Trance returns Academy Award winning director Danny Boyle to the territory where he began his visionary filmmaking career. Delving into the heart of extreme human behavior, he has crafted a wildly twisting mind puzzle that explores identity, madness and perception via the altered state of hypnotic trance. Opening April 5th, the crime thriller starring James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, and Vincent Cassel centers on the line between truth, suggestion, and deceit and how it begins to blur after an art heist goes terribly wrong.
In an exclusive interview, Boyle revealed why he wanted to make a film with a woman at the center, why it’s always a battle to secure financing even after you’ve been successful, how the studio dictates casting, why the film presented unique challenges compared to other films he’s directed, how he researched the world of art, heists and hypnotherapy, how he collaborated with his creative team on the film’s visual style, why he won’t helm a James Bond film, what he thinks about the comic book genre, and why the idea of directing a superhero movie doesn’t appeal to him.
Question: What was it about the material that made you say, “I have to make this film”?
Danny Boyle: There’s a very, very simple answer to that. There are also long, complicated ones as there always are. But the very simple one is that I had never made a film with a woman at the center of it, and this was a story which stuck in my head a long time where it was disguised. You don’t think that at first, and it’s one of the reveals, I guess, of the film. I loved that she’s in the engine room in the film. You don’t often get that opportunity. I’d made a number of films where I had clearly not done that, where it was always guys at the center of the film. So I really wanted to make a film [with a woman at the center of it]. Now that’s not to say…I didn’t want to make a feminist film or a film that was not true to my own nature as well, because your personality is in there as well. But it was a woman absolutely and increasingly at the center of the film as the film goes on.
With your recent run of success, was it a lot easier to get financing for Trance? Or is it always a battle?
Boyle: It’s always a battle. You get one wild card, which is after the Academy Awards. We got to make 127 Hours which was not an easy film for a studio to contemplate, but you kind of get a free one because of a success beforehand. And that was it really. After that, you’re back to the level playing field and you’ve got to construct your house and say, “Come! What do you think? It’s great, isn’t it, this story? Shall we make this for you?” Yeah, it’s back to square one and a level playing field.
Boyle: They would like you to. I mean the truth is we have a deal with Fox Searchlight and Pathé in Europe whereby we make the film for a limited amount of money and that gives us a lot of freedom in terms of casting. Obviously, the studio will try and influence you. It’s understandable. It’s still a lot of money. $20 million is still a lot of money. And I think if they have a movie star in it, even if the film goes wrong, there will be a certain saleable element to the film, so that’s always why they want to put a movie star in it. They like movie stars and it’s a natural part of the system here. But we work at a slightly smaller budget which gives us the freedom to cast perhaps less well-known actors sometimes, although in this film, they’re all pretty well-known actors. It also gives you the freedom to mess with the narrative, to change and manipulate the narrative as you want in a way that’s unpredictable perhaps and not wholly conducive to the normal film template. For instance, in this, you have three characters. At the beginning, clearly you think James McAvoy is the hero. He’s a nice guy. He has the voiceover. He looks in the camera. He appears to know what he’s doing. These terrible guys assault him. They’re awful. They rip his nails off. It’s like, “Oh, that poor guy.” But, in fact, by the time you get to the end of the film, you think very differently about James McAvoy. I love that, being able to shift sympathy, and what they call “who are you going to root for” is a puzzle in this one. I like that.
What did you learn making the film that you wish you could have told yourself on the first day of filming?
Boyle: Oh my God, that’s a tricky one. I can’t really answer that fully. I mean, there are lots of things you learn when you make a film. They tend to be progressive, and they’re not things where you can look back. It’s like people say, “Who were you originally going to cast in this film and could you imagine them in that part?” You never can. It’s a progressive thing. The actors that you cast become the characters, and you can’t imagine someone else as that character, even though clearly someone else could play it and would be different. But you can’t imagine that because you just accumulate what you accumulate, and you end up with that, and it feels progressive rather than reflective.
How does the finished film compare to what you originally envisioned?
Boyle: Same answer. It’s a progressive thing. You never look back and think, “Oh I wish it had been like that.” It is what it is for good and bad, and often there’s a mixture of those things in it. It’s just growing in front of you. It’s kind of like you can’t overpaint it or unpaint it. It is what it is, and the canvas is gone because the picture is now on it.
What unique challenges did this film present and how was the experience different from other films you’ve directed?
Boyle: In this particular one, because there’s a series of secrets in it, it’s very much the discipline of how to hide the secrets successfully and yet how to make sure you give sufficient clues so that people know that something is going on but they can’t quite work it out, that balance. I’ve never done that before and it’s intriguing the way you have to work it out. We shot the film during the Olympics, and then we took a six-month hiatus where we went back to the Olympics, and then we came back to edit the film. When we looked at the film then, it was clear that we hadn’t given enough clues, that we’d been too secretive. You have to lay in clues so that even though people can’t quite piece them together, they know something is accumulating which will be revealed to them eventually. Otherwise, it’s just a big reveal at the end and it’s like, “Where did that come from?” It has to be seeded in earlier on. That was different for me than any other film I’d ever done.
Was there any special research that you did for this in terms of the art world, heists and hypnotherapy?
Boyle: Yes, we did all that. We had a great guy from Sotheby’s who appears in the film. He’s the senior arts auctioneer. He’s a guy called Mark Pultimore and he took us around to Sotheby’s, and we went to art auctions, the big ones, some big ones as well. We learned all about that. You watch all the movies like The Thomas Crown Affair and the heists and stuff like that, and we researched hypnosis, hypnotherapy, and that was fascinating. What we discovered, and that plays a big part in the film, is that what James McAvoy’s character goes through, although it’s ethically very dubious, it’s actually clinically possible, although the hypnosis profession wouldn’t like to admit to it. For ten percent of the population, the five to ten percent who are extremely suggestible, this kind of process, undesirable though it might be, is possible. So that’s what we found out.
Can you talk about your creative team, many of whom you’ve worked with before, and how you collaborated with them in terms of the look and vibe of the film?
Boyle: It’s something that I sort of do automatically. I try and use the same bunch of people, and you get a shorthand with them. Obviously, you can cut corners because you know what each other is thinking, but you also, and this is one of the dangers with the job, and with success in the job, is that they’re also able to let you know when you’re bullshitting. They’re not frightened of telling you, and you them as well, because you have that knowledge and intimacy of each other that’s come pre-success. So it’s hugely helpful, and I treat them, the main collaborators, I think of them as mini-directors. They could make their own film easily. They’ve got enough skill. And I expect them to bring that level of commitment to the film, too. Obviously, you’re ultimately responsible and you ultimately guide it in the end. You make the final choices, but I expect them to be liberated and to make a big impact on the film and to contribute a lot to the film.
Boyle: They’re not really for me. The budgets are too big. I’m better working at a lower level of money really because I like that discipline of not having enough money to pull off whatever it is you want to pull off. So I wouldn’t be the best person to do those. No. And anyway, I’ve made a Bond film with a great stellar cast (referring to London 2012 Summer Olympics Opening Ceremony: Isles of Wonder in which James Bond (Daniel Craig) escorts Queen Elizabeth to the Opening Ceremony).
What are your thoughts on the comic book genre? It seems like it’s bigger than ever now. Would you ever consider directing a superhero movie?
Boyle: No, I’m not a big fan actually. I was never a devotee of them. I kind of missed out on that really. I’m always amazed when I meet the people who love them. The superhero movie I loved was Chronicle. I met Josh Trank the other night and we did a Q&A together. He’s working on Fantastic Four and has great and wonderful plans for it. But they’re not my world at all. It doesn’t appeal to me at all.
Trance opens this weekend in theaters. Click here for all our coverage.