Since his debut with Shallow Grave in 1995, British director Danny Boyle has always delivered movies that have both challenged and thrilled diehard movielovers, whether it was his breakthrough second film Trainspotting about Scottish junkies, the trend-setting apocalyptic thriller 28 Days Later or some of his lesser-known, but equally captivating work like Millions and Sunshine.
Boyle traveled to Mumbai, India to make his latest movie Slumdog Millionaire, a rich epic tale loosely based on stories in Vikas Swarup’s novel “Q & A.” Specifically, it’s about the life of Jamal Malik, a young man from the slums of Mumbai who has a chance to change his destiny when he becomes a contestant on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” That’s the simplified version of a much more expansive tale of undying young love, sibling rivalry and how the transformation of Bombay into Mumbai affects them. Opening with the older Jamal, played by British actor Dev Patel (“Skins”), being interrogated by two tough Mombai policemen (Irrfan Khan and Saurabh Shukla), juxtaposed with his appearance on the popular game show, the film then flashes back to Jamal’s life growing up in the slums of Bombay without a pot to piss in, meeting Latika, a young orphaned girl who Jamal would travel across India trying to find once they’re separated, and blindly following his ambitious older brother Salim, until Latika comes between them.
It’s a wonderful film, already hailed by many as the best of the year–this writer agrees with that sentiment–after playing at Telluride and the Toronto Film Festival. ComingSoon.net had a chance to catch up with Boyle and meet the film’s screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) towards the end of the latter, where we sat down for a delightful early morning conversation about the film over tea.
ComingSoon.net: Nice to see you again. I almost saw your movie a second time here at the festival, but I didn’t want to get greedy.
Danny Boyle: Yeah, cool. Very good. So you enjoyed it?
CS: Yeah, yeah, I did, and I saw you downstairs after the first press screening. Were you just there to see what the vibe from the press was like?
Boyle: It’s been amazing actually. Isn’t it?
Simon Beaufoy: Yeah, it was my first time in front of an audience the other night. It was just tremendous. (The premiere) was the first time I’d seen it with a proper audience.
Boyle: It’s weird. We were talking about this. There’s a line, which in a million years we wouldn’t have said was funny, and every single audience has roared laughing at it. It’s the most bizarre thing.
CS: Which line was that?
Beaufoy: The inspector says at one point to Jamal, “This is all bizarrely plausible.”
Boyle: Right, and everyone wakes up from this little dream that they’re in, going “Oh, come ON!”
CS: How did the two of you first find this material? Did you know each other beforehand?
Beaufoy: No, we never met before. Film Four in Britain optioned the rights to this strange book by VIkas Swarup called “Q & A” which had this fantastic premise of a slum kid who goes on to win the “Millionaire” show, but the book is actually a series of 12 short stories really, some of which are linked, some of which aren’t. One is about the Indeo-Pakistan war and it has nothing to do with the characters at all and there’s no Latika in the book, there’s no big love story, no big search in the book, so I kind of had to invent all that, go back to Mumbai and wander around and find out what’s going on in the city.
CS: They came to you to pull these stories together into a script and Danny wasn’t involved yet, so did you find the book on your own?
Boyle: Nope. No, in fact when they sent the script, I can’t even remember, I had no idea it was even based on a book I don’t think. I think my agent foolishly said, “It’s about ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire'” and that made me think I don’t really want to… I couldn’t be bothered with that, because you think… It’s very difficult to say this now when you spent so much time on it together, but the only reason I read it was because of (Simon’s) name, because I knew his name, I knew his work, and I thought out of respect, I should read it really. Then I could ring him up or write him a note saying it wasn’t really my cup of tea. You do feel that obligation sometimes when you get a script of someone who is a decent writer, you think you should read it. After page 20, or something like that, I knew I was going to make it and that’s the best way to make a decision. You have no common sense, go to sleep… amnesia sets in about the problems of filmmaking, you never think about any of that, you just think, “Okay, yeah, I’ll do this, it’s fantastic!” (chuckles) and I was in. Then I read the book, and I didn’t particularly like the book. I think if I had read the book first, I would have thought there was no way that could be a film. So it’s a tribute to Simon. That was the experience and that is what I wanted. When you came out of the cinema, I wanted you to feel what I felt when I read that script the first time, which was this exhilaration of seeing this insight into this brutal, amazing, joyful story of this underdog who comes out of nowhere and actually just with guts and luck and vision and a plan, he suddenly makes it.
CS: It’s even more than that, because you see this whole evolution of Bombay into Mumbai, all of this stuff. Was a lot of that structure in Simon’s screenplay or was that something you worked out or changed as you were editing?
Beaufoy: Most of it was there in the screenplay, but the editing was really complex, wasn’t it? It was almost like squeezing three separate films into one. You’ve got a film about a man in a police station explaining his life story, then you have this whole game show, and it was a lot of shifting around of emphasis and shortening of some questions. One question has been missed out altogether, and some questions go really fast and there’s more time to linger on the backstory.
Boyle: It was structurally very tricky. You have to be careful not to let the show over-dominate, because it is a drug, that show, which is why it’s so successful and it takes over everything. You know what it’s like? You start watching it, you can’t stop watching it, and it’s weirdly effective in the film of course. It starts to creep in and take over the whole film, so to discipline that was quite… to kind of cut it back, so you didn’t feel like you were watching a film about “You Ought to be a Millionaire” (sic)
Beaufoy: It’s tricky, because I never think money is a very good motivator in a film; it’s not a very big emotional motivator for me, so going to see a film about a slum kid who drives off in a Bentley at the end, am I really emotionally with that guy, I say, “Not really.” That was always my fear about the whole project. This show is all about getting rich, and actually, I didn’t want to make a film about someone getting rich. I don’t leave the cinema filled with joy at somebody walking out with 20 million rupees.
CS: The fact that this film is so immersed in Indian culture, was working outside your comfort zone something that appealed to both of you as far as doing this? Did you end up having to immerse yourself into that culture to understand it?
Beaufoy: For me, as a writer who comes from quite a naturalistic tradition, British screenwriting is quite delicate, quite small, and rarified in a way. Going to India, it’s completely inappropriate to write naturalistic, small films. You look like an idiot, the stories come at you like a train, and you have to write big and be operatic and embrace the fact that you’ve got comedy and tragedy sitting right next to each other. In Britain, it would be inappropriate, and in India, it’s totally appropriate, isn’t it?
Boyle: Completely natural at both extremes, absolutely amazing. It was so vivacious to work there, because storytelling is why people say it’s Dickensian, because he’s a vivacious storyteller, isn’t he? And it’s like that in all respects, even in the music. The music in the movies is like right up front, not hidden, working away on you psychologically, working away on you, no it’s HERE! I always wanted to mix music like that. In a mix, I’m always trying to push a mix forward, because I love that sense of music being part of life and there it’s completely a natural thing.
CS: Did you try to spend some time in India beforehand to get a feel for the culture and to figure out how you were going to shoot there considering you’d never shot there before?
Boyle: We had a couple of logistic trips, working out how to do it, and you’re picking up stuff the whole time, and then the biggest thing me was we did this camera test, and like the cinematographer wanted to shoot on 35, ’cause any cinematographer, given the prospect of shooting in India, wants to shoot on 35, it’s like a classical, here’s your chance to prove yourself as a great cinematographer. We did the tests, and I hated them, absolutely hated them, because they were classical. There, look at all those colors, look, look at all that poverty, Ohhhh… I hated it. We came up with this digital system instead. I thought the only way we were going to convince people that it’s a truthful movie–because we’re a bunch of white guys that don’t belong there, or visitors in fact, however long you stay–was to just throw ourselves in it, film it from inside the main character and that was what we tried to do. You don’t get a chance to go “Woah! Look!” It wasn’t like a pictorial coffee table experience of India, I didn’t want it to be that. You trust the people that you work with, you pick good people. We had this amazing woman who was the casting director originally and then she worked with us every day on the film, so we made her co-director, and we had this other guy, who was equally important to me, the first assistant director, Raj Acharya, and he was key for me, and another guy, he was the sound guy ironically. The sync sound in India is forget it. This guy is a loony and he tries to get it, and he was called Resul Pookutty and those three people were like my touchstones. All the things you do to make a film at home that you don’t need to ask people about, it’s automatic, you have to check with someone there. What sort of car would he drive? What sort of cigarettes would he smoke? Behavior, reference, just the tiniest things you can get wrong.
CS: When you were writing this, did you think that any director could actually make it? The fact that you have three Indian characters of different ages, finding the cast and the locations…
Beaufoy: (To Boyle) I remember when you said it, you said “This is kind of impossible to do properly,” that was one of the first things you said, because it was a ridiculous casting challenge. Everything about it seemed impossible to do, and that was what was kind of wonderful about it. It was just one of those films where you just had to run at it and go, “Let’s make every decision as bold as possible.” I never thought, “Let’s be cautious and maybe just make it two age groups or anything.” I just went for the biggest canvas possible. It’s not from any conscious decision, it’s just going to that place.
Boyle: Yeah, I actually like that.
Beaufoy: It makes you make very bold decisions. Really, it’s so liberating for me as a writer. I’m used to being very careful, very scared of anything approaching melodrama, and I went there, and it’s a ridiculously romantic story, knowing there’s no sense to it, none of all that stuff that I think has crept into my work and a lot of writers I know.
CS: But also when you’re writing a screenplay, you have to think that someone has to be able to make the movie for a reasonable budget, and someone has to get the money to make the movie.
Beaufoy: These are all very sensible questions, and I didn’t use any sense at all. I didn’t think about any of this.
Boyle: That’s the common sense amnesia thing. It just goes out the window, you think, “Go on, go for it!”
Beaufoy: It really does.
Boyle: Obviously, you have to answer it at some point or as late as possible, you know? There’s really a great expression: “Knock hard, life is death” (chuckles) You’ve got to do that in Mumbai. Life is death because it’s just so f*cking noisy, you can’t make any kind of impact at all, people are hitting it quite hard, you know?
CS: Now you’re going into this environment where you need very specific structures and locations, so did you actually build any sets out there or did you use some of the CG stuff you’ve used in the past?
Boyle: We tried to do as much as possible on the streets. We built a couple of little things but not very much. Normally, Bollywood films everything in the studio and that’s partly because every Bollywood film has a big star in it, and the stars would attract really, truly unmanageable crowds, whereas ours, they’d turn up, the crowds, but they’d realize to their disappointment that Salman Khan or Sharuhk Khan wasn’t going to turn up or Amitabh Bachchan wasn’t going to be there. Always these white guys… “Oh, okay” and then they’d drift away. No stars. No, we tried to shoot as much as possible on the streets, and that was an esthetic decision, again so that the realism we were after, and we’d make as few mistakes as possible.
CS: I was thinking for instance like the slums and the evolution of the city, and I wondered whether you knew you’d have to do some of that stuff with CG later or did you find places?
Boyle: We didn’t use CG very much. We used CG for safety for the kids chasing the train. We had to put them on wires, because it’s pretty scary having 7-year-olds running beside the train. You can’t believe. When we got there and started doing that, it was like “Oh my God, what have we done?” Just to have them running beside a live train, it was scary.
Beaufoy: But it’s a brilliant sequence; you feel scared.
Boyle: Anyway we didn’t use CG for that much. It’s quite a small CG budget really.
CS: Simon, did you actually go there while they were shooting?
Beaufoy: For the beginning of it, I was there, but not for the whole of the shoot.
CS: So did you just see the movie for the first time recently?
Beaufoy: No, Danny’s been incredibly collaborative on this. I saw just about every cut and that’s brilliant.
Boyle: I like to do a cut and then you show it to your collaborators really, which is your writer and your producer, and then you’re kind of bouncing off each other. It’s very different watching a film when there’s somebody else in the room, rather than just and the editor watching it.
Beaufoy: As a writer, I’ve never been invited to the sound mix before; that’s how collaborative Danny is.
Boyle: It’s so he gets blamed as well, that’s it.
CS: Did you end up having to rewrite some parts after Danny came back from India and needed to shoot some things to make the editing work?
Beaufoy: There was a little bit of reshooting, wasn’t there?
Boyle: Yeah, we did some pick-ups.
Beaufoy: A terrible mistake by me, I wrote a very emotional scene in the kitchen for Latika, and in my script, she had big dark glasses on, because she had a black eye, and I thought, “How clever is that? She’ll take the glasses off and you’ll see the black eye.” Really stupid. She might as well have been wearing a motorcycle helmet.
Boyle: The big emotional scene, so that had to be reshot.
CS: How about casting the three kids, and the three different ages? I know Dev has been doing stuff in England, but what about the younger versions of all the characters? What was the process? Did you just work with the casting director?
Boyle: The biggest problem was obviously, that you had to delay, because there were nine, you couldn’t commit to someone until you got an idea that you’d have two other people who could lead to them, or that could plausibly be them as well. So we auditioned a lot of people and we kept a lot of people waiting. We couldn’t find his character in Mumbai, that was the only thing. Everybody else was from Mumbai, but the young guys there, they were good actors who could lead a film are all muscle-builders. If you want to be a young lead in Bollywood, you’ve got to look like a big hero. They were built like this, and it just felt so wrong, and then my daughter said, “You should look at this guy who’s on this TV show in Britain,” which she watched. It’s quite a racy show called “Skins” and he plays, not a huge character, a comic character, and I thought he looked right, so we met him, and he was fantastic. That’s an amazing coincidence really, the way these things happen, so that’s how we found him.
CS: It’s an amazing film but I’m curious how Americans might react to it. For whatever reason, American moviegoers aren’t generally attracted to films about foreign places, which is an unfortunate and awful thing, but it definitely seems to be the case. You’ve seen this huge reaction with people seeing the movie at festivals and critics loving it, but do you think others will give the story a chance because of its setting? How do you get this film to those people?
Boyle: It’s through you. I sit in hotels for the next three or four months talking to people who can help me get it out there really, because you’re the gatekeepers really of the public. I mean you are, aren’t you? Especially with a film like this, that’s not got a big recognizable star in it, is that they have to have somebody they can trust who can tell them, “Give it a chance.” I think once you’re in, hopefully it’s a universal story that you get carried along with, so hopefully you guys and festivals like this can suddenly put it up on its feet and say, “You’re alright, it works.”
CS: That’s a scary position to be in, especially considering how much I loved “Millions” and tried to get people to see that, but you never know how it’ll turn out.
Boyle: I know.
Beaufoy: It’s essentially a love story; it’s essentially at heart a very straightforward pure simple love story, obviously with huge complications around the outside, but everybody responds to that. (To Boyle) One of the first things you said was “It’s gotta be Romeo and Juliet, otherwise why bother?” (Set the bar a bit low…) But I thought that was really useful to me, because I kept thinking “Yeah, if it’s not a really powerful love story, it’s too confusing, it’s structurally complicated, in a foreign land not many people heard of.” The only thing people can kind of key into immediately is that sense of searching for someone because you love them so much.
Boyle: You can tell it has to be extreme. Ironically what looks like a barrier to a North American audience is Mumbai, it actually gives you an extremity which actually works in movies I think. To get people’s attention, there has to be an extremity of an experience that you’re offering. You can see why everything is going into superhero movies or fantasy movies, because they offer an unrealistic extreme, and this is kind of a realistic extreme in a way really. That’s the big advantage that Mumbai gives us as well as a barrier obviously in circumstance.
CS: If they really wanted, they could always push the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” connection, as that might get some people interested. Was the guy who hosted it, a real host from the show in India?
Boyle: No, the show when it opened in India was hosted by this guy Amitabh Bachchan, so there, they’re really interesting. They don’t use TV presenters. They use the biggest star in the whole of their star system to open the show, and he was an enormous hit doing it. Enormous and people were fascinated, and he was replaced a couple of years ago by the next Bollywood movie star, which is this guy Shahruk Khan, who is presenting it now, and he’s the biggest star in Bollywood at the moment. The guy we’ve got, Anil Kapoor, in the ’90s, he was the heir apparent to Amitabh Bachchan, so he’s a huge star, but it allows us freedom, because he’s not the real presenter, but in Indian terms, it’s completely realistic that somebody like him would present the show. They’re not like here or in the UK. It would be like Tom Cruise presenting in America.
Beaufoy: Yeah, they have 90 million people tuning in every week.
CS: Have you had a chance to play the movie for anyone in India yet?
Boyle: Not there, but we played it to a Hindu speaking audience in London, because there’s a Hindi film every week in the Top 10 in the UK, they have a very loyal audience. We were very worried about it because there’s a lot of swearing and they hate it, and the Hindi swear words are very, very colorful. I mean, I was shocked when some of them were translated, really shocked, especially the word “Balsalika,” never get that translated in front of anybody you like. Anyway, but the Hindi audience loved it, they were mad for it, they all laughed and found it funny, so we were very fortunate so far.
CS: Who ended up translating it into Hindi for the actors?
Boyle: Loveleen translated it, she was the co-director. The thing in this process is that what you read on the screen is (Simon’s) script; what they say is her version of his lines, because you can’t translate Simon’s lines to a 7-year-old in Hindi. She slang-ified it into Hindi for them. An example of it is I have a very simple line where he says, “I’m hungry.” Now in Hindi, a slum kid would say “I’ve got rats running round my tummy.” That’s the way they say “I’m hungry” so we had this really interesting process where what they say isn’t exactly what you read but it means it.
CS: That might be part of why the movie is so realistic to the culture but still translates well to Western audiences.
Boyle: Yeah, that was always the trick really is not make it a subtitled movie even though you’ve got to use them at some point, but it doesn’t feel like a subtitled movie. It feels like an immediate experience. You’re not reading it, you’re kind of feeling it and hearing it, rather than reading it.
CS: Do you have any idea what you might do next? I remember when we spoke for “Sunshine,” your response was “Oh, I’m going to India to make a movie.” I don’t think we had any idea you’d come back with this.
Boyle: I don’t know. I’m kind of involved in–I have no idea if it’s going to happen–an animated film at the moment, which Frank Cottrell Boyce (who wrote “Millions”) adapted this Terry Pratchett book called “Truckers,” which we’re meant to be doing at DreamWorks, but whether it’s going to happen or not is so complicated.
CS: I’ve talked to a lot of directors who do animated movies and when it comes to doing CG, you’re really relying more on the animators than anyone else.
Boyle: It’s a weird different discipline, it’s very strange. You’re more of a kind of ringmaster, organizing this huge army of illustrators who can change the movie. It’s really weird. They often do scripts and they have no gags in them at all and yet you see the finished film and it’s full of kind of funny gags, and they say that it’s not in the script, that all comes through the process of the animators. It’s like learning the skill of letting certain ones of them off their leash to do the gags.
We’ll see if that happens, but in the meantime, Slumdog Millionaire opens in select cities on Wednesday, November 12, and expands wider over the rest of the year. Look for our interview with the film’s star Dev Patel sometime soon.