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Interview: Danny Boyle

Looking for a cinematic thrill that has a little more ingenuity then a remake of a 1980s cartoon or the 5th installment in a teenage-wizard mega-franchise? Well, this weekend North American’s will get a chance to check out Danny Boyle’s (28 Days Later, Trainspotting) sci-fi excursion Sunshine.

Looking for a cinematic thrill that has a little more ingenuity then a remake of a 1980s cartoon or the 5th installment in a teenage-wizard mega-franchise?  Well, this weekend North American’s will get a chance to check out Danny Boyle’s (28 Days Later, Trainspotting) sci-fi excursion Sunshine

In the not-too-far future a crew of scientists are sent from Earth to fire a nuclear bomb into the heart of our dying sun.  There is no real explanation why the sun is dying but what is known is that another crew was sent to complete the exact same mission but mysteriously disappeared before they reached their launch point. 

Yes, the plot sounds a little like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Sphere, Event Horizon etc. but unlike the afore mentioned, this film progresses into a far more ontological direction without becoming didactic.  The film’s innovative camera pyrotechnics make up for what most directors would substitute with CGI bombast.  Danny Boyle has a (fairly) clean track record and this innovative entry should solidify him as one of the most visceral directors working today.  I met him at the Fox studios in New York.

Danny Boyle

Question: Do you get anything out of doing press junkets?
Danny Boyle: I do yes, maybe not so much now because Sunshine already opened abroad a few months ago.  But when you initially go to the first few press-days you learn a lot.  Like for instance, I didn’t really see it at first but I finally realized the structure of Sunshine by talking to journalists.  The film works as a series of deaths…really good deaths and there’s eight of them broken up within the 120 minute running time.  Basically every 10-15 minutes some character dies a really spectacular death and that death propels the story to the next level. 

Q: How was it preparing the cast?  I understand they were required to live together during the duration of the shoot?
DB: It was hard because the cast was literally from all over the world and from all different backgrounds, which you can’t really do on many films but since space really has no nationality we could assemble a diverse cast.  I had this idea of putting them all in student housing, which disturbed them a bit when they first arrived because some of them were used to a significantly different lifestyle.  But they all bunked in and lived together in this student dorm.  It bonded them together in a brilliantly.  I think one of the jobs as a director is when actors come to film they tend to be in their own world, in their own bubble if you like.  The job of the director is to pop that bubble.  Sometimes actors just stay in the bubble and we’ve all seen actors just coast through one film to the next, but living together helped pop that bubble and put them in the mindset for this film.  It’s ironic because during this production we didn’t have a single bit of trouble, the actors all got along which was surprising because the shoot was long. 

Q: There’s an underlying theme of the sun being addictive can you elaborate on that?
DB: It does, it really takes the whole crew over, in Chris Evan’s character it manifests itself especially and we talked about that while filming.  We talked to NASA as well and when one attempts that type of strenuous travel, the biggest problems wind up being psychological.  One of the big culprits is the absence of gravity.  I mean they can replicate both long-term food and oxygen supplies but they have yet to be able to reproduce gravity.  You know I had a friend who went around to try and talk to the original crew who walked on the moon and it didn’t get very far (not just because Armstrong won’t talk to people) but because they’re all really fucked up on some level and we tried to manifest that through this addictiveness of the sun.  Especially since the crew is headed towards the beginning of all life as our solar system knows it. 

Q: This movie shows an interesting juxtaposition between science and religion, what are your views on the conflict between the two?
DB: I was brought up a very strict Catholic and you know that although you can leave your religious upbringing it doesn’t necessarily leave you.  It’s still there.  It was one of the interesting things while filming but I don’t think it’s necessarily my personal inner conflict.  For example, I think the Pinbacker character in the film is supposed to represent fundamentalism, like The Taliban, for a crude example.  Apart from the Taliban and several other right-wing theologies we’ve pretty much all put our eggs in the “science” basket.  We are investing in cities, medicine, and technology that will extend our tenure on this planet.  Now we know by this point we’ve actually fucked it up and shortened our tenure unless we do something quickly.  So that was our idea at the end of the film, although Cillian’s character sees something beyond the rational, the commitment really is to the triumph of science.  I mean even if nothing else disastrous happens, the sun will die in a number of years and we will have to move and find another star to live by and we will.  Science will allow us to do that so that’s really the only conflict (in my mind) between science and religion. 

Q: Could you talk about some of the innovative techniques you used to shoot the film?
DB:  Alwin (Kuchler) is brilliant.  He’s a German, from Düsseldorf and he lives in London now.  There are a number of cinematographers who use the epitaph “Prince of Darkness” but he’s the youngest to hold that title.  When he photographs things there’s a face and then just black, velvet black, that’s why I wanted him to shoot the film.  It’s a film about light and darkness really.  The biggest thing we did was using anamorphic lenses, which I hadn’t really worked with before.  He was right because there’s something about the anamorphic format that’s wonderful for space and landscapes.  But it’s also a restrictive format that either favors extreme wide-shots or extreme close-ups.  You can’t really compose in between.  For a psychological film about space the juxtaposition of those two types of shots was fantastic.  We also tried to take all the orange, red and yellow out of the interior shots (inside the ship) and have the majority of the running time take place indoors.  Normally in films like this every five minutes there’s a cut to an exterior shot or a planet.  But here we tried to rob the audience of that color until the characters went outside and were flooded with it.   We tried to make it as tactile as possible.
Q: How do you work with the cinematographer to incorporate CGI seamlessly into the shots?
DB: I was just talking to a guy this morning about that actually.  I told him that the first film is always your best film because you don’t really know what you’re doing and you spend the rest of your career trying to recreate that sense of innocence, which is impossible because you become more adept at shooting and strategizing etc.  But one of the ways you can get back to that feeling is by taking on projects that you’ve never done before.  I’ve never worked with CG before and even now I’m not completely sure how it works.  But it was an amazing learning curve for me and we got this amazing guy who did CG for Ridley Scott (who does not tolerate fools in the CG field).  I was very honest about my lack of knowledge, but was adamant about what I wanted.  This gave us a good relationship because then he was delivering something rather than me trying to control something I knew nothing about.  That’s how you make your first film, you tell the cinematographer what you want and he delivers.  I wanted it completely tactile and I wanted it to feel very real.   

Q:  Do you worry that because the film, although modestly budgeted, is not a Hollywood film, will be drowned out by the summer blockbusters?
DB: Well that’s why I’m hoping journalists won’t go around describing this film as a 40 million dollar film (laughs).  It seems America wants 150 million dollars or nothing.  At the end of the day you can’t double guess, that’s where Fox Searchlight comes in and it was their feeling to counter-program Sunshine against the summer slate.  It came out in the UK in the spring and I thought that was wrong, I thought we should have released it in the winter.  You see if there’s good weather in the UK no one will go to the cinema no matter how good the film is.  If it’s nice out, the theatres are dead because everyone is outside.  It could be any film and the cinemas are empty.  Although as a rule I try not to get involved with marketing too much.

Q: To what degree do you adhere to genre conventions when it comes to design?
DB: Science fiction is such a narrow genre it’s much narrower then something like a zombie film.  There’s really two levels: there’s high fantasy like Star Wars and Dune where you can pretty much do anything you want because it’s a whole different universe.  But then there’s the more realistic branch, like man going to space in a steel tube.  So you’re constantly in debt to your predecessors.  Like the steely blue-grey look of Alien, inside the ship, everyone whether consciously or unconsciously uses that.  Then you try and add original tidbits here and there.  In this case we used the golden space suits.  In most films the space suits are white, but because the crew was going to need a material that would repel the effects of the sun, we went with gold.  Also we didn’t want the camera to be able to see inside the helmet, which really worried producers.  Instead we came up with the idea of having the camera in the suit and shooting them at an angle from behind.  You follow the path that’s already been set and occasionally break away with your own innovations.

Q:  Could you talk a little bit about the science of the film?
DB: Yeah we worked with this great advisor Dr. Brian Cox.  Europe and America really have a problem relaying science to young people.  They think the problem is when people say “science” to kids their brains immediately switch to an image of Albert Einstein, grey hair, mustache etc.  Kids who go home and pretend to be Beyonce aren’t going to relate to that.  Therefore, many institutions are using this guy Dr. Brian Cox, who’s very trendy, was in a band, young, etc. to explain science to kids and he’s brilliant.  He’s really Europe’s new face of science.  So we got him to help us and also NASA was really great at providing all of the information we needed.  So we used both resources to build the film both in terms of character and production design.  Like the gold and the oxygen garden are all viable scientific theories from NASA.  They also talked about how astronauts would have to grow and gather their food as scientists feel this is a crucial cycle to a traveler’s psyche. 

Q: Did you utilize the CERN facility at all?
DB: Well we sent Cillian there.  I haven’t been yet.  I was due to go in the fall but I’m not sure I’m going to be able as I’m shooting a film in Bombay.  The most amazing thing that Cillian told us is there’s this particle accelerator that’s 27 kilometers long and they’re looking for this particle known as the Higgs particle.  To find this they're firing protons at opposite directions around this 27-kilometer circumference at staggering speeds just short of the speed of light and crash them into each other.  What scientists are looking for is a miniature version of the big bang.  They’re looking for a particle that’s smaller then a proton but ironically they call it “God’s Particle,” that’s their nickname for it.  I think it’s interesting that these top-notch, atheist scientists would use that kind of terminology, but it goes to show how many unanswered questions are out there.

Q: Have you ever done this much research on previous projects?
DB: Probably not in a way that I can talk about as intelligently, but you do this level of research on any project.  You really try to absorb yourself completely in the world of the film.  Then you make the film once your immersed in it.  It’s interesting, another thing we learned about at CERN is that when they hit these protons into each other there’s a small chance they’ll create a black hole.  I mean if they accidentally do…while then that’s it, we’re all finished.  But supposedly when American’s were first looking to test the atom bomb scientists reported a 10% chance that the entire sky would catch on fire.  Congress passed the test anyway.       

Q: Could you tell us a little about the film your making in Bombay?
DB: It’s called Slumdog Millionaire and it’s written by Simon Beaufoy who wrote The Full Monty.  When he sent the script the byline read: a Hindi kid goes on their version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and wins it.  I really didn’t want to do it.  But I read it out of respect for him because he’s a fantastic writer and it’s just brilliant. It’s very interesting because the Hindi version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire isn’t like it’s Western counterparts.  It’s really difficult to win because you have this very highly educated yet poor strata but they’re professors and doctors so they go on the show for their families.  After the first few easy questions the difficulty level changes dramatically to nuclear psychics and advanced mathematics.  Anyway, this uneducated kid from a slum literally went on the show and won it!  But the clever bit of the film shows how he knows all the answers and this really drew me to the story.  The heart of the script is he goes on the show to find this girl who he lost in Bombay and he knows she always watches the show so he goes on it to find her.  It’s completely the opposite of Sunshine because Bombay is this ordeal of humanity; people are coming at you day and night.  It’s going to be a small film so we’re shooting digital. 

Fox Searchlight Pictures releases Danny Boyle's Sunshine in theatres wide on July 20th.

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