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Slumdog Millionaire - Danny Boyle interview

Danny Boyle directs Slumdog Millionaire

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DANNY Boyle talks about filming in India for Slumdog Millionaire, exceeding expectation in terms of the awards buzz surrounding the movie, and what he thought of the recent terror attacks having worked in Mumbai and made a lot of new friends there…

Q. What were your pre-conceptions about India before you went? And what did you learn from the experience?
Danny Boyle: I was shocked that nobody remembered me when I got there! You do go there with colonial baggage and assume that everyone is going to remember you [laughs]. But it’s so busy that city, there’s so much business being done, and it’s not being done with Britain anymore! It’s also moving forward very, very quickly. Simon [Beaufoy, screenwriter] always calls it the city in fast forward, and it is. That’s your first impression of it. You realise it’s not what you think of it, and that you’re just going to have to drop everything you thought before and try and set your film inside this extraordinary, maximum city. So, we took as few crew as possible and tired to abandon the things you normally go with – which is control, rationality, continuity and all those kind of things. You embrace something that’s more fluid and requires a slightly broader mind to get the benefit from it, really. It makes me sound like a bit of a hippie sometimes. And I wasn’t a hippie – I was always a punk! But the hippies were right, of course. You do need to change to go there.

Q. What about some of the more unsavoury aspects of the characters – was that something you actively embraced?
Danny Boyle: Well, it’s written, and we’re British – realism is our background. It’s what our films are known for, a kind of gritty realism. Simon has written one of the most euphoric films ever seen in the public. But it’s beginning is very, very gritty. I think that kind of realism is something that a director from Bollywood wouldn’t focus on as much. But for us, it’s fundamental to start there, so you don’t short sell some of the realities of poverty, of cruelty, or violence. You actually use them as the bedrock to build everything else on. We wanted to try and show the city truthfully, and as many ingredients of the city as we could get into the film.

Q. What about the issue of the police treatment of Jamal?
Danny Boyle: Well, that’s weird… Simon wrote that and I directed it as a comedy scene! But it’s greeted with a kind of deathly silence, as kind of a symbol for the way westerners do things. You have to ask permission for those kind of scenes in police stations. And I did ask permission. I saw the letter they sent back, which did say that the torture scene was fine provided nobody above the rank of inspector was involved! That was from the government. But you then realise that if you’re arrested and you’re from a certain strata of society, you have a good chance of getting knocked about a bit. It’s acceptable, in a way, like bribery is acceptable for traffic offences. It’s a cash society in many ways. So, we thought it was a comedy scene, and a good way to set the film up! But it doesn’t quite play like that now.

Q. How did you shoot the chase sequence through the slums?
Danny Boyle: We spent a lot of time in two slums, one of which was a Tamil slum that was very hospitable. You have to enter it in the right way; you have to let the community leaders take you in. But you find a vibrant city within a city. You get all the advantages of a city. It’s bustling, it’s vibrant and there’s stuff to look at everywhere. You’re never bored because there’s always something to look at on every corner, all the time. But you get the benefits of a village – everyone got to know us and tolerate us. You’re an interruption to people’s lives as a film crew anyway, but they basically put up with us running around, chasing children and jumping off of rooftops.

We slowly built the sequence up. We did some pre-shooting to warm up the crew and get everyone working together; it was a great baptism for the Bollywood crew because they don’t usually film in slums. They were shocked they were going to go into one. The dumping grounds, where everyone craps beside the slums, are not very nice places to work, so they were obviously also shocked about that. But I think the people who lived there thought: “OK, they’re out there; they’re obviously not going to miss anything…” They said to us: “Just don’t make us look poor.” And yet it is going to look that way, because of the way people view these things, so they changed that view to: “Well, just don’t make it look pitiful then.” So, you want to try and capture the bustle of the place.

Q. What was it about Dev Patel and Freida Pinto that sold them to you about the film?
Danny Boyle: They were really cheap [laughs]! It’s funny, but originally we felt the parts were for characters in their mid-20s, and the middle manifestation of the kids was 16, while the youngest one was like 10 or even 12. But then we met these guys and started to force the ages down. It was one of the best decisions we made, because when you get older yourself, you drag the age of consent up with you. You imagine your children will never be interested in anyone else until they’re at least in their mid-20s! But in cinema especially, it’s about youth really. They’re the only people that actually go to the cinema in any real numbers to make it viable to work.

But especially in Bombay, which is such a young population. It gave us a kind of innocence in the way we did the film as well, because the only person with any real experience on the film – in all categories – was Irrfan Khan. Everyone else, like Anil Kapoor, had never worked in English before. I’d certainly never worked there before, or even been there before! Simon Beaufoy had never written anything like this before. And Freida and Dev hadn’t done much work before. So, that was a wonderful way for us all to collaborate. And although Freida has said she couldn’t imagine me going to India to direct a film, you can’t imagine getting to Bombay and not thinking every director in the world isn’t there making a film because it’s such a landscape for a film.

Q. You’re asking an awful lot of your young cast. But do you expect even bigger things of Dev Patel, for instance, that you foresaw with Ewan McGregor on Trainspotting?
Danny Boyle: It’s fantastic to work with young talent. You’re not sure to begin with that they’ll grab hold of the film, because the danger – especially as you get more experienced as a director – is that you worry that you’ll intimidate people and that people won’t stand up to you. The best bit is when we’d have struggles about certain scenes and part of you wants to punch him, because you’re already a week behind, but part of you also relishes it because that’s somebody taking responsibility for the film and that’s a lead actor. I hope he can find stuff that can stretch him, because that’s always a challenge for every actor – not to just play in Police Academy 12.

Q. But do you see an even bigger talent that Ewan?
Danny Boyle: You can’t really compare them. You try and find the actor that’s perfect for the particular part. We did see a lot of guys out there [in India] who were terrific. The standard of acting is awesome and also very natural. We’ve used a lot of people from the streets, for instance. But we couldn’t find Jamal because they just looked too muscle-y and all wrong. They’d look like heroes in waiting. They’d sit in that chair and you knew they’d rise up eventually. We wanted a loser and someone who was invisible as an actor – someone you didn’t know. So, I guess the challenge for all of these guys is that people will know them now and they’ll have to keep surprising people.

Q. There’s been a tremendous buzz surrounding the film now. But what realistic expectations did you have going in? Have they already been exceeded?
Danny Boyle: It’s weird because I thought it would work in Britain. I thought there was enough ingredients because Simon had written The Full Monty, and Dev was in Skins. I had a bit of a reputation and there’s also a visible Indian population in Britain. I thought there’d be enough connective tissue to give it a reasonable chance. But I never thought it would work in America. What you forget, of course, is that basically it’s the Rocky story – that a kid from nowhere can dream and get there. It’s also usually a girl involved somewhere… and they want that story retold. It’s really fundamental to the country to dream like that – they’ve done it with the President. They’ve got to dream big to keep the buoyancy of the country up. But I hadn’t realised that while making Slumdog, until we started to screen it there.

Q. So much has happened in Bombay and Mumbai since you filmed there – 200 people have lost their lives. What was your reaction when you heard about the terrorist attacks? And are you planning any special shows in Bombay?
Danny Boyle: There was a screening [of Slumdog] in Cardiff when it happened, but I’d gone to watch Waltz With Bashir. I’d turned my phone off and when I turned it back on all this news started coming through. So, we got in touch with as many people as we could who had worked with us, because a lot of them are friends now. Everyone was OK but they were obviously very sad and angry and fearful. I was particularly shocked with the VT [Victoria Terminus Station] because the reports you got here were about westerners being targeted in the hotels. But then you’d see the pictures of VT and there’s not really any westerners there. All of India is there – all religions and all classes of people are moving through that station, and if you open up with a machine gun there, you’re just going to kill everyone. It’s not discriminating for or against anyone; it’s just violent terror against everyone.

I didn’t really know what to say about it. But then I watched Slumdog with an Indian audience in Kilburn for The Culture Show and it was amazing to see this scene at the end about love in that station. It was really moving. But that’s the only thing you can do in the end. They can crack down, as they will, and there maybe more violence, but in the end you have to celebrate something that can overcome it – and love with overcome it, hopefully. So, I’m really glad we shot that scene there.

Read our review of Slumdog Millionaire