The Olympics made Danny Boyle a knighthood-shirking national treasure. But, as Andrew Dickens discovers, he’s saved some surprises for his cinematic return
On Friday 27 July last year, about three seconds after 8.30pm, Danny Boyle could have asked for whatever he wanted – the keys to Number 10, access to the nuclear launch codes, the moon on a stick – and he would have got it.
For it was at that moment, in front of 900 million TV viewers, that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth turned to Daniel Craig and said: “Good evening, Mr Bond.”
This was perhaps the most jaw-dropping of 100 jaw-dropping moments in a jaw-dropping Olympic opening ceremony; the brainchild of Boyle and an event that cemented the director as a bona fide national hero and united the world’s most cynical country in a bond of positivity.
Yet its success, albeit greater than anyone could’ve hoped, was far from a surprise. The man sat opposite me drinking a cup of coffee (not tea – which contradicts his image as the most British man on Earth) knows how to put on a show, whether that’s on the big screen with films such as Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 127 Hours, 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire, or on the stage, where his steampunk production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre garnered as many awards as it did Nectar points for its electricity bill. And now the 56-year-old’s back doing what he does, not best, but most, with his latest film: Trance, a twist-laden heist movie starring James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson. But as you’d expect with Boyle, it’s not a simple case of cops and robbers...
What appealed to you about Trance? How do you pick films?
It’s instinct, mostly. It’s not strategic. I hate that kind of thinking: ‘Well I should do a comedy now.’ You just respond to the first manifestation of the story, in the writer’s mind and the script. A lot of scripts we develop ourselves. This one was based on an old script, but it changed a great deal. The thing I found most appealing, although you don’t experience it initially, was making a film with a woman at the centre of it. I’ve never done that. The tricky thing is that you don’t realise it until later on.
It really is riddled with twists…
It was a great opportunity to do that, and also I like the idea of three main characters, which is something I’ve done before with Shallow Grave and Slumdog Millionaire. In this case you don’t always know where your loyalties should lie. It fluctuates. It’s not an easy ‘Oh, he’s the hero’. It’s not as obvious as that. You’ve got Vincent Cassel ripping people’s fingernails off and then, at the end, he has the possibility of a love story.
Without giving too much away, people are very heavily influenced by hypnotism. How much of what happens in the film is actually possible?
They’ll tell you that you’ll not have to do anything that you don’t want to do and you’ll be awake the whole time. You’ll know exactly what you’re doing. Now there is also another truth that five to 10 per cent of the population are highly suggestible, and want to be involved and lose themselves. So it may well be morally indefensible, but it’s clinically possible, yes.
Were you doing Trance, the Olympics and Frankenstein at the same time?
Not all at the same time. The Olympics was a two-year job from accepting it, but I realised quite quickly that we [needed to] build a couple of sabbaticals in, otherwise we would turn into the corporate beast that the IOC is and just become fellow members. So we did Frankenstein in the first year and Trance in the second year, though we edited it after the Olympics. That definitely helped the [opening] ceremony be what it was because it kept us sane. If you had your proper job and then you went back to these terrible, endless Olympic meetings, you would have shot someone.
Was the Olympics the most pressured job you’ve had?
[Yes, but] it didn’t feel like it. It’s very strange; you feel much more pressure on a film, even though the budget is way less and the attention it’s going to get is significantly less. I had battles, unpleasant ones, with some people about it, and I behaved in a way that I had never behaved on a film. Mark Tildesley, one of the designers, is the sweetest guy you could ever meet, a pussycat. But we would sit in these meetings and we were vile. We used to look at each other and you could see us [thinking], “Are we really turning into this kind of monster?” But it was a tactical approach for dealing with them. I felt very confident that we had gone about it in the right way, so if we could protect it through unpleasantness from the people who were trying to make it more like other things, then we’d be all right.
You turned down a knighthood. Do you have a genuine dislike for those sorts of awards?
Did anyone try to talk you into it?
A little bit, yeah, but it was never for me. The awards thing is different when you’re making films. It’s vanity, but it’s also business, your profile and the profile of the films. But that felt different. [The Olympic opening ceremony has] had lots of awards given to it and we try to accept them on behalf of everyone, but I felt like a permanent badge of honour was not appropriate personally.
Were you expecting to receive such a good reaction?
No. It was interesting. There were a lot of volunteers, not just the Games Makers, but people from abroad who have literally been in the past five Olympic ceremonies. They said to us, “You have no idea how wonderful this place is, we look here and want to live here.” I remember that affecting us. Sure, we’ve got lots of problems, but actually it’s a really good place and we do good stuff. We have this wonderful mixture of tolerance and dissent, where one year has the f*cking riots and the next year has the Olympic opening ceremony. When the politicians used to go into the stadium and try to take too much credit, everyone booed: “No, f*ck off! This is ours, this. F*ck off!” That’s powerful and that’s why you don’t take a knighthood, because it was everybody’s.
And when you were accused of making political points in the ceremony, were you?
You could argue that everything is political, but I was genuinely trying to represent the best of us. I think that’s a mixture of incredible invention – Tim Berners-Lee, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, people like that – and also a sense of compassion. We have a universal health care system, which we decided to keep, we’ve got a national broadcaster; we decided to keep that when we had lots of opportunities to get rid of it. Suddenly, you look and you think that we are a progressive country. All that stuff about the Empire, the past; we move beyond that. You’re not there to beat a drum, you’re there to beat many, many drums, which is what we did.
What was it like directing the Queen?
[Laughs] Everybody asks that. She was fine. There are people looking after her who are hugely important to her and obviously very loyal. I think it was a lovely day for them because it was different. Suddenly there was a movie star in the room and they can have their pictures taken with him. And it’s James Bond, not just any movie star. You’ve got the two main icons of what people imagine as British: Bond and the Queen. She wanted it to be a surprise for the rest of the family, as well, so they didn’t tell anybody.
Now you’ve directed Bond, would you do it on a grander scale?
No. Sam [Mendes] did a fantastic job on the last one, but they’re not my cup of tea. I like a smaller unit and they’re a huge thing to do. Even with the Olympics we tried to do a small unit. I wouldn’t want to make a huge film.
You compared film executive Tessa Ross to Paul Scholes while presenting an award at the Baftas. Did you get confused looks from George Clooney and co?
I thought, “This will baffle the Americans” – and then I thought, “No, f*ck the Americans, everybody here will know what I’m on about, everyone that matters.” It’s a bit like the Olympic Games. The Americans were a bit baffled by parts of it, but f*ck it, we can’t have them dominate everything.
You work on a slightly bigger scale now. Do you still have to hustle?
Yeah. The hustle is a great part of it. It’s a dance that starts with casting and financing. It’s a bit of a show, a bit of manipulation and cunning, as you try to manoeuvre things your way. That’s part of your nature as a filmmaker; you’ll say terrible things to people, complete untruths. We said Slumdog Millionaire was going to be Amelie crossed with Trainspotting. We have a deal with Pathé and with Fox in the US to make the films for less than $20m. It’s a good ceiling because you have to hustle, trying to make it look like $100m. That’s the deal: you go in and you say that it’s going to cost $20m, but we’re going to make it look like $100m.
Do you have any more ambitions, within film or beyond?
I’m looking at a couple of period films at the moment, which is interesting. That’s proper research, not just wish-fulfilment. You’ve got to get your facts right. And there is this desire to try to make the sequel to Trainspotting, this idea of getting the same actors to play the same parts 20 years later. We’d have to be careful as there would be a lot of pressure on it.
Finally, are you living the dream?
[Laughs] Wow. Yeah, it’s pretty good. All of us who work in this business are very privileged. I mean, it’s your work and your leisure time as well. There aren’t many jobs that are both. You watch movies for work and then you watch them for leisure and you think, “Hang on, one is meant to be a bit torturous, isn’t it?” And the other reason is to be in charge of a storytelling team – that’s pretty cool, really. It’s a bit like being Ryan Giggs or Paul Scholes and thinking: “When is this ever going to end?”, so you go out and enjoy it while you can.
Trance is at cinemas nationwide now
(Image: Levon Biss)