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Q&A: DANNY BOYLE,
Director of Slumdog Millionaire

An online exclusive interview

Director DANNY BOYLE

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

By Patrick Z. McGavin


Danny Boyle’s latest feature, Slumdog Millionaire, is a kinetic and lively story of grit and self-determination. The twist is that the story is set in the Mumbai slums and follows a wild-eye dreamer and would-be impresario who becomes a national folk hero and reality television star after appearing on the Indian iteration of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

The script by Simon Beaufoy is adapted from the novel, Q & A, by Indian writer Vikas Swarup. Structured as a modern inquisition, Boyle uses the novel’s fantastic premise to track the vivid, turbulent life of the 18-year-old protagonist, Jamal (Dev Patel). The film seamlessly jumps through time, drawing out the sad circumstances of Jamal’s early life, touching on the country’s social ills, sectarian violence, brutal caste system and the rise of the gangster class. It all highlights Jamal’s astonishing capacity for survival and self-preservation, and marks another unclassifiable piece by Boyle (The Beach, 28 Days Later).

In a recent interview, the 52-year-old, Manchester-born filmmaker discussed working in India, its visual influences and his wary courtship by Hollywood.

Stop Smiling: How concerned were you about objectifying Third World poverty — making it beautiful, making it even feel good?

Danny Boyle: You obviously are aware of that. It’s a head-fuck that you can’t get your mind around unless you just tell the stories from inside the characters and not proselytize, preach or opinionate. You are very quickly confronted in India with your own morality. At the street corner, the first beggar who comes up to you has his hands cut off. Everybody says that if you give him money, it goes straight to gangsters. You don’t give him money, and you wait for what seems like eternity at the light. You’re thinking that he’s swearing at you because of your money and wealth.

You cannot bring the morality to it, even though you want to. You think it would be helpful and valuable — the reality is much more complex, particularly from an outsider. You’ll never understand it, but as you begin to feel it, you want to represent it as it is.

SS: Had you spent much time in India before making the film?

DB: I’d never been to India. I think that helped, because [I went] really deep in right away. I’d come from a film, Sunshine, which was all about control, precision and slowness. If you approach it right, people in India are incredibly generous. Again, you have to respect the place in order for the people there to love you. There are a billion people there. I wasn’t going to run around, screaming, “It has to be done this way.” That ignores their culture and also their destiny.

You particularly feel that if you’re British, because we were there. Even though it’s been more than 60 years, we feel we’ve left a big imprint because we were colonialists. We may be apologizing for it now, but we still feel we were colonialists. You get there, and they don’t even see you, it’s like an anecdote.

SS: The film feels like an analogue to Millions, your 2004 film about young, working-class kids who come into a strange kind of fortune.

DB: I was explaining to somebody recently that it’s funny once you start to make a few films because people start to connect them. I can’t think of the films like that, because otherwise you just be remaking things or making variations of the same thing. I did think of the title, and a lot of people thought we should change the title.

You can make connections with things. I tell people I’m not a writer. Somebody said it’s in the choices, the way you focus the script. That’s true with this because, like Millions, I fell in love with the script. I didn’t care about its potential or its feasibility. You get amnesia about the realities of filmmaking. You just think about the desire to make the film. After 20 pages, I remember thinking and knowing I was going to make this film, and I hadn’t even gotten to the end. It doesn’t help getting to the end [in order to] make decisions. In fact, it can hinder you, because the memories return: the practicalities of who’s going to be in it, where are we going to get the money, who will get to distribute, is it a good idea to make a film about India?

Your job is to complete the film and make the audience feel like they’re inside the story as they’re watching it — to feel the way I did when I was reading the script. That’s what I think about, and not necessarily connections or whether all the films are leading somewhere or contributing something.

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