- 17 Jul 19
Superstar director Danny Boyle discusses his fascinating new Beatles-themed feature, Yesterday, as well as his aborted Bond film, diversity in movies, Donald Trump, and more.
Danny Boyle’s much celebrated career has seen him direct some of cinema’s most celebrated films, from Trainspotting to Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later to 127 Hours. But when he approached singer Ed Sheeran about taking a role in his lovely new musical rom-com, Yesterday, Boyle discovered that his immensely friendly, endearingly excitable, chatty personality mightn’t scream ‘Oscar Winning Director’ – because Ed Sheeran had no idea who he was.
“Ed will deny this, but it’s absolutely true!” he laughs. “We had a meal at Richard Curtis’ house, who lives quite close to him and they’re friends. Halfway through, somebody mentioned my film The Beach and you could just see his face change. And Ed literally got his phone out under the table and was looking up my IMDB page, and having a ‘This is the guy who did-?’ moment. He had no idea who I was!”
Boyle laughs uproariously.
“I don’t care at all. He’s a massive pop star, performing every day of the year! But it was just quite funny.”
A PERSONAL FALLING OUT
Yesterday is Danny Boyle’s latest cinematic adventure. It sees Himesh Patel play failed musician Jack, who wakes up in an alternate reality where The Beatles have never existed, and no-one remembers their music – except him. Passing their songs off as his own, he becomes a world-wide superstar, but struggles with the fame and guilt.
As well as a warm, funny rom-com, the film is an unabashed celebration of The Beatles, and reminds us of how brilliantly diverse their music was. How suitable then, for Danny Boyle to direct a film about them, given that his career has been marked by a constant diversity of both subject and style.
“My favourite band of all time is The Clash,” says the director, sitting in a suite in The Merrion Hotel, “and their album London Calling is like The Beatles, in that they experimented with all different styles – reggae, rockabilly, all these sounds. And The Beatles were doing that. The variety of Abbey Road is just phenomenal. They used reggae, Indian music: it’s fantastic. Constantly doing something different. And if I’ve done anything at all similar, it’s because you do benefit from change and embracing different influences and challenging yourself.”
Boyle’s filmography displays a conscious effort to try something different each project. He moved from the zombie horror 28 Days Later to Millions, a comedy drama about a school boy embracing kindness. His joyous, hectic, sweeping romantic drama Slumdog Millionaire was followed by 127 Hours which centred on one character, stuck in a single location. Does he consciously choose projects diametrically opposed to what he’s just done?
“You don’t want to repeat yourself. Sometimes you find yourself saying, ‘I know how to do this’ – and you shouldn’t, really. You should actually be absorbing everything that’s different, and exploring different ways of doing things. Because you’ll get caught out soon enough anyway, as we all do, feeling like an imposter – so why not try and embrace that possibility of failing and take the challenge anyway?”
Yesterday is essentially a representation of imposter syndrome writ large.
“We all have that,” Boyle maintains. “I’m always waiting for someone to walk in and say, ‘This man isn’t a director! He’s a fake! He’s making it all up as he goes along!’”
So what are the films that felt like a genuine struggle, or that they might not come together?
“In retrospect, some feel effortless, even though they were enormous efforts. Slumdog felt effortless, it felt like it made itself, whereas The Beach was a fucking struggle,” Boyle admits, referring to his 2000 film, which was plagued with production issues and a personal falling-out between Boyle and his longtime collaborator Ewan McGregor, who expected the lead role but was ousted by Leonardo DiCaprio.
A PHILOSOPHY OF EQUAL ACCESS
“I learned from it, why I hadn’t been happy making it. I had gone about it the wrong way. And when you go about something the wrong way, you can’t recover. The way you set up the film, the way you set up its identity, is crucial to the happiness of everyone involved. Does it have no money or a lot of money involved? Is it made locally or in a studio? These decisions create a film’s gender identity. And you can distort that, especially with money and stars – because even when they bring the best intentions, which many of them do, they also bring money, and that money can change the film’s rightful identity. I learned that. I tend to make small films, and I love that. I love watching big films – but for me, I make smaller films and try to make them have as big an impact as possible.
“That’s what happened with Bond,” Boyle riffs, referring to the upcoming Bond 25 film, which Boyle was originally slated to write and direct. However, the director ended up leaving the project in a much-publicised dispute, citing that age-old trope: creative differences.
“I started writing this screenplay and they didn’t like it, because they could identify that it would have its own identity; it wasn’t going to be what we wanted it to be. It was better that we parted before it got ugly. It feels disappointing, because I still believe in the idea we had. But you have to temper that with the knowledge that it would have been horrible, because if you’re aiming for different things – don’t.”
This philosophy meant that Boyle was determined to make Yesterday feel as respectful and celebratory of The Beatles as possible. The rights to the songs used in the film were secured before production even began (“It’s the second-most expensive cost I’ve ever had on a film,” he remarks. The first? “Leo Di Caprio’s fee.”) – but the director still took it upon himself to write letters to Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the two widows, Olivia Harrison and Yoko Ono, and to also send them the finished film.
“We got really beautiful letters back from Ringo and Olivia, really lovely,” says Boyle. “That meant a lot to me. I don’t think Paul has seen it yet, but he saw the trailer and said it worked. He did say we should call it ‘Scrambled Eggs’ because that was the original title of the song ‘Yesterday’ – he woke up with the melody fully formed in his head, and sang it to Jane Asher over breakfast with the lyrics, ‘We should have some scrambled eggs’. So he said that we should call it ‘Scrambled Eggs’ - particularly if the film’s a mess!”
Resisting an artistic suggestion from Paul McCartney – that is a bold move. “A tongue-in-cheek artistic suggestion!” laughs Boyle.
The Beatles are obviously absolute icons, not just of music but of Britain itself. The fact that Boyle’s film sees Himesh Patel, a British actor with South Asian parents, become the reimagined face of iconic, groundbreaking British music, feels important, particularly as Brexit, and the racism that fuelled it, rage on. Was this a conscious decision to show that British and white should not be synonymous, at a time where a disturbing amount of people believe that to be true?
“I’d love to claim it was part of the original thought process, because I’m very proud of that message,” says Boyle. “But honestly, we were looking at people for ages, and a small kernel of fear had started to creep in that we wouldn’t find someone, or that whoever had to perform these fifteen songs would feel a bit karaoke. But then Himesh came in, and he performed very faithful renditions of Beatles songs. He wasn’t doing radical interpretations, but they just felt like his songs. That was exactly what we needed.”
Boyle has always made representing diverse viewpoints feel easy where other directors struggle – from making small but important choices like casting Naomi Harris as the female lead in 28 Days Later and having a very diverse cast on his sci-fi thriller Sunshine to letting diversity, representation and authenticity become an integral part of productions. For example, he hired local extras, actors and crew members while shooting Slumdog Millionaire in India. Boyle says that he’s embraced a philosophy of equal access, never choosing actors solely for their ethnicity or identity, but ensuring that actors of ethnicities and identities are given equal consideration – a depressingly rare approach in an industry that often defaults to writing characters as white, or only offers opportunities to well-established actors.
“You have to have the courage of your convictions, that you have the right person for the part – but you also have to be open to looking everywhere,” says Boyle. “Because talent is everywhere. And the best of that talent will always announce it. You don’t give parts to people purely to be politically correct – but your reach has to be informed by the PC principle, of giving everyone equal access.”
LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE TEACHERS
Danny Boyle says that he is paying attention to the increased discourse around onscreen representation of race and gender, and that these conversations have also led him to examining what stories he is drawn to, even subconsciously and who his films represent,
“Most of the films I’ve made, with the exception of Trance, have been about a central male character. And that’s hard. Because however dissimilar those characters may seem from each other, you are sort of making a film about yourself.”
He pauses, apparently still grappling with this revelation.
“It’s interesting. You’re trying to grow, while also not becoming awkwardly self-conscious about ‘the right’ things.”
Boyle is earnest in his desire to examine these biases and address them. He expresses a deep gratitude that these conversations are not only happening, but becoming an innate part of younger generations’ understanding of the world.
“My son goes to a school that is criticised by right-wing newspapers for being politically correct, because they excluded things like Golliwogs, and made sure that there is no colour in education. And my son doesn’t see colour,” Boyle says, in loving awe.
“I do,” he admits. “Because of the way I was brought up and educated, I see colour, no matter how much I educate myself. I’m pretty politically correct about it, but I see it. He doesn’t, because he’s been beautifully and properly educated. His subconscious is correct – he sees people equally and judges them on their merits, not these other values that are ascribed by influence and prejudice. I love that.”
Boyle then reveals an underlying theme of Yesterday, which many viewers may miss on first viewing.
“This film is a hidden tribute to teachers – Jack has been a teacher, Ellie [played by Lily James] is a teacher. When you have these terrible people like Trump and politicians who self-declare that they are the nation – no they’re not. Teachers are the nation. They’re where the values can be held and truly passed on in the most trustworthy way. Not through politicians, who represent them in the media in the flash of immediacy. The deeper values of a nation are held and passed on by teachers. My sisters were teachers, and I always thought it was such a vital job – to pass on music and culture and history, or values. And now my son doesn’t see colour. I find that a miracle, it’s so beautiful. And that’s because he’s had great teachers who have passed on the greatest truth: that people are people, so treat them equally.”
Possibly some good parenting, too. But Boyle is literally putting his money where his mouth is. He is a co-chair of a new school of digital arts in Manchester, known as SODA, which will provide courses in film, animation, applied games, special effects, sound design and more for 1,500 students every year.
“Also, Working Title, who made this film, are opening another film school in London, the Screen Academy, which starts in September with an influx of 300 students. They’re basically going to pass on the skills to become involved in the business – all the skills, not just the ones that get all the publicity. They’ll learn it all – costume, runners, production managers, co-ordinators, everything. Because there’s a skills shortage in Britain. You can make films, there’s a lot of money to make long-form television, especially, but there aren’t the crews.”
As for SODA, he’s delighted to also develop on this philosophy of equal access, and offer it to aspiring film creatives.
“I’m really keen to see young people from all backgrounds given the opportunity to learn to be the filmmakers and media producers of the future, and to tell their own stories in ways we haven’t experienced before. That’s what’s needed.”
•Yesterday is in cinemas now.