Quite the contrast between interviewing Danny
Boyle, promoting "127 Hours," and
the other big name British director I chatted with last month, Stephen Frears,
promoting "Tamara Drewe." One is
vibrant, engaged, enthusiastic, candid, friendly, informative, and
The other is Stephen Frears.
Okay, I won't
spoil it for you. Well, maybe a little bit. One thing he's forced to do is
drink his own urine (perhaps my favorite line from the movie: "That's no
Slurpee!"). Ironically, as Boyle points out to me in the course of this
interview, this desperate, disgusting practice was not necessary. Judge for
yourself if you think the alternative is any better.
I started out by
asking him about his daughter, who was reported to be in India helping out poor people.
Q: Did she go
after you made "Slumdog?"
PK: She's been
there about a year there, yeah.
Q: Was she partly
inspired by the movie?
PK: No, she's
inspired by Greenpeace and politics of the future [?]. That's her interest.
Q: You're involved
in good deeds too. Aren't you involved in a play in South Africa?
DB I'm kind of
like a trustee of the charity. It's a very noble charity. A friend of mind
started it from scratch. The South African curriculum doesn't include artistic
expression, drama or anything like that. So she does that in these townships.
So I'm a trustee of that, trying to support that. I'm doing a play reading of
some of the kids' monologues.
Q: Have you kept
in touch with some of the kids from "Slumdog?"
DB: Yeah, actually
Christian's [Colson, the producer] there
today. I couldn't go today because I'm doing this. We have a couple of trusts
out there. Really tiny scale work about all sorts of education, hygiene
education, things like that with some kids.
Q: I just read
that you just won the British Film Institute Award.
DB: It's called a
fellowship. Which is like pretty intimidating because it's got some pretty
hardcore names on it. It's very nice. The European premiere of the film is on
the 28th and the ceremony is on the 27th.
Q: So are you
DB: No. (laughs).
No you get, actually I don't know what you get. I'm kind of half embarrassed
with things like that. Half of me's vein and half of me's embarrassed, like
Q: Well after 10
Oscars, the rest is gravy.
DB: No, no. It's
like you never can get used to it really.
Q: Has that
changed your life?
DB: No, but it
does change everybody else, I'm afraid. Everybody else starts calling you Mr. I
did a Q and A after a screening the other night and every other question was
like "Mr. Boyle..." never used to say that before. Of course that in itself
changes you. Even if you try to resist it. We try to put it to positive use. We
did a bit of charity work. You know which is good because you can raise lots of
charity money. It helps profile. We also used it to try to make this film,
because it's the kind of film that would never be made normally. You could set
it up but you'd never normally get financing. You'd have to make it from
nothing. And then we wouldn't have been able to do some of the things we wanted
to do with it. We took advantage of the success to finance this film.
Q: How long have
you wanted to make this film?
DB Since about when
I first heard the story when it happened. I was really intrigued by it. It
snagged into the consciousness in a way that was really surprising. And then in
2006 I read his book ["Between a Rock and a Hard Place"] when
it was published in the UK.
I approached him then about making the film then. But he didn't want to do it
like the way I wanted to do it. He wanted to do something more like
documentary, with him in it speaking about the events, because he'd obviously
written this book, and he was giving speeches. He was hired by Microsoft to
speak to 3,000 executives about why you should never give up, you know?
Q: Always bring a
DB: No cell signal
down there. They don't carry cell phones because it's weight, and they reduce
the weight in the backpack to the bare minimum.
Q: Bring a decent
DB: Yeah, bring a
decent knife next time. Anyway, we couldn't find agreement in 2006, so we
separated. Because obviously it's his story. But I never let go because I
always had this idea of how I wanted to tell it. Which is sort of like a first
person immersive experience where you're not released until he's released. You
literally go through it with him.
Q: I have a
question about spoilers. I mean, it's pretty common knowledge how he makes his
release. But would you prefer people not refer to exactly how it happens?
DB: You can't do
that. I think you can only do that if you do it up, if you make it fiction.
Like the film "The Crying Game," where they did that Hitchcock thing and they
begged critics not to give it away, and they did. But you can only really do
that it a fiction. In a true story you'd never be able to give it away. So you
rely on the amnesia that we have in cinema for the outcome. We go into it
knowing the outcome but we still go "Oh my god, he's going to die!" Even though
you know he's a live, so it doesn't make sense. But that's one of the
irrational things about cinema, it's great.
Q: It's kind of
like Greek tragedy or Shakespeare, everybody knows how it's going to end.
DB: And you still
go through with it. It feels urgent.
Q: So you had
access to his videos.
DB: He doesn't
show them to many people. And because of that, and because he was quite tricky
about us getting to see them, I was expecting them to be abject or distressing
to watch. They're not. They're amazingly composed and controlled. And of course
it's because his thought process - even though he was distressed and abject -
his thought process was "I don't want to leave a message for my mom. I don't
want to be found dead, and the only thing she's got of me is me weeping." So he
tries to be very controlled, self-possessed, practical. So there were messages
like that. But because they're cut like that, they just jump. The camera
doesn't move, he puts them in the same place each day. The background stays the
same. The only thing that changes is him. He spends 24 hours without water. And
the change in his face is frightening. And it's not like weight loss. I mean
you can only last a couple of days without water. You can do 60 days without
food if you're lucky. But 2 days without water and you're fucked really.
Q: Yeah, drinking
your own urine is kind of extreme. And drinking your own blood.
DB: Yeah, he licks
his own blood to get taste. But it's very dry blood because it's full of iron
and it dries your mouth out. Urine. What you should do with urine, which he
didn't realize, but it's been told, is you should put it in your ass. Because
that's a much more efficient use of it. The family that got trapped out at sea,
they did it. They were a British family in the 70s. They did it because she was
a nurse and she knew the more efficient way of using it as liquid was to put it
directly in you. Because it burns your mouth. And it doesn't do you much good.
Q: Well that's a
lot of good tips. Actually the scenes with the videotapes reminded me a little
bit of Herzog's "Grizzly Man," except it has a happy ending.
DB: "Grizzly Man"'s
an amazing film, isn't it? I met him, amazing guy. I loved "Bad Lieutenant."
Wasn't it amazing? "Shoot him again. He's dead. No he isn't, his soul is still
dancing." It's insane.
Q: He didn't
actually shoot the amputation, did he?
DB: No, no, no. Oh
God, no. Aron no. Although our compulsive nature to see everything recorded,
which of course Aron is in the vanguard of, makes you wish he had recorded it.
So you could see everything. But in fact he only recorded the messages.
Q: Your simulation
was enough for me. What were those two little wires? Were those nerves?
DB: Yeah. The
description of that in the book is extraordinary. It's that thing that you can
only get to through real experience. No writer could write that. When he gets
to the nerve, and it's clearly protected by the two bones, it seems to be in a
very protected position. Obviously there's lot of nerves there, but this main
nerve was his biggest challenge.
Q: The whole thing
is like a mythological punishment. Your desire is to climb rocks and to walk
freely, and your punishment is that you're locked in this rock. It's almost
Prometheus, it's Beckett in a rock. It's extraordinary. The place it has
amongst it. James [Franco] would always say it was Samuel Beckett. He said it's
insane. And it is insane. Cause this guy climbs the whole time and he's
supreme, confident, achiever. He runs ultra marathons, he's so fit. And this is
just a grain of sand for nature. It just pins him.
Q: He's being punished for hubris.
DB: It becomes
that. He realizes much more about himself then he ever really knew. And he
acknowledges that know. In reality his journey was delayed by the media
attention. That immediately replaced the suffering. Immediately he became a
media star. He said when that died down he found it very difficult. And then he
met his wife. She completed his journey for him.
Q: So he was kind
of lost even after he returned to civilization?
DB: I don't think
he ever got a chance to fully assess it. Because he was writing the book and
the media was desperate for it to come out. I think after that 18 month flush
it was very difficult to cope with. Because you're left with that downer, and
what does it mean? When I met him for the first time in 2006 he was very
different man when I met him again, it looked like he changed a lot. And he
Q: Almost like a
backhanded swipe at the video media culture, he takes all these videos, even a
video of his arm, almost like a farewell to an arm.
DB: I mean you
can't make that up. Because when you're watching it, you know it has to be
true. No dramatist in their right mind would go, "Oh and now he takes a picture
of it." It's just like, that would never happen. And the picture's in the book.
Yeah he documents everything. When they went back it took 12 men to move the
rock. They took the hand out. They're pretty tough to look at. So they cremated
it, and took the ashes back and scattered them in a private ceremony for himself.
Q: He expresses
almost a kind of affection for the rock, like it was a rock of destiny.
DB: Yeah, and I
think he felt that in the end. That's how we make sense of things. Obviously
you can say it's completely arbitrary. Nature is not a consciousness. It's just
luck or not luck. But as rational beings we work these things out as being what
they mean to us, and he saw it as being that he had come to this point where it
was necessary for him to learn. Without a lesson like this he would never be
able to make a full learning curve.
interesting because your films seem to fluctuate from a very populous place
like Mumbai to probably the least populated spot in the world. It's like the
conflict between wanting to be an individual and wanting to be part of the
crowd. You think the lesson of this movie is that you have to learn to conform
with other people?
DB: Not conform,
but we all are connected. You can try to separate yourself, but magnetically
we'll pull you back. I do believe that very passionately. It's very difficult
to illustrate and talk about without seeming pretentious. But I do believe it.
I can see evidence of it everywhere. We live in cities, and all cities are
growing. You never read on the news about the city shrinking. It's the
countryside that's struggling.
Q: Some of the Midwest is shrinking. Detroit and those places.
DB: Yeah. But our
basic instinct is to live in these herds, and to live in these cities. And
movies are, although they're theoretically about some sort of escapism, they're
actually not. They're about other people in other cities, and we go watch them
in cities. I find that really interesting. And the story always spoke to me
like that. He was presented as a unique hero individual who showed
extraordinary courage. And I always thought, I'm not sure that's right. I
thought that's what he was before he went in there. Which he was, completely
self-sufficient. Could run ultra marathons in the dessert. Physically powerful.
But this grain of sand he couldn't move. It's a different story what brings him
back in the end.
Q: But he did save
himself without the intervention of anybody until he meets the group of hikers.
DB: Well yeah, and
I don't think he would have made it without them, because he was so tired. We did the climb out of that
canyon, and fuck, it's really steep, it's like climbing out of the Grand Canyon. But my point is, what he did we would all
do. In that sense he's a representative of us. He's not something separate from
us. I hope the film shows we would all do that. We might die, we might not
crawl out of there, but we would all do that. And that thing that binds us,
which is partly a survival thing, is so powerful. It just gets you through the
most extraordinary things.
Q I thought it was
kind of funny and very poignant that the fact that he didn't return his
mother's phone call was like one of the reasons he ended up where he was. Was
DB: Well, right at
the beginning we said to Aron, look, we want this to be our telling of the
story. James and I said to him, we don't want you around the whole time telling
us, "Oh no, I tied that shoelace not that shoelace." Because that will just
inhibit the actor. We want him to go through the experience. But by the time
you get to the end of the film, you will feel it's been truthful. The
circumstances that he'll be in will be the circumstances that you were in, and
that James will have to deal with them in the way that you dealt with them as
well. We said we will hand you back the story in the end, and we won't disgrace
it or disfigure it in any way.
Q: But you didn't
give him any final say?
DB: We did let him
read all the scripts, and we always took his notes, some of which I followed,
some of which I didn't. And then we showed him a test screening, when he came
in disguised to watch it. I mean, that's a whole other film. What's it like to
see something being created that only you have been through and that only you
have a memory of, which is distorted by your recounting of it? All memories are
distorted by recounting them. Because you do, you embellish them, you slightly
alter them without ever really knowing what you're doing. I know that from this
job. By the time you've finished a promotional tour, you've invented things you
didn't know at the beginning. You slightly alter things. So how the fuck you
deal with this? I saw him during the screening, and there'd be bits of it and
he'd be flooding with tears, and other bits of it he'd be like almost hostilely
separate from it, like it wasn't happening. And he admitted that after. He's
seen it 4 or 5 times now.
Q: It's like a
recurrent nightmare. It's like trying to overcome a trauma by reliving it over
and over again.
DB: Yeah. I mean
he obviously will have to tell the story forever. It's like Neil Armstrong. It
just becomes a prison that you're in. What you are becomes nothing compared to
Q: He's actually
still trapped by the story.
DB: I think that's
the difference with his wife and child. They're different from the story. In
reality it means a new life is beginning. They always say that, when you have a
child you're part of a new narrative that doesn't end with your death, which is
very true. I think that obviously helps.
Q: One reason why
he's probably so moved by the film is because of James Franco's performance.
Could you comment on how that was put together, and then secondly, what are you
planning to do next?
DB: Franco, yeah.
James is interesting because he gives the impression of being stoned, like half
asleep, half the time.
Q: Was he? I mean,
what with "Pineapple Express..."
DB: No. He uses it
in real life as a mask. The problem is that he's hyperactive, his brain is on
fast forward the whole time. And he uses this kind of like stoned look to deal
with the PR, Hollywood sort of thing. To sort
of keep a distance, so he can use it if he wants to and push it away if he
doesn't want to. I knew this guy, Stewart Burch [?], who was a brilliant
director in London, and he was like the most baffling guy to me. He was a
complete mess, but brilliant. And it was a front to make people look after him,
and he could get what he wanted. But Franco just soaked up everything, and he
was a wonderful collaborator. When I casted him I thought he'd bring variety to
the role, which I thought would be crucial, so that he changes literally. If
he's the same all the way through it'd just be unbearable. But he brings this
variety to it, literally different voices eventually.