Director's Chair: Danny Boyle - <I>Pistol</I>
Issue: July/August 2022

Director's Chair: Danny Boyle - Pistol

Director Danny Boyle, who won the 2008 Oscar for Best Director for Slumdog Millionaire, has always been attracted to kinetic, controversial stories, and to pushing the cinematic envelope as far as he can. He first cemented his reputation 26 years ago with Trainspotting, which stuck a heroin- and adrenalin-fueled needle into the jaded veins of pop culture, electrifying audiences everywhere with its terrifying, fever-dream tale of Edinburgh junkies and shocking, provocative imagery that still packs a vicious punch today. Since then he’s made such eclectic films as The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary, 28 Days Later, Trance, Steve Jobs, T2, Sunshine and 127 Hours.

Now Boyle is back with Pistol, another adrenalin-fueled tale of drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll. Based on guitarist Steve Jones’ memoir “Lonely Boy: Tales From a Sex Pistol,” the FX series, streaming on Hulu, takes a deep dive into the spit-filled mosh pit of the notorious ‘70s punk band’s meteoric rise to the top, followed by an equally swift crash-and-burn. Told largely from the POV of Jones’ character, played by Toby Wallace, the series gets up close and personal with the band members, including singer Johnny Rotten (Anson Boon), drummer Paul Cook (Jacob Slater) and bassist Sid Vicious (Louis Partridge), as well as such other key figures as manager Malcolm McLaren (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), rocker Chrissie Hynde (Sydney Chandler), and designer Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley).

To capture the chaotic, rebellious anarchy of the band, Boyle, reteamed with his long-time go-to collaborators: DP Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot 28 Days Later, 127 Hours and who won the Academy Award for Slumdog Millionaire; editor Jon Harris, whose work on 127  Hours earned him an Academy-Award nomination; VFX supervisor Adam Gascoyne; and colorist Jean-Clement Soret.

In an exclusive interview for Post, I spoke with Boyle about making the FX series, the chaotic shoot, and his love of post production.

You’ve never shied away from dealing with controversial subject matter. I assume that was a big part of the appeal of making this?

“Yes, and they’ve always been surrounded by controversy, and part of their appeal was just how contrary they were — particularly Johnny Rotten — but I actually made this show out of great love, and I never lost that feeling, right the way through it all. Even with John slagging us off and so on, I never lost my love for the band and their music and the era, as it meant so much to me. It formed me and shaped me so much compared to a lot of other stuff going on at that time. The last time I felt that way was about all the characters in Trainspotting, as I sort of knew them, and I loved [author] Irvine Welsh’s writing. He was a punk too. So this project felt like it belonged to me, and it’s such a cliché to say this, but it was a real labor of love.”

What sort of show did you set out to make?

“I wanted to make something that somehow caught the chaos and contrariness of the band, as well as Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s philosophy that out of this destruction comes creation. I always understood that concept intellectually, but I never really understood it in my bones till I made this. And I tried to make it in that way. I tried to let chaos decide, as Malcolm says at one point, having stolen her ideas. And I literally directed it that way, which is a very unusual way of dealing with a project like this. That’s how I wanted it to feel and be experienced.”

Television shoots are by nature very organized, controlled and disciplined, so that approach must have made the shoot fairly tough? 

“You’re right, it did. And it was total chaos making it, but I loved it. And I introduced all the actors to that feeling and they thrived on it. I think all the performances are amazing, and I think they really benefited from the way we embraced the chaos. I also used all my experience to manage the chaos and marry it with the discipline you need in all filmmaking, and it’s the most free-form I’ve ever been, as I knew it’d be very difficult to get the spirit of it right if we tried to make it too rigidly.” 

You also famously had to deal with John Lydon dismissing this show as “disrespectful shit” and legal battles over the music rights between him and the others.

(Laughs) “Yes, and he was sued by Steve Jones and Paul Cook, and he lost. And Cookie and Steve don’t mince words if they don’t like something, and they found it hard to watch this at first, but they loved it, thank God.”

This is your eighth collaboration with DP Anthony Dod Mantle. Talk about the look you went for, and how you incorporated archival footage. 

“We shot with many different cameras and formats, including Mini Alexas, vintage mini DVs and Canon XL1s, and we even shot bits of it on an iPhone. We knew we wanted to use archive, and in the way that Julian Temple and Adam Curtis use it, in a very fluid way rather than a literal way. So we used archive wherever we wanted to. If we wanted to cut to footage of Michael Caine, we did. It was very free association, and we wanted the camera work to reflect that, and allow us to bounce in and out of archive, so we had a mini bullet-time rig that allowed us to throw ingredients in as a continual counter-point. Nothing was allowed to settle too much. It was always contradicted. And we used that approach not just in the shoot but in the edit.”

Is it true all the live performance scenes were done live? 

“Yes, and we wanted all the music performances to dominate. They played and sang everything live, and performed the entire song, even if we only needed or used a bit of the song. They rehearsed it all and became very skilled at playing, and filming all that was the most important part of each day’s shoot. And that set an agenda for how we used all the different cameras, in terms of positioning and movement and freedom. Anthony used a lot of hand held, which he’s wonderful at, and for me he’s the greatest camera operator in the world. I’ve never met anyone else who can compare, and he’s so intuitive with actors, and they loved it. So it was a very exciting, exhilarating shoot despite having to deal with the COVID lockdown.” 

Tell us about post. I assume a lot was remote because of COVID?

“Yes, the edit was largely remote, and then we did the mix and grade all in London at Molinaire.”

This is your sixth collaboration with your go-to editor Jon Harris.  How did you work together, and what were the main editing challenges?

“Like so many editors now, Jon’s converted his loft into an editing suite, and I went over there most days and we had a blissful time editing it. With the kind of material we’d shot and the archive that you can dip in and out of, coupled with the lockdown, made it all a great experience. I think the big challenge was trying to make sure it was coherent without it coming across as too controlled. We didn’t want it to feel packaged. One of the big ironies of John Lydon’s criticism is that we actually avoided imposing the usual music biopic structure and approach onto the band. Instead, and especially with the edit, we tried to show that the way the Sex Pistols operated is the form of the film — this incredibly visceral, intense experience about destructiveness, lack of deference, the embrace of incoherence and the enjoyment of constant contradictions. And what’s truly amazing is that the music of these useless lads still stands up, it still sounds great.”

Where did you mix and what did you aim for?

“Obviously all the sound was absolutely crucial to the series, and we wanted to stay true to the sound of all the original music, and capture the intensity, the high energy of it all. We did all the sound mixing at Molinaire, and spent a lot of time prepping it all. Molinaire now has these very sophisticated mixing studios in Soho, which are almost as good as the huge stages out at Pinewood, where I usually mix all my films. So that’s a big change in the sound business, partly brought on by all the streaming and long-form television projects. The live mix of all the performance stuff was done very skilfully by Rick Smith and Karly Hyde of Underworld. Then I worked with my usual sound team, headed by sound designer and mixer Glenn Freemantle and his company Real Sound. What happened was that Glenn actually had long COVID for quite a while and was really under the weather, but he has such a great team, and we also had two great music supervisors — Becky Bentham and Ian Neil, so that it all went very smoothly in the end.”

This is a period piece, and they always need some VFX. You worked with your usual guy, VFX supervisor Adam Gascoyne at Union Effects in London. What was entailed?

“There’s always stuff you can’t alter in the streets — traffic lights, signs and so on, which he did some work on to make them period-correct, and there’s also always a lot of clean up. Then at the end of the show, we had this beautiful tracking shot, which ends up with “Bollocks” written in the sky with all the fireworks, and Adam loved being able to create all that. I love working with him as he’s so collaborative, and not just in post but also in the way we shoot things. He was very helpful in setting up the bullet-time rig we used a lot for freeze frames, so he’s this great collaborator, not only in pure VFX, but in the whole filmmaking process. Just like Anthony and Jon, he helps cross-fertilize all aspects of the project.” 

What about the DI? Who was the colorist and how closely did you work with them and the DP?

“We did it with colorist Jean-Clement Soret, who does all my grading. Anthony and I trust him entirely, and we all worked very closely on the look. We wanted it look like you’re watching a period piece, in the technical sense, but we also wanted it to have the urgency and impatience of modern filmmaking. So it was a matter of marrying the true look of the era with the visceral impact of what you can do in post today. And I’m really happy with the way it turned out.”