Exclusive Interview with Danny Boyle, Literary Sharp Shooter

Photo: Chuck Zlotnick
Photo: Chuck Zlotnick

If there were a bookie taking bets on filmmakers’ odds for success on any given project (cue the sound of metaphorical lightbulbs flickering on among online gambling moguls), Danny Boyle literary adaptations would be among the safest wagers possible. Ever since he scored his first hit with his big-screen version of Irvine Welch's Trainspotting, starring a young Ewan McGregor as a charismatic Scottish junkie, Boyle has produced much of his best work throughout his career directing films and plays based on books. (One noted exception: Boyle’s 1995 adaptation of Alex Garland’s The Beach, the blame for which Boyle and his newly minted superstar leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, should share equally.) However, Boyle’s literary-plus column far exceeds the minuses. And topping that list is his 2009 Best Picture winner “Slumdog Millionaire,” based on Vikas Swarup's novel, Q&A. This year, Boyle has received nearly as much acclaim for “127 Hours,” his emotionally raw and visually inventive rendering of outdoorsman Aron Ralston’s near-death memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place.

And as if to gild the lily, Boyle’s stage version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein debuted in London received rapturous reviews the likes of which cranky British theater critics rarely dole out. Signature sat down with Boyle just days after Frankenstein’s auspicious bow and moments before he was due to attend the Independent Spirit Awards, where “127 Hours” (due out on DVD this week) was nominated for a slew of awards including Best Director and for which James Franco ultimately won Best Actor.

Signature: Congratulations on the stellar reviews you’ve been getting for your adaptation of Frankenstein on the London stage. You must feel invincible at this point.

Danny Boyle: We’ve done really well. The show sort of rescues the book from what the movies have done with the story. They’ve truly distorted the story. Very entertainingly, mind you, but it’s been distorted. And the goal with this was to get the story back more in its origins so I’m very proud of that.

SIG: What aspect of the story did you feel had most been distorted?

DB: The creature is called a "monster" in the movies but in the book, really, he’s a creature. He has a voice and a very articulate one at that. Of course the first thing the movies did was rob him of that voice. They let him grunt and groan. He’s so articulate in the book. There’s this extraordinary sequence in the middle of the book where he’s articulate and highly intelligent and isolated by mankind. So we worked hard to get that back into the story and we’re really excited about it.

SIG: Was returning to the theater refreshing or challenging in terms of not having all the cinematic tools to depict your characters’ inner lives?

DB: I haven’t worked in the theater in many years and it was interesting during rehearsals because anytime any of the actors did anything good, I would walk toward them, which is basically what the camera does. That’s what you’re doing with a camera. So what the actor does when that happens is they reduce the visible signs of their emotions, because they realize the camera is coming close to them, and they let the audience do the work. But of course you have to realize in theater, there is no camera and you have to get the goodness of that work out to the audience. And so you have to adjust a bit. I think I was a bit rusty to begin with but it’s like riding a bicycle.

SIG: Is it somehow inspiring creatively to have more limitations placed upon you?

DB: It always is. That’s why I generally enjoy working with lower budgets: You’re not spoiled. You’re not in the candy store with every single thing you ever want. You’ve got to think, "I can’t do that; what are we going to do instead?"

SIG: You’ve had a lot of success with book adaptations, especially with your last few films and this stage play. Do you have a sense about why you tend to thrive with literary material?

DB: The wonderful thing you get with a book is inner life. And you’re not going to be able to cover all of that in a movie. You’re going to have to select and do so brutally sometimes. But you do get an inner life, which the writer has created for you. Or in this case Aron Ralston is recording back to you what it was like for him to be in that canyon and that gives you a wonderful grounding to go from creatively.

SIG: Does that forge a more profound connection between you and the material?

DB: I think so. An original screenplay will never have the intensity of the spotlight that the novelist has turned on the characters. You also get that wonderful thing which is a reference point. The actors, the director, and the writer can take pause and turn to the reference point, which is the book. There is an exhilaration with an original screenplay as well, which is that it’s created to give you the median. And it doesn’t confuse its storytelling obligations.

SIG: I imagine “127 Hours” posed very specific challenges to have someone available to you for whom the experience was so fresh.

DB: I think so. But it was also dangerously constrictive. As I told Aron at the beginning, this is not going to be a documentary. I don’t want the audience to be thinking about you the whole time. I want them to be thinking about James Franco. Because that’s what you do in a feature film. You don’t think about the character they’re playing. You think about that actor and what they’re experiencing. You think, "Oh my God. He’s going to cut his arm off now. Oh my God, he’s gonna die because he’s got no water. Is he gonna do that?" You know it’s a true story but you’re not thinking about that the whole time. You’re living through the experience with Franco. Because you know when something extreme happens to an actor. You know they’re not really cutting their arm off. Of course they’re not. But you just forget about the practicalities. We just get carried away with storytelling. That’s a wonderful thing in our consciousness and it’s worldwide, we do it across all cultures. We want to lose ourselves in storytelling. It’s a wonderful thing, that. So it was wonderful having Aron around the whole time. And obviously on the DVD we can feature him more. But I didn’t want his experience to be a restriction on the freedom with which we told the tale. I said to Aron, "If you trust us, we will come back to you at the end and you will believe we have told your story in our own way. And it will be a faithful and dignified and honorable telling of it."

SIG: Was there anything that was especially important to him?

DB: Yes. Look, I told him I want the freedom to be able to change certain things, which was hard for him. I knew I wouldn’t change obvious things like the amount of equipment he had. There are certain set things you must not change. They were very important to Aron and I was delighted to respect those. Afterward, the things that were important to Aron, these are things featured on the DVD: He wants wilderness protection; he wants support for search and rescue. These are the important things that have emerged out of the experience that he learned to appreciate.

SIG: How does that manifest itself on the DVD?

DB: There’s a whole series of extras, especially on the BluRay, and you’ll see Aron interviewed and his family and people involved in the search and rescue. The whole extra hinterland, with a true story, there is a whole other resource you can dig into, whereas with an original screenplay you can’t really. But this has a whole other personality and his exact experience.

SIG: It sounds like making this DVD was a whole separate creative endeavor for you?

DB: Absolutely, because I’ve never really done a true story before. You try to base everything you make on some sort of truth so it looks recognizably truthful. But part of the creative tension of the film was to free us from that obligation as much as possible while we made James’ telling of the story. And then of course on the DVD you get that and you get the true forces behind the film, which is the absolute truth, the personalities involved and reference to how you can learn from this story.

SIG: Are you still planning to make an adaptation of Maximum City?

DB: No. We had to let the rights of it go. It’s a wonderful book and, as a reference book, it was hugely valuable to me on "Slumdog." It’s the most intense and amazing immersion into India for the ignorant, like I was. Hand in hand it’s a wonderful companion for exploring the country and vastly entertaining in its own right. We’d love to make another film in India, in Mumbai particularly. But at the moment it won’t be Maximum City. We’ve had to let the rights go because we were doing this film and I had to do the stage play and I now have to do the opening ceremony for the Olympic games in London in 2012. So it’s wrong for me to sit on a wonderful book like that. Other people should have a go to see if they can manifest it as a film or a TV series.