Facing a roundtable of interviewers in San Francisco, director Danny Boyle's animated and enthusiastic talking about his new science-fiction epic, Sunshine, which follows a group of astronauts on a desperate mission to re-start the sun -- gesturing with his hands to show the narrow story constraints of sci-fi as a genre, leaning back and forth as he relates the differences in tone between his latest film and his previous work. Boyle burst onto the scene with his debut film, 1994's Shallow Grave; he followed it up with an impressive string of projects that leapt from genre to genre: Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Millions. Some of Boyle's films have been considered flops (notably The Beach, the multi-million dollar Leonardo DiCaprio-led adaptation of Alex Garland's novel) , but he's constantly tried to do something different -- a constantly moving point of innovation in a British film industry that too often seems awash in period-piece Jane Austen adaptation and wispy, wistful rom-coms.

Boyle spoke about researching sealed environments ("We couldn't get on an oil rig -- because of security -- but we could get on a nuclear submarine. ..."), putting his actors through a two-week pre-production 'space camp' (" ... I had to promise them that there were no cameras -- that it wasn't a type of Big Brother sort of thing. ...") and much more. Cinematical's questions are indicated.

Cinematical: What was the biggest technical challenge in bringing the emotional arc of the story to life - and what was the biggest story challenge in bringing this very technical piece of 'hard' science fiction to life?

Boyle: They're both the same, really -- They're both about 'Can you create this star -- and not just create it as an impactful wonderful thing to see, but can you sustain it and grow it so it grows as an experience throughout the film so it gets bigger and bigger and more a part of their lives?' Because, in a way, that's the emotional relationship in the film -- their relationship with the sun, what happens with it, how it kills them off gradually, or how they grow into it or learn to accept it, their relationship with it. And it was trying to sustain it. Because you can create impact (claps hands together to suggest a blast of sunlight): WHOOOOM! SSSSCH-OOOOOOWWW! But after about five seconds of that, it's just ... white. And really boring. So one of the basic ways we (built the experience) is that we made the inside of the ship, we made everything non-orange or red. It sounds boring and trite, but it works, believe me. It's an old, old trick: You rob the audience for maybe as long as 15 minutes, they don't get ... (reaches out to grab the hem of an interview participant's red dress) ... there'd be nothing like that allowed in the costume, nothing; everything had to be in the gray-green-blue range, and then you step outside (the spaceship of the film, into view of the sun) and it's like "Oh!" It's like you've been without it, like you've been starved of it.

That was one way that helped sustain it, really. It's the biggest technical challenge, really. Because obviously, you see the film through the actor's eyes, and they cant see anything of what we were creating, because it all took 9 months, a year for the CG. So the biggest technical challenge was creating things for them to look at. And I don't just mean pictures of the sun, I mean things that had a tactile impact on them -- whether light or dust or whatever it was, freezing water for Chris Evans. They're not thinking "He's told me to do it like this because eventually it's going to be like this. ..." It's like "Just react to what happens now to you." So you get a dust storm blown at you ... and then I replaced whatever I needed to replace with CG, but the actors are reacting to something tactile and tangible.

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One of the more interesting aspects of the film is the idea of the sun as our creator, or giving us sustenance, both literally and mystically; do you see it as part of your job to be coy about if this is a meeting of God and man? I hear that you and (screenwriter) Alex (Garland) see it a bit differently.

Boyle: It's difficult to talk about without sounding a bit trite; it's one of the reasons you try to visualize it as much as possible. It's quite interesting; Alex is very much a kind of confident atheist, and writing the script, he didn't really challenge himself in that. Whereas I'm not quite so confident, and I found that one of the interesting things about making the film was that everything led you to challenge yourself, really. Not about 'Is there a God?' in that trite, narrow way; just 'Is there something beyond what we see rationally?" and everything led towards that -- and I think for the actors, as well. ... Anybody who's too confident in their belief system is a danger. ... It was interesting about the scientists; the ones we worked with, and we went to CERN Geneva and worked with a lot of them (and what we found) is that though they're adamant atheists, they actually do dabble in ... not belief in a manifest way, like in churches, but in the sense that you have to remain open to all evidence, really. They're building this particle accelerator in Geneva, 27 kilometers around, and they're going to fire protons at each other. And they're searching for this particle, the Higgs particle, which would be the smallest known particle yet. And their nickname for it is 'God's particle.' So you can see even in that little fissure opened there; there's another side.

There have been a lot of sci-fi films lately; a lot of people like sci-fi for the setting, and I find the genre lends itself well to social themes, but for you as a filmmaker personally, what's the biggest benefit of the genre personally?

Boyle: I love the fact that you can -- basically what they do, space films, is you take 8 people or whatever your crew is and you seal them inside a steel tube and you send them out, and it's just the most amazing mixture of endless-horizoned space and claustrophobia. It's the most claustrophobic thing you can do, because everything out there is designed to kill you. Absolutely everything is, and that's a fantastic setting for a drama. It used to be mountains, or the Wild West. But we've conquered all the mountains -- we're basically dragging amateurs up to the top of Everest and taking their picture and dragging them back down again. It's gotten so space is the ultimate challenge, really, and the benefit of it is that it's the most extreme environment you can put humanity into. And our relationship with it is really weird, because it's poised to kill us, and for some reason we don't avoid it; we want to go out there. Richard Branson's about to take people out there economically -- for some reason we want to go out there. None of Earth's other species seem to have any interest in going somewhere that's just going to kill them, but we do. I love that as a scenario for a film; it's fantastic. Really weirdly, these kind of space movies, they boil down to a ship -- which is your steel tube -- the people inside it, and a signal -- which changes everything. If you look at them all, they all conform to that pattern, that very weird, very narrow pattern of storytelling.

Cinematical: What, for you, was the biggest surprise in taking this film from the script to the finished product? What wound up being a problem that you didn't expect, or what wound up being a pleasure that you didn't forsee?

Boyle: The biggest thing was how narrow the genre is, and how tight the rules are. Because I'd worked on a zombie movie, and you think that's quite a narrow genre -- but it turns out it's not; it's completely free, and we could do anything we wanted, and we did! But this, you can't. We had all these plans, and all these ambitions of what was going to be really different as a space movie ... and they don't work. I could give you dozens of examples. Sex? Doesn't work in space. Romance? Forget it. Doesn't work. We tried it. Absolutely doesn't work. It's so serious; you can't have gags in space; they don't work either. We got a few in with Chris Evans, but you basically can't do gags. I didn't want to have a star field. I thought 'All these fucking films ... it's bollocks. It's like daylight here; you've got a big light source and you can't see anything else, there's no other light sources; you can only see them at night.' So we did the first CG shot of the ship, and there's no star field - the problem is, you can't see the ship moving! It looks like it's stopped! And you think 'Why has it stopped, so early in the film? Has something gone wrong this early in the film?' And that's why there's a star field in every space movie you see -- because it's the only way of suggesting motion in a vacuum like that. ... Stuff like that, it goes on and on, the list of what you can and can't do, and that's really tough, I tell you. Because each time you're trapped like that, you're worried you won't be original enough. You want it to have your own mark, something that's different. You don't want people saying 'It's just the same scenario, a ship, a crew, a signal. So how you going to make it original? And you keep bumping into all these people who've made the film before. But it's so narrow. And I've never done anything like that before -- and I'll never do another one; and no director does go into space more than once. ...

You flirted with the Alien franchise, but you've never made a franchise; is there a franchise like that you'd be interested in, if you were asked?

Boyle: There's franchises that I love; Alien is one, which is why I briefly got involved in it. ...

Like if James Bond came along. ...

Boyle: No; I was asked about the Bond; I was asked about Harry Potter, and they just don't ... they're just made .. they just don't interest me.

What about 28 Days Later? Is there a possibility. ...

Boyle: Well, I've got an idea for a third one; it's a weird possibility ... I mean, it's kind of a slightly amateur franchise. ...

Cinematical: Would that be 28 Months Later, or 28 Years Later?

Boyle: (Laughs) You'd have to use that, because that's the franchise. I mean, actually, that would be completely irrelevant to the idea. ...

categories Interviews, Cinematical