“She said, ‘I’ve been to the dentists this morning so I am not in a very good mood, tell me what you want’. So I did.”
The last couple of years have been pretty eventful for Danny Boyle, even by his standards, yet sometime in the middle of putting on the opening ceremony to the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, he managed to find time to make another film – the psychological, noir-esque thriller Trance.
We sit down with the director and one of his leads, man of the moment James McAvoy, at ultra-glam The Soho Hotel, to find out more about the latest addition to Boyle’s increasingly impressive oeuvre.
“It’s a twisty, turny little fucker of a movie,” says McAvoy, who is nursing broken fingers courtesy of his current Macbeth West End run. And he has a point.
A heist movie that toys with the subconscious and our perception of reality, it starts with an auction theft (“I like films that burst in the door at the beginning,” Boyle says) in which McAvoy’s Simon is cracked over the head by Vincent Cassel’s art thief.
James McAvoy in Trance
After this the Scot (speaking in his own accent on screen for the first time in ages) finds the darkest recesses of his mind teased at and probed by Rosario Dawson’s hypnotherapist, as Cassel’s crim wants to know why his multi-million plan didn’t go to, well, plan, leaving him holding an empty case rather than a prized Goya.
Trance flits through our minds, our wants, our desires as Simon falls under the hypnotist’s spell, with fractured narratives and perception-shifting points of view playing out throughout. “It is a series of increasing trances,” Boyle explains of the film that was lensed pre-Games but saved for now.
In order to ensure accuracy and veracity, the cast went to hypnotism boot camp – yet with only varying degrees of success. “They tried it on me but it didn’t work,” McAvoy says.
“I was a bit gutted because I was keen to be regressed or turned into a chicken or something, but it didn’t happen. I went with it for about 10 minutes but then I was like, I need a pee and to scratch my leg. This isn’t working, mate. I’m sorry.”
McAvoy was not one of the 5-10 per cent of the population who are susceptible to hypnotism, it would seem. In Boyle’s last movie, 127 Hours, the filmmaker had one main character – the man stuck under the rock. Here he has three leads, with McAvoy, Dawson and Cassel.
Danny Boyle on set
But storytelling challenges and playing with audiences’ and studios’ preconceptions are part and parcel of what drives this most enigmatic of filmmakers. “I am evangelical,” he tells us of his approach to making the movies he wants to make.
He wants to originate his own projects and bring them in for under US$20million, which is a lot to you or I – and even a Premiership footballer – but small potatoes where Hollywood’s concerned. He’s an Oscar-winning director, he could have the pick of the scripts, so why this stringent approach?
“I ask them [the actors] to make less money than they will elsewhere, and I keep the budget down because then we keep control of [the film’s] deviousness,” he explains. “I find it ludicrous when people are lent US$100 million and then [aren’t expected] to express an opinion.”
Boyle keeps the budget low so he can stick to his guns, and Trance – darker even than127 Hours, despite that film featuring a nauseating sequence in which the canyoneer saws off his own arm with a penknife – fits his style to a tee. It’s fast, flashy, with a kick-ass soundtrack courtesy of Underworld’s Rick Smith, and has mind-warping visuals.
Yet these Boyle-isms refract a less praised element of his filmmaking prowess. “One of the things that doesn’t get paid to him is that he is an actors’ director,” McAvoy says. “He knows what we go through.”
Danny Boyle with the cast of Trance: Rosario Dawson, James McAvoy and Vincent Cassel
Starting out in regional theatre before moving towards the silver screen no doubt nurtured this approach. “He knows how to get [from you] what he wants without huge amounts of chat,” McAvoy adds.
“He doesn’t have to go through stories from his life: ‘I remember this time when I was 10 years old and my granny smacked me and I felt this rage bubble up inside me, do you know what I mean?’ He gets you there with economy and grace.”
It is this faith from others in his craft that persuades people to sign on for Boyle – indeed, it was this strength that shaped the opening ceremony into more than a Britain’s Got Talent charade – and gets them to go that extra mile.
For Trance, this involved nude scenes with his leading lady – one Dawson was up for from the get-go, understanding it was not gratuitous but integral to the story.
“You do it with a closed set,” Boyle explains of the process. “There are some actors who regard part of their job as [being] that they have the whole of them available to you.
Danny Boyle picks up the Oscar for Best Director for Slumdog Millionaire
“You’ll be surprised how the power shifts when you are in that moment. A lot of actors have said to me that they feel incredibly vulnerable until they do it, but then they have all the power. Once you have your kit off, whether it is on set or on stage, people daren’t look at you. No one wants to be in the situation where somebody naked says, ‘What are you looking at?’”
Trance was actually filmed during Boyle’s two-year preparation for the Olympics. He took a stint off to do Frankenstein on the London stage with Trainspotting alumni Jonny Lee Miller, with whom he may or may not re-team for a Spud, Renton, Begbie and Sick Boy sequel (he won’t do it if there is any chance it will disappoint). And he then took another sabbatical for this.
So while Boyle was preparing to celebrate London, the UK, and all it has given the world, he was also beavering away on a movie in which murder and manipulation are high currency. Both projects were built around the same intent, though, in many ways.
“Everything you do is about seducing the audience,” he says of the method behind the movie. Believe us, Trance will suck you right in. It may or may not make you think you are a chicken, though.
Trance is released March 27 through Pathé. Read our Trance film review.