HOLLYWOOD — Visionary director Danny Boyle, who won the 2009 Oscar for Best Director for Slumdog Millionaire, has always been attracted to controversial stories and to pushing the cinematic envelope as far as he could, as evidenced by a body of work that includes such films as Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary, 28 Days Later, Sunshine and 127 Hours.
His new film, Trance, continues in that tradition with its twisty tale of an art thief (James McAvoy) and his partner-in-crime (Vincent Cassel), who become part of a love triangle with a beautiful hypno-therapist (Rosario Dawson) hired to help the thief recover from amnesia.
Part psychological thriller, part black comedy, Trance dives head-first into the murky depths of the human subconscious, and, here, in an exclusive interview, Boyle talks about making it, his love of post and sound, and how he juggled the film with also directing his ambitious and acclaimed Opening ceremonies for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
POST: How would you describe Trance, and what sort of film did you set out to make?
DANNY BOYLE: “I set out to make a thriller, but it uses a lot of different genres to tell the story. It starts off as an art heist, like The Thomas Crown Affair, but it’s not really a heist movie or about a stolen painting at all. It’s actually about stolen memories, which you find out by the end of the film. It’s also an amnesia genre, except a character says, ‘Amnesia’s bollocks — everyone knows that.’
“It’s also a femme fatale noir kind of movie, and Rosario’s character does appear to behave like a femme fatale, except you find out that it’s not really like that at all, and that she has more damage and emotion than you might expect. So it uses all these different genres and then defines them a little bit.
“It’s basically about this art auctioneer who is involved in the robbery of a Goya from his own auction house, with a criminal gang, who he then double-crosses, who then punish him. He then claims amnesia as the reason no one can find the painting, they torture him, and realize he really doesn’t remember where he hid it. So they turn to the mind, and hire this hypno-therapist to see if they can discover where he put it. She takes him into a series of trances, but nothing’s quite what it seems, as he begins as an apparently reliable narrator — he looks straight into the camera and appears to be your trusted guide — and then turns into something very different.”
POST: What were the biggest technical challenges making this?
BOYLE: “The story’s nonlinear, so you’re using time in a different way, and the use of the trances and the whole idea of perception versus reality all made it quite challenging to shoot and edit. There’s no difference between perception and reality at different times, because of the trances, and that was part of the appeal for me in making it.”
POST: How long was the shoot and how tough was it?
BOYLE: “About two months. We shot it all in East London, and at Three Mills Studios in the East End, and the biggest issue was that we were doing the Olympics at the same time. So we would do two days a week on that and then shoot four days on this. To be honest, surprisingly, doing this movie about insanity kept us all sane. It cheered us up, even though it’s this dark, devious tale.”
POST: You’ve worked with DP Anthony Dod Mantle six times now. What does he bring to the mix?
BOYLE: “We know each other so well that we can cut so many corners. We can guess what the other’s thinking, and he’s always prepared to try something completely new in the filmmaking process. This was slightly more classical than Slumdog or 127 Hours, where we used very small, fluid cameras. This was more set-based. But we used a lot of reflective surfaces to reflect these characters who are not quite what they seem. So we used a lot of double and triple images organically, as a natural part of the set, which act as a warning to the audience’s subconscious — that things aren’t quite what they seem.”
POST: Where did you post it, and where does post rank for you in the whole equation?
BOYLE: “I love post, and I actually love the transition from the shoot to post the most, where you moved from this huge crowded set with hundreds of people to the edit suite with just two or three of you. I love that change of tempo. All films are made in the editing room. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done with the shooting and sets and acting and set pieces and so on — it all gets made in the edit, particularly with a nonlinear film like this, with elements that are moved around a lot to tell the story. We did the post at De Lane Lee in London and all the sound mix at Pinewood with sound designer Glenn Freemantle.”
POST: You worked with editor Jon Harris on 127 Hours. How was it this time round?
BOYLE: “He’s fantastic, and a great guy. Here’s the thing about an editor — you’ve got to be able to share a room with them for three, four months. You’re like roommates, so you have to be able to get on well. And he’s very skillful. He did a rough cut during the Olympics, and then we put it on ice and walked away from it for six months.
“So that was a big challenge coming back to it, as we’d forgotten parts of it. You do forget, though you never think you will. It gives you a rare, welcome glimpse of what it’s like to see it for the first time, like an audience. We cut on Avid, and once we got back to it, it went pretty smoothly.”
POST: How many visual effects shots did you do in the end?
BOYLE: Our VFX supervisor was Adam Gascoyne, who did Slumdog, 127 Hours and the Olympics with me. I think we had at least a few hundred by the end, some of them quite complex, like the scene where Vincent’s head is half shot away.”
POST: The film has some great visuals. Do you like working with VFX?
BOYLE: “I do. I like working with Adam a lot and with all my collaborators, and I like to give them all a lot of freedom. I’m not dictating the shots the whole time. For me, the secret is to hire good people and let them go for it. Ultimately, I’m responsible and I shape it all, but I like them to be their own masters, and you get better work like that. Adam runs a very small but very brilliant VFX house, Union Visual Effects, which did them all.”
POST: What was the most difficult effects shot in the film?
BOYLE: “Probably doing Vincent’s partially-decapitated head. It took quite a while to do and it was done very carefully, and it turned out really well.”
POST: As usual, the sound and music are also key elements in this film.
BOYLE: “They’re hugely important to me as a filmmaker. I actually believe — and we don’t realize this as an audience — that it’s at least 70 percent of a film, if not more. If you have bad sound, any movie is unwatchable, and if you turn the sound off on any film, most are also unwatchable. They just don’t work. It’s extraordinary, and sound recordists often get treated so badly on sets, even though the audio is so vital. But if you have a film with bad visual quality, you can get away with it.
In fact, your eye adapts quite quickly. 28 Days Later, for instance, was a very rough-looking film deliberately, and it didn’t faze anyone. But there’s no way around bad sound. If you can’t hear dialogue and so on, it’s a disaster.
“The opposite side is just how effective a film can become when you have really good use of sound, and our production sound mixer Simon Hayes had a very simple brief — be fanatical about the clarity of all the dialogue, especially what Rosario was saying. We wanted it to be super-real, almost like it was in your own head, telling the tale and hypnotizing you. Then all those tracks got passed on to (supervising sound editor/sound designer) Glenn Freemantle and his team at Sound 24, and then we added all the music from Rick Smith, and that way you get a great soundscape that lures people into the film.
“I’ve always been very particular about sound, and I feel that British films sometimes tend to forget just how vital sound is. As a rule, American films are much better on sound — even with animated films. We actually did a mix on the new Dolby Atmos system, which is amazing.”
POST: Was doing a DI also very important to you?
BOYLE: “Yes, and we did it at Technicolor in London with this amazing colorist, Jean-Clement Soret, who I’ve worked with before. The DP wasn’t available for the whole of the grade, but it didn’t really matter as he and Jean-Clement have worked together so many times now. Like with all your key collaborators, you expect them to act as though you would been knocked over by a bus — they have to carry on and make the film in the way they know you would want it to be done. I’m there for the whole DI as, again, I’m ultimately responsible for the way it looks, but I like to leave them to it.”
POST: You shot this digitally?
BOYLE: “Yes, on Alexa, and there’s no question now that film’s dead. All the labs are closing. It’s weird the way it’s suddenly happened, just overnight. It didn’t seem that digital was going to finally take over shooting for a long time, even though post and sound went digital a decade ago.
“I’m happy to shoot digitally. There’s still something special about film, but you can’t be a luddite about it. It’s a new era, and when you consider the possibilities of what these new cameras can give you, it’s pretty amazing. Look at that Russian meteor that hit earlier this year. It was totally unexpected, it hit the atmosphere at 44,000mph, and thanks to all the dashboard digital cameras in cars in Russia, we have the most images ever of this thing exploding. It’s mind-blowing!”
POST: Any interest in doing a 3D film?
BOYLE: “None. I like all my films to feel like they’re 3D anyway. I wear glasses, so it’s no fun for me anyway — two pairs of glasses? Forget it (laughs). But I loved Life of Pi. The 3D in that was extraordinary and so beautiful.”