On 4th April Danny Boyle 2007 gave a live question and answer session at Brixton Ritzy cinema on his latest film Sunshine, broadcast live via satellite to the Clapham Picturehouse, the Greenwich Picturehouse, the Stratford-upon-Avon Picturehouse, the Liverpool Picturehouse at FACT, the York City Screen Picturehouse, the Edinburgh Cameo Picturehouse and the Aberdeen Belmont Picturehouse. This was first posted back in August 2007 and is well worth a repost...
Q: Did you find out some startling facts about the sun when you were researching the film?
DB: One of the amazing things about Alex’s script was that a film about flying into the sun didn't seem to have been done before - there was an episode of Thunderbirds, and an episode of Lost in Space where they fly through the sun, just get a bit hot and then carry on, but we couldn’t find a serious film that had done it. Once you start exploring it and finding out about it, it is mind boggling, its violence and beauty, its immensity - it's beyond comprehension really, and that's what we tried to convey. In terms of startling things we find out, it burns something like 5 thousand million tons every second, and yet will burn for another four and a half million years - so you shouldn't be alarmed about its future, or immediate future anyway. And you know that Flaming Lips song, 'A Spoonful Weighs A Ton'? That's about the sun. A spoonful of the sun weighs a ton.
Q: So a lot of the science is real?
DB: We had this idea that we would make it more NASA than star wars. There are two avenues of sci-fi really - there's Star Wars, Star Trek, creatures and anything goes really, a sort of playground; and there's a much stricter corridor of what we call hardcore sci-fi, which has rules, cinematic rules and scientific rules. We had a very interesting guy called Brian Cox - not the actor - a young guy who's a physics professor at Manchester University, who guided us in the film. He's very interesting, he used to play backing for D:Ream, and paid for his PHD with the money he earned with them.
We tried to make it very realistic at the beginning. Spaceships in movies have artificial gravity, but NASA are nowhere near creating artificial gravity; its something you buy into, you show a shot of the spacecraft with something going round it and everyone goes, "Hmm, they've got artificial gravity." But other than that, NASA are researching gardens to provide oxygen in space travel, and institute routines like cooking rather than have them eat packaged food. It's about the rituals of earth. It's about keeping them sane, because that's one of the biggest challenges in space travel, and that's one of the things we wanted to explore.
Q: Was it good to work with Alex Garland again?
DB: He gave me this script he'd written, and I looked at it on the tube on the way home and I rang him up and said we should do it, it's amazing. I think he thought we'd have to do it in Hollywood, it looked like a big budget film, but I was very keen that we did it in the way that we did 28 days later, that we'd keep a cap on the expenditure, cast whoever we wanted, do it by our own rules, because I think if you take too much money, you get pushed towards the conventional rules of disaster movies in America.
The studio wants you to have lots of scenes on Earth to see what's at stake - why don't you have a big triumph at the end? Why doesn't a major character come back from the dead at the end? And you say, do you seriously think you can go into the sun and come back alive? They will sacrifice anything to hope, that's one of the weird things about them, how they're different to us. There’s a possibility of anything, so long as its got hope. Remember the scene where Michelle Yeoh discovers the little seedling in the ashes of the oxygen garden? The American backers walked out of the screening when we killed her. He's saying that's the hope, that's the hope we're holding onto, everything’s going to be OK, and then you kill her. That's the kind of difference I suppose.
We had Andrew Macdonald on board as a producer we had chosen so we could have our own rules. We could call the craft Icarus, because no American would name a spaceship after somebody with that kind of track record. They wanted it to be Ship of Discovery or Spirit of Hope.
It was great doing a sci-fi film, a great opportunity, but having done it I would never do it again, and no director ever goes back into space. Seriously, you can name one if you want, but apart from sequels nobody goes back into space. Because it's an absolute lifetime making it, believe me. Drives you insane doing it.
Q: So it was a good excuse to go back and watch all your favourite sci-fi movies?
DB: That is one of the pluses of the job, that you can sit at home, while all you guys are at work, watching sci-fi movies. There's three titans, three giants that we based the film on in a way, or inspired the film - 2001, Tarchovsky's Solaris, and Ridley Scott's first Alien. You're in their footsteps the whole time, you can't avoid them. It's weird the way a lot of the films in that corridor break down into three elements: a ship, a crew, a signal. If you boil it down into a haiku, that's what it is. So you have to acknowledge them, and you have to make it your own - but sometimes you can't.
One of the weird things is that if you look at someone in zero gravity in reality, they actually move in a very jerky way, at real speed. If you do that in a film it doesn't work, everyone in zero gravity has to move in slow motion. I tried to do it the other way and it doesn't work. There are cinematic rules you have to follow. Another one is star fields - I was determined not to have them because I hated star fields, you know, the stars in the black sky, because in space there isn't a star field, if you're looking at the sun it's just like daylight is here, you don't see any stars. So I was going to make it absolutely pitch black, I was going to be the first director ever to do proper space, and of course we got the first shot back of the ship against the pitch black space and just thought - what's happened, they've stopped. That's why there's a star field in ever space movie, to suggest movement. So you have to sort of bury your head and say no, I'm not going to be the first director to do proper space.
Anyway I did something different with the space suits, because they were gold which the producers were very worried about, diverting from the white NASA space suit, and we wanted a blingy one. It's based on Kenny from South Park, with the slit for the eyes.
Q: Was Cillian Murphy your first choice?
DB: He was, yes. When I worked with him on 28 Days Later I had to push him quite a lot to take responsibility for the film, and I was amazed at how he's changed. He's done some really good films, he's made some really interesting choices, and that is the nightmare for an actor who gets a break, the choices that they make afterwards. He's done some beautiful work.
A wonderful thing for me as a director is that he takes control of a film. You have to have that with a lead actor where they just grab the film and take responsibility for being the main actor. The sequence where he gets out of the airlock and then pulls open the suit, all that is a wonderful, sustained piece of improvised, visual acting. It's about continuity as well, it's good to have someone from home - he's Irish but he lives in Manchester, which is great when you're working with an international cast.
Danny Boyle and Cast
Q: Did you decide to go with an international cast, or were they the best actors available at the time?
DB: It was based on a kind of realism, which is that in fifty years time it's estimated that the Asian economies will be paying for space exploration. Supposedly if the American tax payers had known how much it would cost to put Neil Armstrong on the moon they'd never have paid, they'd have shut it down - they don't like paying taxes, so the cost was hidden until very recently. In cinematic reality these days you make a crew half-American, half-Asian.
It was a great chance to work with Michelle Yeoh, and to get a cast like that together is a bit of a dream. It's very difficult to create stories that have that kind of cast, and space is very interesting because nationalities are not an issue, it equalises everybody. It doesn't really suit stars in a sense, I think it's because you want everybody equal - then you can kill them in any way that you want. It's hard to get ensemble films, unless it's a short cuts type thing with multiple storylines that come together. I think that's a credit to Alex's writing, it was interesting the way he did it, rather than writing a lot of character detail or background story which we wouldn't have had time for, he gives each of them a crisis and that defines them, whether they overcome the crisis or get destroyed by it. That's how he writes the character, and the rest comes from the acting.
Q: One of my favourite scenes is where the view of the sun from the observation deck is turned up. How did you deal with the sunlight?
DB: We had a great cinematographer, Alwin Kuchler, who's a German cinematographer who I've worked with a number of times. I wanted him because for me he's the prince of darkness, it's just extraordinary the quality of his light and dark.
We had a big problem because white is kind of boring after about two seconds. You can use it for impact and we used it a couple of times for white outs, but other than that you tire of it quite quickly. Obviously the challenge we had was that each time you saw the sun, it had to become more and more powerful. For the inside of the spacecraft, the colour pallet was very restricted to blue, greys and greens - it's an old cinema trick, you use no orange, red, yellow, there's nothing in those sets that's that colour at all. We would stay inside the ship for longer periods than you normally do, and when you went outside we would try to wash you with yellow and gold and red. The idea was to try and make you feel penetrated by the light, and he did an amazing job of it.
In the observation room that they sit in, Alwin created this disco wall. It was like a disco curtain you got at discos in the seventies, where you have little silver disks twirling on separate strings. He just shone light at it to give infinite changes of light, and that's what they're staring at. It was brilliant, he gave them infinitely variable light to get lost in and we added the CG later.
Q: I'm about to throw questions open to the audience but I was just going to ask one more, which is what gives you the greatest pleasure - creating the film, getting the final product, seeing it as a member of the audience, or the prospect of a new challenge?
DB: All those aspects are really good. I mean, I'm doing a lot of publicity at the moment - I hope you've noticed - it's good to get out into the public as well. Each part of the process wears you out as you do it, you try and do it as passionately as any other element. Right now I'm really looking forward to doing the next film in October, which is set in Mumbai in India. It'll be wonderful to be back on Earth after space.
Each part of it is great. A lot of directors prefer one particular element, and don't like the changes when you move from making the film to editing the film, then promoting the film, then leaving the film and moving onto another film, but it's change that's good.
Audience question: Is Porno going to be brought to the big screen?
DB: Porno is not what you're all watching at home, it's a novel by Irvine Welsh which is the sequel to Trainspotting. We haven't planned to do it immediately, but to wait until the actors are in their forties, and we'll be using the same actors to play the same characters. We wanted to do a sequel a bit like the Likely Lads, which's successor was Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads. I love that - where you look at a group, especially a group who grew up being hedonists in their twenties, when you're absolutely indestructible and you can do anything seemingly to your body and your mind and survive, then they get to their forties and their hair starts falling out, I thought that would be a really interesting way to do it. The audience will have been on that journey as well, so it won't just be a cash-in sequel.
To his credit, Irvine could have sold the film rights for a lot of money to a lot of people, but he's said that we can do it. The problem is all the actors still look that same age, they'd like you to think they're all in a bar having fights but they're actually in the spa, moisturising. But when time finally ravages them...
Q: Do you enjoy making different genre films?
DB: Again it's the change, you don't really think about it as deliberately as that - in fact you worry that the films are too similar, you'll be making a bit and it seems like the same scene you've done in another film. There's a scene in Sunshine that I felt was just like Shallow Grave, you worry about things like that, but in fact you're right, the genre is different.
It's wonderful and I’m lucky to do different things, because what it does - you never make a film as good as your first film, although you become technically better and more skilled, there's something about not knowing what you're doing, you want to get back to that feeling. It's difficult to recreate, you try to get that innocence back and a good way to do it is to do something you haven't done before. So the next film I'm going to do in Mumbai which is the most chaotic city on earth, and it'll be interesting to see how we can do it. You get frightened again, which is a good thing to feel.
Q: Could you tell us about the sound design?
DB: The sound guys get treated badly on set, everyone tut-tutting about sound holding things up, but actually sound is seventy percent of the movie experience. (Our sound person) insisted that we ringfence money to do the sound - we identified that is the major difference between the way that British films are presented and the way that American films are presented, the care that's taken in sound. Sound design, sound recording, all the ways sound is used, we tried to spend a lot of time on that.
He did this amazing landscape of sound because in theory there isn't any because it's a vacuum. You can use its absence and reintroduction, you can use a bigger range of sound; it allows you to do away with it altogether and flood it back in. Films are unwatchable without it. It's because its invisible, you can't see it coming, whereas your eye is so quick, your eyes take in information so quickly - you know the flash images of the faces of the other crew in the abandoned spacecraft? They last one twenty fourth of a second and you shouldn't really be able to see them, but you manage to see quite a lot of detail. But sound you can't see coming so it's the source of all the surprises and shocks in cinema. We tried to use it as dynamically as possible.
It was really nice we had Underworld doing the music as well, they did a pass across the whole film, then John Murphy adapted it so it belongs to both. I think it's a very original music score.
Q: How did you decide on the gender balance of the cast?
DB: I should have had one more woman in it I think, because there was no real gender indication to the characters. Its' interesting the way space harmonises everyone, equalises everyone. It had to be Michelle Yeoh first, I said to Michelle you can play anybody you want, because it wasn't gender specific, and then we just slotted everyone in. I probably wasn't as aware of it as I should have been really, and you end up being biased towards men when you're not thinking. That's the honest truth of it.
Q: I'd heard that the post-production of the film was a bit of a bitch, and I was just wondering what the biggest challenge was in post-production?
DB: It was very protracted because the CG, which is done by this guy called Tom Wood who did an amazing job, is very, very slow, and you have to wait. I've never really been very patient and you have to wait about nine months. I don't really understand how it works, to be honest. I had a photograph of the sun that I liked, I work from a lot of photographs. What I imagined in my literal brain was that he would photograph that photograph, and put it in his computer. But he doesn't, it's all ones and zeros and he has a whole team of people who he refers to as hamsters, who sit there all day tapping in ones and zeros.
Thing is, I know how a set is put up because I know how a carpenter works, but I don't really understand the CG process. It's very frustrating really, you have to trust him so totally, but when he brought the material back some of it was wonderful and some of it was jaw-droppingly good - it extended what I thought was possible. I think that's the reason there haven't been earlier attempts to capture the sun and put it on film - the CG is only now good enough to do it. The biggest challenge was certainly waiting.
Q: There's lot and lots of references to other science fiction films, at the end in the snow there's some things like the monoliths from 2001. Is that something Alex wanted to put in or was it your idea, or should I get out more?
DB: Like anything it was a mixture really. That particular scene actually isn't Sidney covered in snow, it's Stockholm, and the CG guys dropped Sydney in afterwards. In that park in Stockholm there's a monument to May Day, I looked at it and just thought - its 2001, it's going to tell all the people who don't get out very much that its 2001.
There's another little reference in there, to Alien. You know there's a bit where Michelle reaches up, and there's a toy tortoise bouncing around and she steadies it? If you watch Alien there's all these things bouncing around the set, and you think, why has he done that? All those things help to suggest movement, and it's like I was saying earlier, suggesting movement in space is a nightmare. I put in lots of references like that, it's a mixture, some Alex puts in the script and some I add later.
Q: Has the film got a set date?
DB: It's set in 2057, fifty years in the future. We had this rule called the Red Bus Rule, which Mark Tilsney who did the design invented. It's fifty years on and there are still red buses, they're different obviously but they're still red buses, and we can apply the same fifty years in the future so the technologies they use are still recognisable. There's no stuff like thought control. We wanted to keep the film accessible, and just within our life spans really, so that it wasn't too futuristic. Again, the American studio wanted us to start with 2057 on the screen. So we didn't.
Q: can you tell us about your next film?
DB: It's written by Simon Beaufoy who wrote the Full Monty, and it's called Slum Dog Millionaire. It's based on a true story, about an illiterate kid from the slums of Mumbai who goes on the Hindi version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, which is a massive show across India, and he wins it. They can't believe that he's done it and think he must have cheated, and they torture him and all sorts. The film's structured around how he knows the answers to the questions and it's life experience.
The reason he goes on the show is not to win the money, because he's not that interested in money really - it's interesting when you get there, the people in the slums are very different to what you'd expect. The reason he goes on the show is that he's lost the girl he loves somewhere in the chaos of Mumbai. She's a slum kid as well, all he knows is that she watches this show religiously whenever it's on. So it's quite romantic. I hope I don't fuck it up.
Q: I want to address the gender thing, actually. For me it seemed that the film was a bit traditional in its tone, it stereotyped the role of women, because you have the four guys going out to explore while the two women stay behind, the woman is the only one who doesn't want to kill the guy, the woman is the one to say that she's scared, the man says he's not scared - I found it quite traditional. Was that an accident?
DB: Christ, you really know you're in Brixton, don't you?
Well, Cassie's the pilot of the ship, which is a big responsibility. I don't think it's necessarily a good thing to have loads of women with machine guns. I personally think the scene in which Cassie refuses to give her name to their rationality of killing, because they can save a lot of people by killing him, she acknowledges that they're probably correct, but she refuses to give her name to it - that scene was very short but I don't think it's about anything easy at all. I think that's certainly the best scene I've witnessed Alex write, and it's the best scene in the film for me. Although I acknowledge the gender breakdown should have been different, I wouldn't agree with you.
Interesting point about the voice of the ship Icarus as well, which was one of the big challenges because of 2001, with the speaking computer which was an absolute nightmare of meetings about what we were going to do - we found this Chinese woman called Chipo Chung, a very good theatre actress, who was there on set the whole time to do the voice of the computer Icarus, rather than do it afterwards. She was always there, so the gender imbalance didn't feel as pronounced when we were shooting.
Q: Did the role of Pinbacker, the captain of the previous ship, change during the film, or change in post-production?
DB: Everyone says the script changes dramatically when he gets involved, and did we mean it to change like that? When you're going to take everybody that close to the sun the rulebook is thrown out really, and we always said it wasn't a tea party, it was extreme, and we wanted him to be the representation of something fundamentalist - someone who's seen the light, and been deformed by it mentally and physically.
We tried to shoot it so that he was kind of spectral, and inhuman in a way. It was a challenge to capture his sanity, whether he's experiencing it or not. Science can't tell you what's going to happen, when you're getting that close to the sun, travelling at unknown speeds as the sun pulls you in, so we thought we had the freedom to do the most extreme things we wanted. It was all planned, and again because we took a limited amount of money we kept it how we wanted to, rather than listen to the script doctors.
Q: What was the aim of the film?
DB: It was very different talking about it without seeing it visually. We wanted it to be like 2001, a visual journey, that's not necessarily definable.
It was really interesting thinking about the sun, because all our ancestors saw the sun as god. It was worshipped, life was sacrificed to it, and all cultures were established to the rhythm of it. Because we've created our own power since the industrial revolution, and especially since electricity, we've kind of abandoned it, forgotten about it in a way.
The actors in the film couldn't see the sun, which we did in CG afterwards. The scenes where they are mesmerised by it, and they confront it - I'd have to describe it to them while they're just sitting there looking at nothing. My own cultural references where we talk about the source of all life, where I've got passions, are completely religious. I don't know whether that's because I was brought up that way, or because it is something we just have. But obviously we wanted to suggest some sort of spiritual dimension.
Thanks to Ben for providing this transcript.