I'm telling Danny Boyle over coffee that his new film, Slumdog Millionaire, is his best by far. "I hope it comes across that I had a real blast making it," the British director murmurs politely. Either the coffee is over-caffeinated, or Boyle's Lancashire friendliness disarms me, or I've had it with polite Hollywood interviews. At any rate, I chatter on brightly about how Slumdog makes up for everything I found missing in his movie debut, Shallow Grave (clever but callow) and Trainspotting (beautifully made but on the heartless side). Boyle looks at me in wonderment. "You're the first person I've ever heard in this town say something like that," he says, grinning. "It's like culture shock."
With his houndstooth jacket, broad Manchester accent and filthy gurgle of a laugh, Boyle seems less ill at ease than slightly anachronistic in the swank but eerily empty dining room of the Four Seasons, where his screenwriter and fellow Northerner Simon Beaufoy, a hot ticket ever since breaking the bank with The Full Monty, sits calmly, holding court at a table nearby. For all his fame as a pioneer of Cool Britannia, Boyle, who now lives in London, has had his career ups and downs. After the success of Trainspotting, he moved to Los Angeles for a while, but his big-budget picture The Beach tanked with both critics and moviegoers, and the modest romance A Life Less Ordinary, made with British money, fared no better. Even after his rebound in 2003 with the brainy post-apocalyptic zombie picture 28 Days Later (which was made for $10 million, grossed nearly $83 million worldwide and may return in a sequel Boyle is mulling), life hasn't exactly been smooth sailing. Last year, the financing fell through on Boyle's first animated picture, an adaptation of a Terry Pratchett novel owned by Dreamworks, which he'd already worked on for a year. And Slumdog Millionaire almost lost its chances of a North American opening with the closure of Warner Independent Pictures, surviving only when Warner joined forces with Fox Searchlight for a joint release.
Boyle admits to having been wounded by his failures. "The lows can really crush you," he says, "because they're in such inverse proportion to the highs." But he's learning to take adversity in stride. "As my agent says," he recounts with a giggle, "if you sit by the river long enough, your enemies' bodies will float past you downstream."
Boyle also learned a thing or two about equanimity during his yearlong sojourn in the up-and-coming Mumbai, where Slumdog Millionaire is set. Indian actors typically make four movies at once, and the traffic is so heavy that Boyle and his crew had to learn to eat and work in cars, as Indians routinely do. The director fell in love, though, with Mumbai's teeming life and constant change, its inclusiveness and the lack of separation between the very poor and the newly rich. He wanted to make a movie from inside, and he's succeeded with this vibrant, fast-paced, gorgeously mounted and soulful Oliver Twist makeover about Jamal, an inner-city youth (played at different ages by two local boys and the endearingly jug-eared British television actor Dev Patel), who reaches the finals of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Beaufoy brought to the story, which is based on a sprawling novel by the Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, an ingenious structure of flashbacks, which account for why this uneducated boy knows the answers to all the questions in the quiz show. The immense amount of local detail crammed into Jamal's brutal journey through the slums comes from Surekha Mehta's nonfiction Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, which Boyle read while prepping for the movie. But the kinetic visual style, the score — by turns pounding and poetic — the spiritual and philosophical musings that also run through the sci-fi thriller Sunshine and his lovely family film Millions, are all vintage Boyle.
Part-thriller, part-raucous comedy, part-giddy romance, part-Italian neorealist drama, Slumdog Millionaire's ravishing yellow look and big-hearted idealism — capped by a sublimely silly and sentimental Bollywood ending — aroused more critical excitement than any other film at this year's Toronto Film Festival. Boyle cops to being a stylist, "not in a Ridley Scott kind of way but in a punk aesthetic kind of way. There's always something in my films that would make you go, 'What?'" he says wickedly. But Boyle acts a bit bemused when I remark that he seems to have packed every genre known to cinema into Slumdog. "I can see all the things you're saying," he says. "But I don't think in advance in such a precise way. And my touchstone is realism. Sometimes I go a bit surreal but always from a realistic base."
Like most British filmmakers, Boyle never went to film school. "Orson Welles said anybody can learn what they need to know about a camera in one afternoon," he says. "But after that, what are you going to do with it?"
When I ask which films or directors influenced him, he has one word: music. "Manchester has produced the most fantastic music," he says proudly. Boyle is a big fan of Michael Winterbottom's 24 Hour Party People, which chronicles the rise and fall of Factory Records and was written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who collaborated with Boyle on Millions. "There aren't many films I'm absolutely dead jealous of, but I am jealous of that one."
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The son of Irish Catholics, a laborer and a dinner lady (the beloved army of women who serve free lunches to British schoolchildren), Boyle, who has a twin sister who's a special-needs coordinator and another sister who's a translator, grew up near Manchester and came of age there during punk's heyday. His deeply religious mother earmarked him for the priesthood, but a savvy priest advised Boyle to go to university instead. He got into the film business via theater ("which is weirdly more democratic for working-class artists"), then moved into television, where he produced Alan Clarke's Elephant before turning to directing. "Art was my rebellion against Catholicism," he says. "It gives you the confidence to rebel."
Now 52, with two grown daughters, Boyle still has the excitable enthusiasm of a big kid. Among other things, it makes him a great director of children, who in Slumdog Millionaire never act as if they're just taking instruction. "It's the kids who release me," he says. "I don't like my films to be taken too seriously or pompously. And it gave me a great excuse to behave immaturely. All the crew thought, 'Oh, he's just relaxing the kids — that's why he's playing football with them at lunchtime rather than working on storyboards.'"
In a scene that requires a junior Jamal to jump into a communal latrine, Boyle covered the boy in peanut butter and chocolate. "It's delicious; the smell was absolutely fragrant. It was very ironic and great fun."
Boyle has since placed two of his slum-dwelling actors in schools to prevent them from becoming child laborers, and he plans to visit them in December. He loved his time in Mumbai, and not because it's the emergent city of the future, where Will Smith takes business meetings and Steven Spielberg just refinanced Dreamworks through Reliance, one of the biggest telephone companies in the world. On the contrary, the twin themes of Slumdog Millionaire, with all its po-mo brashness, are the ancient, universal ones of community and destiny. "It sounds silly to say, but over there, it's a bit like it was growing up in Manchester in the 1950s and '60s," Boyle says. "That sense of people liking each other and wanting to do things together." He adds, a touch wistfully, "As opposed to now, when we lie to each other and don't like each other. Here in the West, we separate poverty from wealth. In Mumbai, they don't get rid of the slums. A successful person does not separate his destiny from the person who's had his hand chopped off to make him a better beggar."