A Writer's Best Friend

Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking Award honoree Danny Boyle

A Writer's Best Friend

Film director Danny Boyle captured international attention with his first two feature films, Shallow Grave (1995) and Trainspotting (1996), in which his flair for creating memorable characters and situations was complemented by the inventive vibrancy of his visual palette. His latest film, Slumdog Millionaire, is screening at the Austin Film Festival in advance of its November opening across the U.S. Boyle, who will present the film in person, is also being honored as the festival's 2008 recipient of the Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking Award.

Slumdog Millionaire, which was written by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), was made in India and tells the backstory of how an impoverished slum kid improbably comes to know the correct answers to questions posed to him on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. It's a story with stark details from the lives of orphaned slum kids, bits of subtitled Hindi dialogue, and no Western movie stars. Despite these ostensible barriers to mainstream acceptance, the film won the Cadillac People's Choice Award at last month's Toronto Film Festival.

Boyle says he prefers working "off the radar," whether in India or elsewhere. Even in Mumbai, Boyle shot Slumdog like an independent film, steering clear of the Bollywood studio infrastructure and making the film "in the city, in the streets. Obviously, if you work with high-visibility actors, it's a different ball game and pressure. I think I'm better being free to do the surprise thing where you can turn any way you want."

Austin Chronicle: You've had strong working relationships with writers. Since AFF is a writers' conference, I'd be remiss not to ask how that happens.

Danny Boyle: I've worked with four writers in films [John Hodge, Alex Garland, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and Simon Beaufoy]. ... It's very interesting, really, because I come from a background in theatre. When I started working, I worked at London's Royal Court, which is a writers-oriented theatre, and it gave me a respect for writers, which you don't find a lot in the industry. I really love writers, and I have a lot of time for them and try to keep them as involved as possible all the way through the process of making the film, not just at the script stage.

There's this big argument in Europe: the auteur theory. A writer has to be a director; a director has to be a writer; it has to be one vision. I disagree with that. I personally think it's the spirit of the film – which comes as an assembly from different people – that matters more than any other thing, rather than the vision as such. And when you get it right, the spirit, it's really extraordinary. And I think we got it right on Slumdog.

AC: Are you surprised by the great reception Slumdog's had so far?

DB: What I love about it is that, in many ways, although it is a big film, it's essentially a little film. It's made for very little money, comparatively. And, in theory, it's got very little chance. But I think it shows you that little films and big films are linked. You can't separate them. And we will be healthiest if we can keep little films surprising big films by actually capturing people's hearts. I think the big films will always dazzle. But the little films can always capture the heart if you do it right, because people love stories and characters.

AC: You're also going to be presenting a screening of Shallow Grave at the festival. Why that film?

DB: That's going to be a thrill. I do believe this: Your best film is your first film, because you don't know what you're doing. You may get more skilled at filmmaking and more successful, but you never get back to that innocence. You never make a film as fresh as that. I think that's what's wonderful about movies: You can sense freshness when you see it. Obviously, we love watching a skilled storyteller like Spielberg; it's a pleasure to watch great filmmakers at work. But there's something very special about watching fresh expression. As a director, you're always trying to get back to that stage. You can never quite get there, but going to India, chucking yourself off the deep end in India, that helps.

Slumdog Millionaire screens Friday, Oct. 17, 7:30pm at the Paramount. Shallow Grave follows at 10pm.

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