Grim up North? Not in Millions, a family film from Danny Boyle.
In Millions, two young brothers are getting over the death of their mother when a suitcase of money falls out of the sky at their feet. It sets the boys off on a wild adventure that teaches them the source of true wealth.
Nick Jones: Millions is certainly a departure from your usual dark films, which deal with subject matter such as heroin addicts and zombies. How did you come to make what is essentially a family film?
Danny Boyle: I was sent Frank Cottrell Boyce's script and he's always been a writer that I really admired and wanted to work with. But it wasn't that, it was the script itself; it was just delicious writing that you pang for - you're always looking for that kind of writing. So we worked together on the script for about a year, because originally it was set in the Sixties and I didn't want a period film; I wanted it to be contemporary.
We got on really well as a partnership. You don't really think about it being different, in fact if anything you worry about it being too similar to the other films. That's always your worry, that you're making the same film over and over again. Your heart skips a beat when you read such a script and it needn't make any sense to other people. Indeed, the financiers obviously wanted us to do a sequel to 28 Days Later and didn't really want us to do a family film, because my brand is dark, troubled and violent.
NJ: Cottrell Boyce's writing and your direction style seem well suited in terms of originality and imagination.
DB: You can't be scared of taking a chance on a flight of the imagination and just take a leap.
NJ: One of the strengths of Millions lies in the performances from the two young leads. Where did you find these kids?
DB: Well, the casting directors scoured the schools. I didn't really want established actors. In a funny kind of way, you've got to risk all or nothing when you employ kids. What you mustn't do is aim for safety. When you see kids on the screen, you want to believe as much as possible that this is their first and only time, that they are the person that they're playing. When you see Jimmy Nesbitt play a part, you know that this is an actor and you agree to forget it. But when you see a kid, it's almost like you don't even want to know about that contract; you want to believe that they're the real thing. And when Alex (Etel) walked through the door, I knew that was him. I was amazed we found him. I thought so even before he opened his mouth.
NJ: So, having worked with big name stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Ewan McGregor, was it refreshing working with kids that you can mould?
DB: The first few days I did that and you can see my fingerprints on them and it's not good because it doesn't look like they are their own person. They look like mini-adults being manipulated and told what to do and told what to say. So I backed off and changed the way I was directing and they had to take responsibility. In a funny kind of way, they are less directed than the other actors I've worked with. If you leave a mark on them, it ruins it for the audience.
NJ: Right from the opening scene with the two brothers running through fields, the film is vibrant and colourful. Was this a deliberate attempt to get away from the "grim up North" cliche?
DB: Yes. The towns in the North West are normally shown as black-and-white towns and I don't see it like that at all. I see them as places bursting with personality and I thought, "How can we express that?" I decided that if you try and show the world from the kids' point of view, these colours are the way to make the film seem like it belongs to them. So we shot in the summertime, even though it's set in the winter, to try and get more blue sky and vibrant primary colours bursting onto the screen.
NJ: Millions also has that dynamic, energetic aspect that appears in all your films, particularly 28 Days Later with the high-speed zombies. Here you do the same thing with fast-forwarded trains and graphics of houses being built in seconds. Do you see this as a key trait of your style?
DB: I don't want to make passive, objective films; I want to make hot, subjective films that you might hate, but for those who like them can really get into it. You don't have a chance to relax, or become reflective. Instead, it's a hot, immediate experience. And I like that a lot.
NJ: Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, The Beach... your films are varied and you seem to be a director unafraid of taking risks with new genres; this is compounded further with Millions! Can we ever expect a musical from Danny Boyle?
DB: It's funny. We talked about this being a musical when we first started working on it. I mean, it's got a spirit that you could, in theory, make into a musical. We never carried it through because we thought it was going to be hard enough anyway with the kids, to get them right and show their world. I think it's the dream of any director to do a contemporary musical, with modern, specially composed music, but it's very difficult. Baz Luhrmann did it with Moulin Rouge but he cheated because he used songs that you already knew. It was a fantastic film, but it's a cheat.
NJ: You've always worked with strong writers, from the screenplays of John Hodge to the novels of Welsh and Garland, and now the great Cottrell Boyce. Are there any other writers that you would really like to work with?
DB: There's a fantastic writer called Kazuo Ishiguro who has written a wonderful novel called Never Let Me Go, which is out at the moment. And there's an Australian writer called Anna Funder, who wrote Staziland; that's a wonderful book. But one of the problems with this job is that writing is ruined for me, because I'm constantly thinking, "Have the film rights been taken?" or "Can this make a film? Can you do this and that with it?" And that slightly spoils it, because it isn't a simple exchange anymore; it's complicated by the business side.
NJ: So even with Trainspotting and The Beach under your belt, you can't just pick up the phone and approach these writers?
DB: Not necessarily. You have to have the right idea. There's always a point where the project has to stand up to examination. There are very few directors that work like that. Perhaps some art film directors do. But I want the film to stand up in front of the public, in front of a mainstream audience.
NJ: When you work with a writer, how hands on are you in the storyboard process?
DB: It's very important to make a partnership with your writer and make the film together. In fact, Frank's actually in the film. He plays one of the teachers, a very funny sequence in the rehearsal when the kid contradicts him about the character he's representing and it's very funny. I like the writers to be in the film because I like them to think that it's their film as well, whereas the fashion is to say that it's the director's film. I'm a bit modest about that. I think you have to be honest and say there's nothing until the writer puts pen to paper. Without them, you have nothing and will always have nothing.
NJ: You wouldn't ever attempt writing a script yourself then.
DB: No, I'm not really that kind of person. I'm much more about taking something and making something of it and inspiring other people to work on it with me.
NJ: In Millions, Damian is a young boy obsessed with patron saints. Do you know who the patron saint of film is?
DB: I don't think there is one. In the film, we have the patron saint of television. There's also a patron saint of the Internet called Isidore of Seville. He was a seventh century bishop who collected together all the knowledge into one place. He centralised knowledge, so I guess it makes sense to make him the patron saint of the Internet. There's a patron saint of acting, too, but not one of film, as far as I know.
(Mr Boyle is right. Some believe St Tula to be the patron saint of cinema, a school of thought championed by Lithuanian director and film lecture, Adolfas Mekas, but it's not widely recognised.)
Millions is out on Friday