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NOVEMBER 12, 2008

Money Changes Nothing

Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle talks about dreams of riches, keeping thing fresh, and Mumbai's wonderful slums.

By Mark Jenkins

In British director Danny Boyle's first film, 1994's Shallow Grave, three friends fall out over the money they discover in their dead flatmate's room. Since then, the sudden arrival of a large amount of cash has featured in such Boyle movies as Trainspotting, Millions, and now Slumdog Millionaire, a vivacious tale of two Muslim brothers from Mumbai who may realize big scores — one as a gangster, the other as a contestant on a round of Who Wants to be a Millionaire whose every question evokes an incident from his turbulent life. So when Boyle made a promotional swing through Washington in late October, it was logical to begin by asking if he dreams of sudden wealth and piles of currency.

You never think when you're making it, "Oh god, it's another film about a bag of money." I was aware of it with that scene in the toilet — where he jumps in the toilet. Obviously, I did think, "I've done another film [Trainspotting] where a guy escapes by going down a toilet." But most of the time you don't think like that.

I do come from a background with not a lot of money. And I'm not very good at money either. I bully producers, in a charming way, about everything. But they can rip me off, no problem, because I don't really understand how money works.

I suppose that is a link: A kid who gets all this money, but doesn't want it. He wants the girl. That's the real reason he's on the show. And the kid in Millions isn't really interested in the money.

I was surprised when reading the press kit to learn that this was a project developed without you.

[laughs] People say, "You are an auteur," and I say, "I'm not an auteur. I don't write this stuff." And they say, "Yeah, but you shine a light on it, because it's what you're interested in."

I try to do things as different as possible. That is deliberate. As a film director, you get more skilled at the technical side of the job. And that's a trap, I think. You can become so good at it technically, that you forget what people are watching. The drive of the story, the capture that the story has on people's minds, imaginations, and hearts.

I have this theory that your first film is your best film. Providing that you don't collapse under panic, it's fresher than anything you'll ever do again. And if you can reintroduce that freshness into your work on other stuff, that's a good thing. So I try to set myself challenges. This one, obviously, is going to India — which I'd never been to before. You can start again, because all your old tricks won't help you there.

How did you prepare for India?

I read that great book, Maximum City, by Suketa Mehta.

I thought I was in Maximum City as soon as you cut from the game show to the police torture scene.

Mehta has not seen the film yet. We've arranged for him to see it in New York in the next week or so. I'm a bit worried he's going to say, "Hang on a minute! You fucking well adapted my book without paying me any money for it! [giggles] This other guy's getting all the sales!" I don't know what he's going to think.

There's always a book I have, or something, and for this, it was Maximum City. It was incredibly useful for someone like me. Because he's from there, but he's also from here, and that double perspective makes it so immediate. He answers the questions you want answered. Only if you're from there will you ever understand the code.

How difficult was it to shoot in Bombay's slums?

The slums are great! You have to contact the right people to go in there, but once we were there and got to know the people, they're extraordinary. They're so resourceful, considering how little they're given by the state. There's no toilets, there's no running water, no electricity. It looks filthy and disgusting, and it is around the edges, but you go in the homes and they're absolutely spotless.

I think the energy of the film is a tribute to the slums. Everybody imagines people just hanging around, sleeping in the sun and not working. They're incredibly industrious! Working in these cottage industries, and trading. That's why they don't want to move out of these places. Because the land is so valuable now, the municipal councils want to move them out to these tower blocks they built in New Mumbai. But they don't want to go there. They do forcibly move them, but the people come back. They want to live amongst their own kind. Because what they get from their own kind more than compensates for the bricks and mortar that's on offer out there. To be in the hub of the city, the maximum city, is priceless.

Even the super-rich are not sectioned off. That's one thing that struck me. People like big Bollywood star Anil Kapoor [who plays the imperious Millionaire host] feels responsibility to ordinary people. It's not like a bit of charity work that you do in Hollywood. He absolutely feels connected to the guy who's had his hands chopped off because it makes him a better beggar. You can't separate them, the way that we in the West have learnt to.

I was in Mumbai for a few days in the late 1990s.

Did you hate it? Some people hate it.

I didn't hate it, but I did feel it wasn't a place for a short visit. You need to acclimatize yourself slowly, to ease into it.

I loved it! Right from the beginning. It's just all the people. Obviously, I'm in a privileged position, because I'm a film director and people are working for me. But I found it such an invigorating place to be.

And I wasn't cosseted. I went out on my own; I did a lot of shooting on my own. Maybe I was lucky, but people were hugely kind to me. I had some lovely relationships with people. I had a lot of time for it.

Did you shot stuff that's actually in the film?

Oh god, yeah. We used three different cameras. We used a film camera a bit, not very much. About 20 percent is on film. And then we used this digital system, which is like an Apple Mac on the operator's back and a lens in the hand with a gyro. And that's about it. Lots of dry ice has to be around the computer to keep it cool. One of the biggest problems was having somewhere where we could do all the icing. We'd have tons of dry ice in the middle of this slum in Bombay, dry-ice vapor billowing over these houses.

They're prototype cameras; they're not manufactured yet. Despite some teething problems, we got about 75 percent of the film on them. And the other five percent is on this still camera, a Canon, which shoots 11 frames a second. I would go out and shoot stuff with that. There's lots of that in the film. Well, not lots, but some of it.

We took about 10 Western crew, and at the end they all went home. And I kept going with the Mumbai crew. The producer, Christian Colson, obviously thought, "There's no way I'm going to get this guy to go home." He kept saying, "We gotta stop." So he went home and closed the bank account. [laughs] That was the only way he could get me to stop. And so a couple of days later I went home.

Is the Indian Who Wants to Be a Millionaire actually in English?

It's in Hindi, but English is used a lot in Mumbai. The little kids don't speak English, the 7-year-olds, apart from odd words. So we had to do the beginning of the film in Hindi. Which didn't exactly set the financiers's hearts on fire when I told them. But it felt accurate. They were very fake when they acted in English. When they're 12, 13, it's much more natural to them to speak English. So that transition to their speaking English at the Taj [Mahal] you just accept.

We tried to make the subtitles as exciting as possible. People are more interested in actors being convincing — well, I don't know, maybe we'll suffer from the fact that it's got some Hindi and subtitles. But I think people love in seeing things that feel honest.

The image of child Ram who appears during the anti-Muslim riot is really chilling. Did you know about the Ram cult and anti-Muslim violence before you started?

I had to learn, obviously. There's lots of it in Maximum City. Although they live calmly most of the time, there is this tension. The right-wing Hindu nationalists do explode sometimes. And there is retaliation from the Muslims as well. The two groups are deeply connected, sometimes appallingly, violently, tragically so.

The Ram figure is a tricky one with them; you have to be very careful about local sensibilities. Originally in the script, one of the rioters had a Ram T-shirt on. I had a co-director — the women who was initially the casting director [Loveleen Tandan] — and she would tell me the truth. (Often with film directors, people just nod, because they want to please you, and you come to regret it later.) She said they would never never never wear a T-shirt with Ram on it. That's what Westerners do with our idols. So we had a problem then about how to include this information. He had to experience during the riot the information that gave him the answer to that question. So we made it almost a hallucination. He sees himself as a child. They do use child representations of Ram in parades and ceremonies, but they'd never bring something like that to riot. It's very disrespectful.

The scene shows the boys's experience of the riot. As a Westerner, you can't bring an opinion to it. Because it's too complex. So it was really helpful to me to see it through a kid's eyes, a kid who was not interested in the details. He was only interested in the impact it had on him. And it is a turning point in the film, because the older brother turns to violence. Which is understandable, in a way. He decides not to be a victim anymore. Whereas our hero has more grace, and learns to look beyond it. He remembers, but he doesn't let it mark him for life.

Whose idea was it to put leading Indian film composer A.R. Rahman, who scored the movie, together with Anglo-Sri-Lankan world-hop performer MIA?

I wanted to use Rahman, and eventually he agreed to do it. And I'd already got [MIA's] "Paper Planes" in the film, and I told him that. And he said, "Oh yeah, I know Maya. She came to my studio a couple months ago." She worshipped him when she was a kid. She wanted to sing with him. So we got them together, and she sings on a couple of his tracks in the film. It was one of those things that happens in India. Serendipity, or whatever it is. I don't want to sound like a hippie, 'cause I'm not. But things go on that are just too much of a coincidence. The Indian guys I worked with would say, "That's as it is. You trusted it, you went with it, and you'll get rewarded for it." [laughs] A lot of that goes on. (2008, 121 min; at Landmark Bethesda Row.)