Danny Boyle: Boyle and trouble

The Trainspotting director is back on track after turbulent times and a feud with his leading man.
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It has taken the best part of five years, a certain amount of pride-swallowing and a humble apology, but Danny Boyle believes he has finally healed the breach with Ewan McGregor, the actor he discovered, steered to stardom and then unceremoniously dumped.

They have been at loggerheads ever since Boyle "went Hollywood" and cast Leonardo DiCaprio instead of McGregor in The Beach, but now the two men are talking again and have reconciled to the extent that Boyle envisages them working together once more. "We have a project in mind, but whether Ewan will do it or not, I don't know," said Boyle hesitantly. "We'll see, but I'd really love to work with him again."

The story of their feud is not an uncommon one in the film industry, but it is unusual because of its protagonists: a writer-director and an actor, both British and from similar hardscrabble backgrounds, who together broke through professional and social barriers to announce their arrival as major talents. Along with the screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald, they were a highly successful team, making two memorably stylised films, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, and one not-so-memorable, bigger-budgeted Anglo-US production, A Life Less Ordinary, which co-starred Cameron Diaz.

It was Hollywood, where money and above-the-title names mean more than creativity and individuality, which drove the wedge between the two former friends. The split came with The Beach, Alex Garland's novel about a backpacker who finds trouble in paradise, which Boyle signed on to direct from a screenplay by Garland and Hodge, with Macdonald as one of the producers. McGregor, along with Boyle, assumed that he would be starring in it but the men who controlled the money had different ideas. With Twentieth Century Fox on board to distribute the film worldwide, came the decree that a bigger name than McGregor was needed to sell the film in the US and Asia. Leonardo DiCaprio, with Titanic and The Man In The Iron Mask behind him, was probably the biggest star in the world at the time and the role of Richard was deemed ideal for him.

DiCaprio agreed and McGregor was out. Boyle did, however, cast McGregor's Trainspotting castmate and fellow Scot Robert Carlyle in the role of Daffy.

Not surprisingly, McGregor was less than pleased to be booted out in such a peremptory way and he let his displeasure be known with a tirade aimed at Boyle, whom he accused of disloyalty and of selling out to Hollywood. "He had every right to be upset," Boyle says. "I understand why he was very disappointed and to be absolutely honest, I don't think we behaved perfectly to him. We made a financial decision. Leo had been in Titanic and was a big name.

"Since then, I've realised that we didn't deal with it very politely, but I've apologised to Ewan and I hope we'll be able to do something together again. We've had a couple of very nice meetings."

As it turned out, The Beach was something of a nightmare for Boyle. Filmed in Thailand among protests and demonstrations from environmentalists and locals, it was not the financial success it was expected to be and now Boyle rarely strays from his roots. "I think I'm better at making films on my home turf, really," he muses. "You learn from experience and I've learnt that through The Beach. I love big movies, like Gladiator, but I'm better at smaller films."

Relieved to be rid ofThe Beach and the albatross of his feud with Ewan McGregor, 46-year-old Danny Boyle is now looking ahead with his customary boyish enthusiasm.We meet in a room at The Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, although one has the feeling the affable and outgoing Boyle would be more at ease in his local pub. Wearing a casual green jacket over a blue T shirt, he looks fit and eager to get to grips with the next task.

He has again showed his unerring eye for young prospects with Millions, a low-budget film due out shortly that features two newcomers, Alex Etel (eight years old) and Lewis McGibbon, 10, chosen by Boyle to portray brothers who find a suitcase full of money. "We did this thing called kissing frogs, where you see a thousand kids and you hope one of them will turn into your prince," laughs Boyle.

Millions is not a typical Boyle film. The script, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, had done the rounds and landed with Boyle after his huge and unexpected success with the zombie film 28 Days Later.

"I loved the script and the title. You get sent a lot of stuff, but you have to trust your instincts. In this case I realised I had a lot in common with the lad in it and the way he's brought up." Boyle himself was born and brought up a Catholic in a working-class area of Manchester, His father was a manual labourer and he fondly remembers his devout Irish mother for her philosophy of believing the best in people. "The film is dedicated to my late parents because they worked very hard to educate me. Someone coming from my background wouldn't end up as a film director normally, but they let me develop my imagination."

Although an ardent film fan, he gravitated towards the theatre when he left school and joined the politically charged Joint Stock Theatre Company, known for producing controversial new plays. In 1982, Boyle moved to London's Royal Court Theatre as artistic director in charge of putting on smaller productions. He directed The Genius by Howard Benton and Edward Bond's Saved, and in 1985 was promoted to deputy director of the theatre. Two years later, he made the leap into television, directing, among other things, two episodes of Inspector Morse and the made-for-television films The DeLorean Tapes and For The Greater Good. He also directed the mini-series Mr Wroe's Virgins.

But Boyle's big breakthrough came in 1994 when, collecting some £800,000 from Channel 4 and a Glasgow film grant, he made the black comedy Shallow Grave from a script by Hodge. In it, he created a number of brilliantly shot comic set pieces that helped to win him several awards, including the Bafta Alexander Korda award for Outstanding British Film and the London Critics' Circle's Best British Newcomer trophy.

He followed this with Trainspotting, a dark, but stylishly shot, look at the drug-infested Scottish underworld. Having picked up an ardent cult following, Boyle's future in dark, low-budget film-making seemed assured. Instead, he turned his back on Britain to go to Hollywood, to make the oddball comedy A Life Less Ordinary. Then came the big-budget debacle of The Beach.

His lesson well and truly learnt, Boyle returned to his roots to make the gritty and entertaining television film Vacuuming Completely Nude In Paradise and the not-so-entertaining Strumpet, before hitting the jackpot with his horror venture 28 Days Later, which took more than $45m at the US box office.

It hasn't all been a bed of roses, however. A film called 3000 Degrees, which he attempted to make in Toronto last year for Warner Brothers, collapsed through no fault of his own, and a film he made three years ago with Kenneth Branagh, Alien Love Triangle, is currently languishing on the shelf at Miramax.

Boyle's personal life also recently underwent an upheaval when he split up with his companion of 12 years, the casting agent Gail Stevens, who is the mother of his three children. She and the children now live in a house that he bought for them just down the street from his own. They remain on friendly terms and he sees the children whenever he wants. The break-up, however, has made him the owner of two houses, something he feels distinctly uncomfortable about. "I bought the house that we lived in and then I bought the house where she lives with my kids, so I'm kind of a landlord," he grins sheepishly. "It's a strange feeling for me to own property."

Boyle may be confining his film-making to Britain whenever possible, but that doesn't mean he has a great regard for the British film industry in general. "It's pretty useless. really," he says candidly. "I think we make good films but we don't have good producers. When you're in Los Angeles, you realise that it's the producers who are the driving energy. The directors and the stars are making the films, but the soil is being constantly turned over by producers, and I don't think we're very good at that."

The auditions he is conducting in Los Angeles are for Sunshine, a science-fiction tale that contradicts his professed preference for small films by boasting a $40m budget and the backing of a Hollywood studio, in this case Fox Searchlight, currently basking in the success and money of Sideways. Boyle will once again be working with Macdonald as his producer from a script by Garland.

"It's set in about 50 years' time and it's about a mission to the sun," he explains. "People are on a spaceship taking a bomb to the sun to re-ignite part of it that is failing. The bomb is the size of Manhattan, but a mission seven years earlier failed and nobody knows why. It's kind of a mystery and also quite a big film. It's sort of about meeting God at the end."

The dilemma facing Boyle at the moment is financial rather than creative. He is hoping to make the film in London but, with the current exchange rate making the dollar's purchasing power so feeble, even $40m does not go very far when it comes to science-fiction film-making and all the special effects that entails.

The studio suits who make the money decisions want Boyle to film in Moscow, something that gives him feelings of dark foreboding. "I'm a bit worried about taking that much hard currency into Moscow," he says, only half-joking. "If anybody finds out we've got that amount of money to make the film one of us might get kidnapped and get our fingers chopped off, or something."

Wherever it is made, Sunshine will encapsulate Danny Boyle's requirements for what he considers to be a good Boyle film: it will not be pompous and it probably will not be a contender for awards. "I'm very immature so I tend to veer that way naturally," he laughs. "I don't want to make pompous, serious films; I like films that have a kind of vivacity about them. At this time of the year you think about awards and if you want to win one you think you should make serious films, but my instinct is to make vivacious films."

For cinema goers who like a positive message with their entertainment, Boyle tries to give them that, too. "I want my films to be life-affirming, even a film like Trainspotting, which is very dark in many ways," he says. "I want people to leave the cinema feeling that something's been confirmed for them about life."

The afternoon's auditions are about to begin and the hopeful young actors are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the British film-maker with a reputation for spotting hidden talents and making stars out of unknowns. It's time for Boyle to kiss some more frogs.

'Millions' is due for release in June

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