“Slumdog” Secrets

The biggest highlight of the 2009 Santa Barbara International Film Festival was getting to sit down for a few minutes with Danny Boyle in the green room at the Lobero while his Oscar-nominated movie “Slumdog Millionaire” played on the big screen in the theater. The riveting, thrill-ride of a film about a kid from India’s slums who through serendipity, coincidence and perhaps fate manages to win a lot of money and get the girl, “Slumdog” is the runaway frontrunner to sweep the Academy Awards later this month.

Boyle – who grabbed attention with “Trainspotting” and also directed “Shallow Grave,” “28 Days Later” and “Sunshine” – turned out to be as passionate, committed and exciting as his movies.

Q. Your projects have been so different. What ties them together in your mind?

A. I don’t tend to think of a through-line. In fact I try to make them as different as possible. I like the idea of going back to zero each time, to almost create a set of circumstances where you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s the idea of recreating the feeling of the first time, when you didn’t know what you were doing, so that it’s almost brand new and you have to make it up as you go along. But critics and audiences point out where there are similarities; I like the underdog, usually a guy who doesn’t have much going for him and yet somehow manages to swim not sink, to push through. All of us relish the idea of someone succeeding against all the odds because no matter what stage we’re at, we can identify with that. Even if you’re at the top of the tree you can look back at somebody pulling himself up and think “Good on you, mate.” And if you’re at the bottom, you can look up and think “I can go there too.”

How did you grapple with the various stories and the timelines in such an inventive yet seamless way?

Vikas Swarup (the author) invented the idea. He created this spine that was a brilliant simple idea. But (screenwriter) Simon (Beaufoy) very cleverly realized that rather than rely on the game show to keep it together, he put in something much more important as the spine, which is the love story. What you keep coming back to, as it’s gradually revealed, is that the thing the kid is after, the main reason he’s on the show even, isn’t money, fame, or glamour. It’s love. All of us, no matter what our situation or circumstance, find that inspiring. We all want to believe in love. I know I do.

The camera angles and the varied pacing are so fascinating and inventive. Did you have a conscious thought of each shot before you began?

No. You do have to have a plan just because there are so many people involved. But the plan should only be Plan B and never used if you don’t have to fall back on it. Just make it up on the day if you can. Now that sounds ridiculous, because I’m actually very strict. We follow the script once we agree to it. But every other element, you try to make it as organic to the day as possible.

That particularly suits being in Mumbai. There’s no way anybody on earth can predict what will happen in that city, except that it will be stimulating. You have to give credit to the city because it just makes you feel alive. Even in desperate circumstances for some people, there’s still this breathtaking resilience of the people, this sense that we live our lives to the maximum, even though they don’t appear to have a lot of resources to work with. The infrastructure is very poor for a lot of people. But they live!

What did you learn in this process?

I learned about extremes, and there are so many in the film: the rich and the very poor, the cruelty and the tenderness… You have to embrace them both, the good and the bad, and really accept them both. It was a very profound change for me in life. … Old hippies say that you’re not really complete as a person until you’ve been to India. As an old punk I would reject them. But they’re right. There’s something extraordinary you learn about yourself. You pick up things that are essential for your life. I found this ability to embrace these extremes.

Straight from the Nominees

By my count, SBIFF 2009 hosted 16 Oscar nominees, including a number of those both in front of and behind the cameras. With the telecast just 10 days away from this issue’s publication date, here’s your chance to catch up on what some of the hopefuls had to say about their films and their chances. And for you Academy members who have yet to return your ballots, we recorded a direct appeal from some of those up for awards; I asked every nominee I encountered what they would like voters to know about them or their film that you may not already know. (But hurry! Ballots are due Feb. 17).

Dan Jinx, producer, “Milk”: It’s a true story, but it’s even more important that it’s a universal story. It’s inspiring just when it’s really necessary for audiences to see something that can change their life. This was an ordinary guy, not a born politician. He sold insurance, but when he was 40 he moved to San Francisco and slowly entered politics and ended up doing something that made a very big difference in a lot of people’s lives. And that’s a story for the ages.

Christian Colson, producer, “Slumdog Millionaire”: “The very simple fact that it was made in good faith. We thought very carefully about our responsibilities to the kids. They’re very poor. What do you do? Shower them with money and put them in a white palace, or do something that’s less immediately transforming? We think what they lacked more than money was education. So that’s where we put our focus…. If people want to criticize, that’s their decision. But they mustn’t think we went there and did our thing and then abandoned them to their fate…. I don’t mind people arguing about the content of the movie, but when it spills over into the news pages what’s important are that the facts are reported correctly. Then you can have the debate… There’s also the shtick about Indians not liking the movie, but it’s No. 2 at the box office and it was the third largest opening for a Western movie in the country’s history. Have you thought about what you might say if you win? No. God, no! I’m British and we’re superstitious about this sort of thing. I assure you I’ll be chewing my fingernails off until the very last minute before the envelope is opened.

Jim Morris, producer, “WALL-E”: “This film takes another step in animation art. [What] started as hand-drawn vs. live action now has the space between them shrinking, so you can have the feeling of both. That’s what we’re most proud of: taking old familiar cinematic art and bringing it back in a more contemporary way.”

Danny Boyle, director, “Slumdog Millionaire”: “The spirit of a film is the single most important thing. I know that the spirit we made it in is the right sprit. In some weird way that always comes across in a film, its interior sprit – the accumulation of all the people who worked on it all approaching it with the right attitude and responsibility.”

Andrew Stanton, writer/director, “WALL-E”: “Every film at Pixar is like having another kid. There are the same ingredients, but you mix them differently….The way I was taught before I even knew how to use a computer was just to ask for the moon, and let the technology people do it if they can. So I kept myself ignorant of that aspect. It’s worked out pretty well.” On not getting a best picture nomination: “We knew it was a big long shot. And it’s been so well received that I know how people feel about it. I’m not losing any sleep. I’d love to be the guy who broke the glass ceiling, but I couldn’t be more satisfied by how people see it. And the writing nomination was almost a bigger boost than anything. I’ve spent most of my professional life as a writer; it’s the foundation for the whole movie. So that’s special.”

Courtney Hunt, writer-director, “Frozen River” (screenwriting nom): “It was a difficult shoot, challenging in terms of money. But the beautiful thing that happened is how we all stuck together through the hard, broke moments of the process. (The actresses and the crew) and I (who are all women), we had a sense of unity that was very strong….It was an exercise in selfless commitment to the project. Like, by God, we were going to get it told. And we did.”

Uli Edel, writer/director, “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” (foreign film nom): “They should all first see the movie and then make your own decision....I just wanted to create awareness. We have two sons, twenty and twenty-one years old, who grew up in Los Angeles and they never heard about Baader-Meinhof. I simply wanted to tell them the story of what happened to me when I was their age.”

Dustin Lance Black, screenwriter, “Milk”: The thing that’s so fantastic about getting nominated is that the film now has enough attention that people in the smaller areas will go to see it. There’s a message in this movie, and it’s necessary. The gay and lesbian struggle has been brought to attention by the recent elections, but it’s been there all the time. There are people facing prejudice and hate daily – even in this state. Especially in the more conservative areas, children are being told that they’re not good enough, that God doesn’t love them and that they are worth less than their heterosexual friends. That really shuts them down. And some still make the ultimate choice to end (their lives).

Melissa Leo, actress, “Frozen River”: “What I’d ask … is to please watch the DVD that was sent to you. That’s all. Just watch it.”

Mickey Rourke, actor, “The Wrestler”: “It’s the hardest film I ever made. And I think it’s the best film I ever made. I’m very proud. I let the work speak for itself.” On what he learned: “I wasn’t in this movie to be rewarded but to be the best actor I could be in this f-ing world. So it showed me how fulfilling it is to give everything you’ve got instead of mailing it in….When you’ve been on the bench for fifteen years, and, boom, it’s happening again, well, I’m still a little numb.”

Richard Jenkins, actor, “The Visitor”: “If I don’t win, they’re going to have to put my dog to sleep. But – no pressure. No pressure.” On taking on the character: “I understood his reticence and his unwillingness to try new things. He was complicated. He was a human being. There was a lot of self-loathing going on. Not that we know anything about that.” On what people should learn from the film: “How should we treat people? How would you want your son or daughter to be treated? It’s really that simple… On what he learned: “Patience. Not trying to impose anything on a situation, but just letting things unfold.”

Viola Davis, supporting actress, “Doubt”: “Oh gosh, those guys are too smart, they must know everything by now… It’s not a small role. It doesn’t take up a lot of (screen) time, but it’s not small. This woman is fully realized and brings in a whole life. She’s not a typical African-American mother. She was a real challenge to play.” On whether she thinks the priest in the movie molested a child: “[Writer-director John Patrick Shanley] didn’t tell us, of course. That was the point of the film. He’d say, ‘What do you think?’ because it wasn’t about whether he’s guilty or not, but about perceptions and judgment.… But I wanted to know. I finally asked, ‘So did he do it?’ No one answered me. I mean no one. It just died in the room.”

Michael Shannon, supporting actor, “Revolutionary Road”: You don’t have to vote for me. I won’t come to your house in the middle of the night if you don’t. It’s okay. If you’re sitting there trembling with a pen in your hand, thinking ‘I don’t know,’ don’t worry. Vote for who you want to.” On relating to his character: “He’s overwhelmed by his mind. I’ve never taken it to that extreme. But you try to make it something we can all relate to. I think that’s why we like him. Who doesn’t want to tell everybody what they really think? It’s hard to be so brutally honest.”

Jacqueline West, costume designer, “Benjamin Button”: “There were a vast number of costumes on the movie, about five thousand. A lot of thought and back story into each character went into the designing. We needed to convince both me and the actor that those were the choices the character would make. I tried very hard to keep the inside, the soul of the character intact through the decades. I think (the movie) got a lot of notice partly because the costumes help transport the audience, along with the set changes, from decade to decade, leading through the years.”

Tom McCarthy, writer-director, “The Visitor” (not nominated himself): Richard (Jenkin’s) performance is so easy to overlook. It’s such a subtle well-orchestrated performance that you naturally think that it’s just who he is. But he’s nothing like that guy. And it’s a tricky role. There aren’t a lot of external moments. It’s such an internal performance and any actor knows those are difficult things to do.”