The answer man

Horn is a Times staff writer.

Danny Boyle wasn't yet done with the Taj Mahal, but the Taj Mahal was done with him.

The British director needed to grab a few more shots inside the Indian landmark for his new movie "Slumdog Millionaire," a drama about the remarkable life story of an orphan from Mumbai's slums. Yet the production was no longer welcome. "The people who were helping us there," Boyle says, "didn't help us."

Some directors would have moved on and made do with what they had in the can. Others might have scouted another location. A few might have called up a special effects house to re-create the palace in a computer. Yet Boyle rarely has followed custom, and the outside-the-box thinking that has yielded his eclectic filmography also helped Boyle and his "Slumdog Millionaire" team conjure up a novel solution -- they sent in a fake documentary crew to get the footage.

"I can't remember if they posed as Indian or German or a mixture of both," Boyle says of the "Slumdog Millionaire" team sent to the Taj Mahal. The trick was picking production members who hadn't been there the first time so they wouldn't be recognized by security. "We had to do a little bit of stealth," Boyle says.

Boyle ultimately got what he needed, yet that was hardly the only impediment he faced in making the movie for half a year in and around Mumbai, India, one of the world's most populous cities.

While casting the film, Boyle and his Indian co-director, Loveleen Tandan, decided that the movie's first third should be in Hindi, rather than mostly English, jarring news for his French and American backers who knew that foreign-language films don't usually perform very well at the box office. Later, running low on funds, he had to abandon a planned monsoon sequence. And then, just as filming wrapped, U.S. distributor Warner Independent Pictures was shut down by Warner Bros., and the parent studio briefly considered releasing "Slumdog Millionaire" straight to video before Fox Searchlight came to the film's rescue.

At its heart, the film is a story of fate, and just as Boyle and his crew were swept up by Mumbai's whatever-it-takes spirit, the film's optimistic story line somehow altered "Slumdog Millionaire's" destiny. "If you trust it," Boyle is fond of saying about working in Mumbai, "it will come back to you."

And that's exactly what has happened to the movie. "Slumdog Millionaire" not only found a new distributor (Fox Searchlight, which is releasing the film Wednesday, is sharing costs and proceeds with Warner Bros.) but also is one of the holiday movie period's best-reviewed titles.

After premiering at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day, "Slumdog Millionaire" also played at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the festival's People's Choice Award, an honor previously bestowed on "American Beauty" and "Chariots of Fire."

For those familiar with Boyle's filmography, it's not an entirely surprising outcome, given the 52-year-old director's remarkable artistic range. He has made a zombie flick ("28 Days Later"), a children's fantasy ("Millions"), a sci-fi thriller ("Sunshine"), two big star vehicles (Leonardo DiCaprio's "The Beach" and Cameron Diaz's "A Life Less Ordinary") and an often horrific, often hilarious, sad, sick and ultimately impossible-to-categorize drug story ("Trainspotting").

As varied as all of those films have been, they are inherently united by Boyle's fanciful vision, unexpected images in unexpected places: babies crawling on ceilings, houses materializing out of thin air, flesh-eating monsters running like Olympic sprinters.

"I always try to make films intense -- intensely pleasurable or intensely frightening or intensely joyful," Boyle says. "Intensity is something I go for. That's how I judge things."

There's plenty of intensity in the R-rated "Slumdog Millionaire," too, including a few brief but troubling scenes of torture, a glimpse of teenage prostitution and some terrible cruelty to homeless children. But amid the heartache there's something else that's not always so obvious in Boyle's other movies: naturalism.

Even though "Slumdog Millionaire" is a work of fiction, it feels so consistently real that some early audience members are convinced it's based on a true story.

Freely adapted by Simon Beaufoy ("The Full Monty") from Vikas Swarup's novel "Q & A," "Slumdog Millionaire" tracks the life of Jamal Malik, an impoverished orphan living in Mumbai's sprawling slums, in which half of the city's 16 million residents live. As a child, Jamal (played as a teen by Dev Patel) meets Latika (played as a teen by Freida Pinto), a fellow Indian street urchin.

Jamal's childhood travels are filled with memorable encounters, not all of them pleasant. Those experiences shape Jamal into a romantic dreamer determined to be reunited with Latika and a savant possessing a wealth of seemingly inconsequential pop culture knowledge.

When Jamal appears as a contestant on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," his trivia database helps him last much longer than anyone -- including a police interrogator (Irfan Khan) and the show's host (Anil Kapoor) -- can believe.

Soon after Boyle contemplated directing the movie, he traveled to Mumbai to consider filming there. "I thought very early after I arrived, 'You have to do this,' " Boyle says of how he was transformed by the city's manic liveliness.

"Some people find that appalling and rush back to the hotel and book the first flight they can out of there. It's an assault. The whole thing -- people, smell, temperature, dirt, atmosphere, the air, the water, the danger -- 'Don't drink that! Don't touch that! Don't eat there.' It's exciting. Everybody is contributing an energy to the place, everybody is throwing something into the pot."

To appreciate the area's essence and to capture it on cameras were, of course, very different challenges. But Boyle had a plan.

Rather than arrive as an imperialist interloper, Boyle brought along just a few British department heads, and made a point of hiring heavily from Indian's filmmaking ranks. Largely because the film's characters are children, most of its actors were local neophytes.

But it wasn't just in casting (or in having the youngest actors speak Hindi, or in sneaking into the Taj Mahal) that Boyle achieved a distinctive realism.

Where Swarup's novel was episodic, Beaufoy's screenplay created what Boyle calls "fluid time," in which the divisions between present and past -- the film cuts back across more than a decade in time -- are almost indistinct. That same compression between now and then is evident in "Slumdog Millionaire's" contemporary scenes, which cut between the game show stage and a police interrogation room. Even though Jamal is in both places, it almost feels as if the scenes are unfolding simultaneously.

"The experience that I wanted to have was that everything would feel present day, even though some of it is 10 years ago," Boyle says. "The most important thing was that you were living it right now."

So when the game show's host asks Latika on the phone what her name is, Boyle cuts back to when she introduced herself to Jamal at age 7. "And you get this feeling of destiny," Boyle says. "Normally, in a film, you can never do that. I've certainly never been as free, editing-wise, as I've been on this, to go back in time."

When Boyle does travel to the past, he doesn't give the audience the usual clues: There aren't period cars or different clothes. "I didn't want them to have a different look, because I thought that would just be too tiresome."

Boyle and his team also realized it would be impossible. "There's not a lot of nostalgia," Boyle says, "because India is very hard to control. To do a proper period film in India, to obey the details of the period, would be an absolute nightmare. So we ignored all that."

As much for authenticity as for budget (the film cost $15 million), Boyle populated his film's backgrounds with local non-actors. When a young Jamal and his friends are chased by police through Mumbai's slums, the frame is filled with its real residents, not hired extras.

To capture the city's dynamism, Boyle often filmed with three different types of cameras, including a Canon still camera that can shoot 11 frames per second and deliver incredibly high-resolution pictures that are blended into the film.

"A lot of our film is about memory, recalling things, the way images are burned on your mind," Boyle says. "So we would use that camera for key moments, like the image of Latika, when Jamal loses her at a train station, because the image is burned on his mind."

Boyle's last film, the critical and commercial washout "Sunshine," was as austere a movie as Boyle has made. For a year of post-production, Boyle often worked with just a handful of special effects technicians and editors, working toward something he called "very exact and precise." His new film, Boyle says, couldn't be more different.

"India is the exact opposite of exact and precise," he says. "And none of the filming is very exact or precise. It's a dash, really. And by doing it that way, you might be lucky enough to get a bit of genuine India, or genuine Mumbai. I'd be surprised if I saw a very controlled film about Mumbai that really caught the city. It just doesn't work that way."

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john.horn@latimes.com

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