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Screwball With an Edge

Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

“Trainspotting” is such an effective film that lots of people can’t sit through it. A savagely funny adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel chronicling the squalid lives of a circle of Scottish heroin addicts, the film is acknowledged even by those who find it creepy as having a defiantly new look and moving with an energy most Hollywood films only dream of.

Needless to say, “Trainspotting” director Danny Boyle was deluged with invitations after the film opened last summer--and considering that he’s currently a hot property, the last place you’d expect to find him is in Salt Lake City shooting a screwball comedy replete with a bungled bank heist, lovers on the lam and meddlesome angels.

Titled “A Life Less Ordinary,” the film will of course be Boyle’s version of screwball comedy, which is to say it won’t be remotely like anyone else’s. Starring Ewan McGregor, Cameron Diaz and Holly Hunter, it synthesizes elements of “It Happened One Night,” “Topper” and “Wings of Desire,” and is at once a road picture, a love story and a black comedy.

Slated to debut in August at the Edinburgh Film Festival and budgeted at $12 million, the film is described by Boyle as “a story about the sense of immortality that’s part of being in love. It’s also about maleness and femaleness, only we’ve reversed things a bit; Ewan’s character is feminine and emotional, and Cameron’s character is tough.”

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Boyle’s films are pretty tough, too, so one expects him to be a difficult man in person, but nothing could be further from the truth. Boyishly charming and unassuming, the 40-year-old director is the most indefatigable cheerleader on his set. It’s snowing outside, the work days are long and Boyle’s encampment of displaced Britons grows increasingly homesick, but he provides an inexhaustible stream of encouragement and praise to his cast and crew.

Arriving on the set, one first spots Boyle along with several crew members crouched amid a morass of cobwebs and dirt beneath a false floor. The scene being shot involves McGregor attempting to retrieve a satchel of stolen money that’s been hidden under a house. That done, we then see him break into an abandoned cabin, tie Diaz to a chair and serve her a meal she refuses to eat. Boyle charges through each setup with such remarkable focus you’d never guess he finds Utah a bit unnerving.

“This is a very weird place,” says the director, whose debut film, “Shallow Grave,” was made for $1 million and took in $27 million, making it Britain’s biggest commercial hit of 1995. “Utah’s intensely moral and they’re desperately concerned about crime, yet there’s no morality about business. It’s one of just two U.S. states where there’s no limit on interest rates you can charge some poor widow who borrows money foolishly, so the morality doesn’t extend to the economy.”

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In Utah for the landscape rather than the economic loopholes, Boyle wanted to step out a bit for his third film, but he didn’t want to mess with success too much and is working with the same creative team that collaborated on his previous films.

It includes producer Andrew McDonald, grandson of legendary filmmaker Emeric Pressburger, and screenwriter John Hodge, who periodically takes time off from his medical practice to bang out a script for Boyle.

Also on board again are “Trainspotting” cinematographer Brian Tufano, production designer Kave Quinn, editor Masahiro Hirakubo and costume designer Rachael Flemming. The look of Boyle’s films is one of his strongest cards and he’s not about to tamper with that. An ostentatiously artificial hyper-realism, Boyle’s visual style is an overt rejection of the drab, verite look of celebrated British directors such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh.

“In Britain, colors tend to be muddied and smudged so people won’t notice them, and that’s one of the things we’ve tried to rebel against,” Boyle explains. “In preparing for our shoots we look at art; for ‘Trainspotting’ we looked at lots of Francis Bacon and Edward Hopper, and for this one we’ve looked at paintings by R.B. Kitaj, photographs by [Henri] Cartier-Bresson, and Merry Alpern’s ‘Dirty Windows’ [a recently published photo essay on the erotics of voyeurism]; in fact, we include a little homage to her in the film.”

It remains to be seen whether Boyle’s third feature will have a different look, but it’s not his intention to turn out knockoffs of his own work, McDonald says. “The obvious challenge after ‘Trainspotting’ was how to build on the audience that responded to that film without simply repeating ourselves.

“The script for ‘A Life Less Ordinary’ had been in the works since before we did ‘Trainspotting,’ but it still wasn’t finished when that film was peaking, so we almost wound up doing ‘Alien 4' [“Alien Resurrection”]--which I never wanted to do,” says McDonald, referring to the film currently being directed by Jean Pierre Jeunet. “We could’ve shot it in England--and with a budget of $82 million we probably would’ve been knighted if we’d brought that film there--but John and I decided to make a point of getting this script ready.”

Determined to maintain creative control of their projects but interested in doing something lighter, McDonald says “we developed a story about two people from different parts of the world who are irrevocably changed by being thrown together.

“We thought it would be fun to come to America and try and make our kind of movie here,” he adds, “but pulling that off has been an uphill battle--and not because of any problem with the studio. We wrote the script on spec and told Fox, who has the film in North America, and PolyGram who has it in Europe, ‘If you want to do this, it’ll cost $12 million and we retain creative control.’ They agreed, so we’ve nothing to blame there. The problem is that British people think they know America, but we really only know America through movies. Consequently, there may be inaccuracies in our film we’re not aware of.”

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Boyle concurs, adding, “Lots of films present a cliched version of American life where everything’s slightly old-fashioned and quaint, and we tried to avoid that--we had no interest in making a tourist film.

“The film had to be made here, though, because Britain doesn’t have the sense of space you get in America and it’s difficult to make the British landscape work cinematically--and that’s one reason our two previous films were composed almost entirely of interiors.”

Of his decision to again cast McGregor as his leading man, Boyle says: “Ewan’s a remarkable actor, and the change he undergoes from one film to the next is phenomenal. The challenge this character presents is that his character Robert is the lead, yet he’s not the one who drives the film forward. Much of the time the film happens to him, and the big decisions are made by characters around him. This can create the problem for actors of feeling they’re not doing enough.”

Though it remains to be seen how McGregor will do as Robert, he became a certified movie star with “Trainspotting”; he has eight films slated for release this year.

“Last May, I spent six days in a hotel room in Cannes talking to thousands of journalists, all of whom asked the same question: What was it like going down a toilet?” McGregor laughs, referring to an infamous scene in “Trainspotting,” as he meanders about the set trying to bum a cigarette.

“Things are moving fast for me now, but I’m not worried about losing my head because I already know what I’m doing for the next year,” says the actor, who recently appeared in Ben Bolt’s BBC adaptation of the Stendahl novel “Scarlet and Black” and also stars in director Phillipe Rousselot’s “The Serpent’s Kiss” and Carl Prechezer’s “Blue Juice.” (Both are independent films scheduled for release this year.)

“First, I’m shooting ‘Velvet Goldmine,’ a film by Todd Haynes about the London glam-rock scene of the ‘70s--I play an American Lou Reed/Iggy Pop-type character. After that, I’m playing James Joyce in ‘Nora,’ a film written by Pat Murphy that focuses on Joyce’s relationship with his wife,” says McGregor, who can also be seen this year in “Brassed Off,” a film set in Yorkshire, and “The Pillow Book,” a film by Peter Greenaway.

“I tend to be cast as cynical characters, but ‘A Life Less Ordinary’ is a love story, albeit of an odd sort, and I play a sweet, innocent guy,” he adds. “Everything’s going a bit weird for him though, and there’s more humor in this than anything I’ve previously done.”

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When one points out there’s not a mainstream American film among his projects, McGregor says: “Filmmaking comes down to writing, and the American film industry seems to have lost the ability to produce good scripts. It’s such a huge industry in America--there are films made here that cost $200 million, which is a disgrace. Think what $200 million could do in the world, and they’re making a movie with it? It’s sick, and anyone involved with that kind of filmmaking should be ashamed of themselves.”

One of those generously budgeted films, “The Mask,” is what led Boyle to cast Diaz opposite McGregor. “We wanted an iconic actress who already had some baggage in cinematic terms,” Boyle says. “We all loved ‘The Mask’ so Cameron had that for us, then when we met, we knew her sense of humor would work well with ours--she has a peculiarly un-American sense of humor.”

Explaining her character as “a girl who has a troubled relationship with her father and is a total control freak,” Diaz says: “The thing that intrigued me about her is that I’m not that way at all.

“ ‘Trainspotting’ was such inventive filmmaking and I love the British sense of humor,” she says, offering further explanation of her decision to do the film. “And Danny’s a really good actor, too--he’d kill me if he heard me say that, but it’s true. When I first read with him, all of a sudden he started yelling at me. At first I was thinking, what’s wrong with this guy? Then I realized he was reading the scene with me and was acting.”

Boyle plans to edit “A Life Less Ordinary” in England, where he has several other irons in the fire. He and McDonald are co-producing a portmanteau film titled “Alien Love Triangle” for Miramax; Boyle will direct one of three segments. Boyle also was executive co-producer on a film with McDonald titled “Twin Town” that debuted this year at Sundance and is directed by Kevin Allen (whose brother, actor Keith Allen, was in “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting”).

“It’s a portrait of Welsh culture that explores the drug economy currently such a huge part of British life,” Boyle explains. “In every British you can buy any drug you want, and this black economy is allowed to flourish--mostly because it’s taken such a hold of the country the authorities couldn’t fight it if they wanted to.

“I think one of the reasons ‘Trainspotting’ did so well in Europe is because it reflects all this and is an accurate portrait of Britain now,” he says. “The country has changed so much in the last 15 years. After the war, Britain wrestled with two big issues--social welfare vs. capitalism--and both have now been discredited. People no longer have those kinds of castles to defend or attack and have reached a point where there are no more heroes, antiheroes or villains. People have even lost faith in rebelliousness, and now everyone just goes along.

“The lead character in ‘Trainspotting’ has this attitude and is afflicted with a very modern kind of cynicism,” Boyle says. “It isn’t the cynicism of John Osborne and Britain’s angry young men of the ‘50s and ‘60s; it’s older than that and has already been through that. The term ‘trainspotting’ refers to people who try to achieve some sense of control of the world through such ludicrous things as knowing everything about Sean Connery or illegal drugs, or music--it’s a way for impotent people to feel potent.”

Asked how his insights into British culture can be applied to a film made in and about America, he replies, “That’s a good question. In preparing for this film I drove across America alone, and I was amazed at how optimistic and bighearted the people of Middle America were. Prior to that, my experience of America had been limited to the bitchery of L.A. and New York, and I’d concluded that the archetypal friendly American was a cliched fantasy. But on the road, I experienced it, and I came away from the trip with the sense that this is a very young country with huge potential.

“Obviously, this is dramatically different from the situation in Britain. So it remains to be seen how my sensibility will fare in being temporarily transplanted here.”


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