SXSW 2013: Oscar Winner Danny Boyle on Lying to Money Men and Playing with Genre

AUSTIN, TX: What’s great about going to a Danny Boyle movie is you never know what you’re gonna get. Most filmmakers today, even the best ones, tend to work out from certain templates of themes or genre–it’s how they get people to give them money for their movies, and how they get financiers to indulge them when they occasionally do something different (with an implicit assurance that they’ll be back to what makes money). Not so with Boyle. He’s well aware of the danger, he says, “of thinking, ‘Oh, I know how to get this effect,’ or you start double-bluffing…and you shouldn’t really be doing that. You should really be hunting in the story to present it in as fresh and as original a way as you can.”

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His career thus far has been a model of that kind of thinking, as was clear in the compilation reel of clips from his films, presented before his conversation with The New York Times‘ David Carr at the SXSW Film Festival Saturday morning. In it, we saw horror (28 Days Later), sci-fi (Sunshine), family (Millions), drama (127 Hours), and thriller (his upcoming Trance). Carr marveled at the filmmaker’s genre flexibility, but Boyle breaks it down logistically.

The studios he works for, he explains, puts a budget cap on his films, “but within that cap, they allow us an incredible amount of freedom–where you can fuck with genres, mess about, take an idea and just mess about with it really.” But he insists that his work isn’t all that eclectic. “The truth is that you try and make it different every time,” he says, “and often times you end up making the same film over and over again. And seriously, there is something that connects all the films, and I  spotted it recently: there’s usually someone who has insurmountable odds in front of them. And somehow they get over them, so that you get a buzz off of the film.”

That said, he still has to engage in some hucksterism. Carr asked him about going from his Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire (“You’re practically directing a country”) to the intimate 127 Hours (“One guy, all by himself”). “Obviously, there’s a perversity in there that’s delicious,” Boyle admits, “but nobody was gonna make it because it’s a movie where a guy is stuck on his arm for six days, and the climax is he cuts his arm off. Nobody’s gonna give you money for that movie! Unless you lie to them, and you say ‘Yeah, it’s an action movie. Where the hero can’t move, that’s the only problem…’ I remember when we sold them Slumdog Millionaire, we didn’t tell them a third of it was gonna be in Hindi! We said ‘No, it’ll be like Amelie crossed with Trainspotting, it’s a fairy tale…’ You’ll kind of say anything really to get your film made.”

127 Hours also marked a new challenge: it was the first time he tried to write one of his scripts himself, which gave him new respect for the job of the scribe. “I wrote structure, and the kind of energy and feel,” he explained, but when he brought in co-writer Simon Beaufoy, “he added character. And it is amazing. And if you can do that as a young writer, I bow before you. Because it’s something that not a lot of us can do… And without it, forget it. Because you don’t go and watch– all of the pyrotechnics that I do, that’ll only last so long. Unless there’s a character there that’s been drawn by a writer, and then inhabited by a wonderful actor, there’s no point in cinema. It lasts five minutes.”

Danny Boyle’s latest, Trance, is out April 5 in limited release.