less Ordinary,” “The Beach”) still manage to retain the virtue of being interesting. His films always have a certain indie credibility and, because of that, they often fly just slightly under the radar. “Sunshine,” his new sci-fi flick about a group of astronauts sent on a mission to reignite the dying sun, is certainly no different: Between all the hype I’ve heard for “Transformers” and “Harry Potter,” it seems that awareness on this film is relatively low. It’s really quite a shame as “Sunshine” is one of the better science-fiction films I’ve seen in recent years and a sure-fire candidate for my top ten list for 2007.

I sat down recently with Danny Boyle at the Four Seasons in Chicago—a hotel so huge that I got hopelessly lost in the lobby—for a one-on-one interview. I don’t know why I was expecting him to be an intense and SERIOUS (in all caps) Brit, but he quite surprised me. In person, Boyle is about as nice as you can get: Energetic and personable, very quick to offer you a cup of tea, and obviously excited to talk about his films. If you can get past all my blathering, I think you’ll find what he has to say about “Sunshine,” and sci-fi in general, to be very interesting. Beware of minor spoilers:

So I saw “Sunshine” recently and really enjoyed it. Perhaps the aspect I liked most about the film was how it felt like “classic science-fiction.”

Oh yeah, definitely.

I guess the most obvious film I could compare it to is “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That whole “men-on-a-mission” feel, and of course there’s always some complication that arises…

Well, actually, [science-fiction] films break down. And you’re right, it is in the classic tradition. In many ways it’s like a love letter to those kinds of films, and they break down into three ingredients: There’s a ship, a crew, and a signal that changes everything. Basically, if you think about them all, so many are like that; they have those sets of ingredients in them. So yeah, it is like a love letter to hardcore sci-fi space movies where there’s not fantasy creatures or weird planets. It’s just, “Can we go out there? Can we do it?”

It’s interesting that you say that because it almost seems as though Fox Searchlight is trying to market the film as though there is some kind of alien presence in the movie. I saw that and I remember thinking, “Oh man, you better not…”


But after seeing it now I really appreciate the leaning towards realism the film takes. I mean, it’s sci-fi, obviously, but there’s a feeling that this could conceivably happen.

Yeah, that was always the premise. Even though it’s ridiculous to think that somebody could literally go up and touch the sun, the drive throughout was to get you there by using realism. To say that this could happen, we can explain this, there is a shield and you could hide behind it. So we were just trying the whole time to get you there with realism. And some people find that Pinbacker [a character from the film] breaks the realism too much. Which is fair enough, but I always love taking a huge risk in films where you risk everything by doing something that breaks the pattern. Like, there’s a bit in “Trainspotting” where Ewan [McGregor] goes down the toilet, and people used to say, “You’ll never get away with that. It’s ludicrous.” But, in fact, people love that moment. So that was always the plan, to take you and see how far we could stretch realism. Push it as hard as we could.

Well, that’s usually how the best films come about, especially sci-fi.

Yeah, but it’s a weird genre to work in. There are all these rules. I’ve never known it on any other film, all these rules about what you can and cannot do. And some of them you really can’t break. We tried and they didn’t work, so we had to go back and do it again.

So what’s an example of something you just absolutely can’t do?

Humor is very difficult. I mean, we got a few gags in, but very difficult to get humor in there. Sex, romance, it doesn’t work. A relationship between Cillian [Murphy, who plays Capa] and Rose [Byrne, playing Cassie] could obviously develop and at script stage we tried to develop it into a full-on romance, but it didn’t work. It just felt wrong and slightly inappropriate. There are all these technical rules as well, like the beginning has to be slow. You could speed it up but it doesn’t work, you don’t believe you’re in space. It’d feel like they just left earth, you’ve got to give the feeling of them traveling a long, long, long way.

So there’s that. Star fields: Every movie has a star field in it, some array of stars in the background. And I thought, that’s bollocks! You wouldn’t see any stars—which you don’t in “Sunshine”—because you’d only see the sun, the brightest object. So we did without that, but then your ship doesn’t look like it’s moving because you have to have a star field for it to move against. Otherwise it just looks like it’s stationary. And oh, it just goes on and on and on forever.

You brought up the chemistry between the characters played by Cillian and Rose, and it’s there but not overplayed. Likewise with Cliff Curtis’s character, Searle, and his obsession with being bathed in the light of the sun. It’s all laid out for you, but it’s never like you’re snowing it on.

I think that’s because these films, they dictate themselves like that. We tried to develop their relationship so that it was more of a full-on relationship with a sex scene and an obsession and stuff like that, but it just didn’t work. It just doesn’t want it really. The other thing the scenario dictates to you in a way is that these people are equal, they’re all equally important. And, although they get gradually killed off, obviously, they are, up until that moment, equally important. That kind of ensemble is unusual, but it’s often the case in space movies. It’s usually an ensemble cast like that. They all have to share the limelight, so there isn’t the space to develop the relationships in the normal way that you might if you were just focusing on two people.

It’s also interesting to point out that the ensemble—the crew of the ship—is very ethnically diverse. I’m sure that was a conscious choice, but was that something in the script or did that pop up from casting?

No, it popped up from the initial research I did. Like NASA said, when they sent Armstrong to the moon, they hid from the American people how much it was costing. In fact, it’s only been revealed about five years ago and it’s just a staggering amount of money. Unbelievable. And they said that if the American people had known, they would have shut it down because it was just unbelievable how much of your taxes were going along on this moon mission. [Laughs.]

So they hid it. And now, if you’re thinking about a mission that would happen in fifty years time, the first question you have to ask is who will pay for that mission? And NASA said, “To be honest, the emerging economies. America will be lucky if we’re still involved because the principle drivers will be the Asian economies. India, China, maybe Japan.” So we thought, right! I mean half of them have to be American because the cinematic market is the biggest here, and also because America in present day has done the most in space. Although the Russians argue about that. So we made half of it American and half of it Asian.

And then, of course, you get: “Oh! We can get Michelle Yeoh!” You suddenly get to cast some of your favorite actors then.

Was casting easy? It really does seem like a nice, solid cast. Was it pretty much first choices all around?

Yeah, it was actually. It was relatively easy to cast and nice to have some favorites, people I’ve wanted to work with like Michelle and Cliff Curtis. Cillian, I knew and had worked with, but also a couple of guys I had never known before: Chris Evans, Troy Garity, really excellent actors who I didn’t know anything about. I had no history of them or anything. Like one of them was from “Fantastic Four,” which everyone here knows, and one of them is related to Jane Fonda. But I didn’t know any of these things! I mean, Troy is Jane Fonda’s son and I didn’t know any of this stuff! [Laughs.] So I just cast them for the fact that they were really good actors.

Now another thing I found interesting about “Sunshine,” and actually it’s sort of the same with films like “28 Days Later” and “The Beach,” is there always seems to be a focus on internal struggle. These people are battling zombies or blowing up the sun but the people are also battling within their group. I mean, you throw a group of people on a ship and…

Yeah, it’s interesting… You’re never really aware of these things until you do the press interviews, and then people like you talk about it and you think, that’s actually right. There usually is a bunch of people with impossible odds, or they’re imploding as a group, or one of them is trying to break away, or one of them has to take responsibility. Yeah, there are patterns like that emerging. I can’t quite explain why that is, but I think it’s partly just taste really. That’s the kind of things I like. I don’t really like minutiae films about relationships that just happen in the ordinary, everyday world that you could go out and shoot right now. I like to go out there and… It’s empty, there’s nobody there. You think, what the fucking hell has happened?! Or, you know, there’s a fireball sweeping across the Midwest… When’s it gonna get here? Or whatever it is, you know, where the odds are just stacked against the extreme. I like extremes, I guess.

Well, that’s another thing: The idea of loneliness. In “Sunshine,” when the crew is trying to send their final messages home and you realize how dire this situation is. Or in “28 Days Later,” when Cillian walks around in a place that should be packed with people and, suddenly, they’re gone.

We have decided to live in cities, haven’t we? The vast majority of us, and the cities are going to continue to grow because we’re not going to go back to village life. We’re all going to live in cities, surrounded by people. That’s the pressure we put ourselves under. Can you imagine what it’s like if that suddenly is gone? And certainly with space travel, that’s one of the biggest issues they say there is about it: Protecting the sanity of the astronauts. They got a big problem with artificial gravity, they can’t do it yet, so we can’t go very far for very long. But, if they do conquer that, the biggest problem they’ve got then is psychological: People’s sanity at that kind of distance from earth. Just that loneliness when all your roots are gone. They think it will be very difficult to remain sane.

Why do you think that is?

Well, we read this really interesting book called “Moondust” [by Andrew Smith]. It’s about this journalist who interviewed as many of the Apollo astronauts he could—you know, the guys who landed on the moon. Two of them are dead now actually, natural causes, and there’s only about twelve alive still. They’re all going to die soon; ten to fifteen years and they’ll all be dead. And they’re the only people who have ever been anywhere else. So we went around and tried to talk to them all—well, some of them wouldn’t talk to us, some of them are a bit mad now—but they all talked about that. They had this initial thing when they flew away from the earth they were the first of our species ever to see the earth through the distance, to see it as a small globe, and they said how weird that was. But they said the weirdest thing was when you went around the dark side of the moon because for forty-five minutes then you were out of contact with earth and you couldn’t see it. There was nothing.

And were they just sort of trapped in this giant floating can?

Oh, yeah, yeah. They were basically biscuit tins they were in! They were so thin, they were nothing! And they said the loneliness was extraordinary and it really scarred a few of them, I think.

Well, it looks like they want me to wrap this up, but before I go I know you and [“Sunshine” screenwriter] Alex Garland are fond of working with each other. Do you have anything coming up together?

We haven’t anything planned at the moment, but we’ll see what happens.

I know your next film coming up is “Slumdog Millionaire,” which sounds a bit more lighthearted than “Sunshine.” Is that more along the lines of “Millions?”

There is a lot of money involved like in “Millions,” but the money is really unimportant. It’s about this kid who’s a slum kid, an uneducated kid, and he goes on the Hindi version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and he wins it. And nobody can believe he’s won it because it’s a very tough show in India because it’s a lot of money. They make the questions very difficult, and they think he’s cheated—had plants in the audience or microwave transmitters or something. But he goes on the show because he loves this girl and he’s lost her in the madness of Mumbai [India]. But all he knows is she watches this show religiously every night. So he figures, “If I go on it and spend as long as possible on it…” So he answers every question and he’s never tempted to take the money because he wants to stay on as long as possible! [Laughs.] He keeps getting the answers right, and the film shows why he gets it. Some of them he’s just lucky, but some of them are things that have happened to him in his life and they happen to ask questions about. But ultimately, he’s innocent and that’s why he wins it.

It’s about, um, it’s about… I’m not sure what it’s about because we haven’t really made it yet, but I think it’s about individualism versus community. I mean, India just has so many people in it, it’s just unbelievable. It’s nine-hundred million people and they’re just everywhere, like sand. It’s like you can’t get away from them. So individualism is a really weird concept there and there’s no privacy of any kind. There’s always people everywhere.

And, actually, that’s kind of the exact opposite of “Sunshine,” where you have nothing but emptiness.

Right. Absolutely.

And that’s about it. Very special thanks, of course, to Danny Boyle for taking the time to chat with me, and to the good folks at Allied Advertising for making the whole thing happen. “Sunshine” opens on July 20, 2007 and you should check it out. You wont be disappointed.

Great interview!
Written by Lindsey K. on 2007-07-23 08:49:30
Can't wait to see the movie
Written by Guest on 2008-02-14 13:21:18
Seriously. This movie is now one of my three favorite movies, along with The Abyss and Aliens. 
Go Boyle!

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Bang! Kapow! BOOM! ‘Nuff said.
2 stars for “3:10”

I would love to see Lumino feature