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July 2007
SUNSHINE : An Interview with Danny Boyle

SUNSHINE : An Interview with Danny Boyle
By Brad Balfour

July 19, 2007


For gonzo British director Danny Boyle (the guy who created such a generation-defining film as "Trainspotting" and who redefined the zombie freak-out with "28 Days Later"), making a film like "Sunshine required a different set of muscles than used with his other films. The pace was more deliberate; the characters couldn't be so overtly quirky. Yet the film still had to have his visual pizzaz and cast of unique characters.

And the film had to make some kind of sense to make it properly science fiction. So he chose to create a world 50 years in the future so in panic to save itself from a dying sun that it has sent two expeditions carrying massive world-shattering bombs that are mean to re-ignite the sun. Though the first ship was lost, the second hopes to make up for its failure and save mankind and the solar system.

For such an ambition journey. Boyle applies his fascinating vision and unique style of storytelling to keep us guessing while still fashioning an instant classic of the space ship drama genre.

Are the elements to making a good science fiction film different from just a good film?

DB: I've never heard that one before. I guess the truth is they break down into three things, which is a ship, a crew, a signal. They all break down into that at the moment, and until we colonize space, I think they probably always will. There will always be a steel tube with a group of individuals that represent us, trapped inside of it. Then on their journey, something happens. It's a signal, changes everything. It gives them a big problem, then they move or not, or what do they do. And it’s weird, when you look at them, so many of them break down into those basic ingredients.

At the moment I think that's probably what you need. It's a particular kind of sci-fi. There is another kind of sci-fi, which is "Star Wars," "Star Trek," which is literally fantasy. Anything goes, you can do anything you want, really. But ["Sunshine" is] the stricter kind of space sci-fi. It’s basically still predicated on what NASA is doing. It imagines that [they] eventually will be going this far.

Q: I'm a big science fiction fan, so I saw “2001,” and a lot of the films like that. You mentioned the limitations of the genre which you didn't necessarily expect. Was that a great challenge for you?

DB: The relationship you have with these films is constant. You try to forget about them as a director when you get up and shoot the film. But the aura is there, hovering around, and every direction you turn, they've been there already, they've tried that. That's really frustrating, on the one hand.

And you realize quite quickly how narrow it is--much narrower, say, than the zombie tradition, which you would think was a much more narrow, more specific, tradition. Not at all. You're quite free to do anything you want in a zombie movie. Not so in space. If you try certain things differently, they don't work. You have to go back to the original because they literally undermine the film. It's not like a risk moment, where you risk the film.

What were some of your influences?

DB: The great ones [everyone knows] are a huge inspiration [like "Alien, Blade Runner etc.]. You remember the first time you saw them and the effect they had on you, the spell of them. What's interesting is that there's very little humor in space. We try to put a lot more jokes in. We managed to get a few jokes in, courtesy of Chris Evans. He has a couple of moments.

Apart from that, forget it. It's absolutely that bone dry like that. And you think why is that? And of course, it’s because its such a hostile place. Everything out there is just poised to kill us, and we're protected by this little steel tube. Everything is fragile. Everything is right on the edge. You've got to take it very seriously.

Why did you add in the radiation-scarred insane mad-killer Pinbacker character?

DB: It's introducing him into an otherwise realistically based film. Otherwise, it's an extreme psychological element, really. In a way, he's a character. He's based on the guy who piloted the first ship, who has had this transformation. But actually, he's a psychological challenge to the sanity of the crew members, who still exist when you meet him, if you like. That's the thing that's always worked for me. And when you go to the surface of the sun--as we always used to say--it's not a tea party. It can't be a debate. This isn't a debate. This is the surface of the sun.

You have to represent that in some way, and we represented that with Pinbacker, this guardian of the gates of heaven or hell, whatever you want to call it. He stands there as a guardian at the gateway. I wanted to depict him in a way that was as extreme as I could do, which I could do technically, which is this blurring, this stretching. You take that kind of risk with somebody. I wanted him to feel that, literally, the protons and neutrons that make him up had been reorganized somehow--that he was no longer recognizable as a human, except that he is still speaking with a human voice and he is captain of the first ship.

Q: This film is paced and edited differently from other Danny Boyle films. Why was it paced much slower than your other films; was that important to you?

DB: You can't do it any other way. We tried. It's one of the disciplines of this kind of film: if you want it quicker, you cannot believe they’re in space. You do not believe the journey. It's absolutely extraordinary. And we tried a love story. You try all these things and they just don't work. As a director, you sit there as if you're on the audience's behalf.

Early on in the process, we just slowed it down. It's a risk, especially wit modern day films. I remember when [director] Ridley Scott said he didn't think that “Alien” would work when he released it, because the first 45 minutes are so slow before anything really happens. I don't think the film would work unless you ran it at that pace. It's eternity, endlessness, isolation--all the ways that you represent that. You have to take that risk.

You didn't think the challenge of having a relationship happen between, say, Rose Bryne and Cillian Murphy, would have worked as an interesting diversion or distraction?

DB: I liked their relationship. I think they do have a relationship. But when we try to physicalize it, in any other way, it was just like embarrassing. When we tried to have them kiss, we had a great sex scene worked out in the garden. It was a perfect place for them to have a great sex scene. It never, never worked.

Casting is critical to these films because of that sparse environment, you need a strong cast to carry the film. And you really came up with a hell of a cast. [Hiroyuki] Sanada and [Cliff Curtis] from “The Whale Rider,” and other people one might not have expected. Chris Evans is another actor where we find out there's a lot more to him then has been realized.

DB: He's a fantastic actor. He's very underrated, I think. I've got a very unusual perspective on him. You know the way actors bleat, they always bore on about people only knowing them as one thing. And they’re always moaning about success, you know, like they're trapped in a successful franchise. But I saw it really from his perspective this time. My impression of him was from his audition. Then “Fantastic Four” came out, and I could see why other people wouldn't want to cast him because “Fantastic Four” boxes him. But he was so much more, really, and it was easy for me to cast him.

One of the great things about these movies, one of the freedoms it does give you, is casting, because they usually shoot ensembles. Stars on the whole tend to look out of place in space--with the exception of Tom Hanks, of course, in “Apollo 13”. Obviously the first “Alien” film is a great example of it. Sigourney Weaver emerged out of a pack and nobody knew who she was.
So that gave us the freedom to cast internationally, to cast favorite actors and get together a good mix of people. And race, nationality, are not important in space. It's the only place where we've managed to make [it neutral] on behalf of all mankind. So you can keep that, cast anyone you want, that's not an issue.

Michelle Yeoh played well together with the other characters--but what clicked about them?

DB: We got them all to live together, which I think helped them bond as a team. There was no trouble with them at all. And normally, with a bunch of actors over two or three months, you always get a little bit of tension. An affair goes wrong or something. Nothing on this. It was really calm, peaceful. They were very good, yeah.

The choices you see here--Hiro Sanada, who was a samurai.

DB: I just wanted that guy, the sacrifice thing. I wanted a Japanese captain. Finding him was amazing. He made a film called “Twilight Samurai,” and it's a most amazing film. His performance is amazing.

We're all hearing about global warming, the effects of what's going to happen. But in your film, it's the reverse. There's not enough sun, not enough warmth, and we're a big ice ball here. Was that an intentional?

DB: Yeah, when we started like three years ago, you could see clearly the obsession of the world now was going to be, quite rightly, on global warming--or climate change, if you want to call it that, because it manifests itself in very different ways wherever you are on the planet. But we decided to look the other way. It's counterintuitive if you just go, don't look that way, look that way. It's still relevant, I think, because the film makes you look at our relationship with the star and how precious and how fragile existence really is. It stops it being a film about blaming ourselves as well. Because global warming, you have to point the finger at us, really. And lots of people are doing that, quite rightly.

Weren't you worried about being called on the carpet for the very science of this, not because the problem isn't the global warming? There really isn't any real indication that our sun is cooling that quickly. For a star to cool that quickly it would involve a cataclysm that would have destroyed everything anyhow. What [was] the logic of it?

DB: Well, what's extraordinary about it is how little we've changed and how easy it would be for it to change. It's extraordinary. You know why it gets colder in the winter of this planet? I thought it was the tilt of this earth. You tilt away for six months. It makes you cooler. It's not. It's just the fact that there is less surface area of the planet exposed to the sun to absorb the heat. So you don't heat up as quickly.

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