British Director Danny Boyle has quickly become one of my favorite Directors, primarily because you can’t quite figure out what his style is or what he’ll do next. He first came to my attention in 2004 when his small British film Millions, was released. It was a really compelling story about a little boy who finds a million dollars and decides he wants to do good with it in hopes that it’ll help him become a Saint so he can see his dead mother. The film was funny, poignant, witty and charming and it failed to breakthrough to American Audiences. His next try was the surprise hit 28 Days Later, a horror film. So what do you do, after you make a Children’s fantasy, and a franchise launching horror film? You do a serious, contemplative Sci-Fi adventure called Sunshine.
Sunshine is a small, quiet, contemplative film that questions the meaning of life, what would you do if you were humanity’s last hope for survival. Would you sacrifice yourself so that a more important member of your crew can go on and complete a vital mission? Can you put your own instincts for self preservation aside for the greater good? Very weighty stuff, Boyle creates a claustrophobic atmosphere.
The film opens in very limited release on the 20th of July and will go wide sometime in the next few months. I recently caught up with Boyle for a little roundtable discussion.
What were the influences of the film?
There are moments when it becomes a Journey of discovery. I remember watching Alien where there were these bouncing things at the beginning of the film. And I thought it was kind of weird. I thought it was Ridley Scott just being an Advert director. That it’s just little tricksy things advert directors do. Once you make a film like this you realize you have to create a sense of motion. You have this problem because you have this huge vehicle that’s fake so you have to create this sense motion. There are little things in the film that are homage to Alien and 2001.
We went to this park in Stockholm that’s a Mayday memorial to shoot. We also named a character Pinbacker after Darkstar and the man who played that character, Dan O’Bannon, wrote Alien. So it all makes sense in the end.
With all the attention to scientific detail, you don’t address the gravity detail?
It is addressed, when you look at the outside of the ship you see the ship turning and rotating. So basically you say that gives it artificial gravity. We didn’t have a character at one point who was going to end up discussing it. At one point we did have a device that was going to break. But we ended up cutting that out of the script.
One of the things about this film is that it doesn’t rely on special effects that it’s all about the people and is a real character study. Do you feel it’s a throwback to the earlier days of Science Fiction?
It’s a love letter to the old, great Sci-Fi. Which is thoughtful, mind challenging, that’s the kind of world this is in.
In a film like this, you almost always find yourself competing with the standard Genre Elements, like space battles, gravity breaks, etc. How do you do something fresh?
You are right, there’s a limited amount of what you can do in these types of stories. We started by making it a Journey to the Sun, which is pretty amazing because we looked and haven’t found any other stories where people actually journey to the Sun, to travel to the source of life. You would think that would be enough to give it originality.
How were the actors regarding the lack of makeup in the film?
I made it clear to the actors that this wasn’t going to be a glamorous film that it was going to be as realistic as possible. We wanted to explore what it would be like if these people were truly forced to spend 16 months together in a couple of rooms. I also brought together several really beautiful women who need very little make up.
Are you a softy? This film had several really emotional moments and Millions made me cry. Can you talk a little bit about your softer side?
Millions makes me cry, absolutely. There’s this bit in Sunshine that makes me cry where he’s walking through this room and this music is playing. I love crying in films, if it’s a good film I’m crying. I was weeping at the end of Titanic. I am very good natured and believe in people. I’m not a cynic myself, so I hope there is a softer side to my films.
Do you think the success of serious Sci-Fi shows on television, like Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and Heroes is going to have an impact on how Sci-Fi films are made in the future?
I don’t know, that’s an interesting question. I’m sure they are debating in the studios the interaction between how television shows and films are being made and influence each other. A lot of actors who just five years ago shunned television are now becoming big stars on television again.
I also mean tonally speaking, it used to be that audiences expected a lot of lasers, explosions, big CGI battles – things that I love, but today’s new breed of Sci-Fi on television is focused on the story and characters, like your film. Like Television is setting the expectation level of the audience.
I don’t know. My experience with television started with Star Trek on television I was a nut for that show and Dr. Who. and I never followed it into the theaters. I don’t know enough to really answer this question. I think my film is a throwback to 70s Sci-Fi the golden period that ended with Alien. Star Wars took over and hi-jacked it turned it into playground sci-fi. I think television is trying to take it back and make it more character and psychological based.
There was a real claustrophobic feeling to the film. Was that based on the sets?
We tried to make complete sets; I like my actors to really feel the environment. At one point I really wanted them to live on the set for a couple of days but we couldn’t do it for insurance reasons, so I had them live together in a college dorm for a couple of weeks. We went to a Nuclear Submarine – we tried to get onto an Oil Rig, but because of security reasons we couldn’t get near one, so we were able to get onto a Nuclear Sub [chuckles at the Irony] . It was really interesting, they have this extraordinary thing, the men have to tick a box at the beginning that says “If there’s bad news do they want to know at the beginning or end.” Because they can’t return or reply to the message, so it becomes a question of do you want to know bad news – even though you can’t do anything about it, or wait until you get home to hear if your wife or close relative died. The actors loved this question because it put them in their “zone”.
I get the sense that you trust your audience in the films.
When we released this film in Russia, one Journalist stood up and asked why wasn’t there Russian on the ship. You can’t answer that question. But I do try assume that the audience is intelligent and don’t play down to them.
I’m looking at the Press Kit and it seems like you have the same crew working with you on all your films. Are you purposely trying to create a traveling troupe and does it make it easier for you on your projects?
[Laughs] You have a short time to work with people. You have to be very careful with Directors, especially after you have a success is, it can go to your head. The danger with hiring new people is they are going to be intimidated by you. When you work with people who knew you before, they are going to be more honest with you and tell you you’re idea is rubbish. There is the danger that you can get tired of each other.
Actors are their own people, I try and work with the same actors, but they are really independent and have their own careers, so it doesn’t always work out like I would want.
How does having a hit franchise like the 28…(Later, whatever you want to call it) series affect your ability to do a film like Sunshine?
It was a big help because it gave us the money and the trust to go out and do this on our own. They would have liked to have the same 28 team package on the sequel, but I felt like I had already done it and didn’t want to repeat myself. But the first film made a huge amount of money for Fox so I can get more money to work on other projects.
Are you going to do a 3rd Film?
I don’t know, there’s an idea for it.
Does having more money affect how you approach projects?
What we do is take a ceiling of how much we’re going to take to do a film with as minimal studio interference as we can get. You are still dealing with millions of dollars, but if we limit the amount we can get more creative freedom. If you are borrowing a hundred million dollars you would be insane not to want to know what is happening with that money every single moment of the day or shoot.
Can you tell us a little about the shoot?
We shot three months in London. What took the most amount of time was weightlessness. The proportion of time that took was astonishing. They say filming at sea takes 3 times as long, but weightlessness took 20 times longer, it seemed to go on forever. This tiny little force called gravity that we take for granted takes a lot of time. The other time was taken up by sending effects off to these huge render farms in Japan. It would take them six months to render the shots because they were so detailed.
Are you doing Faulty Towers?
No, my next film is actually going to be Slumdog Millionaire. A film set in Mumbai in India. It’s about two brothers and the girl they both love. They grow up in the slums and are uneducated, but when one of the brothers’ turn 18 they go on the Hindu version of Who Wants to be a millionaire. The Hindu version of the show is much tougher than the American version. There’s a real professorial class in India who is highly educated, but cash poor. They are really suspicious of how this kid with no education won the show. So there’s a big investigation. He knows the answers because he is relaxed and it’s based on his life experience. He decided to go on it because he knew the girl he loved and lost watched the show, so his only goal is to stay on it long enough for her to see him and find him. So it’s a love story.
What’s on the DVD?
There’s a huge amount of material from the Web campaign, a lot of deleted scenes, commentary, an extended Pinbacker Scene.