In the Money: Danny Boyle Surprises with Millions

There are several images that spring immediately to mind when discussing director Danny Boyle’s filmography—scheming flatmates, jaded junkies, rampaging zombies.

Kids, however, are not his typical subject matter. When children show up in Boyle’s movies, you tend to find them climbing the walls during a detox hallucination or fending off hordes of the undead. So when news spread that the man who helped to revive the moribund British film industry with Trainspotting (1996) and revitalize the apocalyptic-horror genre with 28 Days Later (2002) was working on a sweet-natured kid’s film, you could hear the sounds of jaws dropping from across the Atlantic. Millions, Boyle’s new family-friendly film, showcases a kinder, gentler version of the 48-year-old director best known for filming Ewan McGregor plunging headfirst into the world’s foulest toilet, but maintains the same creative chutzpah that has thrilled critics and fans alike for more than a decade.

On its surface, Millions is a typical boys’ adventure yarn: Two lads living with their widower father have stumbled across several bags of stolen loot and must spend all of it in the last 24 hours before E-Day (a fictional holiday that will mark Britain’s turnover from its old currency to the Euro) renders the money useless. Naturally, there are some unsavory folks who’d like the money for themselves, and a comely young charity worker who would make an excellent companion for their dad. It sounds like any story you might pull off your local bookstore’s kid’s lit shelf.

But it’s Boyle’s telling that makes the film seem like such a genuine wonder, working in elements of surreal fantasy via the younger boy’s preoccupation with Catholic saints and tapping into an ability to treat children—and the fertile imaginative world of the eight-to12-year-old demographic— in a manner that leaves most of the film’s saccharine “tween” entertainment peers in the dust. The movie’s intelligence, balance of darker adult elements and sheer verve make it the rare kid’s flick that you might find yourself returning to several times to ensure you catch every joke, or simply for another dose of its infectious, energetic buzz. While it may be the last genre you would have expected this moviemaker to dabble in, Millions has all the hallmarks of Boyle’s best work (minus, of course, all the drug addicts and violent corpses). As Boyle himself says, it managed to rejuvenate his love of telling stories and remind him why he started making movies in the first place. Even if Millions doesn’t bring in box office numbers anywhere near the numeration of its title, the effect it has had on its creator is priceless.

David Fear (MM): Directing a kid’s film with religious overtones strikes many people as being an odd choice after 28 Days Later. Was this an intentional move—to pull a complete 180-degree turnaround?

Danny Boyle (DB): (laughs) You’re not the first person to say that it comes from out of left field; it’s the most shocking thing I could have done. My favorite filmmaker is Nicolas Roeg, and I remember going to see The Witches, which was his attempt to make a kid’s film. I sat there thinking, ‘What’s he done this for?’ But yeah, part of the reason I wanted to do it was that it was so contrary to what people would normally expect from me, especially something that felt completely different from 28 Days Later. But most of all, there was something in Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script, the concept of this lad and his imagination, that connected with me. I think if you analyze what you do too much, you can get caught in this hall of mirrors. This was one of those times when I just felt that I needed to follow my instinct and do it.

MM: How much work did you and Boyce do on the script prior to shooting?

DB: Frank had sent it to me a long while back, and the story was very different than what you see on the screen. We worked on the shooting script for about a year, playing around with different elements and the whole concept of this fake E-Day—the moment when England would get rid of the pound and switch to the Euro. The structure was there; it was just a matter of getting all the ingredients right.

There were a lot of similarities between my upbringing and how Frank was brought up. That’s not to say it was autobiographical, but as we were working on the script together, we found ourselves adding a lot of bits and pieces we remembered from our own childhoods—the details about the saints, in particular. Even though I’m not particularly religious now, I was raised as a Roman Catholic, so there’s a lot of resonance there for me. There’s something in that kind of background that spurs on the imagination; all these fantastic tales of saints and miracles. But that’s putting an adult context on it. The story is about the kids, so you have to makes those bases the kids’ bases, not yours specifically.

Alex Etel in Millions. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Alex Etel in Millions. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

MM: Is that the hardest thing about working in this genre? Just keeping the focus on the kids’ perspectives?

DB: Honestly, it’s finding the right kids. Some films, if you don’t cast your first choice or the actor isn’t available, you can still press on. But when you’re working with children, if you don’t get the right kid for the part, forget it. The glass slipper has to fit just right, so to speak, since you’re handing the movie over to them. You can only direct them so far before they just sound like mouthpieces. It has to feel natural… I mean, we know it’s fake, but the point is to try and capture that moment when the imagination hasn’t been trained and they haven’t become like robotic kids. Have you seen Louis Malle’s Au Revoir, Les Enfants?

MM: Yes.

DB: I found that while I was preparing Millions, I kept going back to that movie. It’s not a proper kid’s film, obviously, and it’s a very sad, very dark film. But that was a good template for me to look at for directing kids. Watch all the youngsters in the background of the scenes; they’re all natural, and yet they’re all totally there—really acting in the moment. They’re all very much in the same movie, you know what I mean? Those are some of my favorite kids’ performances in any film.

MM: Can you talk about how you and your cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, came up with the look of Millions? Considering he’s such an authority on digital video, it almost seems odd that you guys chose film.

DB: Anthony is a genius at working with digital video, which is why his work on 28 Days Later is considered groundbreaking by so many folks. But we both realized very early on that we wanted to shoot this on film—that we wanted that look that film gives you in terms of the super-saturated vibrancy of colors.

There was a lot of talk between the lot of us about how children view the world and what we remembered as kids. I grew up in Manchester, and there were plenty of gray days growing up there. But when I think back to being a kid there, my memories don’t involve dismal weather… It was always ‘Oh man, where am I going to go play football? What’s playing at the Saturday matinee?’ You’re dreaming and reaching for the future when you’re a kid, which is the feel we wanted with the visuals. The colors would burst, the sky would be as blue as you can imagine… It may be the northern part of England, but to these kids, it looks like the bloody Mediterranean in their imagination! (laughs) Both Anthony and I were on the same page with that, and he was instrumental in that surreal look that we got in the scenes with the saints, the halos around their heads, all that. He just has an endless source of anything-goes creativity.

A kinder, gentler Danny Boyle films a scene for Millions

A kinder, gentler Danny Boyle films a scene for Millions

MM: Having used both film and DV, what do you feel are the benefits of digital video on a project instead of film? Do you think you would ever use it again?

DB: The obvious benefits are plentiful. Since you’re not as reliant on big crews, it’s cheaper and you don’t have to develop DV. There are so many technical aspects to worry about when you’re using film that the bigger the set gets, the more you run the risk of having the crew make the film for you. It’s great if you’re just starting out as a moviemaker, but sometimes it can be a burden later on. Plus, the technology has improved exponentially even since we shot 28 Days Later. There’s a Panasonic camera out now that shoots 24 digital pictures per second and emulates the texture of film beautifully. So from a visual perspective, it’s become an even more attractive option.

It’s funny you should ask that, as my partners and I have been talking about that all day. We’re setting up this new sci-fi film called Sunshine and we’re talking about using digital video for a section of it. The budget is big enough that we wouldn’t have to use it—it’s not a financial imperative—so the organic reasons behind using it for effect have been a large part of the discussion. I mean, if you can raise the money to shoot something on film, why use DV? The answer to that is the way the aesthetic of digital video mimics the way we receive information in the 21st century. People are getting imagery projected at them through their cell phones and over their computers—they’re accustomed to that grainy, pixelated look. Yet, when you contrast the degeneration of the digital image to a celluloid image, the effect can be used to denote either unease or a rawness we associate with documentary filmmaking. It’s an interesting tool to use for storytelling, especially when you can mix the mediums and create a tension with their differences. We’re just doing tests on it right now.

MM: It’s been 10 years since Shallow Grave made you an art-household name. How has moviemaking, in general, changed for you?

DB: Besides the technical stuff, like CGI going mainstream and all that, right? Hmmm… It’s funny that someone is asking me this now, because this film is so much about innocence and naivete and the more films you make, the better you become at it—theoretically, at least. Though that’s not necessarily a good thing.

You learn certain tricks that you think, ‘Oh, well, I can always use this or rely on that to get me through something.’ Then you run the risk of becoming lazy, because some of those tricks end up being crutches and you stop doing anything new or creatively vital. So for me, what’s changed the most is that I have to work a little harder to maintain that sense of pure energy and excitement that makes filmmaking such a great job. It’s actually easier to do that with your first film than in your 10th film.

MM: You’re the first moviemaker I’ve ever spoken with who has said that. Do you think it would have been easier to make a film like Millions when you were starting out as opposed to now?

DB: (pause) Hmmm… probably not. I mean, I didn’t have kids then, and I think that helped a lot in terms of making this film feel more real. Fatherhood has actually made it easier to see things like a child, and it was only recently where I felt spurred on to really revisit my own childhood in my work. That certainly wasn’t what I was interested in when I was starting out. Some people might call it part of maturing, having the need to look back. Others might call it boring. (laughs) But it’s not something I could have done justice to when I was younger. MM

This article appeared in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2005 issue.

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