You're never sure what you're going to get with a Danny Boyle film. You might get a Gothic update of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with roommates turning on each other over a suitcase full of money as in his debut film, Shallow Grave. Or a raw glimpse of disaffected youth turning to heroin in Trainspotting, a film so profoundly grimy you feel the need to shower while watching it. Or maybe you'll get a bizarre love story, complete with caustic angels, such as his underrated and impossible-to-pigeonhole A Life Less Ordinary. One thing you're fairly certain of: A Danny Boyle film will always be intriguing and completely original.
What you don't expect from Boyle is a children's film. Yet the director handles the genre with style in his new project Millions, a sweet fable set in Liverpool about two motherless young boys who discover a gym bag full of cash. "I'm not sure it is a kid's film," he warns in his lilting Scottish accent. "I think it's about two kids; they're obviously the focus of it. But kids' movies tend to be more knockabout, like Agent Cody Banks or Dunston Checks In. It's not really in that territory. I see it as being about childhood, but it's not reminiscing, because it's set in contemporary times. I find it difficult to define, really." Indeed the seemingly lighthearted plot comes with serious consequences: With only a few days before the UK switches over to the Euro, the boys need to either spend the money or find a way to cash it in. As the older son becomes increasingly possessive (shades of Shallow Grave), the younger boy finds himself obsessed with thoughts of saints, miracles, and his lost mother. There's also a dangerous stranger hunting them, eager to get the money back. In short it's about as far from Cody Banks as you can get and still earn a PG rating.
Boyle was drawn to Frank Cottrell Boyce's screenplay, and he worked with the writer for about a year in preproduction. "It tends to be script-driven with me," he says of choosing his projects. "I loved this script, and I really responded to it in a personal way, and it became a kind of mission to do it, a labor of love." As with most of his films--the costly Leonardo DiCaprio flick The Beach being the exception--Boyle went the indie route, using a small budget and shooting in England. "It's the largest sum you can use in the UK without getting into finding stars," he says of the budget. "But it's a comfortable way to make a movie when the demands are not huge." He also found that his previous film, the hit zombie flick 28 Days Later, afforded him clout in the industry. "If you've had a success like 28 Days Later, people kind of let you do what you want," he remarks. "Although I think people kind of thought it was a bad idea, doing a film about a couple of kids, they just let us get on with it."
The two leads, Alexander Nathan Etel and Lewis Owen McGibbon, make their film debuts in Millions with sweetly natural performances. One of the advantages of their ages was a more relaxed shooting schedule for everyone involved. "Alexander was only 8 when we shot it and, when they're 8 years old, you only get three hours a day with them," says Boyle. "So we shot for 12 weeks. But you get home early, that's the nice bit. You'd never do that on a regular movie." As for Alfred Hitchcock's old adage about never working with children or animals, Boyle remains unfazed. "He was funny; he had all those rules," he says of the legendary director. "And I think to never work with rules is the most important thing--although I've worked with animals, and I certainly support the rule about not working with them." Boyle found the experience extremely valuable. "I learned a lot directing it," he says. "I was surprised. I started off and I was a bit heavy-handed, I think. I tried to force them to do things or say things a certain way, and I could see straight away the results. It wasn't very good, it was a bit embarrassing at best, and at worst it was a bit vile, because it felt like these lovely kids had adult fingerprints all over them. So I backed off. You have to find a different way of getting them to access the story and the script. And that sort of developed as we went along; we built a good atmosphere on the set, and they felt confident." The director was also conscious of keeping the set lighthearted. "We kept it fun," he adds. "I think, for the most part, it wasn't a trial for them, because their energy collapses very quickly, and when their energy is gone, you're done. You can threaten or bribe actors, but, with kids, it's gone once it's gone."
Although Boyle is aware audiences might be surprised to find him going from the bloody world of 28 Days Later into the fantastical landscape of Millions, he says he doesn't pay much attention to moving genres. "You don't really think of [films] like that," he says. "You're conscious it's a change, but, the truth is, when you finish a film, especially promoting it, you've spent, like, 18 months on that kind of world. So by the time you're done, the chance to change is wonderful. Although, I know from an audience's point of view, it's not necessarily a good thing. When I see a film like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I think, 'That was fantastic. Wow, I hope Ang Lee makes another film like that!' But he doesn't want to; he's just done 18 months of it."
One of the reasons for the long period the director is involved with a film is because he's involved in every aspect of production, from research to casting. "It's an obsessive function, an obsessive career," he says. "You trust people with set design and things like that, you brief the casting directors and all departments, but you tend to oversee all parts of it." When casting, Boyle says he has an instinct for matching actors to roles. "As soon as they begin to speak, there's something," he says. "You get an instant feeling of if they can do the part, which sounds like a terrible instant-judgment thing and leads to that awful thing of actors coming in and being dismissed every 90 seconds. I don't do that; I love to talk to actors. But you are looking for that connection with the part. The second thing is, you're looking to see if you both are magnetically correct: how you feel off each other, especially for bigger parts where you're going to be together for a long period of time. The other thing I love is, I love to hear them talk about the script. You get so many ideas from actors, just about things you'd never consider. It's, like, free rehearsals. It's not like the director has a script and knows exactly how it should be done. You kind of hear it read, and you think, 'That's it.' Or they bring something to a scene you never considered. I personally love casting. I learn a lot through it."
He is currently casting his new film Sunshine, a science-fiction story about a mission to the sun. Although ostensibly a space odyssey, like all Boyle films, there's more to it than meets the eye. "[A crew] is taking a bomb to ignite in the sun because a section of it is decaying, and they need to reignite it," he explains. "But what the story's really about is that there was a mission that went before them seven years earlier that failed, and nobody knows why or what happened to them. So it's kind of a mystery. It's just eight people, so it's a chamber piece, really, although it's got a vast psychological landscape." He hopes to shoot the film in London, once again on a small budget. But Boyle says he has nothing against big-budget blockbusters. "It's not that I have an aversion, I love watching those movies," he insists. "I adore them. When cinema goes international like that and those big movies play all over the world, there's nothing like it, really. I'm not sure I'm the best person to direct them. You have to be kind of honest about yourself, and I think, so far, I tend to work best under the radar a bit. I can turn up with surprises and surprise people a bit, rather than turning up with things that people have certain expectations of. You can go wherever you want with it, especially if your film before has been a hit. You get more credit, and people tend to trust you." He smiles before adding, "And if there are arguments, you tend to win them." BSW