“Slumdog Millionaire”, Danny Boyle’s latest film, is in selected theatres at the moment and everyone should make the time to see it. It’s been a beguiling career for Mr.Boyle. He’s one of the most stylishly distinct filmmakers working today. A “Danny Boyle film” is truly that. Going through each of his films provides a unique pathway of the ups and down, artistic consistencies and changes creating a unique body of work for this ‘auteur’ director.
Danny Boyle’s career began in theatre and then television. Perhaps the most significant early television credit of his is as producer of Alan Clarke’s final film “Elephant” (which would inspire Gus Van Sant’s film of the same name). But his cinematic oeuvre would begin in 1995:
SHALLOW GRAVE (1995)
Starring: Ewen McGregor, Kerry Fox, Christopher Eccelston
Like many great filmmakers, Boyle began his career with a sublime neo-noir. In Edinburgh Scotland three friends are on the hunt for a new roommate. Their chosen flatmate turns out to be involved in shady racketeering. One day he’s found dead in his room, with a briefcase full of money. Instead of turning it in they bury the body and keep the money. The money becomes the virus of greed which gradually pits the trio as bitter enemies of each other.
This was first of three films with Boyle’s own coterie of key collaborators – Andrew MacDonald, producer, John Hodge, writer, and Ewen McGregor, actor, not to mention his technical collaborators Brian Tufano, cinematographer and editor Masahiro Hirakubo. While at a glance, a far cry stylistically from “Slumdog Millionaire”, the Boyle evolution is evident, clever portrait-style framing, distinct bass-heavy dance music creating a distinct rhythm and control of pace.
Starring: Ewen McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kelly MacDonald
With help from the same creative team as "Shallow Grave" Boyle's second film instantly became a seminal British film. Based on Irvine Welsh’s dark and comic novel, “Trainspotting” tells the story of five Edinburgh lads and how heroin bonds them and breaks them up.
Boyle amplified the cinema language established in “Shallow Grave” creating a blistering assault of music, imagery, violence, sex, drug use, and above all rich British humour. In fact the Scottish accents were so strong an alternate toned down dialogue tracked had to be used for the U.S. release. The film’s opening scene, a rambunctious running chase through the streets of Edinburgh - a device Boyle would reuse in subsequent films – sets the pace early on. Boyle’s ear for music helped make the new wave/Brit pop soundtrack as successful as the film.
A LIFE LESS ORDINARY (1997)
Starring: Ewen McGregor, Cameron Diaz, Holly Hunter, Delroy Lindo, Ian Holm
Boyle famously passed on “Alien Resurrection” to make “A Life Less Ordinary” the last film of the Boyle-MacDonald-Hodge-McGregor collaborations. The success of “Trainspotting” allowed Boyle to cast American stars thus making it his biggest film yet and his first taste of 'Hollywood'. Ewen McGregor plays a naïve Scotsman fired from his job who then kidnaps the boss’ daughter (Cameron Diaz) as revenge. Delroy Lindo and Holly Hunter play benevolent angels who seek to bring the couple together in the name of love.
The film was a colossal failure, due to bloated and inconsistent plotting – a common trap for young directors of grabbing farther than one’s reach. Amid the mess are a couple of great stand alone sequences which fit well into the world of Boyle including an energetic barroom dance/dream sequence with Ewen McGregor and Cameron Diaz. But the failure of “A Life Less Ordinary” would mark the beginning of the low valley of Boyle’s career.
THE BEACH (2000)
Starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Virginie Ledoyen, Guillaume Canet
Controversy surrounding “The Beach” began before shooting even started. With the casting of Leonardo Di Caprio, who was the hottest actor on the planet at the time, the friendship and thus collaboration of Boyle and Ewen McGregor, who was originally slated to star, instantly ended. Apparently McGregor and Boyle are still not on speaking terms.
Once production started things seemed to get worse. Filming in Thailand, Boyle and the producers intended to ‘give back’ to the country by hiring 300 Thai shadow technicians to work with the crew. The endeavour became an arduous immovable beast stunting Boyle’s famous run and gun style. As a result the film is one of Boyle’s least inspired, and least energetic. But as the collaboration with McGregor closed, serendipitously Boyle entered into a new relationship with writer Alex Garland.
STRUMPET and VACUUMMING COMPLETELY NUDE IN PARADISE (2001)
Starring: Christopher Eccleston, Timothy Spall
In what appears to be a self-imposed demotion. Boyle went back to television to cleanse his soul of his two Hollywood nightmares. In 2001 Boyle experimented with the digital medium and directed two BBC TV MOWs. “Vacuuming” was an absurd black comedy about a pathetic door-to-door vacuum salesman who desires to win the “Golden Hoover” trophy as best salesman. “Strumpet” is even more absurd, a crazy street person who travels with a pack of dogs befriends a lovely young musician, together forming a music act called “Strumpet”.
Neither film quite fits into the traditional world of Danny Boyle – thematically nor stylistically – but as an exercise in lo-fi grassroots filmmaking both were important films to make. Boyle teamed up for the first time with digital master Anthony Dot Mantle as cinematographer – a collaboration which would continue over into the second half of his career.
ALIEN LOVE TRIANGLE (???)
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Heather Graham, Courtney Cox
Before we get to “28 Days Later” we have to discuss this peculiar entry in his filmography. “Alien Love Triangle” was a fully completed 30mins short film which was to be one third of a Miramax sci-fi anthology project. The other two films actually got turned into unimpressive feature films – Guillermo Del Toro’s “Mimic” and Gary Fleder’s “Imposter.”
The imdb summary reads like this: “Physics lecturer Steven Chesterman finally realizes his long cherished dream of perfecting a teleportation device and rushes home to tell his wife, Alice. But she has news of her own - she's a male alien disguised as a human female. Then Elizabeth arrives, another alien who is to escort Alice back to the planet Nulark.”
The film has rarely been seen and still resides locked up in the Miramax vaults. The film did provide material for a fun British television piece about it’s 'record-setting' world premiere (check it out here):
28 DAYS LATER (2002)
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Christopher Eccleston, Naomi Harris
In response to the bloated studio machine debacle that was “The Beach” and after the soul cleansing catharsis of his two DV MOWs, Boyle returned to the big screen refreshed and energized. Boyle literally stripped out the gloss of his earlier pictures and delivered one of the dirtiest, nastiest and most intense horror films ever made,“28 Days Later”. With the film’s success Boyle single handedly revitalized the zombie subgenre.
This was the days before High Definition, and so Boyle and his DOP Anthony Dot Mantle chose to use a barebones prosumer style PAL camera to shoot their film. The duo managed to create some of the most astonishing imagery ever produced on digital video. Stylistically it represents perfectly the post “Beach” career for Boyle. Mantle’s camera is edited with a pace more breathtaking than anything in Boyle’s Brian Tufano era. Much of the film is handheld, but never ‘shakey’ or nauseating. Boyle mixed well his handheld work with tradition locked-off classic cinematic style. Boyle’s musical tastes remain intact, giving us pitch-perfect choices of pop music from “Grandaddy” to “Godspeed You Black Emperor”.
Starring: Alex Etel, James Nesbitt
In 2003/04 Danny Boyle was mere days away from going to camera on “Worchester Cold Storage” a true story about a tragic warehouse fire blaze, but fire fighters’ rallying against the film caused the production to be shut down.
Before this happened Boyle already had in the can this unusual change of pace – a family-friendly heart-warming flick, “Millions”. Based on a story by Frank Cotrell Boyce, “Millions” is about two young boys who find a briefcase full of stolen money. Thinking it’s a gift from God the boys give the money away like silent Santas.
Despite what could be perceived as syrupy wholesomeness the film bears Boyle’s distinct stamp. A number of sequences stand out specifically a raucuous bank robbery scene set to the muscular beat-heavy music of Muse. The larger than life fantasy aspects and Capra-esque feel-good-ness make this film the closest thematic cousin to “Slumdog Millionaire”.
Starring: Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis
Boyle reteamed with Alex Garland for a third time with another ambitious change of pace – the sci-fi thriller “Sunshine”. Taking inspiration from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Solaris” would set most filmmakers up for disaster. Boyle’s film succeeds as a thought-provoking near-future thriller. Boyle and Garfield stay as close to reality as possible in order to tell a metaphysical story about existence.
It’s a flawed but often brilliant film. The third act, arguably lets its hair down too quickly, but not before Boyle has a chance to craft some exquisitely stunning sequences within the claustrophobia of space. Boyle rises to the challenge of keeping control of pace within the confines of a spaceship and in the quiet slowness of space. Pop music is left off the soundtrack, but he does manage to pull a beautiful ambient soundscape from Underworld musicians Karl Hyde and Rick Smith.
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008)
Starring; Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Irfan Kahn
And so with all these other pictures in mind, it seems as if Boyle’s career were leading up to this film – if not his best, then certainly his most accessible and crowd-pleasing film.
“Slumdog” is a cornucopia of sound, imagery, and emotions. Without any stars or even Western faces, the film manages to capture to the best aspects of Hollywood escapism. Boyle embellishes every element of cinema – both technically and narratively – with full tilt cinematic force.