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Danny Boyle didn’t go to India looking for a spiritual awakening.
“I hate hippies,” says the director of such edgy films as “Trainspotting” and “28 Days Later.” “I’m a punk.”
But then Boyle found himself shooting “Slumdog Millionaire” on the streets of Mumbai, near some train tracks that were crawling with giant pythons. Because the snakes are held in high regard in Hindu culture, a snake charmer was summoned to lay down a scent to protect the crew — without disturbing the snakes. As Boyle watched the charmer trap one particularly ornery python in a basket (to be released after filming finished), the 52-year-old tough-guy director had a bit of a swami moment.
“I felt quite transformed,” he says. “It’s very strange, this Indian thing. It has a psychological effect. I learned to not force things through anger or frustration, but to trust that things will work out.”
That trust was put to the test over and over on “Slumdog’s” path to awards season. Boyle shot the film amid teeming megaslums in 100-plus-degree weather, dealt with the oddities of filming in Bollywood, and then lived through the collapse of the film’s U.S. distributor.
But his first challenge was convincing himself he wanted to tackle the project.
When British production companies Celador Films and Film4 approached Boyle in the summer of 2006, asking him to direct an adaptation of the India-based novel “Q & A,” he was initially unenthusiastic — especially when he learned what the book was about.
“I didn’t want to make a movie about ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,'” Boyle recalls, speaking of Vikas Swarup’s book about a street orphan who does surprisingly well on the Mumbai version of the game show and is accused of cheating.
But Boyle’s interest perked when he heard that Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty”) was attached to write the screenplay. And after 15 pages, he fell in love with Beaufoy’s script.
“Slumdog’s” story essentially begins with Beaufoy, who made three research trips to India to talk with young street beggars. He was impressed with how everyone — even the kids collecting discarded plastic bags to be resold — was on the make.
“It’s absolutely inappropriate to feel sorry for these people — even the guy wheeling around on the skateboard with no legs,” says the 41-year-old writer. “I wanted to get (across) the sense of this huge amount of fun, laughter, chat and sense of community that is in these slums. What you pick up on is this mass of energy.”
Beaufoy’s work led him to merge the book’s multiple story lines into a single narrative framed around a young man, Jamal Malik, and his ability to answer questions by recalling various incidents in his grim young life. That narrative was strong enough for Boyle to commit.
Once Boyle was attached, producer Christian Colson, who also serves as managing director of Celador, traveled to the U.S. in the summer of 2007 to find a distributor willing to defray a big chunk of “Slumdog’s” projected $15 million budget. (Celador had drawn from its own private equity fund to finance 80% of the budget).
Fox Searchlight seemed like an obvious choice because either Searchlight or 20th Century Fox had released Boyle’s last five films. But Searchlight’s offer, reportedly in the $2 million range, fell far short of what Colson was asking.
Only Warner Independent was willing to step up with $5 million.
Boyle says Searchlight president Peter Rice told him that WIP’s price was “way out of our league.” With his previous film, 2007’s “Sunshine,” costing more than $40 million and grossing less than $4 million in the U.S., Boyle was hardly a surefire boxoffice draw. Still, Pathe is backing the film internationally (with the exception of India).
Once the money was in place, Boyle started putting his cast together. In India, he couldn’t find the right actor to play Jamal, a winning but sensitive hero who courts his childhood pal Latika even as she grows up to be a gangster’s kept woman. Boyle considered hundreds of young male actors, but Bollywood leads tend to be strong, handsome hero-types — not what Boyle was looking for.
It was Boyle’s 17-year-old daughter who told him to watch “Skins,” a British teen show starring the skinny Dev Patel. Boyle hired Patel after five auditions, matching him with Freida Pinto, an Indian model who had never acted in a feature before.
With the lead actors set, Boyle and Colson arrived in Mumbai in September 2007 with only a partial crew.
“We didn’t want to go down there like a bunch of colonialists,” says Colson, who helped fill out the team with locals, including Loveleen Tandan, who is credited as co-director. Tandan found the young actors who play the leads as children on the streets of Mumbai, after rejecting audition tapes sent in from the U.S. and India.
Boyle then turned his attention to the details that would bring the film alive. He felt the way the young street urchins who populate the film spoke their English dialogue sounded “fake,” so he decided to translate almost a third of the film into Hindi. But when Boyle called up then-Warner Independent president Polly Cohen (now Polly Johnsen) to tell her what he wanted, he fibbed a little, suggesting the dialogue would be closer to 10% in Hindi. She signed off on the change.
Principal photography began in early November. Shooting in Mumbai’s megaslum and on giant piles of garbage in Juhu, a shantytown near the airport, meant controlling massive crowds. As soon as the crew would arrive at a location, hundreds of people would descend on the set to watch. “You have to go with it,” says Boyle, who relied on his assistant director to befriend members of the crowd and help sway them to not disrupt the production.
And to Boyle’s surprise, he also needed to control his own actors, many of whom were booked to appear in other movies simultaneously. “Even Leonardo DiCaprio, when you hire him, he is yours,” he says. “But in India, actors are making half a dozen films at the same time.”
When Boyle informed revered Indian actor Irfan Khan (who starred in no less than eight films in 2007) that he had a major scene coming up, Khan told him that he couldn’t make it. “‘I’m doing an advert for butter,'” Boyle recalls him saying.
India’s extreme heat necessitated cooling off Boyle’s tiny digital cameras as many as 10 times a day with dry ice. The director had tested 35mm cameras but found they created a voyeuristic distance. “I wanted to tell this from the inside as much as possible,” he says. Using an SI-2K digital camera the size of a wine bottle, Boyle achieved the flexibility of movement and the vivid visuals he was going for.
The director didn’t have much trouble drawing emotion from the people he hired off the street to act in the film. Most had experience in the Bollywood tradition of melodrama, especially the young actors that play the leads as children.
“Everyone is watching movies on pirated DVDs,” says Boyle, who would tell a street kid to look scared and the child would then imitate scenes from other movies. “They do it through reference points. And you have to say, ‘No, no, just do it. I don’t want you to give me looks — just do it yourself.'”
Filming wrapped in February. In May, Boyle was applying the final touches on a version to be shown to Johnsen when she called with terrible news. Warner Bros. Entertainment president and COO Alan Horn had announced the closing of Warner Independent.
“He just talked about how disappointed he was for us,” Johnsen recalls of the conversation. Boyle says he was upset but not particularly devastated. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, it’ll work in Britain, anyway.’ “
Although Warner Bros. Pictures wasn’t sure what to do with “Slumdog,” president Jeff Robinov saw the film in late June and was enthusiastic. Still, he saw problems releasing it in an already full 2008 schedule, so an internal dialogue began that would determine the fate of the film. Could Picturehouse, Warners’ other specialty division that had been closed in May, be revived to release the film? Projections proved too costly. Warners said it was considering pushing the film to 2009.
Then Boyle got a lesson in what his agent, Endeavor’s Robert Newman, does for a living.
“Normally, my agent rings up and I am very frustrating to him because I don’t do the scripts that he sends me,” Boyle says. “And then I see him unleashed in a crisis. He’s unleashed!”
Warners told Boyle and his producers that they could quietly pick one other distributor to try to sell the film to.
Searchlight obviously was that company. At the time it had just two films (“Choke” and “The Secret Life of Bees”) to be released before the end of the year. The company, which tends to maintain a 40-60 production-acquisition slate, hadn’t recently found films worth buying, and two of its productions, “Notorious” and “500 Days of Summer,” had been pushed to 2009. Rice had already said how much he loved the “Slumdog” script, and now there was a finished product to show him.
A screening was set up on the Fox lot in August. When the film ended, several executives sent text messages to Boyle in London, raving about the film. “When the lights went up, we said, ‘What do we have to do to get this?'” recalls Searchlight COO Steve Gilula.
Searchlight agreed to pay for all marketing and distribution costs in exchange for a “modest fee,” according to Gilula, and the profits would be split 50-50.
Just two days after the deal was made, the film showed at the Telluride Film Festival, receiving standing ovations. A week later, at Toronto, it won the audience award. “Slumdog” immediately landed on Oscar-contender lists, but with one caveat: Could Searchlight muster a campaign in time?
“We were ready to move immediately,” Gilula says. “And now we’re totally focused on how we get people to see this odd movie with an odd title.”
Well, not totally focused: Searchlight also picked up Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” at Toronto, and the film is getting Oscar hype for Mickey Rourke’s performance.
But, Gilula notes, the company has been in this situation before, acquiring “Once” and “Waitress” at Sundance in 2007 and releasing both films four months later.
Searchlight is setting up an accelerated schedule of word-of-mouth screenings and putting Boyle on the road to promote the film. Gilula says the biggest challenge was getting a trailer out, which was scheduled to happen this weekend. The film will bow on Nov. 12, with a gradual platform through Thanksgiving and into December.
Having two films on such intense schedules — “The Wrestler” opens Dec. 19 — is “challenging,” Gilula admits, “but we’ve also done that before,” referring to “Juno” and “The Savages” last year and “Sideways” and “Kinsey” in 2004.
“A part of you jumps with alarm,” Boyle says. “You think, ‘What?! I thought we were the only film.’ But then again, it’s that Indian thing: You think, ‘Eh, it’s OK. It’s fine.'”
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