Is it possible for a director to ‘return to form’ if he or she has been working in cinema for just under two decades? For that statement to be made, I always figured the director would have had to break the boundaries of diversity, trying their hand at nearly every genre in addition to having worked in movies for a number of years. Directors like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Robert Zemeckis, Francis Ford Coppola, Oliver Stone, and Ridley Scott all have the capability to ‘return to form’ if they so desire…in fact, the last two directors did recently and failed miserably (Savages and Prometheus, respectively). Despite this, it appears that the number of years a director has worked has no bearing on whether or not they can ‘return to form”, byt rather the diversity of the director’s filmography is a better telling card. Take Danny Boyle, an Oscar winning filmmaker who has been writing and directing films since only 1994 but who has jumped from genre to genre with each successive film all garnering mostly positive results. His diversity is evident and he’s got serious technical skills that are on display in every film of his, old and new. In just nineteen years, Danny Boyle has earned his stripes time and again.
This weekend brings his newest effort, the heady psychological thriller Trance, which is arguably a return to form for Boyle. Trance’s hyper pace and surrealist influences are reminiscent of his first two films – Shallow Grave and Trainspotting – and sees the director at his most confident. Though recent efforts, including the Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, have all been distinctly Boyle, there is a specialty about Trance that will be most welcomed by longtime fans of Boyle; the experience gained over the past nineteen years shows a great maturation in Trance’s craft, but the film radiates with the gritty and grimy underworld criminality that stung so strongly in Boyle’s work from the mid 1990s. If you haven’t guessed already, Trance’s release this Friday has ignited our desire to revisit the career of Danny Boyle, examining how the young Irish buck grew into one of today’s most auteuristic filmmakers.
Set your time machines back to October 20, 1956.
In Radcliffe, Lancashire, Mr. Danny Boyle was born to Irish parents from County Galway and was raised in an Irish Catholic environment. He served as an altar boy for nearly ten years and was prepping to enter priesthood at the request of his mother. However, a priest persuaded Danny against it and instead urged him to stay in school. When looking back on this important decision in his life, Boyle is quoted as saying, “Whether he was saving me from the priesthood or the priesthood from me, I don’t know. But quite soon after, I started doing drama. And there’s a real connection, I think. All these directors — Martin Scorsese, John Woo, M. Night Shyamalan — they were all meant to be priests. There’s something very theatrical about it. It’s basically the same job — poncing around, telling people what to think.” Refraining from attending the seminary, Boyle continued schooling and studied at the Thornleigh Salesian College in Bolton. From there he moved to Bangor University where he concentrated on English and Drama and also dated British film and television actress, Frances Barber. From school, he moved on to theater companies and dramatic work, which would direct him toward film later on.
1982 proved to be a decisive year for Danny Boyle. Though his career started at the Joint Stock Theatre Company, he moved onto the Royal Court Theatre in ’82 while simultaneously working as a producer for BBC Northern Ireland producing television films. For the theater, he directed Howard Brenton’s The Genius and Edward Bond’s Saved at Royal Court, and then spread the wealth to the Royal Shakespeare Company helming five productions. Directing became a mainstay occupation for Boyle in television as well; he worked his way from producer to director on numerous shows like Arise and Go Now, Not Even God Is Wise Enough, For the Greater Good, Scout, and Inspector Morse. The BBC2 series Mr. Wroe’s Virgins was a creation of Boyle’s as well, and even when his film career was blooming, he still returned to TV for Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise and Strumpet – both premiered on BBC in 2001.
Though his devotion to theater and experiential work in television is not to be ignored, it was film that danced the closest to Danny Boyle’s heart. Like every passionate filmmaker, his adoration for cinema started with the viewing of one powerful film. For Boyle, that film was Francis Ford Coppola’s fever dream-like war drama, Apocalypse Now. “It had eviscerated my brain, completely. I was an impressionable twenty-one-year-old guy from the sticks. My brain had not been fed and watered with great culture, you know, as art is meant to do. It had been sandblasted by the power of cinema. And that’s why cinema, despite everything we try to do, it remains a young man’s medium, really, in terms of audience.” From this revelation, Boyle set to work on making films. In 1994, he directed the John Hodge-written Shallow Grave, which turned out to be the most commercially successful British film of that year and earned Boyle the Best Newcomer Award from the London Film Critics Circle. The success gave Boyle some rep and he moved onto his sophomore effort, Trainspotting, again teaming him up with John Hodge and Shallow Grave star, Ewan McGregor. The horrifying interpretation of Irvine Walsh’s novel premiered at in the 1996 Cannes Film Festival and became an instant favorite among critics and viewers. When it was released, the praise was practically universal. It scored Hodge an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay and was called one of the best films of the decade. It has entered simultaneous classicdom and cultdom in the seventeen years since its release and its pairing with Boyle’s debut caused critics to appoint Boyle as the personified revitalization of British cinema.
The United States came calling and requested a major production deal with the filmmaker hoping that he would agree to direct the fourth installment in the Alien franchise. He respectfully declined and directed a third personal project called A Life Less Ordinary. Trainspotting breakout, Ewan McGregor, again starred and the film was made through British finances. Come the new decade, Boyle made his first, and last, tactical career error through the production process of The Beach. Prepping to make the film with writer Alex Garland, Boyle had already cast frequent collaborator, and new international star, McGregor in the lead role, but decided to drop his colleague just before the start of filming to replace him with Leonardo DiCaprio, a more popular actor among American audiences. The film was critically panned upon release and is still Boyle’s lowest rated film to date, plus it destroyed the working relationship and friendship between Boyle and Ewan McGregor. Though both went on to be very successful in their own realms, the dynamic duo has not paired up since their falling out in 2000.
The Beach writer, Alex Garland, became Boyle’s new writing partner and would go on to write a hat-trick of hits for Boyle. The first was the apocalyptic horror instant-classic, 28 Days Later, starring Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Brendan Gleeson, and Shallow Grave star Christopher Eccleston. After the low-key and super sweet Millions, Boyle and Garland worked on the wildly visceral ‘Apollo 13 to the sun’ sci-fi film, Sunshine, again starring Cillian Murphy. By this time, Boyle had made a number of beloved cult films that were slowly seeping into the mainstream on DVD and video releases. While they are all now very well known, their popularity was jumpstarted by the massive success of Boyle’s next independent picture. The Simon Beaufoy-adapted Slumdog Millionaire was the movie that turned Danny Boyle from talented indie director into international premiere auteur.
Based on Vikas Swarup’s Q&A, the film follows an underdog who becomes a contestant on the Hindi version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? in order to prove his love to the girl he has loved his entire life. When he makes it all the way to the final question, the show’s producers and hosts accuse him of cheating. While in police questioning, he proves that his violent life growing up in the slums of India led to his knowing the answers to each of the show’s questions. It’s an inspiring tale beautifully shot on location, vibrant and colorful and terrifically led by Skins star, Dev Patel. The film went on to win eight Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Picture.
Two years later, Boyle directed another Best Picture nominated film, which was again scripted by Simon Beaufoy. The biopic, 127 Hours, focused on adventure-junkie Aron Ralston, astoundingly portrayed by an against-type James Franco, who was trapped in a deep canyon for the titular duration before self-amputating a limb that allowed him to escape and survive. It’s a powerful tale of ingenuity and driving to survive in the most deadly and dire situation imaginable and Boyle attacks this one-man show effortlessly. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay for Beaufoy and Boyle.
Most recently, Boyle has kept himself busy outside of the filmsphere. He returned to his theatrical roots and directed a production of Frankenstein for the National Theatre and artistically directed the mesmerizing opening ceremony for the 2012 Summer Olympics, entitled Isles of Wonder. During the free time he could come by amidst this hard work, he brought John Hodges’ adaptation of Joe Ahearne’s short story, Trance, to life. This complex and brutally violent psychological thriller will be playing in Boston theaters come this time next week.
Danny Boyle is a filmmaker of a nearly unmatchable caliber. In an era with premiere cinematic voices like Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, the Coen Brothers, David Fincher, as well as unique newbies like Derek Cianfrance, Benh Zeitlin, Ryan Coogler, and Neil Blomkamp, Danny Boyle balances nicely in between. He retains the fresh style and filmic attack that made him a wild breakout nearly two decades ago, but his growth as a filmmaker and his strength to inherit any material and turn it into something wonderful makes him an invaluable directorial treasure. When commenting on his eclectic range of films, Boyle said, “There’s a theme running through all of them – and I just realized this. They’re all about someone facing impossible odds and overcoming them.”
Come whatever he decides to challenge us with next – fingers are crossed for a third installment in the 28 Days Later franchise and a Trainspotting sequel with Ewan McGregor – he can be sure to count on myself, and I’m sure many more, to be in attendance on opening day.
Article by Mike Murphy