In 2012, it took a smiley bloke from Lancashire to wipe the grimace clean off London’s face. Danny Boyle was in charge of the national anti-depressant that was the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. He’s the film and theatre director best known for movies including Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, and for winning an Oscar in 2009 for Slumdog Millionaire.
But for one night only, this 56-year-old was the nation’s entertainer-in-chief. We feared watching through our fingers at X Factor-style theatrics and a guest appearance from Status Quo. Instead, Boyle gave the world dancing nurses, flaming rings and an enormous clip of the lesbian snog from Brookside. He became a national hero overnight.
Seven months after the ceremony, Boyle was still hard at work: he has a new film, Trance, out now. When we meet to talk about Trance, he’s wearing a black suit with a smart shirt and tie. He had to be just as dapper when he turned up at Buckingham Palace last summer to film the Queen and Daniel Craig.
Was Her Maj a pro under his direction? ‘She was great. She deals with cameras all the time, it’s part of her life. She’s sharp. She astutely judged that the Jubilee would be very formal and this could be less so. But it was insane trying to get them in the same room. There was a feeling that we should shoot them separately, but I was like, “No, we’ve got to do them together!” She also wanted some of her people to be in it – like this guy Paul, who’s a footman and has been with her for donkey’s years. I thought: That’s cool.’
Now that Boyle has marshalled such a huge project as the Olympic opening ceremony and had 007 perform for him, can he see himself directing something on the scale of a Bond movie? ‘I love people like Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott, and I love watching their films. But I like a smaller crew. I like it being a little more guerrilla, which you can only get with a small team.’
His film debut, Shallow Grave, made in 1994 after more than a decade working as a director and producer in TV, and as a director for the Royal Court and RSC in theatre, was such a guerrilla film. Trainspotting followed in 1996, and since then he’s applied his zesty, loud and frenetic style to the zombie movie 28 Days Later, sci-fi flick Sunshine, and souped-up fantasy-realist film Slumdog Millionaire.
Behind the scenes of Trance
The new film, Trance, is a London-set psychological mind game of a movie that sees James McAvoy as a slick employee at a high-class auction house who’s dragged into a fast-moving conspiracy when he’s hit over the head during a robbery at work and loses his memory. The thieves – including a vicious Vincent Cassel – need him to remember where a painting is hidden – which in turn leads to hypnotherapy sessions with Rosario Dawson, and plunges the film into a tricksy storytelling vortex.
It’s not easy to write about a film that hinges on some key twists (Boyle sent me a letter before a screening, asking me to help him ‘protect the film’s most intimate secret’). When he talks about it, he mentions films like Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – films unafraid to take a story somewhere a bit head-scratchy.
It’s very much a Boyle film: choppy, fast, inventive, with pumping music and colourful performances. It’s also violent: there’s a scene where we see a bullet blowing apart someone’s head in slow motion and in close-up.
Boyle says Trance emerged from the dark side of the Olympic dream. ‘It’s what happens to your brain when you’re trying to do the Olympics,’ he laughs, ‘the savagery you’re not allowed to depict when you’ve got the job of being family-orientated and celebratory!’ He shot it right in the middle of planning the opening ceremony. ‘On paper, the Olympics was two years’ work, and if you want to sit around a table for two years, you can. But it will drive you insane.’
Time off for other projects took a bit of the pressure off: ‘We negotiated two sabbaticals, one for Frankenstein at the National Theatre, and the other to shoot Trance. They were the antithesis to the celebratory nature of the Olympics. We’d have bizarre days where you’re blowing someone’s head off on set, and then you’d go into a meeting about the Queen.’
Somehow Boyle pulled it off, and along with Skyfall director Sam Mendes, he made 2012 the year when British film directors became household names. ‘One of the things people think we’re good at – and fucking cool at – in this country is culture.’ And no one is more responsible for that at the moment than Danny Boyle.