Energy is the origin of cinema

EFA Master Class RUHR with Danny Boyle

by Oliver Baumgarten

The fourth day of the EFA Master Class RUHR, which was to close with a visit of all participants to the European Film Awards Ceremony, started with a three-hour energy boost. British director Danny Boyle came by for a morning workshop and with his dynamic and open way he had the 23 young participants under his spell from the moment he started speaking. Moderated by film historian Peter Cowie, the session dealt not only with Boyle’s latest film SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, winner of three Golden Globes, seven BAFTAs and eight Oscars and nominated for six European Film Awards. It was the director himself who repeatedly directed the conversation towards other moments and aspects of his career.

Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle

He started in film as somewhat of a latecomer. He was almost 40 when he set off, as Peter Cowie puts it, “to renew British cinema in the 90s.” “It’s much easier to get a job in theatre than it is in film,” Boyle explains and continues, “what is really special about theatre is the possibility to work so extensively with actors. In film, these opportunities are really quite limited. Working in theatre is a fantastic training for the work with actors and it helps you to overcome any fear of contact in order to later be able to convey to the actors a feeling of safety.” With his background in theatre Boyle follows British tradition - in contrast to US film culture, it is quite common in the UK not only for excellent actors but also for film directors to be involved in theatre. Danny Boyle first left the stage to produce for television. When he told the people in charge that he could also direct, he was allowed to do both - saving the station expenses in the end. The series INSPECTOR MORSE gave Boyle the opportunity to work with a very experienced film crew and learn a lot.

Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle

But how did his brilliant cinema debut in 1994 come about with SHALLOW GRAVE? Producer Andrew Macdonald and author John Hodge had developed the script and simply organised a casting to find the right director. For the participants it’s not hard to guess how he managed to get the job as they witness for themselves Boyle’s winning ways: “I simply showed them my enthusiasm for this wonderful book. Enthusiasm is your biggest characteristic,” he tells the participating filmmakers and once again talks about the importance of finding the right collaborators and partners: “When you find people who make you better, keep them and show them that they are part of your work.” And then Danny Boyle says something that seems to be at the centre of the way he works, something not always natural to young filmmakers: “If you don’t want to involve other people in your work, write a book! Making films means dealing with people.”

Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle

Someone Doyle has again and again involved in his work is cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle - who was originally to be giving this Master Class together with Doyle but had to cancel last minute, therefore missing to receive the European Film Award for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and for ANTICHRIST in person later on in the evening. It is with a lot of respect that Danny Boyle talks about Anthony Dod Mantle, about the way he managed to „create”a city that looks deserted for the film 28 DAYS LATER, how he insisted on shooting THE BEACH on 35mm, or that he knew how to circumvent missing permits for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE by simply shooting on digital, also taking the shyness from amateur actors by making the small digital camera almost disappear when shooting. “I would never work with a cinematographer who doesn’t operate the camera himself,” Boyle says and talks about the studio system in Hollywood where cinematographers have their operators to move the camera: “All these cinematographers who walk about all important and talk about filters all day - nowadays you can do all that in grading afterwards. What’s much more important is how a cinematographer reacts to an actor. And Anthony is fantastic in this; he always stays with the actor and manages to get something out of that person which you as a spectator recognise.”

Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle

The current highlight in his career thanks to the enormous success of SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is no coincidence and appears strangely plausible to the participants when Boyle answers a question about his biggest mistakes. The big budget production THE BEACH with Leonardo di Caprio didn’t only suffer a flop with critics and at the box-office; the production was also a disappointment for Danny Boyle. But learning from mistakes with the one lead to triumph with the other: “All those costs and expenses, getting hundreds of people from the US to Thailand, that was film colonialism. It was the way GANDHI was made or LAWRENCE OF ARABIA - great films but from a completely different time! No, you have to go there and integrate as much as possible. We, the British, have exerted colonialism for long enough, our empire is based on it.” To integrate means, when in India, to completely change the way you work: “Life in mega-cities like Mumbai is so complex that it makes all our Western countries appear simple. I brought ten people with me from the West, the rest of the crew came from there. They are very experienced people; you simply have to trust them. You can work well if you don’t even begin to try organising everything. You just have to do it, and you need confidence!” Thanks to digital technology it was also possible to work very flexibly and to keep the team small. As Boyle puts it, “In big budget productions everything is delegated, each assistant has another assistant. I, on the other hand, try to follow my instinct, doing some things myself and being surrounded by people who think the same. At the end of the day, the whole thing is your responsibility anyway. But, hey: It’s no brain surgery,” Boyle adds with a smirk, “we’re only imitating life!”

Communication is an important issue for Danny Boyle, not only because he knows it so well. To get some of the director’s ideas across when it comes to certain details, he has some very practical advice for the participants: “I put together a book of images of atmospheres, looks, characters, of all kinds of things to show people my imagination of things. We always talk only instead of discussing visually as well. It often helps the actors as well. I show them a specific image and they understand relatively quickly what I would otherwise have to talk about for hours.” What he generally says about the presence on set is, “Always be the most obsessed and motivate everybody as much as you can. Because the origin of cinema is energy, the ultimate expression of a film is action. When I shoot a film, I try to make an action movie - and that’s exactly how I have to act on set!”

EFA Master Class RUHR

EFA Master Class RUHR

And he promptly realises his credo when the time is almost up, jumping up and calling on all participants to join him in the centre of the conference room. Here he shows the young filmmakers how he approaches a crew at the beginning of a shoot, how he tries in a playful way to get people to get involved with each other, to get to know each other, to form a team. Something clicks immediately, Danny Boyle knows how to get people excited. And this excitement, it seems, the participants take with them as they leave for their respective home countries to embark on a new project or, for the majority of them, prepare their debut feature. “There’s something wonderful about your first film,” Danny Boyle passionately exclaims, “because it will be your best film. It will have a certain kind of innocence and you will have this wonderful feeling of ‚I have no idea how that’s supposed to work out’. You’ll never have that again. Enjoy it!”

Pictures: Daniel Gasenzer/RUHR.2010

The EFA Master Class RUHR was a project of the European Capital of Culture RUHR.2010 “Essen for the Ruhr” in co-operation with the European Film Academy.