An interview with Steve Jobs director Danny Boyle
After winning an Oscar for his Bollywood triumph Slumdog Millionaire, director Danny Boyle had been significantly quieter in recent years, but that doesn’t mean he’s been resting on his laurels – much of his time “off” was spent developing the insanely spectacular opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics in London and directing theater. In fact, he’s back with Steve Jobs, possibly his most timely and resonant film yet.
Steve Jobs stars Michael Fassbender as the iconic Apple co-founder who helped bring personal computing to the masses, redefined how we listen to music and even how the world defines a “telephone.” Even years after his death, Jobs is still held up high on a platform by most technophiles for his innovative ingenuity at figuring out what people needed and wanted and giving it to them in the coolest and sleakest package. The Cult of Jobs is a real thing.
That’s not to say that it was all a bed of roses for Jobs, and Steve Jobs covers some of the tougher years from the initial introduction of the Macintosh (which didn’t quite work out as well as some might remember), Jobs’ departure from Apple and attempt to start his new company Next with a new computer (that literally no one will remember) and ending in 1998 after he returned to Apple and managed to save the company with the introduction of the iMac (which eventually led to even greater “hits”—the iPod, the iPad and of course, the iPhone).
Fassbender’s performance as Jobs is impeccable, but he’s also working from another fantastic screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, which might possibly be even better than the Oscar-winning one he wrote for The Social Network. Surrounding Fassbender is a fantastic cast that includes Kate Winslet as his right-hand confidante Joanna Hoffman, Seth Rogen as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Jeff Daniels as Apple CEO John Sculley and Katherine Waterston as Jobs’ “Baby Mama” Chrisann Brennan. In fact, it’s Fassbender’s moments with his illegitimate daughter Lisa (played by Makenzie Moss and Perla Haney-Jardine) which may have more of a lasting impact on viewers than all of the tech jargon.
ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Boyle a few weeks back for the interview below. (Note: For whatever reason, reception on our phone call was horrible, but we did the best we could with what he had to work with and may have had to paraphrase slightly in some cases.)
ComingSoon.net: There have been other films about Steve Jobs, which I’m sure you realized when you went into this, including some docs. Did you just know this was something from reading Aaron’s screenplay and realize it could stand on its own? What were your impressions?
Danny Boyle: I hadn’t seen the other drama movie. I watched it obviously once we got started on this, but I pretty much figured that it wouldn’t be as… This is such an original way to tackle a guy because obviously you’ve got this huge problem that there’s so much to pull from. There’s gossip and stories and facts where you can finally fully establish him, but you need an original way to approach that and we obviously had that. I’m not personally that inclined towards the regular biopic where you see the light and touch on this and that, but I love the fact that you could put him under the microscope where there’s nowhere to hide, because he’s just got three moments basically. We talked about the same thing on 127 Hours and it’s slightly easier on that one because that’s obviously only one moment in Aron Raltston’s life that anyone’s really hugely interested in–when he has to cut off his arm to get out of the canyon, so we just focused on that. You hope to actually illuminate a life really in some way, and the script did that on this one, I thought. And it’s kind of Shakesperean as well in the way that it takes… well, he did the research on it, but what he’d done is that he takes the true facts, which are evidently true apparently–as much as you can trust any fact–but he discarded others, because then it’s about developing the Steve Jobs character, which is not to say that the character is the same as the historical figure. There’s something about them that it really needs to be about how they fit amongst us or their place amongst us, I guess, really.
It’s usually a fatal flaw, something that brings them down. They’re usually high-achievers or I should say he is, and he has to reach a place where he’s finally able to acknowledge that he’s a better man himself, as he says, so I loved that whole movement of it. Yeah, I thought it was great.
It’s very intimidating, the prospect of it, because there’s so much dialogue, but also weirdly… when get your head around it, it’s kind of liberating as well, and restriction usually is in a weird way. I don’t know how to explain that but the more money you have I think the less good film you make and the less money you have the better. It’s funny about our contrary nature that you like the challenge of it, and it is a challenge with all that dialogue and there’s no instruction manual talking about how to do it. It’s like three scenes, six characters, and then your dialogue, and that’s it, and you go, “Okay.” (chuckles) And then you try to craft and build and try to illustrate it. It’s an interesting question of how much freedom am I going to have with this? I’m going to have talking for two hours and you are of course, but there are ways you can… it becomes a rhythm that you can eliminate as many words as you want really. It’s a weird, bizarre process, which now I’m at the end of it, I’m like, “Wow, what was that?” (chuckles)
CS: The movie seems very different visually from your other movies and that’s probably because it’s got more dialogue. Even though “127 Hours” was also mainly one person and he didn’t have anyone to talk to, you used music and editing to keep it interesting, whereas this is really more about the dialogue and performances.
Boyle: Yes, very very much so. But you kind of want to. The pathway you clear for them, for great writing and more importantly, great acting, is that you can illuminate as well in different ways. The biggest issue was to make each act, each part, very different, and even that we shot on different formats for each one, and that they in some way illuminated the story that each part is trying to tell. Starting 16mm that is kind of rough and ready and home made, and he thinks of himself as a pirate in those days. He literally used those words. It feels quite punkish, and then the second act is much more about delusion, because he’s got this subterranean intention that nobody could quite understand, and film 35 is very useful for that, the ultimate illusion, the 35mm, it’s transfixing, and the last act of course is the modern day where everything is visible and there’s no immediate resolution and whatever you want to do, and you’ve got everything you want. That’s the world around him. That’s what he demanded and he got it. There’s a hole in the middle of it, of course, as Joanna points out to him, which is his daughter.
CS: I have to say that the actresses who play his daughter Lisa were great and the scenes that Michael has with them are amazing.
Boyle: (Perla Haney-Jardin) was 17 when she turned up to do that, she’s 18 now, and I thought “Well Michael is a pretty amazing actor so how’s she going to hold her own?” ’cause she’s the one that has to go, “Now listen to me. Stop talking and listen to me.” (chuckles) And she did it, yeah. Wonderful girl, she’s a really lovely girl as well.
CS: Even the younger actress who played Lisa at 5 and 9 (Makenzie Moss) was fantastic and was able to hold her own against these other actors.
Boyle: Yeah, they were very good and we were very lucky. It’s always a bit of luck. I mean, it’s a great skill the casting director has in finding kids that match in some way or feel like they grow up to become each other, as well as being good at themselves, and then there’s also some luck involved in it, because by the time you cast someone and you actually come to work with them, they’re months older and that could change them completely, so there’s always a bit of luck involved in that, but we were very lucky to get two good ones.
CS: I also should talk about getting Michael, who is obviously a great actor and we’ve seen him do some really amazing roles but nothing like this. When James was in “127 Hours,” he was playing a character who wasn’t as well known. Steve Jobs, we’ve seen doing those demonstrations and we feel we know him very well and intimately. What brought you to Michael to play that part?
Boyle: It’s tough, isn’t it, because he was so well-known. You look on YouTube and how many times have people watched stuff about him? It’s just like “Holy sh*t” so you’ve also got this problem with what are you going to do? Are you going to impersonate him? Is it going to become all about mannerisms and prosthetics and stuff like that? We decided very early that you have to jettison that. You have to make it so that you arrive at him through the processes. His likeness and accents aren’t an uncompromising an approach to the truth. It’s not about the exact look and the exact angles and “never photograph him on that side,” or all that kind of stuff you do, because that’s the stuff when you’re doing impersonations, I’m afraid that becomes more important than anything. I’m not just saying that because I’m trying to big up the film, but I thought that while we were shooting it–because we shot each of the acts separately–we arrived at the final part and it was weird watching him, he looks just like him. It’s like “My God!” Maybe because we know that image more, but you know, there’s no big prosthetics going on and there’s no big like “I’m going to imitate his walk” or any of that kind of stuff. It’s just a kind of osmosis really when you arrive at something. He’s a fine, fine actor, there’s no doubt about it.
CS: It must have been a really conscious creative decision by Aaron not to include the more recent years with his cancer and the introduction of the iPhone for which he’s probably more well known in those last couple of years.
Boyle: I think that these were the most digestible times. Obviously, it’s shaped by the journey of this girl, his daughter, and what happened during those years, these three moments. Of course, the Macintosh doesn’t work and then the next one is being in exile and Aaron says that he uses it as a Trojan Horse to get back into Apple, and then of course, the iMac is the modern idea where his vision is properly vindicated and the internet gets into everybody’s homes and then by extension, into everybody’s pockets. So you have enough there and obviously, it becomes much more difficult when you get into the later years, because then you have to deal with his real family, his present family, then you get into his passing and all that sort of stuff. It’s very clever I think and very Shakesperean, the way you take some of the facts—don’t be dishonest, but you jettison the rest. You’re not jettisoning the rest for dishonorable reasons, you’re doing it to create some aspirational reasons really.
CS: Now that you’ve finished with the film, you should watch Alex Gibney’s documentary–I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet–but it makes a nice companion piece to your movie.
Boyle: No, I haven’t seen it, but I tell you, I think it’s very important, because there’s obviously been some criticism on both films for being opportunistic, I believe they were called, but I think you have to make films about these guys, because these guys, they’ve shaped our world and increasingly so, and by that, I mean obviously Aaron has done one before with Zuckerberg—which he was also criticized for I think. I think it’s really important that artists, writers, documentary makers hold these guys to account. These guys, you cannot shape our world this emphatically without expecting the world then to look at you and say, “Why are you doing this? What have you done this for?” because you know, governments, the law, they’re increasingly beyond the catch of government. They’re intercontinental and they seem to be above the law sometimes because their power allows it, and we need to make stuff about them. I haven’t seen it, but I would argue that the necessity to make these kinds of films about these guys is essential to our own health, really, I think. I’m not saying he’s a bad guy or a good guy–that’s too easy–that doesn’t tell you anything. It’s just that these are the people that shape our world, like Eisenhower shaped the world. You need to see stuff about them.
CS: You bring up “The Social Network” and I was also thinking of Oliver Stone’s “W,” so do you think you could have made your movie if Steve Jobs was still alive? In both those cases, their subjects were still alive and could theoretically comment on it.
Boyle: Yeah, it’s weird isn’t it, who knows? You can’t even answer that really, I don’t know, but I remember enjoying “W” very much, but yeah, I don’t know what you’d do about… I think you start with a writer and a director and they’re often one and the same thing, and they have a story to tell, and there’s usually a reason for that story. It’s not just an opportunity. It’s kind of an itch that you want to get at something here, and I think in Aaron’s case also–and he doesn’t really talk about this–but this film is also about fathers and daughters. I have two daughters of my own so that was very acute for me, and of course Aaron has a daughter as well, and I think you’re right. When you’re making a film about a subject in an odd way, even though it’s ridiculous, you’re making it about a very well known figure. You’re also imbibing it with stuff that you believe about yourself, and stuff you’ve got to do yourself and your own flaws. You’re excavating it by working on it as well.
Steve Jobs is now playing in New York and L.A. and it will continue to expand over the next few weeks until it is nationwide on October 23. You can also read what Boyle said about his “Trainspotting” sequel here.
(Photo Credit: Dennis Van Tine/Future Image/WENN.com)