‘I almost quit Olympics over rooftop missiles’: Danny Boyle’s outrage over decision to mount weapons on east London tower blocks and how he persuaded the Queen to join in the fun
He followed his Oscars for Slumdog by persuading the Queen to co-star with 007 at the Olympics. So what sort of encore can we expect from the man who refused to become Sir Danny Boyle?
Danny Boyle nearly pulled out of masterminding the Olympics Opening Ceremony because he was outraged by the decision to site missile-launchers on tower blocks in East London, he tells The Mail on Sunday’s Live magazine today.
‘The battles were exhausting,’ the director recalls. ‘My lowest point was the Rapier missiles, which were positioned on buildings near where I live. I was very close to walking away. I thought it was morally wrong. The Olympics is a festival of peace, for God’s sake.’
The Slumdog Millionaire director also reveals how he offered to use a double to play the Queen for the whole of the now-famous James Bond skit, and that he was astonished to hear from the Palace that she would like to take part in person, starring as ‘herself’.
‘When word came back that the Queen was happy to shoot the film with Daniel Craig we thought it was April Fools’ Day,’ says Boyle. ‘It was weird, but amazing.
He describes the Queen as having the ‘instincts of a performer’, and she clearly appreciated the paramount need for secrecy – even with the rest of the Royals.
‘She showed great instinct again when she decided that no one in her family should know about the film, so that it was as much a surprise and delight for them as for the nation.’
Everything has changed for Danny Boyle. Before July 27, 2012, he was most famous for directing Ewan McGregor as a heroin addict in Trainspotting and for Slumdog Millionaire winning eight Oscars.
After the opening ceremony of the Olympic games, though, the people of Britain unanimously awarded him a gold medal.
In this, his first major interview since those heady days last summer when he made us proud to be British, Boyle reveals how he turned down a knighthood and how close he was to walking away from the opening ceremony.
Boyle smiles and squirms slightly when asked about his new status.
‘I’m quite keen not to turn into a celebrity,’ he says.
Yet, overnight he joined the small band of British directors who are household names, and within days of the Queen jumping out of a helicopter with James Bond, rumours flew of a possible knighthood.
But he turned it down – a fact made public in December last year when he told Mark Lawson on Radio 4’s Front Row that he wasn’t about to become Sir Danny Boyle.
Why not? ‘I really didn’t want to publicise it. I was hijacked by Mark Lawson,’ says the 56-year-old, laughing.
‘I wasn’t expecting him to ask – I don’t even know how he found out about it – and so I answered honestly. I never said it was because I wanted to be a man of the people, as has been reported.
‘Clearly because of my position in life I’m no longer a man of the people.’
For Boyle, it was a more a case of wanting to be an equal citizen.
‘People fought many battles to make everybody free, equal citizens. I have no reason to believe that being a preferred subject would have any value that could improve the pride I feel in being an equal citizen.
‘I’m lucky because I’ve made money and people like the work I’ve done but it doesn’t make me feel I’m better than anyone.
‘You’ve got to be careful because it sounds like you’re criticising other people who have accepted knighthoods, which I’m not doing at all. It’s a very personal choice.’
It’s easy now to celebrate the opening ceremony as an unqualified triumph, but many people thought
Boyle was taking a massive risk by accepting the job. He’d won a Best Director Oscar for Slumdog, and here he was ready to fail spectacularly on the world stage. Only he didn’t see it like that. A lifelong fan of the Olympic Games, he wanted the job immediately.
‘When London was awarded the 2012 Olympics I remember the very early discussions about who might direct the opening ceremony. I remember reading a list of potential names and thinking, “They should give that job to me! I live in East London!”
‘It was a casual response. I would never have sought the job out and it never occurred to me that it might be offered to me.’
When he was offered the job and accepted it, people thought he was crazy. Surely it would be impossible to follow the lavish and technically perfect ceremony for Beijing in 2008?
But Boyle didn’t try to better it. Instead he decided to inject ‘some emotion and humanity’ back into the opening ceremony.
In the autumn of 2010, he rented out a cheap room in Soho and got together a small group of tried and trusted colleagues, including writer Frank Cottrell Boyce and designers Suttirat Anne Larlarb and Mark Tildesley.
They were encouraged to talk honestly and openly about their favourite British pop cultural moments, including music, film and books.
The process of planning and developing the opening ceremony was mostly a blast, he says, but because of the sheer size of the event it was also tough. For a start there were all the sponsors to deal with.
‘I heard that BMW behaved well,’ says Boyle.
Then there was the the might of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG).
‘There were issues, both specific and general,’ says Boyle.
‘The battles were exhausting. My lowest point was the Rapier missiles, which were positioned on buildings near where I live. The Olympics is a festival of peace, for God’s sake. I was very close to walking away.
‘I thought it was morally wrong. I wanted to go out and say, “I would prefer to risk being blown up and all 80,000 of us die than have Rapier missiles on top of buildings.” It was just one of the inherent contradictions in the Olympic movement to do with scale and ethos which are impossible to reconcile.’
Boyle is one of those rare directors who is genuinely loved and admired by all those he works with. Back in 2010, Ewan McGregor – who starred in Boyle’s first three films, Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary, before losing out to Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach – told me that working with Boyle was ‘very much like a love affair’.
Actors are, of course, prone to hyperbole, but there is something unusual about the way that Boyle relates to those he works with. Volunteers were surprised to find the feted director turning up to nearly all the rehearsals, signing everything they put in front of him and listening to every script idea.
‘I made sure I didn’t miss too many rehearsals,’ says Boyle.
‘The volunteers seemed to like having me around. As though it was a surprise. I don’t know what they expected. That I wouldn’t bother to turn up? Of course you’re visible, accessible. It would feel very awkward for me to do it any other way.’
We are talking in a vast private room in a members’ club in London’s Covent Garden. Boyle fizzes with energy, his Mancunian accent undiminished even after almost three decades in London.
He is charismatic, charming and quick to laugh. I have interviewed him on countless occasions, first in 1996 for Trainspotting when he had a punky haircut, and again after Slumdog’s Oscars triumph when we started work on his biography. Success appears to have had little effect on him.
He still lives in the same modest house in east London with the same old Mini One in the drive. His personal life has always been off limits. As ever it’s the work that matters. He has a tremendous work ethic, instilled in him by his parents.
Boyle grew up in a Catholic household in Radcliffe, six miles north-west of Manchester, with a hairdresser mother and labourer father.
His twin sister Maria works in education and special-needs provision.
‘Maria probably thinks I’m very admirable because I’ve achieved public recognition, but her job is more admirable in a way. I think she’s remarkable.’
Young Danny, a skinny lad with glasses, passed the eleven-plus and got into the Catholic Thornleigh Salesian College in Bolton.
‘I was fortunate because I went to a very strict grammar school. I had a wonderful lay teacher, Mr Unsworth, who encouraged me to be an usher at Bolton Theatre and who took us to Stratford to see the RSC.’
Boyle was almost drawn into the priesthood but went off instead to study English and drama at Bangor University. He then found work with the Royal Court in London and the BBC in Belfast.
He’s been passionate about the arts since his school days and is proud of how a small island produces such amazing popular culture.
‘We led the world with the Potter and Bond franchises, but really we’re best at surprises. Films like The Full Monty, Billy Elliot and Slumdog pop out of nowhere. We have a vibrant, imaginative, eclectic culture that people find enormously attractive.
An innovative spark. We are also the second-biggest producer of music in the world after America.
‘I’m incredibly proud of our musical heritage. It shows how, as a nation, we have the possibility to be progressive because pop music is about imagination and pushing boundaries.
‘Historically, we changed our attitude to music in the aftermath of World War II. We were no longer the nation that was constantly looking back at our Empire.
‘I really believe that pop music has helped to liberate us from that colonial awfulness. It’s an incredible force for good.’
Music has always been central to Boyle’s work. He used the Moby album Play in The Beach well before it became a global success and, stripped back to basics, the opening ceremony was a four-hour concert set against the agricultural, industrial and digital revolutions.
Each of the artists – including Sir Paul McCartney – were paid £1 for either performing live or for giving permission for a specific song to be used.
Almost everyone was delighted to be asked, with two exceptions – neither of which can be named for legal reasons.
‘I was told a well-known group wanted £20,000 and would not budge. One solo artist point blank refused to let us use one of his songs. Nothing to do with money. He will not be associated with the Olympics. I was more concerned with getting David Bowie to perform live, which sadly didn’t happen.’
As well as Britain’s thriving music scene, Boyle becomes excited when discussing how Britain is made great by its ‘mixture of tolerance and dissent’.
‘I felt very strongly when we were creating the opening ceremony that we are a decent country. One of our attributes is our self-criticism, which can sometimes stop us from really appreciating our basic decency.
‘All sorts of people hijack the notion of being patriotic for all sorts of reasons. But that shouldn’t stop us from acknowledging that whether you were born here or emigrated here, once you join in there are certain values that we all want to try to share.
‘They’re pretty sound values as well. They are to do with self-expression. It’s a free country and you can self-express. It can be ugly, it can be pretty. It can be joyful, it can be dissenting. It’s a mixture of self-expression and well-being.’
‘We’ve decided, as a nation, that we’re having a national broadcaster paid for via a licence fee as well as a National Health Service.’
Passionate as he is about his causes, what still gets Boyle out of bed every morning is film-making.
He says he’s a workaholic; his response to being told that while working on the opening ceremony there might be times when he’d be twiddling his thumbs waiting for decisions to be made was to shoot a film before the ceremony and edit it afterwards.
Trance is an emotional roller-coaster of a film about an art heist gone wrong. Starring James McAvoy as a gambling auctioneer, the French star Vincent Cassel as a nightclub owner with a gun in his bedside drawer and the American actress Rosario Dawson as a femme fatale hypnotherapist with a past, it’s a thrilling, sexy and violent noir about stolen memories.
Cinema is, of course, a form of hypnosis.
‘I want people to be mesmerised,’ he says. ‘Like rabbits caught for 90 minutes in the headlights of the film. We went to see Derren Brown as part of the research and I ended up wondering why more films aren’t made about hypnotism.’
Without giving away the plot – Boyle has even taken the unprecedented move of sending journalists personal letters asking them very politely ‘to protect the film’s most intimate secret’– there’s one scene in which Dawson parades naked in order to put McAvoy’s character into a deep trance.
Did Boyle set out to shock?
‘I wanted the scene to be powerful. You used to see this kind of nudity all the time, certainly in European movies.
‘Movies have become a lot more prurient about nudity because porn is everywhere and movies want to separate themselves from porn. That’s the official line of the movie industry. So films have stopped using sex as an engine for stories.’
When I spoke to Dawson on the set of Trance she said that she was at ease with the nudity, but wasn’t sure how to walk on camera while naked.
‘Rosario was worried about that terrible Helmut Newton model walk,’ says Boyle, laughing.
Did he have to reassure her?
‘She reminds me of Cameron Diaz. Given how pretty they are, they’re the least vain people.
‘Actors are understandably neurotic. They’re on display in a way.
‘I never saw Cameron Diaz look in the mirror once when we worked on A Life Less Ordinary. The only thing that bothers Rosario is the idea she’s got something in her teeth.’
Boyle and Dawson started seeing each other after finishing work on Trance.
Ask him about paparazzi shots of the pair of them on holiday in the New Year and he says, ‘I don’t want to talk about any of that to be honest.’
Everything has changed for Danny Boyle and yet nothing has changed.
He still keeps his Oscar in a plain blue shoe bag rather than in pride of place on the mantelpiece.
When he was dreaming up the opening ceremony with his small team, he was resolute about being ‘first among equals – even if it only meant I didn’t ultimately have to take all the responsibility’.
Best of all, it seems he is isn’t leaving Britain any time soon, despite all the big-budget offers in the wake of Slumdog and the opening ceremony.
‘We have a ceiling of $20m for each of the films we make. It’s more than enough for us to work with. It’s a lot of money, for goodness’ sake.
‘I wouldn’t feel best equipped to navigate a $100m film. If you want to spend huge amounts of money then you’ve got to go to the home of cinema. But I don’t need to go to Hollywood.
‘I’m very happy making films here.’
Extracted from ‘Danny Boyle in Conversation with Amy Raphael’, published on April 4 by Faber & Faber, £12.99. ‘Trance’ is released on March 27.
When the Queen met James Bond
In his own words, Danny Boyle reveals the true story behind the most memorable moment of the Olympic opening ceremony
When you accept the job of artistic director of the opening ceremony, you realise there are certain items of protocol to take care of, including the arrival of the head of state.
You can choose to just let them walk in to the national anthem. But we decided to play around with ideas.
We initially thought the Queen could arrive by Tube, given that she was the first monarch to travel on the London Underground.
Mark Tildesley, the designer of the opening ceremony, wanted to film her at the Palace and then being escorted to a helicopter by James Bond. Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote it up.
We assumed that in the best-case scenario we’d use a double. In the submission to the Queen I had made it very clear that we’d find the best double possible. The worst-case scenario was a resounding no, in which case we’d have tried the Tube idea. And, if all else failed, we’d just walk the Queen in the door.
When word came back that the Queen was happy to shoot the film with Daniel Craig we thought it was April Fools’ Day. It was weird, but amazing. So we went to meet the Queen.
Edward Young, who is Deputy Private Secretary to the Queen, was hugely helpful; it was his responsibility to make sure the film wasn’t naff.
Barbara Broccoli, the Bond producer, was also great. She believed in the idea and knew that you can’t buy the kind of publicity we were about to give Bond.
It was insanely tricky finding a time when they were both free. Sam Mendes was right in the middle of shooting Skyfall so Daniel hardly had any spare time.
It would have been possible to ‘splice’ them together, but I refused to shoot them separately.
There’s a wonderful moment in the film where the Queen walks past Daniel and you can see him thinking, ‘I’m a fictional character; she’s the real Queen. How is this even possible?’
It was a lovely afternoon. The Queen was very sweet. We set up in her private sitting room, where she meets the Prime Minister. She said she’d been to the dentist that morning so wasn’t in a good mood.
It was easy for us because the Queen has the instincts of a performer – she is, after all, ‘on stage’ all the time. She wanted to know what I wanted, so I told her specific things about pausing that were important. I didn’t have to tell her twice as she was so sharp.
The Queen knew that her Diamond Jubilee would be quite formal, so here was a chance to be the opposite. It was a great instinct. She showed great instinct again when she decided that no one in her family should know about the film, so that it was as much a surprise and delight for them as for the nation.
It became clear that one of the reasons she agreed to take part was so her immediate staff, who have been part of her life for so long, could also be in the film. It was a buzz for them.
It was nothing to do with cameras, which they face virtually every day, but the presence of Daniel. Of Bond. A proper movie star.