Sunshine - Danny Boyle interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
DANNY Boyle, the director of sci-fi thriller Sunshine, talks about his passion for the genre and some of the challenges he faced in getting the film made.
He also discusses the casting process, the philosophical side of the movie and why he didn’t feel confident enough to direct the fourth Alien film at the time he was offered the opportunity…
Q. What made you tackle the sci-fi genre with Sunshine?
Danny Boyle: It was Alex’s script really, which was this fantastic idea about eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. It’s weird sci-fi. This kind of sci-fi boils down to a ship, a crew and a signal and they all boil down to that pattern. It’s a very narrow corridor that you work in that does great sci-fi, films like Solaris and the first Alien. So it had that and then it had this amazing thing about the sun. We started thinking and there’s never been a film about the sun. There’s a bit in Lost In Space where they comically go through the sun and come about the other side and that’s about it as far as films about the sun go.
When you start researching it you can feel your brain swell as you take on board the enormity of this thing. But that was great because we could feed it back to the actors as part of their psychological journey.
Q. How did you find the scale of the movie? It looks impressive yet it didn’t cost as much as some films in the genre?
Danny Boyle: The thing it [a smaller budget] it gives you is control. You kind of get to cast who you want and make it in a way that you want. We didn’t want to make it at Pinewood, we wanted to make it where we made 28 Days Later. It was a bit small but you deal with that. It has benefits. There are no work patterns established there like at Pinewood and Shepperton.
You dictate the work patterns. Sometimes they want to be conventional and sometimes they don’t. But it makes your money go further. We also tried to make it as real as possible for the actors. We had this guy, Tom Wood, do the CG. He’s basically an artist. You convey to him what you want and see it as much as you see it with the actors and then you wait a year for it to be delivered and pray to God it’s right. Fortunately, it was. We also got a lot of help from a company called MPC [Moving Picture Company] who enjoyed the time out to do something artistic.
What did you learn about sci-fi films?
Danny Boyle: That I never want to do another one, that was the single biggest thing! You realise afterwards that directors don’t go back into space unless they are contractually obliged to do so. They never go back because it just kills you. It’s weird but I think it’s partly because the standard set by previous films, the masterpieces, are so high that you have to meet that standard, you have to get there somehow and it’s fucking exhausting getting there because you’re pushing everyone to get there. If you don’t get there there is a hole and the air goes out, it punctures it, literally, and it kind of begins to collapse on you. We found that at all stages.
We’d do drafts of the scripts and Alex put in a romance and it didn’t work and you look at the history of these films and there’s only one film that tries a romance, 2010, and it didn’t really work either. There’s all these paths you have to follow, the giant footsteps, it’s absolutely amazing. There’s a saying by Renoir who said: “You should always leave a door open on your set for life to walk in.” And of course in space you can’t, it doesn’t walk in, there’s nothing. When you set out on your journey, everything has to be there, all your ingredients have to be there, and you’re not going to get anything for free. It’s a really fascinating but exhausting discipline.
Q. You were once lined with one of the Alien movies. So has this genre always been on the radar for you? And is Sunshine perhaps the Alien movie you would have made?
Danny Boyle: I was very intimidated by the special effects, I didn’t think I could handle them whereas I felt a bit more confident with this one, I felt I knew a bit more.
I’m at the opening night of films like Contact, Starship Troopers, Alien Resurrection. I went to all those films on the Friday or Saturday night in Leicester Square and I don’t do that with other films, so I realised I was a bit of a fan really, particularly those real NASA-type films rather than the Star Wars fantasy sci-fi. So I guess I had a bug for it really.
Q. So is this your Alien movie?
Danny Boyle: I think Alex is a big fan of those Alien movies as well. The guy who wrote that fourth one, Joss Whedon, is an Alex-type of guy – very imaginative, a wonderful cinematic writer. But how the fourth Alien turned out is very different to the original script that we read.
Q. Was there any studio interference from America to make it more Hollywood?
Danny Boyle: They give you loads of notes for editing. You can ignore them and use them but they’re usually very good. When we showed it in America, there’s a wonderful bit where the garden starts to grow again, a beautiful little green sprig grows out of the charcoal ashes and they couldn’t believe that we didn’t follow that up.
That was hope! Suddenly in this picture about everybody dying, there was hope – but what happens a second later? This weird guy stabs her in the back and it’s all over with! They just can’t believe that you’d offer them hope and then take it away from them. That’s the cultural difference, they would do anything for hope, they’ll sacrifice any sort of plausibility for a bit of hope.
Q. Can you talk about the designs of the spacesuit?
Danny Boyle: It’s one of the weird things about space that if you watch the space station when they walk, it looks like they’ve been sped up when they reach for something. But when you see it in the movies it’s in slow motion and that’s how we’ve done it as well. When you’re in zero gravity everything moves at the same speed and nothing stops it. If you throw something it travels forever but it still travels at the speed you threw it at. To make it plausible, movies have chosen to show it in slow motion. We tried to do it for real but you look at it and think it’s not right. It is but the menu of all the other films that have been made tells you that things happen in space in slow motion. It’s really bizarre.
Coming to the spacesuit, there was this terrible accident with the stuntwoman. The way they made it the only way you get out of it was for someone to reach in and undo it. But she fainted inside this spacesuit and collapsed inside of it and they couldn’t pull her out because they would have had to have pull her out through the neck piece and she was a dead weight. All these bulky men had their hands inside trying to pull her out. She recovered – but she never went back in it.
Q. Was finding a plausible age range for the cast a concern?
Danny Boyle: Doing the Nasa research they wouldn’t send anyone on a long mission that was over 30, just because of illness. They wouldn’t take the risk. We all consider this idea of scientists that they look like Einstein but when we met Brian Cox here was this quite handsome young man who was a proper physicist, so I thought: “That’s ok, we can cast Cillian!”
We thought 50% of the crew would be Asian because of the economies. Supposedly, if the American taxpayer knew how much they paid per person to put Neil Armstrong on the moon they would never have paid it. It was hidden from them deliberately because the costs were astronomical. This is set in the future so we thought the Asian economies would pay for it. So we tried to create a mix between American, partly for the Hollywood audience, and Asian because it was more realistic.
Q. How difficult was finding a cast for such a long shoot? Did that mean that you couldn’t get certain A-listers?
Danny Boyle: The great thing about space films generally, with the exception of Apollo 13, is that big stars tend not to work in space and I think that’s because space is an equaliser. It makes everyone the same really and suits an ensemble cast and actors who are prepared to work with each other. Everyone we approached agreed to do it for the amount of time we asked.
Q. Was the philosophical side of the movie as important as the action elements?
Danny Boyle: It (the sun) is a big number when you get out there and start studying it. You can’t help but bow down in front of it because it’s so vast. You can feel your mind beginning to swell as you try and take it in. So, it’s inevitably going to throw up some issues.
It’s a simple premise of the film that they draw closer to the source of all life in the solar system, it’s almost a spiritual pitch really, so you inevitably go into. But for the most part it’s a beyond words experience. Nobody knows what would happen out there at those speeds, with that gravitational pull, so you’re free to deal with it any way you want.
Q. What would you do if the sun was going to die?
Danny Boyle: I’ve just been to the Taj Mahal which I’d never been to and I’m not a very romantic kind of guy but it is the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen. So I’d advise anyone to do something romantic.