British director Danny Boyle goes back and forth between hard-edged indies and awards-season champions with the greatest of ease. His second film, the junkie-opus "Trainspotting," remains one of the most loved and successful British independent films of all time. Boyle then went on to win a Best Director Oscar for "Slumdog Millionaire" and more accolades for "127 Hours" before directing the London 2012 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.
With his new film "Trance," which opens in theaters on April 5, Boyle returns to the kind of edgy filmmaking he demonstrated in films like "Shallow Grave," "Sunshine" and "28 Days Later." "Trance" is a visceral psychological thriller about a fine art auctioneer turned amnesiac art thief (James McAvoy), his fearsome partner in crime (Vincent Cassel), and an alluring hypnotherapist hired to help recover McAvoy's lost memories. As they try to figure out what happened to the stolen Goya painting, the trio becomes trapped in a mind-bending puzzle of their own making.
We sat down with the always energetic 56-year-old director as he talked about "Trance" being a homecoming of sorts, how open he thinks he is to posthypnotic suggestions, and whether a sequel to "28 Days Later" or "Trainspotting" is more likely.
Robert DeSalvo: Your first film, "Shallow Grave," has pitch-black humor and psychological thrills. Did "Trance" feel like you were coming full circle in a way?
DANNY BOYLE: Having done "Slumdog Millionaire" and "127 Hours," which were kind of awards-seasons films, as well as the Olympics, we were aware that there is a danger that you get locked into that world of making aspirational, redemptive movies. Whereas we have a history of another delicious kind of filmmaking, which is a bit more evil, and the characters are not quite what they seem. "Shallow Grave" was like that, and we were very conscious of making something that would be an evil cousin of the Olympics opening ceremony. It would be your dark night job while you have your day job celebrating the nation. In "Trance," we have three characters and you don't know who to root for. You root for one, and then it changes, so it was lovely to be able to do that.
RD: "Trance" is an update on the whole film noir concept. Can you talk about how you took film noir elements and brought them into modern times?
DB: I love noir, but you have to be very careful that you don't just update it or make a homage. If anyone ever compliments you and says it's a "Hitchcock-type film," I almost think it's dangerous. People look at those definitions and say, "I'll watch the Hitchcock, actually." You steal elements of the noir, and in this case it's crime with characters sealed inside a bubble and manipulating each other or trying to get power over each other. You also have a femme fatale and, particularly in one section, she [Rosario Dawson] seems to be a classic femme fatale character who is playing men off each other with her sensuality and allure. I love using elements like that, but you want it to feel like a modern city and modern tale based on modern ideas rather than it being updated or a homage.
RD: Most of your movies are basically about guys. In "Trance," Rosario Dawson's hypnotherapist is front and center. Was that intentional?
DB: Absolutely, and that was the reason for making the film. I never made a film where the woman is the engine of a movie. I can't make a feminist movie, so I'm not going to make that kind of movie. I've got two daughters in their 20s, and they asked, "Why haven't you ever made a movie with a woman [as the focus]?" "Trance" still has a visceral element, but I wanted to make a movie with a woman in the center of it.
RD: Was Rosario Dawson your first choice to play hypnotherapist Elizabeth Lamb?
DB: Originally we were going to do the film in Manhattan with an English girl. We always knew that she should be from across the water and a slight stranger. She was a professional and led a professional life, she didn't have an infrastructure of family around her or anything like that. You could do it in any modern city, but when the Olympics happened we set it in London and started looking for an American girl. I met Rosario a few years before—I auditioned her on a movie that didn't happen—and I've been very impressed with her. It's a big a problem for these girls: there aren't enough lead roles to go around that stretch them enough because there aren't enough people making films with a woman at the center. We were very lucky to get her, because she has intelligence and, of course she's a beautiful girl, but there's a beauty in her voice as well that was really helpful to the allure of the film as it works on you.
RD: Do you believe people can be given posthypnotic suggestions to do something they wouldn't normally do like what happens in "Trance"?
DB: Yes. The truth is there is about five to 10 percent of the population who are highly suggestible. What happens in the film is very extreme and ethically unacceptable, but clinically it's just about possible. It won't happen with everyone. We have a great stage hypnotist in Britain named Derren Brown, and what they do is use the beginning of the show to pick out people who they know—due to their reactions to group games—are the suggestible ones. A lot of people think they bring actors up on stage, but that's not the way it works. They would get exposed straight away. He picks the people that are of that five to 10 percent. If he picks incorrectly, he says, "I’m not going to work with you," and sends them back. He does what Elizabeth Lamb does in the movie and drops people in and out of hypnosis like that [snaps]!
RD: How susceptible would you say you are to hypnosis?
DB: I'm not loose enough to be able to go with that. Directors are control freaks and we try to control our environment the whole time. I probably wouldn't be suggestible, but you never know. I've never done it and didn't do it in prep because you try to remain top dog at all times.
RD: You started shooting "Trance" in the fall of 2011 and then had to break to do the London Olympics before you went back to complete editing, scoring and postproduction. Did that long break present any unique challenges?
DB: Very, very few people get that opportunity. Usually it only happens when an actor has to change shape, like Tom Hanks in "Castaway" and De Niro in "Raging Bull." Normally, they'll never let you sit on a movie for six months doing nothing. It helped me in this case. I was surprised. When you are shooting a movie, you think you'll never forget it because you are so obsessed about the little details. That's an obsession you normally take immediately into editing. I assumed it would be the same after six months had passed, but you do forget. When we watched it again after the Olympics, it was interesting. We realized very quickly that we hadn't put enough clues in. So we started put in clues, like when he [James McAvoy] knocks on the glass. Originally, that only came very late in the movie, so we put it as a motif, like he was saying, "Hey, everyone. I'm in a fishbowl!" When you watch it the first time, you'll realize something is up. It's not a giveaway, but it's a clue that all is not what it seems.
RD: What are the chances that you'll answer fanboys' prayers and we'll get to see a "28 Months Later"?
DB: There is an idea for it. It's really amazing coming here [to America] and being part of the Renaissance of the zombie movie. "The Walking Dead" is huge. How could that be? It's astonishing how violent and what tough stuff that it is. We've got a strong idea for the third part, but it depends on lots of factors at the moment. I wanted to direct "28 Weeks Later"—I feel very affectionate towards it—but I couldn't because "Sunshine" took way longer than it should have. I was happy to hand it over to Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, who is a director that I really admire. So I'd love to be involved in [a third chapter]. I'm not really a producer, and it's a different skill set. I'm a director and that's what I'm half decent at, so that's what I should do. That shouldn't qualify me to be a producer. So, yes, I'd love to direct it. Whether it will happen or not is hard to say. We are working on a couple of period movies, which will be a different challenge. In the long term, we are trying to work on "Trainspotting 2," and that is more likely than a sequel to "28 Days Later" I would say. They both have good ideas behind them.