One might not expect a film like “Millions” from the director of “Shallow Grave,” “Trainspotting” and “28 Days Later.” It’s a lovable family movie–the story of two young brothers, recently moved into a new neighborhood after the death of their mother, who find a satchel filled with cash and must decide what to do with it. The older, a budding businessman, aims to use the treasure for long-term investment. His younger sibling, an angelic-faced tyke obsessed with stories of the Catholic saints, thinks the bounty should be distributed to the poor, especially after he’s visited by some of the blessed souls he venerates, who urge him to employ the bills to help the less fortunate. The plot thickens when the thief who stole the money in the first place returns to claim his loot.
But in a recent Dallas interview, Danny Boyle explained why Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script for “Millions” appealed to him so strongly. “I was brought up a strict Catholic,” he said. “My Mum was a very devout Irish Catholic, so we were brought up surrounded by all that. And I went to a Salesian school, which was kind of a big turning-point in my life because my Dad–I come from a kind of blue-collar background–was very aspirational. He wanted us to go to a better school, and he moved us at about the same time [of life] as the kids move [in the movie]. And the house he moved us to was a better estate, a better house [too]. And I went to this school. In fact, I was meant to actually be a priest until I was fourteen–I was meant to leave the school and go to a separate seminary, to train to be a priest. And that was my Mum’s lifetime ambition, I think, for her only son. [But] this priest talked to me at school and said, ‘I don’t think you should go there–I think you should finish your education here first.’ He obviously spoke to my Mum separately, ‘cause I never remember talking about it to my Mum. I don’t know whether he was trying to save me from the priesthood or save the priesthood from me. I don’t know which way he saw it. But I didn’t go [to seminary]. It’s funny, actually. It feels like at about that time, I started getting interested in drama, which I did at school. I did a lot of acting in the school plays, stuff like that.” And as an afterthought he added, “And there are lots of people in the film industry who were once almost priests–two very famous examples [are] Martin Scorsese and John Woo, two directors.”
In any event, Boyle said, he didn’t consider “Millions” so great a departure for him. “I know it feels like that,” he observed. “Everybody you meet says that…but it didn’t feel like that. Given that the content is different–obviously it’s about boys growing up in Manchester, it’s not about junkies in Edinburgh, or it’s not about the apocalypse, so the content is different. But all the other details feel the same, really. You make them all with the same kind of passion and love, ‘cause I don’t really pick them, they kind of pick me. You don’t sit down with your agent…and think [what’s best]. You don’t really do it like that. It’s the one that your heart feels really close to or attached to. A lot of the time it doesn’t make business sense, and I always say the best way to do them is to do them in hope rather than in expectation.”
He continued, “In this case Frank sent me the script and I just jumped at it. I think he was amazed, because I said to him, ‘Listen, I’ll do this.’ I think most people juggle a number of projects. [But] I said to him, ‘No, I’ll do this, this is the only one. I won’t do anything else. But we need to do some work on it.’ In the meantime, ‘28 Days Later’ had been a big hit here [in America], and that meant we could raise the money. Because although a look of disappointment went across [the backers’] faces when I said it was going to be a warm-hearted film about boys growing up in Manchester, you get so many credits because of a successful film that they sort of allow you to do what you want–up to a certain price.”
The appeal of the script to Boyle was obvious, given his background: “The writer was also brought up in a way similar to me.” But of course his saying yes to the project was only the beginning of the collaboration. “Frank and I worked on [the script] together for about a year,” Boyle said. “You decide to do something because of a script, then you change everything. Clearly we were exploring our backgrounds in the script, because we were both imaginative kids, really, and really it was our imagination that had helped us get out of our backgrounds, I suppose.” The imaginative aspect is most clearly demonstrated in the part of the script in which various saints visit young Damian and offer him encouragement. “A lot of it was based on my background, ‘cause I sort of know all about them. But visually they were based on El Greco paintings,” he explained. “And at one point, I was going to shrink the saints…so they were adults, but [the child’s] size. And also, if you look at El Greco, [the figures are] stretched, because they think he was [astigmatic]…so he drew everybody elongated like that…and so I was going to shrink them and elongate them. But I just didn’t have the money to do that. It was very complex. We just had enough money to put the halos on.”
But the fact that the saints remain in the film at all is a triumph of artistic judgment over merchandising technique. Boyle uses focus groups in cutting his films, as is usual nowadays. “I find them really interesting, until everybody starts talking,” he said, “because then they’re self-conscious. But when they’re watching the film, when it’s happening live, that’s different. I find that really helpful, because you can feel when you’ve made a mistake, when people are lost. And also, you…pick up the rhythm of what a film’s like with an audience, when there are a lot of people there, compared to just you in the cutting room.” But he doesn’t slavishly follow their advice, and that saved the saints. “In a focus screening, odd ingredients are difficult, ‘cause they don’t know what to make of it. They didn’t know what to make of the saints. Probably if you were really scientific about it, you’d probably cut the saints because the focus group was confused about them. ‘Let’s cut them!’ And you think, what’s the point?”
Another aspect of in the script that didn’t turn out quite as hoped for was a wrinkle that had Britain’s conversion to the Euro imminent, so that the boys had to convert their stash of pounds into the new currency at once or see it turn to worthless paper. “We came up with this idea, and at the time we said–we had a kind of cheeky grin on our faces–if we get the timing of this right, maybe it will come out in Britain when we are converting to the Euro, and it will be really topical, and it will be on all the news programs, and we’ll be the number one film. But in fact, of course, ever since we had that cheeky grin, it’s just drifted further and further away. Britain has turned its back more and more on the modern world. Now we haven’t got a hope in hell in Britain for the Euro.” But if the film lost its topicality, it retained a set of phony “Euro conversion” commercials that periodically pop up through the narrative. All of them feature the venerable character actor Leslie Phillips, who played what Boyle termed “the risque doctor” in the old “Carry On” comedies, engaging in “kind of British toilet humor. ‘Carry On’ advertising–that was the idea of it.”
There was a bit of a problem in casting the boys, too–a difference of opinion between Boyle and the producers. The search was limited to the area around Manchester, where the movie would be shot, and, Boyle recalled, “when he [Alexander Nathan Etel, the younger boy] walked into the room, I did think–this is the God’s honest truth, without the word of a lie–I did think, ‘That’s him. I’ll bet that’s him.’ I put him through the audition process, and there were a couple of other lads that were better actors than him, that read the script better. But I just knew it was him. I had a bit of a fight with the producers about these other kids. They wanted those other lads, because the other kids were a year older, and that makes a big difference in terms of the amount of time you can get by law. When they’re eight or under, you only get three hours a day filming, whereas when they’re nine or older, you get five hours a day filming with them. So they, for understandable reasons, wanted the other ones, but I just knew that he was going to be the one. I didn’t really want an actor. I wanted a presence, somebody that the film could speak through, really. I stuck out for him–and he’s brilliant. In a funny kind of way, he is older than the other boy [Lewis McGibbon], even though the other boy is more experienced and knows more about the outer world–he feels like an older soul. That’s very true in life, and I think that’s true on the screen as well.”
Despite the differences between the two boys, however, they agreed on one thing: the strangeness of the production process. Though the story is set in Manchester at the end of December, Boyle said, “we shot the film in the summer, and I did that deliberately because I wanted the blue sky, and I wanted the grass to be very green and all the colors to feel very primary. Spiritually it’s winter in Manchester, but realistically it’s more like the Mediterranean. I explained to the kids about why they had to have the wooly hats on, and wooly jackets during the hot summer days. And they just said they thought it was stupid. I explained to them about the color palette of the film, and they said, ‘It’s just stupid.’ It’s very funny when you see the process through their eyes–you realize how bewildering it is. You expect to be going in teaching them–that’s what you think when you start it–but to be honest, I learned more from them than they probably learned from me about it. They were brilliant.”
Boyle added, “I worry about them a bit. You give them a glimpse of this world. We know the kinds of pitfalls, but they don’t know anything about this world. It just looks so glamorous. But then, you can’t overprotect them. You have cast them in a film, so you have to let them see this world.” His experience with them on the festival circuit, though, suggests that they might be adapting all too well. “I took them to [the Toronto Film Festival] September last, and that was wonderful,” he said. “They hadn’t actually seen the film fully, all the way through, till then. They dressed up and had tuxedos on. It was really charming. Seventeen hundred people in the cinema, and the Canadians gave them this standing ovation at the end, which was just incredible. The older boy, he’s a very volatile person, like an actor. He’s very up one minute, and the next minute he’s very depressed. He was always crying. And, of course, when all these people applauded, he burst into tears immediately, very actor style. The younger boy never showed any emotion at all, he was very calm all the while we were filming. But when I looked over at him and they were all clapping, he was crying as well. Then I started crying. And it must have looked so theatrical, all these film people crying. But it was genuine.” He continued: “Then we were in New York two weekends ago, for the International Children’s Film Festival, and they came over. We did a couple of Q&As, and you can feel them already beginning to get used to it. They wouldn’t cry anymore at a standing ovation; they’d say, ‘Yeah, we deserve it.’ Even in Q&A–we did, like, three Q&As, and I could see them getting their jokes ready–the things they’d said in the previous ones which had got a laugh. You could feel them steering their answers so they could get their jokes in.”
Maybe these youngsters have a future in the business, after all.