TERRY GROSS, host:
British film director Danny Boyle is probably best known for "28 Days Later," a post-apocalyptic tale about a virus that leaves infected survivors attacking the uninfected, and "Trainspotting," the story of heroin addicts in Edinburgh, Scotland. Boyle also directed "Millions," an endearing children's fable, and the films "Sunshine," "The Beach" and "Shallow Grave."
Boyle's new film, "Slumdog Millionaire," is set in India. It won the People's Choice Award at this year's Toronto Film Festival. It's the story of an orphan boy, Jamal, from a Mumbai slum who grows up and becomes a contestant on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." In this scene, Jamal, played by Dev Patel, has just correctly answered a question from the host, played by Bollywood star Anil Kapoor.
(Soundbite of movie clip from "Slumdog Millionaire")
Mr. ANIL KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) You're absolutely right!
(Soundbite of crowd applauding)
Mr. KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) It's getting hot in here.
Mr. DEV PATEL: (As Jamal Malik) Are you nervous?
Mr. KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) What?
(Soundbite of crowd laughing)
Mr. KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) Am I nervous? It's you who's in the hot seat, my friend.
Mr. PATEL: (As Jamal Malik) Oh. Yes. Sorry.
Unidentified Man: He's got Prem on the run.
Unidentified Woman: Finally.
Mr. KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) A few hours ago, you were giving chai for the (unintelligible) wallahs, and now you're richer than they will ever be. What a player. Ladies and gentlemen, what a player!
GROSS: Because Jamal does so well on the show, he's arrested on suspicion of cheating. His interrogation by the police reveals his remarkable story of escaping Mumbai's slums and making his way in a rapidly changing India. Danny Boyle spoke to Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Danny Boyle, welcome to Fresh Air. You know, this film kind of just grabs you by the collar early on with this opening - I guess it's the opening scene or an early scene, in which you see some slum kids playing kind of a makeshift game of cricket on I guess what looks like an airport tarmac. And the security guards come and say, you know, private land, get out of here, and they chase them into this shanty town.
And there's this scene that I don't know how long it takes, but it is the most amazing look at this massive sprawling slum, and it includes aerial shots and chases through various places. I want to talk a little bit about - it just gets you into this city in a way that is just visceral. Talk a little bit about that scene.
Mr. DANNY BOYLE (Director, "Slumdog Millionaire"): That was the whole idea really because we thought, you know, as westerners going there, we only took like 10 crew. The rest of the crew are drawn from Bollywood. But I thought, as a westerner going there and trying to make a film about a kid growing up there, they're just going to have to film the film as subjectively as possible and just literally tip the audience in off the edge of a cliff and just see how you get on.
And the way we did that was through this chase sequence at the beginning, where you literally - there's no like wide shots where you go, hello, everybody, this is India. Hello, everybody, this is Mumbai. You know, it's actually - so you don't settle people into the film. You just hurtle them into it full pull, and that's what it's like arriving there.
I remember the first time I arrived. You were just overwhelmed by the sensory experience of the film. And, you think, if I don't start moving very, very quickly, I'm just going to be swept away by this, you know. You have to catch up very, very quickly, and so the idea was to propel the audience into the environment and leave you no choice, really. You're either going to leave the theater with a migraine, or you're going to settle in and start to absorb this extraordinary city, you know.
DAVIES: You know, I don't want to get too technical, but when I looked at those chase scenes, and it's very tight quarters because people are crammed together, and their makeshift, you know, habitats are all very close. I couldn't imagine getting a sound boom and lighting and all the stuff that goes with the movie set. How did you film it?
Mr. BOYLE: (Laughing) With a very small crew. There are very narrow lane ways, and obviously - I mean, as you probably know, in any community, a film crew is disruptive - you know, it disrupts the rhythm and access for a community. We were still very disruptive, but we took a small crew, and we filmed with very small digital cameras which allowed us to capture the dynamism of the place really, as well as actually not disrupt it too much ourselves.
And people were very generous and welcoming to us. We filmed in two slums - a small slum by the airport called Juhu and an extraordinary slum, which is a slum of at least 2 million people - some say it's the biggest slum on earth - called Dharavi. And that, you just - I mean, the chance to film there is obviously visually stunning because you're able to show a world to people that they often just see from a distance and often just with this - rather kind of like distancing title of a slum. And it's rather a pejorative word in the way we use it.
But in India, it's just a location word. It's a geographic word. It just means that's where they live, because the places inside are full of energy, life, dynamism. There are very organized cottage industries. They don't have enough resources. There isn't enough sanitation. There isn't running water or not sufficiently enough running water. The electricity is intermittent and slightly dangerous. But those things are not their fault. The things that they have responsibility for, they organize amazingly well. And the thing works. And it works so well that it can absorb a film crew no problem, you know, and let us not only get on with the film but benefit from their help in making the movie, you know.
DAVIES: The characters in the film initially are presented to us as kids, like little kids, preschool-age kids.
Mr. BOYLE: Yeah.
DAVIES: And these are tremendous actors, if they are actors. How did you cast those roles, these slum kids?
Mr. BOYLE: Well, initially, the film was written in English - completely in English. And when we got there - I mean, that was how we raised the money. We raised the money from Pathe in Europe and from Warner Brothers in America. But when we got there, it was clear that the seven-year-olds - because they're seven years old really - six and seven years old, the kids, they didn't really speak English that comfortably.
A lot of the people there speak English very well, as you see in the rest of the film, and it's quite easy to present the film in English, because it's a natural part of life there to speak English. But the little ones hadn't picked it up fully yet, and so it felt a bit stilted and a bit awkward. And the casting director, Loveleen Tandan, she said, listen, if you want to make that work, you need to translate that into Hindi. She said, I know you can't because of your deal and, you know, the reception of the film in the west, but if you want the film to come alive, translate it into Hindi.
So, we took a deep breath, translated it into the native language, and it just came alive, the kids. Suddenly, these kids from the slums who we could - you know, you saw when you're going around, we could start auditioning them as well, and the electricity just jumped off the rehearsal room, you know, where we were auditioning.
DAVIES: Well, you mentioned that, you know, you took these digital cameras into these slums and shot these scenes, and you used these kids, you know, from those communities. Did people ever regard you as exploiting them, and did you ever feel that tension yourself?
Mr. BOYLE: It's an obvious thing that you're very conscious of going in there, and I had been very lucky. I had made another film with kids in the U.K. called "Millions," ironically, and I'd been introduced there to the rules and regulations of working with kids in the United Kingdom, and I believe they're very similar to the United States. They're very restrictive. You only can do a few hours with them. And what we did is, because we knew those regulations didn't exist there, we took our regulations with us, and we self-imposed them really to make sure that we didn't exploit the kids.
DAVIES: I kind of, I meant it more broadly - I mean more that you're, you know, westerners with, you know, money and resources coming into a community of incredible poverty and sort of capturing it for your own benefit. I mean, did it feel uncomfortable?
Mr. BOYLE: In theory, that's the case. I never - I kind of like went into it in an almost naive way, really. It felt - the first time I went there - the first time you go is, you go to check the script, that it's truthful and believable what you're - and I'm very conscious of that, that it has to meet that question. It has to meet that test, really. And it felt it - it felt like it was born of true experiences. It felt like it didn't flatter to deceive, that it wasn't exploitative in terms of, you know, trying to use people for easy emotions. It felt like it was a truthful depiction of a city and of a character, really.
So, given that you're always exploiting people in every film you ever do, given that that happens anyway per se just because you're making a film, it felt - no, it felt reasonable what we were asking people to do, and that provided that we took back a picture of it that was really complex and multifaceted because the city is impossible to define by one person. You just cannot do the definitive picture about the place, but if you can capture a bit of it and you do it - you include enough of the experiences that you see there, you'll have a reasonable picture of - a reasonably truthful picture of a incredibly complex society, really.
DAVIES: You know, what's remarkable about the story here is that you see the characters as young kids in a slum when they're just in terrible poverty, literally living at a landfill and, you know, going through the trash for things of value. And as they grow up, you see the city change, and I think what's really remarkable about this, it's not a story just of Indian poverty, but incredible growth and change, and there are skyscrapers and hip nightlife and crowded freeways. And the character ends up, of all places, in a call center. I mean, just talk a little bit about kind of the breadth and scope of the India that's presented here.
Mr. BOYLE: The way you describe it, that's exactly what you get. You get this incredible extreme combinations, which is, you get the most abject poverty, people living on landfill sites, and then you get these extraordinary capitalism growing and building there. You know, you - we can see we've got a problem at the moment in the west with capitalism is that it's hit a wall because, in order to operate at its best, it needs to constantly expand, so it's definitely got room to expand in India, and it is doing. And they'll hit a wall at some point, and it will be very interesting to see how they deal with it. But for the moment, it's actually got this expansion, throwing up this enormous contrast between the life that this kids live to begin with and then what they emerge into when they're 18.
One brother - because this is a story of two brothers - one brother, like you say, ends up in a call center where, again, although he's just a chai wallah, you know, a guy who goes around serving the tea, he's actually picking up information which, ironically, again helps him when he gets on the show later. But his other brother, having gone through this terrible violent incident in his childhood, has turned to violence himself and has become part of this gangster regime which runs - a lot of Mumbai's run by gangsters, you know, and mobsters who are benefiting from this huge explosion of capitalism there at the moment and this huge building program that's going on.
So, it's an incredibly complex and rich society with, and you have to acknowledge it, a horrific side, and you can't exclude some of the cruelty that you see, you know, in one way. But then, there's this other side of it, which is that life is being lived at this enormously vivid pace, and you've got to just try and include all that and bring it back to people really and show - because the world is opening up more - there's more of the west heading into India, and there is more of India heading for the west, as well.
DAVIES: Were there particular challenges to shooting in India that were new to you?
Mr. BOYLE: I didn't think of them like that, very deliberately, because everybody says you're going to have problems. There's obstacles. There's challenges. There's difficulties, and I just thought, don't think like that really, because I sensed the way to get the best out of it was to kind of like embrace everything there. So, we'd have these enormous setbacks, and you'd just think, you know, sometimes like your normal reaction...
DAVIES: Like what?
Mr. BOYLE: Well, just permissions and kind of impossibility of certain kinds of filming, and it's just endless, and the guys who run the production for us, who were this local company called India Take One Productions, they would run the whole permissions and the whole official side of the film on a kind of parallel track to the actual filmmaking. It was like a parallel universe that never - you never really had to - you could visit if you wanted to, but you could make the whole film without seeing that. And it was usually dependent on large sackfuls of cash, to be absolutely honest, this parallel universe. And that's the way the system seemed to operate.
For instance, we asked - got permission - we applied for permission to shoot from the air in Mumbai, and it's very difficult because it's an island, which people don't realize, and there's lot of naval bases around it. The government is paranoid about national security, understandably, and so they won't let foreigners up in helicopters.
So, we nominated an Indian camera man to go up and do it for us, but it took over 14 months to get permission, and they gave us permission about 10 days before we opened at the Telluride and Toronto Film festivals this year, so that was no good to us at all, but the parallel universe company were delighted because they will now sell on that permission to some shady company who are making some film about Mumbai, and so the system moves on in its own inexorable, inexplicable, incredible way, you know.
DAVIES: Well, so how did you shoot without permission?
Mr. BOYLE: Exactly. I know.
DAVIES: I see.
Mr. BOYLE: These things happen, though, you know, and...
DAVIES: We're speaking with Danny Boyle his latest film is "Slumdog Millionaire." We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with film director Danny Boyle. His latest film is "Slumdog Millionaire." You grew up in northern England, is that right, with middle-class parents?
Mr. BOYLE: No, kind of what you call working-class parents actually, but I grew up in just a small town outside Manchester. Yeah, my parents were Irish immigrants really, who settled in Manchester, as many, many, many people did, you know. Yeah, working-class parents, decent working-class parents.
DAVIES: And went to religious school and, at some point, considered the priesthood, but found your way into movies. How did it happen?
Mr. BOYLE: Into movies instead, yeah. There's a number of directors, actually, who've nearly become priests, but they become directors instead, which is an interesting connection between those two. I was - my mom was, the dream of her life really was that her eldest boy would become a priest. And I was destined for that. But fortunately, I was saved from the priesthood by a guy who said, maybe don't do this. Maybe wait a bit and see what you think. And then, of course, girls, music, you know, all those kind of things arrive in your teenage years, and so I made my way. I started in theater, actually, and then I moved into television and then film. In the U.K., it's a much easier transition, and a number of the directors you probably heard of started in theater, directors like the late Anthony Minghella, Stephen Daldry, Sam Mendes. They often start in theater and television in Britain and then move across to films, you know?
DAVIES: A real breakout film for you was "Trainspotting," which is based on the novel by Irvine Welsh. It got you a lot of attention and a lot of critical acclaim. And I thought we would just listen to a scene. This is very, kind of in the opening of the film, when its central character, Mark Renton, is sort of describing choices that these kids are making in life.
(Soundbite of movie "Trainspotting")
Mr. EWAN MCGREGOR: (as Mark Renton) Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suite on higher purchase in a range of fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the [bleep] you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing [bleep] junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, [bleep] up brats that you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life. But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?
(Soundbite of song "Lust for Life" by Iggy Pop)
DAVIES: And that's from the film "Trainspotting," directed by our guest, Danny Boyle. This, of course, is a story about five friends, five young guys in Edinburgh, Scotland. Some of them were in and out of heroin use, and there's a compelling scene early on that immediately immerses you in this world of heroin users, the one early on where they're in the apartment. Would you just talk a little bit about creating that world?
Mr. BOYLE: It's based really on this extraordinary book by Irvine Welsh, who was himself plagued by a relationship with the drug. And he frankly says that you never ever, although you give it up, it never ever leaves you. You know, it's always waiting there for you at your lowest moments for your return to it. And it was a book of enormous truthfulness and power and surprise really because he told the story completely from the inside of the people. So, you sensed very controversially their joy in their dependence on it, what they got from it. So, it's a disgusting but also an incredibly vivid and alive picture of these people, really.
DAVIES: You've done such an interesting mix of films. You've got "Trainspotting," which is this intense look at heroin users, and you've got "Millions" which is this beautifully touching kind of child fable, science fiction film "Sunshine," and then "28 Days Later," which is this film of flesh-eating zombies. What's next for you? Musical theater?
Mr. BOYLE: I'd love to do a musical. Seriously, I think the holy grail for virtually all directors is a musical, a modern-day musical with new music. I've directed a couple of musical sequences. There's one, obviously, like you were saying at the end of "Slumdog Millionaire." And I've done a couple in the theater. I did a little one in "Life Less Ordinary" here with Cameron Diaz and Ewan McGregor.
And when you're directing those sequences, it's such a buzz. There's something about directing something with rhythm. It's so releasing, really. I'd love to do it. But it's the most - it is the holy grail, and I don't think, certainly in the modern day, it's very difficult to know how anyone would ever get there quite with that kind of pure experience of a brand new musical with brand new music. And it's interesting. The ones that have worked, like "Moulin Rouge" and "Mamma Mia!" are using music that we're already familiar with.
And that's really interesting because, you know, that's how they sell movies in Bollywood, which does use music in every film, virtually. They put the soundtrack out a month beforehand. Everybody buys the soundtrack, learns the songs, then turns up to the new movie, so they can sing along, so they're familiar with the music. It's really interesting watching that in Bollywood, how it operates as a system.
No, but I was going to do an animated film actually, which would have completed a surprising selection of films for people, but, in fact, that all fell apart. So I would think I'll do a kind of thriller next, really. I feel the temptation to do an out-and-out thriller in some way, you know.
DAVIES: Well, Danny Boyle, I guess we're out of time. I wish we could talk some more, but thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. BOYLE: Thanks, Dave.
GROSS: Danny Boyle directed the new film "Slumdog Millionaire." It opened in select cities today and opens wider next week. Boyle spoke with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies, who is a senior for the Philadelphia Daily News. Coming up, John Powers reviews two new Italian crime novels that reflect Italian culture's international comeback. This is Fresh Air.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.