Danny Boyle: Why the Oscars are finally calling for the maverick director

He made his name directing a cast of unknowns in a squalid urban setting, on a tiny budget; 13 years after 'Trainspotting', Danny Boyle has pulled it off again, and 'Slumdog Millionaire' is already a contender for film of the year. Here, the director talks about his Mumbai miracle
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Q. What does Danny Boyle think is Danny Boyle's best film?

A. Shallow Grave

Danny Boyle has a theory: "It's provocative, this theory," he says, chuckling. "Your best film is always your first film. You have no idea what you're doing when you make it, but if you survive – if you don't panic or get fired – it's your best film. It might not be your most successful or technically accomplished, but there's a purity, a naïvety, you should always try to get back to. Going to India, for me, was a way of generating that."

Boyle travelled to the world's ugliest, most beautiful, most distressing, most uplifting, most spiritual and most overwhelmingly human country to direct his latest film, Slumdog Millionaire. Based on Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A, it's the story of Jamal Malik, a kid from the Mumbai slums – a "slumdog" – who ends up on an Indian version Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. Jamal's not there to win the prize money – he's there to win back a girl – yet somehow he can answer every question thrown at him. Flashbacks from his short but eventful life explain just how he knows the location of Cambridge Circus, the inventor of the revolver and the face on the $100 bill.

Boyle's first feature film (after directing plays at the Royal Court and the RSC, plus a couple of episodes of Inspector Morse) was Shallow Grave, lean and low-budget, full of darkness and light, character, energy and humour – just like Slumdog. And there's a sense in which the director, now 52, is just like Jamal – trying to get back to that elusive first love, and finding that his past has prepared him perfectly for this moment, and that without realising it beforehand, he already has all the answers. '

Q. Which film defined the Danny Boyle style?

A, Trainspotting

Slumdog's first flashback begins, like a memory of Boyle's signature film, with a chase. There are children playing cricket on a private airstrip, and the police turn up with big sticks to scare them away, pursuing them into nearby Dharavi, the biggest, most labyrinthine slum in Asia. The laughter of young Jamal and his brother Salim as they evade the overweight cop at their heels brings to mind Ewan McGregor's Renton, racing away from a pair of security guards, his jacket full of stolen CDs, in the opening shot of Trainspotting.

It's easy to imagine Boyle as Renton, sprinting down Princes Street with Iggy Pop pounding away in the background, his smile wide with the giddy thrill of being the guy who gets away with it. The beige confines of a hotel-room armchair are hardly enough to contain his eagerness. In scuffed jeans and a tailored tweed jacket that ought not to suit a middle-aged man, he giggles, gesticulates, leaps up to enact an anecdote. His manner matches his on-set reputation. "Some directors like to sit behind a monitor, but he is everywhere," Andrew Macdonald – who has produced seven of Boyle's eight films – said recently. "He likes talking to people and whipping them up. He instils loyalty and enthusiasm."

Boyle's back-catalogue is equally restless, a jumble of genres and settings populated by yuppies, junkies, crusties and zombies, yet there is something recognisable in all of them. The script for Slumdog is by Simon Beaufoy, writer of The Full Monty, but the finished film contains that quintessence of Boyle. "It's difficult to categorise him," says Sandra Hebron, artistic director of the BFI London Film Festival, which recently closed with Slumdog's UK premiere. "He will tackle anything. It's one of his strengths – the films are all very different, but there are commonalities: they all have a real heart; there's an emotional dynamic. He's also always been a visual stylist, and his films have an amazing energy; they rattle along at breakneck pace. And they all have interesting characters, often in extreme circumstances. There's a humanism to his work, even if it's a zombie film."

One further echo of Trainspotting in Slumdog comes in a scene where Jamal is locked in a toilet stall just as a helicopter carrying Bollywood's biggest superstar, Amitabh Bachchan, lands nearby. To meet his hero, the boy must jump into the cesspool below and wade through raw sewage. Like Renton, who dives into a toilet bowl to retrieve a pair of opium suppositories, Jamal comes up smiling – and gets his autograph. "I almost didn't do that scene because I thought it was too much like Trainspotting," Boyle admits, "but it was too good to lose. A lot of the crew had never been to a slum, and they weren't that happy about it. In the area where everybody takes a shit, your shoes get covered in the stuff. But Simon's script took that, and took the worship of Amitabh, and put them together: Bang! And that is Mumbai. It's like the aroma of the city – one minute you smell human faeces, the next you smell saffron or jasmine."

The Trainspotting album was almost as accurate a snapshot of its era as the film itself, and Slumdog's use of music is equally astute. The film is set to the hybrid sounds of the British-Asian singer-songwriter MIA and Bollywood composer AR Rahman – who was banned by Boyle from using any cello. "I've nothing against cello, but it's usually used mournfully," Boyle explains. "I love dynamism in films. I love the energy and disposability of pop music. It's trash but it survives, because trash is good sometimes. I like that sensibility in films, too. You're an entertainer, not a philosopher."

Q. With which film did Boyle first reveal his romantic side?

A. A Life Less Ordinary

Boyle and his twin sister Grace were born in Radcliffe, near Manchester, in October 1956. Frank, their father, was a power-station worker, and their mother Annie (who had emigrated from County Galway) was a dinner lady. As a working-class lad from the north, Boyle could easily have grown into a particular breed of British film-maker: gritty, bleak, issues-led. "I got the reputation of making issues films as my films were gritty," he admits, "but that's British film-making tradition. Realism is our benchmark." Bucking the trend after Trainspotting, Boyle took off to America to make A Life Less Ordinary.

A surreal rom-com with barely an issue to its name besides the life-affirming power of love (McGregor's character is shot through the heart and lives thanks to Cameron Diaz's love, or some such nonsense), his third film was a stylish, saccharine mess. But it proved Boyle was less a realist than a hyper-realist – and a hopeless romantic. "There were people who felt that, after Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, Danny should have kept banging the drum for British cinema," says Hebron. "They felt he'd gone off in search of big budgets and American projects, and were sniffy about it. It's taken a while for them to recognise his worth again. Because he's worked across such a range, people haven't always taken him seriously."

Most of Boyle's best work is entertainment with an edge. Trainspotting is an ensemble comedy – about a bunch of heroin addicts. Slumdog Millionaire is a fairytale romance, but its lead characters crawl through sewage, literal and figurative, to reach their happy ending; they have poverty, police brutality, religious violence, organised and disorganised crime to contend with on the way.

Don't expect it to be straight-faced, either. As the film opens, Jamal is being roughed up by the police, who are convinced he must have cheated to have done so well on the gameshow. "The torture scene was written as comedy, which is how I thought I'd directed it," Boyle explains. "When the scene plays in the West, everybody thinks it's about Guantanamo, but in India torture is an accepted part of the culture. If you're arrested for anything more than a traffic offence and you're from a certain sector of society, there's a 50/50 chance you'll get thrashed. They showed us around police stations, and you can see the equipment just lying there. We had to get official permission to film in a police station. Simon and I thought we'd have to change the scene, but they wrote back and said, 'The torture scene is fine, provided nobody above the rank of inspector is involved'!"

The issue that will inevitably overshadow Slumdog's release is the recent terrorist attack on Mumbai. Some of the film's most significant sequences were shot in the Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus where the gunmen struck. "It was difficult to see the news footage, as we were so familiar with the place," Boyle says. "We had a screening last night for a Hindi audience, and it was the first time I'd watched the film since the attacks. I'd said before that you should never talk about the film in terms of the attacks, because one's an entertainment and the other is a tragedy. But then I watched the scene in the station, where Jamal meets Latika [his beloved]. He climbs across the tracks to reach her, and it's a scene of unapologetic romantic love. I thought, 'That's fantastic. Here is a scene filmed in that place, where so many people lost their lives, and it's a scene of absolute love.' It's utterly naïve, it says love conquers all. It's unintentional, obviously. But I thought it was the best thing I could say."

Q. Which film taught Boyle how not to make a film in Asia?

A. The Beach

"I didn't want to make a film about a Westerner in Asia," says Boyle. "I'd already made a film like that [2000's The Beach] in Thailand. I learnt a lot from it, and I didn't want to do it again. There are true stories, such as A Mighty Heart [about the wife of murdered American journalist Daniel Pearl, also filmed on the subcontinent, in 2007], which is amazing and has to be told. But for fiction, I don't think that tourism aspect is suitable any longer.

Leonardo DiCaprio's casting as the lead in The Beach was divisive. Having worked on Boyle's first trio of films, Ewan McGregor wanted the role. When he was passed over in favour of the Titanic star, he voiced his anger publicly. The director maintains that his decision was a financial one; he wanted to hire one Thai crew member for every Brit on set, and to ensure the production was environmentally responsible. For that, he needed a budget that only a name as big as DiCaprio's could muster. Boyle now admits the star's presence was as much a curse as a blessing. "I tried to make The Beach more about what the Thai people thought of the tourists – people who have no respect for where they are, for the paradise they're in. But it didn't really work because all the audience was interested in was the big movie star."

Boyle had no particular relationship with India before Slumdog, so he genned up on Bollywood and Mumbai crime movies, and made sure to use local cast and crew. "I made The Beach with a British crew of over 100, and I knew that wasn't the way to go, so I took just 10 this time – which was probably five too many." Dev Patel, who plays the 18-year-old Jamal (the three leads are each portrayed by three different actors, aged seven, 13 and 18) was the sole British cast member. The Indian casting director, Loveleen Tandan, became so invaluable to the project that Boyle insisted she get a co-director credit. "Normally, a director's key on-set relationship is with their cinematographer," explains Boyle. "This was different. My key relationships were with the local people."

Q. Which Boyle film demonstrated what he could do with a low budget and a high concept?

A. 28 Days Later

The Beach was a high-profile failure, critically and commercially, whose production caused controversy in Thailand, and left Boyle wary of big budgets and Hollywood politics. "If you avoid living in LA you can be freer," he says. "If you have a success there, they make you do it again. But I don't live there, I live here, and apart from The Beach I've managed to stay under the radar in terms of big budgets."

The director went back to TV and made two films for the BBC, followed by a sci-fi comedy short, Alien Love Triangle, starring Kenneth Branagh. In 2002, he and Alex Garland, author of The Beach, set to work on the post-apocalyptic zombie thriller 28 Days Later. Made for £5m, less than a fifth of The Beach's budget, it punched well above its financial weight. One of its most famous sequences, in which the protagonist, played by Cillian Murphy, comes across an overturned double-decker bus in the middle of a deserted Whitehall, was set up, filmed and wrapped – bus and all – in just 20 minutes.

Terrifying, engrossing and moving, the film re-invigorated its director. "I work better with small budgets. Not just in terms of results, but in terms of the feeling I have in making the films. The money spent in the industry is obscene, and it'll have to change. Films have to be made more cheaply. There's a generation of people like my daughter Caitlin, who [watch them] for free online, so think, 'Why should I pay for it?'"

28 Days Later gave Boyle the chance to work fast and loose. Many of the scenes were shot on the hoof with small digital cameras – experience that served him well when it came to Slumdog. "It gave me the ability to let go of control," he agrees. "Mumbai is a miasma of constantly changing detail, and I realised the only way it would look authentic would be if I abandoned control and shot in the city. Some days we didn't get much that was useable, but on other days it captured the dynamism of the place. Our small cameras made it look like we were tourists. The country is obsessed with cinema; if they sense a film is being made they'll be all over you."

Q. On which film did Boyle learn to work with child leads?

A. Millions

Boyle has three children by casting director Gail Stevens, his partner of almost 20 years: 23-year-old chemistry student Grace; Gabriel, 19; and Caitlin, 17. The couple split in 2002, but Stevens still works on all his films, and he bought her and the children a house down the road from his own. It was Caitlin who recommended Dev Patel to her father after seeing him in the E4 series Skins. But the rest of the young actors in Slumdog are Indian, and are a revelation. Boyle had experience of working with young, amateur leads on Millions, his 2004 film about a seven-year-old who finds a bag full of pounds and has to spend them before the currency switches to the euro.

But there were extra challenges on Slumdog: the youngest children spoke only Hindi, and some were cast directly from the slums. "Rabina [who plays Latika] and Azza [who plays Salim] were from very poor backgrounds," says Boyle. "One night, we heard a rumour that Azza's house had been demolished. Their house had been cleared; he lives in a slum and occasionally the council just bulldozes them. We sent people to try to find him, and they found him asleep on a car rooftop."

Thanks to Slumdog, the children are being put through school, with the promise of a trust fund if they pass their exams at 16. "They're learning English, and they sent me birthday cards," says Boyle. "I started weeping when I opened them."

Q. For which film did Boyle find religion (again)?

A. Sunshine

Sunshine may be science fiction, but it's also Boyle's most spiritual film to date: a group of scientists are sent to the heart of the solar system to reignite the dying sun, and the closer they get to the source of all life, the deeper they find themselves staring into the face of... what? God? The star's mystical influence almost foils the crew's mission.

"I was brought up a strict Roman Catholic and my mum was desperate for me to be a priest," says Boyle. "I was meant to leave Catholic school at 12 and go to a seminary in Wigan. But one of my teachers, a priest, said, 'Don't go. Stay here until you finish, then see what you think.' I can't remember telling my mum I wasn't going, but she must've been heartbroken.

"Everybody is religious in India. People who I thought of as being very like me were very religious. Every time we passed a temple, they would stop to pray." At Slumdog's spiritual heart is Jamal's faith in the guiding hand of destiny.

Q. Which film did Boyle seem destined to make?

A. Slumdog Millionaire

People still ask when the Trainspotting sequel will be made: Porno, Irvine Welsh's book about Renton and the rest 10 years on, was published in 2002. Boyle wants to do it, but says, "We're still waiting for the actors to look a bit older, a little more ravaged. Bobby [Carlyle] is 47 now and still looks fantastic."

There are some Boyle projects supposedly on the go, including Solomon Grundy, based on the nursery rhyme about a man who experiences an entire lifetime in just six days, and Ponte Tower, about the titular skyscraper in Johannesburg, which swiftly transformed from a desirable address into a decaying gang stronghold following the end of Apartheid.

But Boyle prefers to take his career one film at a time. He had to be talked into reading the script for Slumdog. When he heard it was about Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, he was instantly turned off. Only Beaufoy's name persuaded him to turn the page. Now people are calling it "the ultimate Danny Boyle film", and discussing its Oscar chances. Boyle already has a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director – his first. Could this movie have been, like Jamal's gameshow success, destiny? "Before I went to India," he says, "I found the concept of destiny rather restrictive – a way to keep people in their place and reinforce the caste system. But it's not that simple. The Indians regard it as liberating; whatever destiny has dealt you, you're free to live life to the maximum. You start believing that kind of hippie talk when you're in India. Everything leads you to where you're going."

'Slumdog Millionaire' (15) is in cinemas from Friday