“They had to drag me away in the end,” director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “The Beach,” “28 Days Later”) said of filming his latest, “Slumdog Millionaire,” in India. “It’s a really inspirational place. It’s raw—all human life is there, that we [westerners] have managed to sanitize a bit. For a filmmaker it’s an amazing place.”
Boyle, visiting Dallas for pre-screenings of the film, which shows through tragicomic flashbacks to incidents from his past how a boy who grew up in the streets of Mumbai came to know the answers to difficult questions put to him on a television quiz show, explained how the script, and its location, immediately captured his interest.
“It’s somewhere I hadn’t been,” he explained, “but my dad was there in the war. There were tens of thousands Allied soldiers in Bombay, training for a land invasion of Japan. And he used to talk about it. He never talked about the war very much, but he always used to talk about India a lot.
“I loved the story, and I loved the depiction of the city, and I couldn’t wait to get there. And once I got there, it felt like destiny, because I embraced it.
“Mumbai is completely surprising all the time,” Boyle said. “You have to get used to the sense that things never end there. They do stop between about two o’clock and four o’clock in the morning. It’s like an all-night city like New York. It’s very quiet between about 1:30 and 4:00, because we were out a lot at that time doing sequences in buildings we weren’t allowed into during the daytime.”
And the overall perspective, Boyle emphasized, is very different in India: “What we [westerners] try to do is, we try to rationalize things. We try to resolve contradictions and solve them. They just embrace the contradictions. There are such extremes of life, existing together, that there’s no way you can easily explain and clarify things. The solution, the answer is to embrace them all. It’s much more profound, because it’s much more about where all souls are connected, absolutely bound together in a way.
“I sound like an old hippie talking about this, but you can’t help it. You’re there, you sense it, you feel it if you stay open to it. People say, how can you go from the deliberate blinding of a kid” (one of the episodes in the hero’s early life) “to a Bollywood dance at the end? How can you smoothly get from one of those things to the other? You can’t. But that’s what the city’s like. You just represent the city. And if you want to portray it even half accurately, you’ve got to include them all, and there are no smooth transitions.
“You can never pin it down, but if you hand yourself over to the experience, it’s a very generous place and there’s a lot of benefit you get from it. I learned a lot about myself—well, not about myself, but I learned stuff that helps me as a person and as a filmmaker.”
From the purely cinematic standpoint, Boyle said, the shoot was a challenge, but one that brought advantages. The available of cast members, who might be involved in simultaneous projects, only at certain times led to a schedule in which the three segments of the story—with the protagonist as child, teenager and young man—were shot in an almost compartmentalized way. “We did it sort of in chronological order,” he said, “which certainly helped.
“And we went with digital cameras. We started off using celluloid, and the result wasn’t very good. It was very objective. The danger of celluloid is that there’s so much contra-texture that cinematographers want to go, ‘Whoa, look at that!’ India is like that—and you stop and stare. And I didn’t want to do that. I thought that the only way we’ll ever have of making a realistic film is to film it subjectively, from the character’s point of view.
“So we changed and got these smaller digital cameras. It’s a new system, a prototype, and there were lots of teething problems with it. But it’s very flexible, and it allows you to film very dynamically, in small spaces. It also confounds people’s expectations. They weren’t quite sure what we were doing some of the time, so you could get away with things that you couldn’t normally get away with, with a film camera. We could also cheat permission, because they’ll let you in with a press camera to the Taj Mahal, but they wouldn’t let you in with a movie camera to certain areas of it. So we’d go there and shoot little bits like that and blend it together.”
Boyle also opted for live sound as much as possible. “Live sound is very, very difficult in Mumbai, because it’s a very noisy city,” he said. “But it does make the film more convincing. We would do bits where the sound was rebuilt, and they’re not as good as the bits where the sound is live. You can never replicate that miasma of sound, of twenty million people banging horns.”
The result is that “Slumdog Millionaire” is a vibrant whirlwind of images and sound that’s already being praised as an amazingly virtuoso piece of work. When asked, jokingly, whether it was a work of genius, Boyle laughed.
“Genius is about one percent of it,” he said. “Most of the time it’s cunning.