Danny Boyle has been at the forefront of British cinema since his 1994 debut feature Shallow Grave showed he had the chops to hold an audience in suspense. In 1996, his heroin-infused Trainspotting became an international sensation and made a star out of Ewan McGregor. After a sour turn at studio filmmaking with The Beach, he created another star in Irishman Cillian Murphy and simultaneously revived the zombie genre with 28 Days Later.
Boyle has re-teamed with Murphy for the new sci-fi thriller Sunshine, which depicts eight scientist-astronauts in the future flying a bomb the size of Manhattan through space in order to reignite the Earth’s dying Sun. When they pick up a distress beacon from a ship thought lost from the previous attempt, Murphy’s lead scientist decides to divert the mission, throwing it, the crew, and the lives of everyone on Earth into jeopardy.
Boyle talked to us about the film in both Los Angeles and New York. You can view ShockTillYouDrop.com’s exclusive L.A. video interview with the director here!
In the New York interview, which follows, Boyle talks more about the research that went into making this a more serious sci-fi venture in the vein of 2001 or Silent Running. He also talks about his next film, an India-set comedy-romance called Slumdog Millionaire.
ComingSoon.net: There’s a recurring element in the film, never discussed, which is the idea of the sun being addictive or having a kind of power over the crew, specifically the Cliff Curtis character who gets gradually more and more sunburned. Can you talk about that?
Boyle: It manifests itself physically in him, but it’s true of all of them really. It becomes addictive, and we talked about that a lot. We talked to NASA as well and they said if you did this kind of travel one of the biggest problems is psychological. They’ve got a serious problem which is gravity, which is what’s preventing us really leaving our planet at the moment on long-term space travel. They can provide oxygen, like an oxygen garden, which is exactly how they’ll generate oxygen. They can provide long-term food source, all that kind of stuff. The problem is gravity, but the other big problem that they don’t really know what will happen is psychology. There’s a great book that we read as research by a guy called Andrew Smith who’s a journalist. He had this very clever idea of trying to interview all the guys who’d been on the moon. He didn’t get to talk to all of them, ’cause Armstrong won’t talk to people, and they’re all f*cked up on some level or other by it, either by the celebrity that followed or by, and this was the big thing, about being out of sight of the Earth. These were the first people to ever leave our Earth, you know, and the most lonely moment is when you fly around the dark side of the moon ’cause there’s no radio contact for 45 minutes and all you can see is eternity out there, just nothing. He talks in the book about the psychological effect on these guys, and we tried to manifest that through this addictive thing. What replaces that is this sense of going to meet your maker, if you think of it in religious terms or spiritual terms, but it is going to meet the source of all life as we know it, the single most important thing there is. If you could and the movie lets you do it, if you could pull up really close to it what effect would that have upon you? That was wonderful for the actors to have, and it’s addiction, it’s like drugs. After a while you just cannot do without it, it begins to kind of pour through you, course through your veins.
CS: To what degree do you adhere to genre standards in production design? There are certain things like the catwalks are grated, and the pipes on the walls, and everything seems stripped down, it alludes to aesthetics we’ve seen in previous sci-fi films. How do you break the mold while continuing to adhere to it?
Boyle: It’s the constant thing you’re doing all the time. It’s so narrow, this genre, much narrower than say a zombie genre. This is really narrow. There’s two branches. There’s fantasy, Star Wars and Star Trek, where you can do anything you want. This is the other branch, it’s based on realism, that man goes into space in a steel tube. Because of your predecessors, you’re constantly in debt to them, either because you want to be like the steel blue-grey look of “Alien” you create that inside the ship, everyone wants to use that, that’s great. Or because you can’t avoid it, but occasionally you try to break away, you try to make your own little passageway through, like the spacesuit is very original, and that’s very dangerous. The producers were really alarmed that we were gonna do something as risky as that, ’cause every other one uses the white suit, it’s based on the NASA white suit, but ours is gold, BLING GOLD, and you’re not gonna be able to see into the helmet. That really worried people, ’cause all the sci-fi movies use the goldfish bowl and then they have a big problem ’cause you cannot see through it ’cause it’s there to protect the astronauts from light! But in a movie you have to have a light inside so that you can see that it’s John Hurt or Sigourney Weaver or whoever inside. We said we’re not gonna do that, what we’ll do is put the camera inside the helmet, and that helped add to the claustrophobia.
CS: It seemed to have a lot of credibility to it just because if you were going on a mission like this where you were getting this close to the sun you would need another kind of material to be resistant to the heat.
Boyle: Yes. Absolutely. In fact what they use is gold leaf. The shield, which we built of solid gold, they use gold because it’s the best reflector of heat, it dissipates heat straight away, but what they use on satellites that fly quite close to the sun to photograph it, they use incredibly thin gold leaf. It’s astonishing, you think “what?” You go behind a shield of gold leaf that’s so thin, thinner than paper. That’s how they do it. We couldn’t use it for practical reasons ’cause we’d have just torn it (laughs) as soon as the film crew went near it would have torn, we’d still be shooting.
CS: What about Brian Cox and just the thought and physics that went into the designing of the ship?
Boyle: We used this science advisor, Brian Cox, who’s the new I’m sure you have the same problem here, Britain and Europe have a big problem in terms of the face of science to young people. Not enough young people are doing science in school. They’ve traced it back, when you say science to kids they still think “Einstein old man, bald head, gray hair, who wants to do that? I wanna be like Rihanna, I don’t want to do Einstein!” (laughs) So they point to this guy Brian Cox. He’s literally a European-wide face of science now, and he’s young, trendy, he was in a group called D:Ream who did a famous song “Things Can Only Get Better”. He’s super-trendy, you’d never think of him as a scientist but he’s absolutely brilliant. We also used NASA, there’s ways you can ask NASA just constant questions. Because of their demand for your taxpayer’s money they’re very PR conscious, they help everybody all the time, they see themselves as a library of information that everybody can access. So we used those two to build the film, the knowledge of the actors on a character, the technical requirements of the ship, what was feasible, what was believable. They’d use gold, they’d have an oxygen garden, and they would cook. NASA said if we ever do long-term space travel it won’t be like in “2001” where you have bits of pre-packaged food ’cause that’s a sure way they’d go insane. What they’d do is let people grow food, possibly even taking fish and breeding fish so you could nurture and gather your food, cook it, eat it, then wash it up afterwards. They think that cycle is CRUCIAL to your sanity when you’re out there, which is really amazing. In fact when the astronauts go up, when they circle the Earth they experience 12 or 14 sunrise and sunsets, but they keep them strictly to the same pattern of Earth, which is one sunrise and one sunset in terms of your sleeping pattern. That’s so deeply imbedded in our DNA, that lifecycle of the sun, that to challenge is a certain way of sending them insane, to ask them to sleep in different patterns, so they keep them in the same pattern as on Earth.
CS: Cillian Murphy and the rest of the cast visited CERN in Switzerland in order to prepare for their roles, which is appropriate since it’s the only scientific project on Earth that comes close to what they’re doing in the film just in terms of scale. Have you visited also?
Boyle: I’ve never been, actually. I’m due to go in October when they open it, but I don’t think I’ll get there now because of the film I’m doing in Mumbai. It’s meant to be amazing. It’s a particle accelerator that’s 27 kilometers. There’s one in Chicago as well, but this is gonna be bigger than Chicago, this is going to be the biggest one on the planet. Chicago and here are searching for a particle called the Higgs Particle. They fire protons in opposite directions around this 27 km circumference at staggering speeds, just short of the speed of light, and then they crash them into each other and they’re looking for that moment of explosion that’s the Big Bang in miniature. They’re looking for a particle that’s smaller than a proton, but these guys, ironically, call it God’s Particle. (laughs) That’s their nickname for it. So even with these guys, who are top class atheistic scientists, the question of where we come from, who made us, is still hanging in there.
CS: Have you ever been this involved in researching a project?
Boyle: Probably not in a way that I can talk about it afterwards but I try to do this level of research on everything I do. You just absorb yourself completely in the world, or you try to. The other thing we found out at CERN, which is amazing, is in October when they do hit these protons into each other there is a chance, a small chance, that they will create a black hole. They don’t know whether they will or not, and if there is a black hole created that’s it, we’re all finished. Supposedly when the Americans exploded the first Atom Bomb they had to go to congress because the scientists said there was a 10% chance they might set the sky on fire, the whole sky around the Earth. The congress and the president said “go ahead anyway”. (laughs) In fact, I said to Brian Cox “so there’s a black hole in which we’ll all disappear instantly?” and he said “don’t worry, you won’t remember anything, it’ll all be just over like that. (laughs)
CS: Does that add some pressure for you to finish on time?
Boyle: (laughs) Actually it relieves all the pressure!
CS: Can you tell us a little more about the movie you’re making now in Mumbai?
Boyle: It’s called “Slumdog Millionaire” and it’s written by Simon Beaufoy who wrote “The Full Monty,” which is one of my favorite British films. When he sent the script I didn’t really the byline is about a kid who goes on the Hindi version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and wins it. I thought “I don’t want to make a film about “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, but I read it out of respect for him ’cause he’s a fantastic writer and it’s just brilliant. It’s incredible, the Hindi version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” isn’t like the American or British version. It’s actually INCREDIBLY difficult to win, because what you have in India is this incredibly highly populated educational strata who are very poor, they don’t have much money, but they are professors so they go on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”. After the first couple of questions, the first couple of easy questions to settle you in, the question level jumps straight away to nuclear physics! Boomph, like that! I can only ever get past the first 3 or 4 questions, that’s it. Anyway, this kid is from a slum, uneducated, literally went on it and won it. They thought he cheated and everything like that, but the structure of the film, which you’ll see when you see it hopefully, explains how he knows all the answers which is really the clever bit of it. The heartfelt bit is the reason he goes on the show isn’t to win it, it’s actually ’cause he lost his girl in Mumbai, she’s a slum girl and he can’t find her ’cause there’s like 20 million people in the city. All he knows is she watches the show religiously so he goes on the show in order to get back in touch with her. So it’s a love story. But it’s good, I’m really looking forward to it! It’s completely the opposite of “Sunshine,” ’cause Mumbai is kind of an ordeal of humanity, just humans coming at you endlessly day and night!
CS: And it’s an all-Indian cast?
Boyle: Yeah. So it’ll be opening at a film festival I think, not a multiplex, ’cause there won’t be much to sell it besides the film itself.
Sunshine opens in limited release on July 20 and then wide on July 27.