Saturday 24 February 2018

The man who could have been pope

Sarah Caden

DANNY Boyle would have made a very good priest. The kind of priest the Roman Catholic church could do with. He's friendly, approachable, full of empathy and faith. Unfortunately for the church, however, not the kind of faith they're after.

Less religious, more faith in human nature, something from which the film business has benefited instead.

Belief in his fellow man has informed everything he's made, says Boyle, from Shallow Grave, through Trainspotting, and The Beach - but most clearly in his new film, Millions. And as he talks, you see what he means and believe what he says. Truly, he is the church's loss.

I meet Boyle in the small, faux library of a plush Covent Garden hotel. His jeans and trainers outfit is at odds with the stuffiness of the room, and initially he's unsure where to sit.

Boyle is in the middle of an afternoon of interviews and wants to change seat for every one, so he doesn't feel that each is a repeat of the last. It's a funny, considered and almost considerate gesture and though he will turn 50 next year, there's something boyishly enthusiastic about Boyle which carries through in both his conversation and his work. There's a sense of boundless optimism and real emotion, underpinned with the philosophy that mankind is essentially good.

And yes, this is the man who made Trainspotting.

On the surface, it might seem the Mancunian Boyle has moved a world away from Irvine Welsh's tale of drug addiction with his latest film, Millions. Ostensibly, it is the heart-tugging tale of Damian, a little boy recently bereaved of his mother and relocated to a new neighbourhood with his dad (James Nesbitt) and older brother, Anthony (Lewis Owen McGibbon).

Damian is a sensitive kid, keenly interested in the lives of the saints, who appear to him in the most mundane manner, neon halos wobbling above their heads and against a soundtrack that includes The Clash and Muse. One day, a bag of banknotes lands in Damian's lap - almost literally - and then it becomes a story of how money can alter one's behaviour and belief structures.

It's not about money's corrupting power, however, but how it is possible to resist that. It's a film about being good and, at its best moments, inspires near-tearful optimism.

"I think this film was very much made for my mum and dad," Boyle says. "My mother, who has died, left me not so much with religion, but with faith in people as a philosophy. I believe people are basically good, always have. She was an amazing woman like that and I carry that always. I'm very proud of it and try to behave that way.

"My whole life was full of saints growing up. My mother was from Ballinasloe and my father was a big, working-class labourer who was born in England, but to an Irish family, and worked all the time to make things better for us. He moved us to a better house in a better area - like the dad in the film - and she brought us up.

"It was a very strict, Catholic family. I was an altar boy for eight years, I was supposed to be a priest and really, it was my mother's fondest wish that I would become one."

Eventually, one of Boyle's teachers told him this would be a mistake and he believes the teacher then had a word with his mother, who never mentioned it again. Soon after, the boy who obediently wore shorts to school until he was 13, entered "a rebellious stage" and then became interested in theatre and, eventually, film direction.

"There is a precedent," he smiles, connecting the performance, even showbiz, elements of the film business and

'There's a sense of boundless optimism and real emotion, underpinned with the philosophy that mankind is essentially good'

the priesthood. "Martin Scorsese, John Woo - they trained to be priests."

When Boyle read Frank Cottrell Boyce's screenplay for Millions, he immediately wanted to direct it. "It was my life, it was full of it," Boyle says, explaining the Irish-extraction, Roman-Catholic common ground between himself and Cottrell Boyce, a writer whose keen ear for dialogue comes from years on Coronation Street.

Neither wanted to end up with an autobiographical work, but their intimacy with the film's themes of faith and morality means they ring true, while also seeming universal. Already, Millions has been embraced in the States, where Boyle's last film, 28 Days Later, also proved a success. Boyle says he was surprised by the reaction there, given America's less straightforward attitude to religion and adds that many there asked the same question I have. How can the same man make Trainspotting and Millions, one so bleak, one so determinedly full of hope?

"I can see objectively how people wouldn't get the connection, but I don't see the films as poles apart. I see them made with the same love and commitment and passion," he says, before going on to convince me that moustachioed, glass-chucking, head-butting Begbie was essentially good.

"Once," he concludes, laughing. "And not that he's ever going to be good again."

What is more interesting, Boyle continues, is that he has made a second film about a bag of money. His feature film debut, 1994's Shallow Grave, was concerned with friends who find a stash of cash by their new flatmate's corpse. They are corrupted by greed, turn on each other and basically come to a bad end because of it, which is quite the opposite of what occurs in Millions.

Boyle points out that Shallow Grave was born of a cynical time in Britain, but concurs that his own relationship with money has changed radically in the intervening decade.

While making Shallow Grave, Danny Boyle - whose three kids were then between two and nine years of age - sold furniture to fund further filming. That film proved a moderate success; two years later Trainspotting took the world by storm - and then, as happens, Hollywood started throwing money at him.

He agrees it was probably the stuff of his earlier dreams, but when the cash and the attendant expectations arrived, it was a nightmare. 1997's underrated A Life Less Ordinary was met with lukewarm to cool response, but then there was The Beach, a victim of its own hype.

"It was terrible," Boyle says. "It's like, they give you all this money and you can buy better equipment, but you don't become a better director as result. It's just more equipment. Of course they want to keep an eye on their money, but they track your every move and you have no freedom."

Significantly, studio demands that The Beach boast a big star saw Ewan McGregor - who had starred in all Boyle's films to date - dropped in favour of Leonardo DiCaprio. It led to a personal rift that survives to this day, though Boyle remains optimistic that McGregor will consider appearing in Porno, the planned adaptation of Welsh's Trainspotting sequel.

"But that won't be for another 10 years," Boyle says, letting me know he's ever hopeful, but not naive.

In 2000, after The Beach, both in reaction against all that hype and disappointment and also in fear of what the big-time movie business might do to his films - and to him - Danny Boyle pared down his productions.

In relation to his kids, in particular, he was keen to resist the corrupting power of too much cash.

He appreciates that he's comfortable, that he's not tied to a mortgage, but he doesn't want too much, either for himself or his family.

"They get one good holiday a year and they know that other people aren't so well-off," he says, of the children who were brought along to the editing of Trainspotting because he couldn't afford a babysitter, their eyes averted during the explicit bits.

Perversely, however, Boyle's smaller films, shot on digital video, were well received, with 2002's 28 Days Later - with Cillian Murphy and Brendan Gleeson - proving a big hit both here and in America. And there's every sign Millions will head the same way.

Boyle took a risk turning his back on the big budgets but, in keeping with the message of Millions, this risk had its reward. Maybe not in heaven, where his mother might have wished, but in the world Boyle chose instead.

One, rather admirably, he has not allowed to crush his optimism but has used as an outlet for it. Something tells me she would have approved.

'Millions' goes on nationwide release from May 27

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