When the film-maker Danny Boyle was a teenager growing up in Radcliffe outside Manchester, he and his mates used to go on trips to Bolton and try to sneak into the town's one porn cinema. Once, they went to see Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange instead. The film was only on release in the UK for a few weeks before Kubrick withdrew it because of fears of copycat violence. Boyle, completely unaware of how controversial the film was with censors and the UK press, remembers being awestruck by it.
"That had an amazing effect on me. All I remember is the first half. I didn't remember any of the stuff that came back to haunt Alex (Malcolm McDowell) but I could remember almost shot for shot where Alex is transcendent and victorious," Boyle recalls of the celebrated drama about the droogs. "It is extraordinary to look back on it and realise the moral of it. I didn't remember the moral of it at all. It was the excitement I remember of seeing this violence, I suppose, and sex and style, really. That stuck with me."
Boyle's new feature Slumdog Millionaire (which won Best Film and Best Director prizes at the British Independent Film Awards this week and is now being tipped for Oscars) shows the lasting influence of that teenage exposure to Clockwork Orange. Like all of Boyle's best work, it is characterised by its breakneck energy and irreverence. The film, a story about a kid from the slums who improbably wins Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, is an upbeat wish-fulfilment fantasy with a screenplay from Simon Beaufoy (of Full Monty fame.) What makes it special, is the demented energy that Boyle brings to the material. The film is a celebration of a city. In view of last week's terrorist outrages in Mumbai, this celebration is arguably more timely than ever. Boyle is showing the vibrancy, colour and energy of life in Mumbai from the street level up. Just as in his Irvine Welsh adaptation, Trainspotting, he sidesteps realist clichés about social deprivation and instead cranks up the speed as fast as he can.
"Boyle takes a subject that you've often seen portrayed realistically, in a PC way, whether it's junkies (in Trainspotting) or slum orphans (Slumdog), and he has managed to make it realistic but also incredibly uplifting and joyful," says Trainspotting producer Andrew Macdonald.
Trainspotting started in memorable fashion with Renton (Ewan McGregor) rushing through the Edinburgh streets as Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" bellowed on the soundtrack. Slumdog Millionaire begins in almost equally arresting fashion, with Jamal and his friends running amok through Mumbai. There is a comic set piece to match the one in Trainspotting when Renton disappeared down the toilet bowl. This time, it is Jamal emerging like a faeces-covered swamp monster to meet his favourite Bollywood star.
Boyle recently described the qualities he felt a good director needed. "To be a film-maker, you have to lead – you have to be psychotic in your desire to do something. People always like the easy route. You have to push very hard to get something unusual, to get something different... you have to be almost psychotic to do that."
At a time when other British film directors traded in chamber dramas or small-scale comedies and struggled to shrug off the stifling influence of TV, Boyle was always ready to work on a bigger canvas. "Realism is Britain's trademark in television, drama and film. We've made this choice to dampen ourselves down so that sex and colours are not something to be celebrated," he noted. "If you go out on the street, we're such a small country architecturally and geographically that it is very difficult to create a sense of myth."
Creating a sense of myth is what Boyle's career has been about. His story is as outlandish as that of the characters in his movies. He is the kid from a "good working-class family" who has reinvented himself as an A-list film director. "I had always wanted to be a film director since seeing Clockwork Orange, but it was in the same way I wanted to be a train driver," he says. "It wasn't practical. I never went about doing anything about it."
At school, he directed plays. At one stage, he contemplated joining the priesthood. After Bangor university (he studied English and drama), he headed off to London in search of his fortune. He lived in Fulham and worked as an assistant stage manager for the Joint Stock Theatre Company, driving the truck and setting up the stage. Soon, he began to direct, both for Joint Stock and then at the Royal Court. His dream was to get into making films. As he told author Richard Kelly, he wrote a letter to director Alan Clarke (Scum, Elephant) asking if he could come and watch him work, "'cos I was thinking, 'I'd better find out what you do with a camera.'"
Clarke's advice was blunt, but very useful. "Make sure you get plenty of coverage. And read the book of Truffaut's interviews with Hitchcock, that's the only book worth reading on film-making.""
Andrew Macdonald remembers that when he was trying to assign a director for Shallow Grave, Boyle immediately seemed the best man for the job. "Danny had this enthusiasm. He wasn't daunted by the low budget." Boyle had, by then, directed episodes of Inspector Morse and Mr Wroe's Virgins. Through his stage work, he "knew all the actors". He threw himself into Shallow Grave, his debut feature, with reckless energy.
Boyle remains a populist. He wants to reach as big an audience as he can with his work, not necessarily to please the critics. He has taken some mis-steps along the way. A Life Less Ordinary seemed vapid by comparison with Trainspotting. The Beach was given an unfair ride by audiences and critics largely as a result of the casting of Leonardo Di Caprio in his first role since Titanic. But it began to seem that whereas Boyle could bring tremendous verve to smaller projects, his powers waned in relation to the size of his budget. It was hard to capture the irreverence of Trainspotting when he was filming a studio-backed movie in Thailand with one of the biggest movie stars in the world. By contrast, when he worked with largely unknown actors on his post-apocalyptic zombie movie 28 Days Later (2002), he seemed liberated. He may have been ex-BBC and ex-Royal Court, but Boyle was not too snobbish to throw himself into making a genre film. Nor did he have any qualms about making a likeable family film such as Millions (2004), the Frank Cottrell-Boyce scripted yarn about kids stumbling on a bag full of hundreds of thousands of pounds which they only have a week to spend, before the British currency switches to the euro.
Showing his versatility, Boyle has also made the thoughtful, New Age sci-fi drama Sunshine, a brilliantly designed galactic epic that was nodding in the direction of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Boyle is a paradox: a genial figure who tries to push his collaborators in a manic way – just like Werner Herzog or Francis Ford Coppola. Boyle says he likes "taking groups of people and putting them in extreme circumstances. I think that is a wonderful premise – a pack of people under extraordinary pressure, and seeing what happens... who explodes out of that." He is a rarity: a visual stylist who also cares about character.
"He instils a lot of loyalty and enthusiasm. He totally dominates his films," Macdonald says. "There are some directors who like to sit behind the monitor but he is everywhere. I always had the theory that because the BBC doesn't have first assistant directors, he likes doing that too. He likes talking to people and whipping them up."
Boyle has a talent for sound and music that many British film-makers lack. Whether it's the way he used Leftfield and Iggy Pop in Trainspotting or his collaboration with AR Rahman, "the Mozart of Madras," on Slumdog, he'll invariably throw in music to accentuate performance.
Andrew Macdonald stills hopes Boyle will make Porno, the long-awaited sequel to Trainspotting. But Boyle has plenty of other projects lined up in all sorts of genres. The success of Slumdog won't distract him, says Macdonald. "He just concentrates on the work. Like with any great director, for him, it's just the film, the film, the film."
Lust for movies: Boyle's finest moments
The kitchen-set finale of Shallow Grave (1994): Edinburgh yuppies turn against one another in a scene that seems straight out of film noir. Who needs proper weapons when you can use the toaster and the fridge door?
The opening of Trainspotting (1995): "Choose life, choose a job, choose a career..." heroin addict (Renton) Ewan McGregor suggests sardonically as he hurls himself down Princes Street with pursuers at his back and Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" playing on the soundtrack. No, he doesn't want a fixed-rate mortgage. It's as arresting a start as found in any British film of the 90s.
The shots of the sun in Sunshine (2006): Astronauts venture into space to reignite the sun. The plot may be sub-Arthur C Clarke hokum, but the imagery of the Sun itself, seen from
Jamal escapes from a locked-up makeshift toilet by burrowing through the trenches in Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Jamal's favourite Bollywood actor has come to town. The only way he can get out to meet the star is to crawl through a sewer. There is a strain of cloacal humour running through Boyle's work but this is extreme, even by 'Trainspotting' standards.
'Slumdog Millionaire': What the critics say
"Driven by fantastic energy and a torrent of vivid images of India old and new, 'Slumdog Millionaire' is a blast. Surging with colours, music, the ever-present swarming multitudes and the vitality of its youthful characters ... 'Slumdog Millionaire' is a vital piece of work by an outsider who's clearly connected with the place." Variety
"Slumdog Millionaire is an exhilarating ride – a feel-good yarn about a Mumbai street kid, directed by Danny Boyle with a wild energy that makes even 'Trainspotting' (Boyle's calling card) look leaden-footed." The Independent
"Beautifully shot with great sensitivity to colour, 'Slumdog Millionaire' makes for a better viewing experience than reflective one. It's an undeniably attractive package, a seamless mixture of thrills and tears, armchair tourism and crackerjack professionalism." The New York Times
"Danny Boyle's rags-to-riches story about an 18-year-old orphan from the slums of Bombay ... makes the heart pound. For all the bleak ingredients, this is not remotely a miserable film. There's a comic poetry about it that feels totally in tune with its Indian setting. Puts a spring in your step and brings a tear to the eye." The Times
"I've never seen anything like 'Slumdog Millionaire', and I welcomed the spectacle with open eyes. In these worsening times for feature films, timidity and mediocrity often vie for bottom honours at the multiplex. 'Slumdog Millionaire' breaks through to the top." The Wall Street JournalReuse content