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Listening in on Danny Boyle

Once, in a discussion about films with Stephen Daldry, the director had repeatedly insisted that he wasn't a filmmaker at all, but "a theatre person who's directed movies". Mayank Shekhar writes.

books Updated: Mar 26, 2011 15:12 IST
Mayank Shekhar

Once, in a discussion about films with Stephen Daldry, the director had repeatedly insisted that he wasn't a filmmaker at all, but "a theatre person who's directed movies". His hour-to-hour salary from filmmaking, he said, matched that of a home cleaner's - theatre paid him considerably more. By then, Daldry had directed two movies, The Hours and Billy Elliott, both Oscar nominated. A later film, The Reader, picked up Academy nods too.

It's while reading Danny Boyle's interviews in this book that you realise Daldry wasn't being fake or modest. Serious grounding on the stage is the one thing that arguably differentiates the British filmmaker from his Hollywood counterpart. Boyle says, "It's rare to find an American director who's worked in theatre, apart from David Mamet, obviously. Whereas here (he means the UK) you've got Anthony Minghella, Daldry, Sam Mendes, Roger Michell, Antonia Bird, Mike Leigh…"

Filmmakers from theatre, Boyle says, direct their actors more, unlike others - he describes the quiet working styles of Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese - who rely more on fine casting instead. Given Dev Patel couldn't have made for a Mumbai slum boy by any stretch, Boyle, one assumes, must've counted on his direction skills alone on that one.

It's still odd that one of the most adventurously visual of all contemporary filmmakers started out on stage. I don't know when you last saw Boyle's Trainspotting. It's not dated yet, is rightly considered a breakthrough film whose sheer energy and unexpected zaniness made the world sit up and notice the young Brit underground pop-culture in a dark, humorous light. With it, Boyle had made the global indie cult-grade. He tried to rise above that status with the Leonardo DiCaprio blockbuster The Beach, walking into alien territory (Thailand), alienating the locals from the shoot, bringing along technicians and actors. The film was a disastrous personal experience, something he rectified with Slumdog Millionaire.

Through extensive interviews, the author takes you through each of Boyle's films, starting with his first, Shallow Grave (another edgy, low-budget pic). The book's lightweight format, I suppose, somehow works better than film monographs. For one, everybody enjoys listening in to other people's conversations, especially when they're not paying for the drinks. It also helps that Boyle's a likeable talker, generous with passing on credit, a people's person unlike, say an individualistic, self-expressive artiste like Pedro Almodovar.

With Boyle, you pick up pieces as he explains his filmmaking process. I figured, for instance, why I found 127 Hours to be terribly dry and one-dimensional. Boyle hates delving into background stories of his characters. Slumdog remains his only film with flashbacks.

It's also his and - as it were - India's greatest global film success. This recognition came to him 14 years after his debut. He says writers and directors usually go through a 10-year golden period: "You get truly exceptional artistes for whom that rule doesn't apply, but for most of us, it's confined to a decade." Boyle is 55.

Whatever be the personal reservations about 127 Hours - an "action film where the hero can't move"- the film showed the director still smells of ballsy teen spirit. He is clearly a work in process. So is this book then.