Danny Boyle’s Space Odyssey, By Kurt Loder

In 'Sunshine,' the '28 Days Later' director takes us on a fantastic voyage.

Fans of the English director Danny Boyle may have given up wondering what he’ll do next. There seems to be no telling. Boyle likes to go to some unusual new place with each of his movies, but he’s never been interested in going there twice. His first feature, the 1994 “Shallow Grave” (which also launched Ewan McGregor), was a tart, twisty crime caper, cultishly admired to this day. His second, the 1996 “Trainspotting,” was an electrifyingly nasty (and influential) drug-world adventure. These impressive films were followed by a screwball fantasy (“A Life Less Ordinary”), an odd trouble-in-paradise tale (“The Beach,” with Leonardo DiCaprio) and a smashingly successful low-budget horror movie (“28 Days Later”) that actually managed to ring some new changes on the musty zombie genre. (Look at ‘em run!).

Now, with his latest film, “Sunshine,” Boyle ventures into another venerable cinematic precinct: outer space. Building on the work of such stellar predecessors as Stanley Kubrick (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) and Ridley Scott (“Alien”), Boyle has extended the pictorial vocabulary of the rocket-ship thriller by sending his astronauts not to the moon, or to Mars, but to the sun. This was a considerable technical challenge (especially with a $40-million budget). Space movies usually play out in the inky, star-flecked blackness of some vast intergalactic waste. “Sunshine” — as the misleadingly cheery title suggests — is often bathed in solar glare as the ship draws ever closer to its fiery target. The sun is dying, and along with it the Earth, unless this mission can kick it back into gear with an onboard nuclear device. A sizeable problem, obviously. But not the only one, it turns out — or the scariest, either.

Boyle assembled a strong international cast for the picture, including Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh and Chris Evans. He also did a lot of research, and he brought in University of Manchester physicist Brian Cox to be the film’s science advisor. The project has clearly been a sizeable learning experience. We wondered what it had taught him — not just about space itself, but about space movies, as well.

(Watch Danny Boyle talk about “Sunshine,” why there’s never sex in space movies and more.)

MTV: Were you daunted at all entering this sci-fi genre, in which there are so many classic movies, and not having a blockbuster budget to work with?

Danny Boyle: Yeah, it was terrifying, because it’s quite a narrow field. I’ve never worked on a film where your predecessors just kind of surround you constantly. Like, when you do a thriller, you don’t think of Hitchcock the whole time. But when you do a space movie you’re just thinking about, you know, “2001,” and the first “Alien,” of course. You can’t avoid them.

MTV: Are there limitations on what you can do in an outer-space movie?

Boyle: Yeah, it boils down to three things: a ship, a crew and a signal. Basically, that’s what you have in this kind of sci-fi. Not in fantasy sci-fi, like “Star Wars,” where you can go to any planet and find creatures or whatever. But when it’s based on a certain amount of realism, and on space exploration as we know it, then it comes down to: there’s a ship and a crew and a signal that changes everything.

MTV: And then we watch the crew get picked off.

Boyle: And then you watch the crew get picked off. And you can kill them in any order you want — that’s great. The good thing about space, it’s [ideal for] ensemble acting; it doesn’t really suit massive stars. These movies tend to suit a group of actors, and you don’t know in what order they’re going to die. That’s one of the really cool things about it.

MTV: What did you want to add to this genre, to sort of twist it a bit?

Boyle: There are certain things you can’t change. You think you can, but you can’t. Certain principles have been established, some of which are fake, some of which are just movie [conventions]. Like weightlessness. If you watch [actual] space-station weightlessness, [movements are at normal] speed. But in movies, it has to be done in slow motion — if you do it the way it’s done on a space station, it looks phony.

MTV: What did you learn about the sun?

Boyle: It loses some five million tons of mass every second, and yet it will burn for another four billion years. And we are about halfway through its life cycle. If you put a pin-head’s worth of its matter out in the street, it would destroy Manhattan. There would be nothing left standing anywhere. It’s extraordinary.

MTV: I think “Sunshine” has a pioneering look for space movies, because the sun is so dominant. That must have been daunting, how to convey the power of the sun, and shoot it.

Boyle: That was the biggest challenge, really. Because the film is ultimately meant to be quite frightening. But in movies, normally you use darkness to create fear and terror. But [this movie] is based on light — it’s the art of lightness, really, rather than the art of darkness. So to portray [the sun's] power, and to incrementally increase it as they get closer and closer, was the greatest challenge. And the way we did it, we tried to rob the audience of the colors orange and red. We didn’t have any of those colors inside the ship. And then when you went outside the ship, you suddenly felt all this orange light. It’s like you had been thirsty without being aware of it; you had been denied this color range. And then suddenly you’re flooded with it.

MTV: It doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of computer-generated imagery in this film, but obviously there must be.

Boyle: There must be. I think that’s the reason there hasn’t been a film made about the sun, because I think until recently there wasn’t a way technically to represent it. But CG is now capable of almost anything, as we’ve seen in this summer’s releases. And we tried to do it in an organic way, so it didn’t feel like a big special-effects movie. We always tried to give the actors something [to look at] that was similar to what the audience would eventually see them facing.

MTV: So it wasn’t green-screen all the time?

Boyle: There was very little of that. We had this extraordinary set for the end, where Cillian faces the sun bursting into the bomb chamber. They built this huge rig of scaffolding with lights on it. It looked like a U2 concert; it was incredible. And they put it on wheels and pushed it down the room towards him, this huge thundering thing, and that gave him a sense of what it would be like to be out there.

MTV: Some of the big CGI films, like the “Spider-Man” movies, sometimes look like cartoons. Do you think that that computer technology loses its effect after a while?

Boyle: I think our eye is extraordinary, the way we know that’s not real. It doesn’t stop people enjoying it — you still enjoy it. But I think there will always be filmmakers who will come back and do it for real sometimes. The effect is different. There’s still something slightly plasticated about CG, and I don’t know whether they’ll ever conquer that. The brain is so quick in saying, “That’s not possible. That isn’t a human going through that.”

MTV: Why is there never any sex in space?

Boyle: It’s very difficult in space. I’m not quite sure why, but for the movie it didn’t work. We put it in — we actually tried it in the script — but it just felt really wrong somehow. You would think it would be a natural thing with Chris Evans and Rose Byrne, or Cillian and Rose Byrne, for it to develop romantically in some way. But it doesn’t really suit it at all.

MTV: What are your favorite sci-fi movies? What did you grow up watching?

Boyle: I was a big “Star Trek” fan when I was a kid, the TV series. But I never watched the movies. I don’t know why. I never made that transition to the movies. I’m not a big fan of the fantasy stuff, like “Star Wars.” It’s really more the hard-core stuff, like “Alien,” especially the first one, using that almost Victorian industrial look in space. It’s brilliant. It’s about 28 years old and it still just stuns me. It has been much-copied.

MTV: Weren’t you asked to direct the fourth movie in that series, “Alien: Resurrection”?

Boyle: I was, and I was very tempted, because I was such a big fan. But then I realized I would ruin it, so I kept away. I felt a responsibility toward the other film, so I said no and stepped away.

MTV: In “Sunshine,” there’s a very unusual-looking bad guy. Did you already have the design of this character in mind going in?

Boyle: He’s not your regular villain. We had an idea that he was a spectral presence — but not a ghost. Because he’s real, because of the damage he does. But somehow, the forces of light he’s been exposed to have sort of reorganized him. And when [the crew members] see him, it’s a challenge to their sanity: Is it possible for somebody to be like this? Not just in terms of disfigurement — he is burnt — but also because it appears that all the pieces that make him up — the protons and neutrons — have been reorganized in some way and put back together differently. And that is not a CG effect. We did that all live with a special lens on the camera.

MTV: In the end, the movie seems to start sailing off into the metaphysical …

Boyle: There’s a bit of that in there, yeah. They see something out there that’s not entirely natural. Something much bigger than we could ever [comprehend]. You [have to] realize how narrow our thinking is, normally. You’ve got to imagine that there might be something else out there that’s much bigger and wider than we think.

MTV: Did the company you did this movie with, Fox Searchlight, get involved in the making of it?

Boyle: They did mention changing the title to something a bit less like a musical. But no, they were brilliant actually. We had made “28 Days Later,” which was very successful, and that buys you a certain amount of freedom. And we used that freedom to set up the film in the way that we set up “28 Days Later” — we made it in London, in a small studio, and we kept control of it and used the kind of actors we wanted to use, and [Fox was] brilliantly supportive.

MTV: One of the casting surprises in “Sunshine” is Chris Evans. A lot of people probably think of him as that guy from “The Fantastic Four.” He’s so underrated.

Boyle: He’s a superb actor — and I’m not saying that just ’cause he’s in my film. I didn’t really know him — I hadn’t seen “Fantastic Four” when I cast him. The casting director in America said, “You should meet this guy. He’s underestimated. I think he’s brilliant.” And Chris came in the room, [and he was] superb. He’s a very, very talented guy, really very special. He can do anything.

MTV: You might be able to go into the franchise/sequel business with this movie. You did executive-produce the “28 Days Later” sequel.

Boyle: I’m not particularly keen on franchises. I find it really depressing that they’re so successful. It used to be, when I started, that a sequel would only make 60 percent of what the original movie did. Now, of course, the sequels are much more successful than the originals. I’m more interested in doing originals. If you can come up with good enough ideas, people will come and see original films, rather than the rehash, you know? Rather than the sequel.

MTV: But there must be some studio enthusiasm for another “28 Days” sequel — “28 Years Later,” maybe?

Boyle: There is an idea for the next one, something which would move [the story] on. I’ve got to think about it, whether it’s right or not.

MTV: Would you actually go back and direct it this time?

Boyle: Well, I didn’t want to do the second one, because I was involved in “Sunshine.” But I went out and I helped them [with "28 Weeks Later"]. I did some second-unit shooting on it. And I really enjoyed it, actually. There’s something about doing something trashy that’s great. Where basically you just come in the door and you just kill them. That was rather refreshing.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Sunshine.”

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