Turn It Up

Turn It Up (Jameson Simpson)

TÊTE-À-TÊTE: DANNY BOYLE

I’ve been a fan of Danny Boyle since his 1995 movie Shallow Grave, a little noir number that introduced me to Ewan McGregor as well as Mr. Boyle. They both broke out the following year with Trainspotting, which portrayed the depraved and terrifying world of a bunch of Edinburgh heroin addicts. The movie was critically acclaimed, and not lost on me was the music. Here was a director who took classics such as Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” and put them alongside the hippest Brit music of the day by bands like Blur, Elastica and Pulp. The music helped tell the story and wasn’t slapped on as an afterthought.

Boyle’s latest film, Slumdog Millionaire, shot on location in Mumbai, India, is a suspenseful love story set against a backdrop of abject poverty and game-show greed. The music is, for the most part, a score by the revered Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman. The movie, a hit of the awards season, nabbed 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Score and Original Song. I reached Danny by phone recently to talk a little about the movie and mostly, of course, about music.

Nic Harcourt: You’re from Manchester, a city with an incredible musical history. What impact did that city have on you?
Danny Boyle: Punk began in ’76, and Man­chester had a role in that. It was my most formative experience. The Clash remains my ultimate band. Then as I got into my late thirties—as you’re thinking of giving it all up, your devotion to music—house music hit, and now I’ve been part of two musical frontiers.

NH: It seems a lot of filmmakers don’t think too much about the music before or even during filmmaking. With music being such an essential part of your storytelling, how early do you start thinking about it?
DB: The truth is, the music’s going on all the time, and occasionally the film comes along to interrupt it. [Laughs.] I just have this ongoing playlist I develop because of the subject of the film. But basically the film joins the soundtrack of my life.

NH: Is there a particular concert memory that stands out for you?
DB: I used to see the Clash a lot. When Joe Strummer died, I felt I’d lost someone really close to me. That attitude, that directness. I loved how they pushed barriers but made it accessible. I hate elitism in art, and I hope my films have that accessibility.

NH: How did you come to direct Slumdog Millionaire? Did you read the book first?
DB: The script was sent to me with a rather lazy description that it was a film about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and I thought, I’m not going to make a film about that game show. And then I saw Simon Beaufoy’s name on it. He had written The Full Monty, one of those films that has that...it’s a Clash type of film. I started reading it out of respect to him, but about 10 minutes into it, I knew I was going to make it. The depiction of the city, the nobody with a plan to hijack the biggest game show in the world. They torture him because they’re so precious about their money, and he’s not interested in any of that—he’s interested in a girl. I loved that. That’s rock and roll to me.

NH: What was it like working with Indian actors?
DB: They are fantastic. Their style’s quite rich and melodramatic, and they not only occupy their own world but have one eye on Hollywood. They all speak English, and with a Western director, they can try a more psychological style of acting, which they admire. They respect all the great actors—De Niro, Hoffman. The thing about acting there is everybody loves movies, so I felt at home with them.

NH: The film’s music is mainly from Bollywood composer A.R. Rahman.
DB: One of the things about working with Rahman is he writes songs, which is his natural eloquence and how he expresses himself. In India, he’s more famous than the films, and people distribute his songs a month before the films come out, so the soundtrack is like an advert for the film. My Mumbai driver, Harish, learns all the songs, and then he sings them during the movie. Rahman was keen to do something different, and so I urged him to use this fusion that’s going on in India right now. There’s R&B and hip-hop and rap from America and Africa, and there’s all that house music and disco, which is pretty tired in Britain right now but is just arriving in India. They love that stuff because you can dance to it. The dancing is so hot in the films now—even though kissing is barely allowed. So it’s a very eclectic score, really, based on a series of rather good songs.

NH: What about the big Bollywood dance number at the train station?
DB: Well, this is astonishing. This is why I kind of revere musicians. That dance was done to a different song when we shot it last January. Rahman wasn’t even on the film yet. So I had to have them dance to a song and picked one of my favorite Indian songs, “Aaj Ki Raat”—it’s still in the film and plays on a television. I cut the whole dance, and then he said, “I’d like to do the film and replace that song.” I said, “You what?! It’s already done!” He said, “That’s tempo—that’s easy. It’s the expression that’s interesting.” And he came up with this song called “Jai Ho,” based on a series of dance movements that had already been taken. He’s amazing.

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Artist: Lisa Hannigan