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November 11, 2008.
In light of economic traumas echoing throughout the planet,
this dark fantasy of two brothers who take very different paths out of
Mumbai's daunting slum offers a strangely uplifting fable fit for these
times. British director Danny Boyle makes movies that generate this kind of
meaningful buzz ever since he made Trainspotting, a story of a group
of shambling Scottish drug addicts. Boyle's kinetic, crazy-quilt visual
style combined with an ever-twisting storyline has a defined a sort of
contemporary filmcraft. That approach was employed with subsequent films
like his hyper zombie thriller, 28 Days Later, the sweet-hearted
Millions and the dark apocalyptic sci-fi tale, Sunshine.
Now with Slumdog Millionaire, This 52-year-old has
not only applied his signature visual and storytelling attack to this
classic rags-to-riches teen tale but has located it in one of the most
crazy-quilt locations of all time, the Indian mega-city of Mumbai (formerly
known as Bombay). At a time when it's necessary to understand the dynamic
between local culture and the new globalism (especially after the recent
attacks there), a film like Slumdog Millionaire acts as an aid to
understanding our 21st century world.
With the help of a full Indian crew, Boyle tells the tale of slumdog teen
Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) who becomes a contestant on the Hindi version of
Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? something he does in an effort to find
his true love, Latika, who is both a high-class whore and ardent fan of the
show. With Oscar-buzz in the background (the film won the People's Choice
Award at this year's Toronto Film Festival and has been nominated for a
bunch of upcoming awards), Boyle talked with me and a few others before the
a stranger to India, how was it making a film that's a portrait of this
You obviously feel a lot of responsibility. You worry about
yourself as a westerner. I didn't want to make a film where westerners go
around India or anything like that. But still, you are a westerner. I just
wanted to make it distinctively and subjectively as possible, so you felt
like you were looking at it from the inside. One of the dangers of India is
that it has that "wow" factor where you go, "Look at that!" It feels like
you're using it as some kind of thing to just stare at, and they hate that.
We did these film tests at the beginning, and it was a bit like that.
There's a danger with cameramen. For a cameraman to shoot in India is a
dream come true. Photographically, it's the place for coffee table books. So
it is a danger for cinematographers, because they go, "Wow! The colors!" I
didn't want that. I wanted to be hurtled into it. I love action movies, even
the bad ones, because there's something about why films are called "motion
pictures." It's where it all began when our ancestors sat there and saw
motion, moving. And I really believe that about films. There's a kineticism
about them that's wonderful; they shouldn't always be a reflective medium.
It doesn't suit reflection. I remember meeting [actor] Tim Robbins. I was
trying to get him to play this part in a film. It was a really good part but
he said he wouldn't do it. I said, "I can't understand why you won't do
it." He said, "Because he dies at the end." I said, "What?" He said, "Nobody
remembers anyone who has died." And it's true. You just move forward; it's
all about forward motion. And I tried to bring that to it, really. Bombay
feels like it's living in fast-forward anyway.
So then how did you,
Danny Boyle, come to do
They sent a script. The agent said it's a film about Who
Wants to be a Millionaire? and I said, "What?!" My agent wants me to do
American films. He's always trying to get me to do a film here, but I never
do. And then I saw screenwriter Simon [Beaufoy]'s name on it. I'd never met
him, but I thought, "I'd better read at least five pages of it." As soon as
I read 10 pages of it
You know when you're going to do something. It
doesn't always happen, but sometimes you just know. And you shouldn't wait
until you get to the end, because when you get to the end all the realities
of filmmaking kick in: how will we cast? Will we be able to raise enough
money? Who will distribute it? All that.
Your films are known for
their kinetic charge, for the frenetic editing and the wonderful shots that
you get. When you read the script, did that start bubbling up right away? Is
that what you see? Do you have a vision?
It's very difficult to describe; it sort of vibrates.
There's a great screenwriter named David Benioff I read this screenplay he
wrote the other day; it's excellent. A piece of skilled screenwriting, and
yet you don't feel that vibration yourself, personally about doing it. And
probably, the stuff you do is probably not technically as good as this
screenplay. But for some reason it vibrates. I remember with
Trainspotting, when I read the book [by Irvine Welsh] I can virtually
quote it verbatim I remember reading that first page and thinking: "we're
going to make this." And that's just one page. I remember thinking that. You
have these instincts. I remember meeting Freida [Pinto, who play the adult
version of Jamal's love, Latika] for this and thinking, "I bet that's her."
You don't get that for everybody or everything, but when you do get it, it
comes naturally. It just pops. You should always follow that instinct
because there's something there you don't really understand fully, and
that's a good thing. 'Cause you'll find out about it when you're making it.
It's funny like that; I can't explain it anymore than that that's the
truth. It's not more complex than that, or more cunning than that or
was amazed to see how you applied your style to this film. At first I didn't
see how it made sense; then it did. When did you know you could apply the
Danny Boyle style to this movie? How did you figure out how it worked?
A lot of it's the script. Beaufoy did an amazing job. The
book is rigid. The book is like 12 chapters, 14 chapters, and each chapter
is a question and answer and it's like a series of short stories. It would
never have worked as a film like that. What Simon did was this very clever
thing where he fed the material in early, so sometimes you got the answers
way before even the question was asked. Sometimes you didn't; you had to
wait. And it makes you feel very intelligent. It made me feel intelligent,
and I always love that [laughs]. You feel it, and you start to see
it. We went as soon as we were there and walked through areas of Bombay.
There's nothing to look at, really. There's no architecture, just people.
And you've got to like people, and I do like people a lot. If you like that,
you've got plenty of them. A billion people live there, and that enough for
a plant, never mind quite a small country, really. That's where you get your
You had the great makings
of a documentary with the wild scenarios and experiences that came from
There's a guy who shot the whole time, and they say it's
very good. I haven't seen it yet, but they're getting it ready for the DVD.
There are so many stories, and yet what matters, more than anything, is your
attitude. You have to go in with the right attitude. You can't control it.
Directors are really about control, and that's one of the
things you try to do all of the time: control experience, capture it. And
you can't do that there. It's like trying to stop the sea; forget it. You've
just got to plunge in and go with it. And it's a lot of risk taking. You're
not certain that you've got stuff you have to wait till you get back.
Actually, you've got a much greater result than you thought you had.
Having a co-director,
Loveleen Tandan what was that about?
Loveleen was the casting director, who did an amazing job.
It was quite a big cast, and I didn't know anybody, virtually no one. And I
realized that I needed her on the set. She wants to be a director as well,
and she can do it, you can tell. It wasn't just for the kids who only
spoke Hindi it was for everything, really. And I could test things against
her, culturally, and stuff like that. When I knew I wanted to make a
mistake, do something incorrect, because you do do that films have their
own logic which isn't applicable to the country necessarily. Then I sent her
off to do the second unit. The second unit had been shooting very badly, and
then I realized, I should send her out with it
As soon as I sent her out
with it, the stuff that came back was like fantastic. So we called her
"co-director" because she deserves it. [She] and the first assistant
director, this guy called Raj Acharya, and the guy that did the live sound,
Resul Pookutty they were very special for the film.
What did you do to
balance the grim moments with the happier parts?
It's very difficult to answer that question because you
don't think about things like that till you talk to journalists. Then
journalists come up with things like that; then they come up with things
that connect films. But you don't think like that when you're making them.
Well, I don't anyway. I don't think, "This bit's so tough. How's it ever
going to fit with the happier here?" You try to make each bit as intense an
experience as possible. And if they don't go together, you'll probably never
see the film.
There's an intuitive
sense of what's balanced?
Yeah, and I think a writer writes like that intuitively as
well. You also, for me anyway, you love variation; and that suits India
because there are such extremes. I love that sense of hitting a different
note in a film. That's one of the reasons I love music in film because you
can often have a tone of a film that's just similar or too flat, and you can
pop it with music. And it just suddenly feels like a different film. It's
one of the wonderful ways music works. There's lots of ways you can work on
it, but without intellectualizing it. It's weird doing these kinds of
conversation because you become aware of things like that. I always worry
about doing things like that because you can carry these conversations over
the next film. But you don't; you have a kind of amnesia. It's weird you
also have amnesia about the realities of filmmaking, about how difficult it
is sometimes. You never consider that. You think: that's great! Let's do
You used M.I.A.'s song
"Paper Planes" during that train sequence; it was heard everywhere this
I know. I came back from work one day, I'd been editing,
and my daughter said, "You should see this trailer." She's seventeen she
spends most of her time on Japanese websites downloading illegal copies of
The Office. "You should see this," she said. "It's really good. It's
a really good use of 'Paper Planes.'" I thought, oh no; but it's a great
trailer. We've got a lovely remix of it, too. I met [singer M.I.A.], because
originally she's from London; she's Sri Lankan [by heritage]. She lives here
[in New York City] now. I called her in to see the film, because I like the
musicians to see the film. And she liked the film a lot. She's a very smart
girl she gave me a couple of really good notes, which you don't get from
people really good notes. Then I phoned her up to do the rest of the
music, and she's a big fan of [soundtrack composer A. R.] Rahman's. When she
was a kid she worshipped him.
Did you make changes
based on her notes?
Yes I did. We were chatting and she said, "Do you want me
to say a couple of things?" because she was very complimentary. She said,
"We don't really know how he got on the show. How did he get on the actual
show?" I hadn't really answered that question. Often times you get very bad
notes from people. Someone who sits there, who's from another world
completely this hip-hop, cool New Yorker she is now she's really smart.
Were there specific films
either Bollywood ones or just films about India that you looked at
before or during production?
Not so much on this film. I don't know why.
Do you do it on other
Yes, definitely. Usually, when we have these conversations,
I'll mention the kind of films.
Did you do a lot of
Yeah. The main book I read, the only book you need to read,
is [Suketu Mehta's] Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. I read that
all the time, and part of the time I thought I was adapting that, and not "Q
and A" by Vikas Swarup, the book we were actually meant to be adapting. I'm
a bit worried about [author] Vikas Swarup seeing it. He's seeing it soon.
I'm a bit worried about a) him not liking it, b) him suing us [laughs].
So my main research was, I guess, that. But when I got there, there were
three films that I had never heard of that I did watch that did influence
the film in some way. One's called Satya, and it's as good a film
I've seen. It stars and is written by our police constable, the guy who
tortures [Jamal]. He's called Saurabh Shukla. He's an amazing writer, and a
terrific character actor. There's another film called Company, a film
about gangsters in Bombay. And another film called Black Friday which
is about bombings in Mumbai, made by a young guy called Anurag Kashyap, a
fantastic film made with very little money, but is a really good film. They
were like inspirations while we were making this film. It's good to know
that it's not all Bollywood musicals. It's not [only] the kind of standard
stuff that they do.
What was it about novice
actor Dev Patel that made him Jamal?
I met all these guys in Mumbai, and the casting was done in
Mumbai. I met loads of them, and they're really talented young guys there.
But if you want to get in the movies in Bollywood and you're 18 or 20,
you've got to be able to get a shirt off. They stand under waterfalls in
Switzerland and they do these song and dance moves, and they've got to be
ripped. And they're all like beefcake, and you know when guys can't put
their arms down because they have all this muscle mass? They're eighteen;
they're only just beyond kids and their heads are really small. They
haven't put any weight on their heads. So you've got these tiny little heads
and big bodies; that was just wrong for the film. Jamal's an underdog; he's
supposed to be a guy who apparently has nothing. So, my daughter said, "You
should see this guy in Skins'" It's this [television] program we have
in the UK; it's quite a racy program. I watched it, and he played a fairly
small comic part in it, but he was very good, I thought. He was great, very
serious in the craft. And he had that
well we didn't always agree about
stuff. We fought a couple of times, which is good, because, honestly, I have
a bit of a reputation. And he was prepared to say, "No, I don't think that's
right. I don't think I should do it like that." When you get that, it's
good. If they just do what you tell them, it's kind of one dimensional in a
way. They've got to take it over themselves that's a lead actor. He's got
that. He's stubborn. That's good; that's what he had. And Jamal's like that:
nothing's going to stop him, whatever it is... That scene when he jumps in
the shit, that's his character. His dream is to have Bachan's autograph and
nothing will stand in his way. He's a bit like that.
Was it important to have
that connection between the three different actors [who play Jamal at the
ages of eight, twelve and eighteen]?
Yeah. It's tricky because if you find one person, you might
not find someone else that look like each other. Mostly you just hope the
audience will just go with it. That they'll just accept. It's great to have
some kind of connection between them. We had to all together in rehearsal
I tried to get them to copy each other's mannerisms. I wanted it to feel
How did you find the
children in the movie; were they from the slums?
The performances weren't difficult because they're all
really good actors. The kids there love acting. They say, "Do you want the
look? [laughs] Once you get them to understand the world that
they're in, they're terrific. They don't feel a separation between
themselves, and film. It's like here film is a natural part of life. It is
in India as well. Everybody's been to the cinema, and all the time. Even
seven year olds have seen lots of stuff. Finding them was really down to
Loveleen [Tandan, the co-director in India]. Initially the film was written
completely in English. When we got there, and saw the seven year olds who
spoke English, it didn't work because they're not that deft with English at
seven and eight. They get better when they get into their teens, and it
wasn't really working, so [Loveleen] said, "We should really do it in
Hindi." I thought, what is Warner Brothers going to say? She translated it.
She adapted it, because you can't literally translate it. As soon as we did
it, it suddenly came alive. It felt so real. So I rang Warner Brothers, and
said, "We're going to do the first bit in Hindi with English subtitles."
They dumped the movie.
That was for different [reasons].
So what happened with
When they closed Warner Independent, we were just one of a
number of films that [were in limbo] we were shot; we were edited; we were
very far down the line when we heard [about that]. And you just thought
that's going to be it. We won't get theatrical release. In the melee, there
are so many casualties in the process, we'll wind up on DVD, especially
because we don't have a star in it. It's got no platform, no profile,
nothing. I remember thinking about what I learned in India, and I thought,
"It'll be okay. Just go with it, we'll see." And then things began to
happen. We got to make shuffling noises at Telluride and Toronto [film
festivals]. Suddenly the studio goes, "What? What was that shuffle noise?"
Then you get a couple of journalists sniffing around it. John Hall at the LA
Times was sniffing around it. And that makes the studio go, "What? What?"
And then, to give Warner credit, they showed it to Fox Searchlight, which
they shouldn't have done technically because if you're going to show it, you
should show it to all the buyers. But they showed it to him because they
thought if anyone could release this film a third of which is in Hindi
[laughs] it would be him. And he picked it up and ran with it, and
here we are.
What led you to put this
Bollywood ending on it?
If you've lived and worked there for eight months, if you
live and work in Bombay, you can't leave without a dance [laughs].
You can't. It would be like making a film about America without a motorcar.
You just can't do it. It would be wrong. It would be so fake. The key thing
was whether we should put it inside the film linked to a question, or
whether we put it at the end of the film, as it is. So we decided to put it
at the end of the film to celebrate [Jamal and Latika's] love. It's not
actually a sendup of Bollywood. It's genuine, absolutely genuine. Their love
of movies, and love of dancing, and their love of song is something to be
absolutely celebrated, even though we may not be able to watch some of the
Did you have any trouble
with ratings [for
Yes, it's an R. They said it was because of the intensity.
There's nothing we can do about it.
Is there a message you
want people to get out of this? I know after Millions, kids were inspired to raise money to build
wells in Africa. Is there something you want people to do after this or take
inspiration from it?
I think when you elect Barack Obama, the world's going to
become a bigger place again. That's all you get from doing something like
that. You're not there to teach anybody anything; you're there to learn
about yourself. These people that live in slums are extraordinary so
generous, so resourceful. I want it so it will be something that they'll
like, really. I hope they get to see it on a pirate copy somewhere
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