Interview: A team less ordinary
Friday 17 October 1997
The photographer waggles a finger and Danny Boyle, John Hodge and Andrew Macdonald - the trio behind Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and now the heroically amorphous American adventure that is A Life Less Ordinary - shuffle into position by a first-floor Soho window. According to the natural order of things in the puffed-up world of film-making, each of the three men should be fighting for prime spot in the picture, but in fact it's quite the reverse: none of them wants to be in focus.
There is method in their modesty. By submerging their individual egos as director, writer and producer into a unit which sounds more like a firm of solicitors, Boyle, Hodge and Macdonald have managed to create an identity that reflects the way things actually get done. "As far as most critics are concerned," Macdonald says, rolling his eyes, "the director does everything: writes the film and produces it as well as directs it. And that's such a mistake. Which is why, when the time came to move across the Atlantic, we said, `If you want the magic of Trainspotting, you've got to take us as a job lot.'"
Within the theoretical security of this all-for-one-and-one-for-all set- up, there's still room for a fair amount of tension. When someone playfully suggests that success might have gone to the head of the genial Boyle, and he might somehow not be the nice guy he used to be, the quieter Hodge quips - jokingly, but with the suggestion of an edge - "he was never a nice guy."
In his introduction to the A Life Less Ordinary screenplay (Faber and Faber, pounds 8.99), Hodge alludes to Boyle and Macdonald calling him from their Hollywood poolside "to let you go - I mean, let you know" when a tempting offer came in to make Alien 4. At the time of the interview, the director hadn't yet read this, but there is obviously going to be trouble when he does.
Other potential sources of disputation are not hard to spot. After their triumph with Trainspotting, the trio are, by Macdonald's own reckoning, "Probably due a kicking." And, in this context, the message of A Life Less Ordinary would seem to be "Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough". The nattily choreographed interplay of sound and movement and colour that made Shallow Grave and Trainspotting so much fun is still there in abundance but, while its two precursors at least showed their passports at genre border crossings, the new film careers through them like a runaway Reliant Robin.
A couple of meta-textual angels throw together a spoilt heiress and a Scottish no-hoper in a bid to make them "fall in love". Guns are waved. Visions are had. Cameron Diaz acquits herself much better than generally of late, and Ewan McGregor seems to be playing the same trans-Atlantic version of himself he essayed in his guest appearance on ER. No wonder the media scrum on the London pavement outside the film's first ever screening seemed somewhat bemused. And the puzzlement didn't stop there. On seeing the completed version of A Life Less Ordinary for the first time, even its screenwriter was moved to observe that this was the strangest film he'd seen since David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. (MacDonald notes that the film's US distributors weren't happy about this, and Hodge qualifies his verdict. "But I liked Fire Walk With Me.")
As a rule, the published screenplay is the cinematic equivalent of a Hard Rock cafe T-shirt - a way for the unimaginative and socially inadequate to emphasise that they have been there, done that. But, in the case of A Life Less Ordinary, it makes quite interesting reading. The bits marked "cut from completed film" are the ones that would have made it make sense.
So, do the men behind A Life Less Ordinary agree that it's the things that have been cut out of the film that make it such a strange piece of work? "The truth is," says Boyle apologetically, "you tend to cut the stuff which doesn't work: you take it out because it wasn't shot or acted or directed well enough, or it doesn't come off the page in the way that some of the other material does. And, once you've done that, you have to justify the whole process, so then, by changing a few other things, you start to assemble a reason for having done it."
The director smiles, wholly aware of how indiscreet he is being. "Looking at the film now, I think one of the good things about it is that it is slightly free-form. If people get caught up in it, they will enjoy the fact that some of it is pretty inexplicable - not in the way a David Lynch film would be, because it's lighter than that - but it is quite free. And the justification for that," he grins, "and this is the pompous bit, is that that's a bit like what it's like to be in love."
Would he agree that the film has a more romantic attitude to action than it does to romance? Boyle smiles again: "That does seem to be a problem we suffer from."
Whether or not people like A Life Less Ordinary - and my guess is that a lot of them will - it can't possibly have the same impact as Trainspotting. "Apart from anything else," Macdonald points out, "it hasn't the same sociological and cultural joining-at-the-hip." Did he find it strange that a film that was initially perceived as brash, irresponsible and even dangerous so quickly became part of a ready-made index of British cultural vitality? "In terms of the whole British thing," Macdonald insists, "that was, as ever, a lot about pop music and a bit about fashion, but very little about cinema, which has always been a pretty distant relation in this country."
But wasn't the great thing about Trainspotting the way it seemed to make cinema less distant - responding to, and engaging with, the culture that gave rise to it in a way that cinema traditionally hadn't in Britain, not since the Sixties anyway? Boyle doesn't think this time-frame is a coincidence. "If you think about it, for such a small place, Britain's production of musicians since the Beatles has been - and continues to be - quite staggering. In this country, if you've got anything to express, you form a band, and very little of that energy has ever gone into film the way it does in America."
"It only used to be theatrical people or BBC people who got to make films in Britain," Macdonald continues. "Films always had to be `properly financed', and everyone was always complaining how hard it was to get the money you needed. In America, you had people like Spike Lee, or the guy who made Clerks [Kevin Smith], who just basically made their films and then audiences went to see them. But that never ever happened here, not one film in Britain ever did that. The closest we'd get to that ideal would be Leon the Pig Farmer."
Thanks to a whole series of factors, including lottery money, televisual enterprise and the general upsurge of confidence following Trainspotting's success, this no longer seems to be the case. With a veritable guerrilla army of domestic productions piling through the breach they'd opened up, it was not only reasonable but healthy and even necessary for Boyle, Macdonald and Hodge to turn their joint attentions elsewhere. A Life Less Ordinary's kinetic dippiness comes as a welcome break from the current predominance of the gritty and the streetwise.
The great mid-Western outdoors has rarely looked more inviting than it does in this British-conceived film. "We grew up with American films, which occupy a landscape of their own," Boyle explains, "and that's where we wanted to go. I know it's a bit of a cliche, but the space of somewhere like Utah makes such an impression on you. Having grown up in Manchester, and only ever being 80 miles from the sea wherever you are in Britain, just to go there and get lost was incredible."
The thing is, though, they didn't get lost. What they did was shift their hi-tech cottage-industry wholesale across the Atlantic, keep their team together, come home with reputations and friendship intact, and make a very unusual and entertaining film that might even earn its backers some money.
"The three scripts that we've done together," Boyle says proudly, "they're not like anything else I've ever read or watched, and so far that's been a good thing. Of course, whether it's a good thing in the end or not, only time will tell."
How does he think people will look back on A Life Less Ordinary? "I think," Boyle says cheerfully, "they'll come to see it as our New York, New York."
`A Life Less Ordinary' goes on general release next Friday. The soundtrack album and screenplay are already available
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