"When I was in college, I remember reading about how this movie Alien was just scaring people to death in America," he says. "Pure marketing, sure, ambulances, waiting outside the theaters. 'People are fainting.' But I was completely taken in by it. I must've been about 20 at the time, and I thought, 'Wow. A movie can do that?'"
But what frightened Boyle over the years changed. He became afraid of not being afraid, of getting settled, comfortable in his work. He needed that fear of not knowing what he was doing. So he'd try a drug-addicted Trainspotting, take a romantic thriller turn on The Beach and then go work with children in Millions. "In a funny kind of way, the first film that you make it always going to be your best film," he says. "Filmmaking is a trap, because as you become more expert in it, technically, more polished, you lose that innocence.
"Switching genres with every film is one way I try to avoid losing that innocence. Suddenly, I'm a bit lost, again. Like when I was starting (Sunshine), I love these kinds of movies, but I have no idea of how to make one. Suddenly, it's back to college. 'How do you DO this?' It makes you fearful, and that's a good thing to feel, sometimes. A bit scared."
He was first approached to do a big sci fi blockbuster years ago, when Alien: Resurrection was announced. But that was one time when his fear got the better of him.
"I realized, there, that I was more scared than was healthy," he says with a laugh. "I didn't have any idea how to do the special effects. It was a big studio movie, a franchise, and the risks were terrible."
But this time, with his regular screenwriter on board and the novelty of a trip to the Sun as his plotline, he plunged in, "even though I still don't know the first thing about CG (computer generated effects)."
Sunshine is set aboard a space ship on its way to drop a bomb that will re-ignite the dimming Sun. It plays to many of Boyle's strengths, his love of "group dynamics. You have a group, then it splinters." It features his 28 Days Later star, Cillian Murphy.
And Sunshine allowed him to immerse himself in space research, tackling, cinematically, the problems of long-duration space flight ("NASA says they'll have oxygen gardens, made up of ferns, on board" just as he does in the film).
Boyle sports a faint Irish accent even though he was and raised in Britain (to Irish Catholic parents). He says he was most out of his element with Sunshine, and chuckles at that research, all aimed at solving problems every sci-fi film storyteller faces.
"Sometimes, you ignore the big obstacles, weightlessness, for instance," he says. "When you're making a movie set in space, you have to decide what to do about that. Shoot it as weightless, which would have taken forever. Or use the idea that every filmmaker and science fiction fan buys into. You show an establishing shot of something rotating, this 'centrifugal artificial gravity' you see in so many movies. That way, the director and the audience can go, 'Ok, they've got some form of gravity on the ship.' And I can go, 'The actors can walk around like normal. Thank God.'" Everything else in the movie has got to be at least plausible, even the trip to the Sun.
"It's such a good idea that you think, 'Sure. Somebody's done it before, right?'
Sunshine brought Boyle back to his sci-fi loving childhood, when he watched Doctor Who, Lost in Space ("The only sci-fi show or movie that went to the Sun, I think.") and Brit sci-fi films such as The Quartermass Experiment on late night TV.
"It's a really interesting genre, a very narrow genre, too," he says, separating it from the Star Wars-Star Trek space fantasy films. "In terms of realistic sci-fi, there are just three titans that hover over you. 2001 (A Space Odyssey), obviously. The first Alien film, which, as every year passes, becomes more and more of a landmark. And Solaris, the Andrei Tarkovsky film (1972). Brutal, claustrophobic, awe-inspiring, terrifying journeys in all of those films. They're huge totems that you have to respect to."
Thus, he has made a taut, psychological film with plot devices borrowed from all of those movies -- gigantic, erector-set spaceships, the mythic lure of an iconic star, sacrifice, psychological breakdowns, astronauts needing to go outside without space suits and a bogeyman.
Sunshine is earning breathless praise for its production values, and a little derision for its bogeyman. "Not the masterpiece it could have been" The Times of London complained. Reviews have been positive, but the words "third-act meltdown" have become the catch-phrase in Internet discussions of Sunshine. Boyle doesn't mind. He's had worse notices (He and his star, Leonardo DiCaprio, were pounded for The Beach). Reviews don't make him tremble. He's faced his big filmmaking fear, and he's all set to face another. He's using an unknown cast and going on location to one of the most "uncontrollable, chaotic" places in the world.
"The next film I'm doing is set in the streets of Mumbai, in India," he says of Slumdog Millionaire, which starts shooting in October. "That's a HUGE culture shock to everything I know and possess. I have to go and relearn everything before making that movie. No control, at all. Utterly terrifying. I can't wait."