Interview: Danny Boyle

Anna Walker

Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle talks to us about the Olympic Opening Ceremony, The Beatles, and his new film, Yesterday

It’s 1964. Danny Boyle is eight years old and through the floorboards of his childhood home in Lancashire, he can hear his parents listening to Beatles records. He should be sleeping, but he’s awake pretending to be John Lennon. His twin sister, Maria, is Paul McCartney and his younger sister, Bernadette, is George. Or Ringo. Or maybe both at once. They didn’t really care. All they knew was that The Beatles were cool.

Danny, now 62, tells me this story gleefully, propelling berries from a neatly laid fruit platter into his mouth as he does so. We’re sat in London’s elegant Soho Hotel, but despite being one of Hollywood’s heavyweights—the Academy Award-winning director of Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours—Danny isn’t one for ceremony. Throughout the interview he offers me food, asks me about myself with genuine interest and before we begin I hear him quietly turn down the offer of a taxi home, insisting that he’d prefer to take the tube (he’s lived in Mile End for nearly 40 years). There’s something Peter-Pan-esque about him—a boyish quality, that assures you those days of miming to Beatles records don’t feel so distant.

"There's no other art form, there's nothing else in life, that allows you to stop time"

With his memories of the Fab Four taking root from such a young age, the concept of his latest film, Yesterday—which was written by rom-com titan Richard Curtis—is most likely one Danny himself finds hard to fathom. Struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) awakes from a cycling accident to find he is the only person in the world who remembers The Beatles. And once he grows accustomed to this bizarre new reality, he realises that means that their entire back catalogue is now his for the taking…

 

“I’m not claiming this happens every time, but sometimes you get a script and you just go, ‘I’ll do it,’” Danny explains. “If you always have that as your starting point—and I’ve been lucky and had it a number of times—it’s a beautiful way to begin. There’s that old saying, ‘jump and the net will appear’ and I’ve always believed in that. If you’re lucky enough to work in the creative industries then it’s especially true because there’s something about that leap that’s good for the imagination. You should trust that the imaginative powers of what you’re responding to will—two years later—speak to [your audience] in the same way.”

The director is poetic yet practical when talking about his medium. One minute he will utter something beautiful—“what’s so extraordinary about cinema is that it interferes with time, it’s a timeline fracture. There’s no other artform, there’s nothing else in life that allows you to stop time”—and the next he’s all logistics, talking marketing strategy and the extortionate amount Sony charges for use of Beatles tracks.

"Music is the great art form of the less privileged"

He cringes a little when I ask if he’d consider Yesterday his first foray into a purely rom-com genre.

“After we made Trainspotting, we decided that we could do anything, and started to get that cockiness. We said yeah, we’re going to make a rom-com. We’re going to make it with Ewan McGregor—because he was in Trainspotting and Shallow Grave—and we’re going to put him with the biggest star in the world, which at the time was Cameron Diaz. That was a film called A Life Less Ordinary. We shot it in Utah, and I remember when I came back home after shooting, I got sent this script called Notting Hill. I read it over Christmas, and I remember thinking—and this is the God’s honest truth—Now that’s a rom-com. I don’t know what we’ve made, but that is a proper rom-com. I thought it was brilliant. So, I suppose this is my first rom-com in a way,” he explains, allowing himself a self-deprecating chuckle.

“Richard Curtis is very underestimated as a writer. Because he works in romance and comedy, he’s not ascribed the status that writers who work in other genres are. But he’s Britain’s poet laureate of romantic comedy. Just look at the body of work, look at Blackadder. It’s phenomenal writing.”

 

There’s something fascinating about the endurance of The Beatles’ popularity—a fascination that clearly gripped Richard in writing and Danny in directing—the way their music is sewn into the fabric of British culture. For anybody born after the 1960s, it’s impossible to imagine a life without the soundtrack of their music. “All You Need is Love” at weddings, “Blackbird” at funerals, and “Yellow Submarine” at countless children’s birthday parties.

“And where does that come from? Where does that begin?” Danny wonders, his dark eyes widening. “I have this theory that we have a cultural DNA. We haven’t discovered it yet and scientists will scoff, but I think there is a cultural DNA within us and if you live in Britain for long enough you pick it up. My kids will start singing Cockney Rebel and I’ll ask, ‘Where do you know their songs from? That song is 45 years old! You weren’t alive, you weren’t even dreamt of when that song was out,’” he laughs, shaking his head.

 

When it comes to his own favourite Beatles track, Danny doesn’t hesitate before answering, “Hello, Goodbye.”

“My favourite of their albums is that second half of Abbey Road, where they mix all those songs. I’ve never heard anything else like it, where the joy comes out of the mixture. The sense of joy [on that album] didn’t come out of elation, because some of the songs aren’t elated at all, but it came out of that mixture of songs: some heavy, some sad, some joyous, some silly. I realised that that’s what I like to do in a film—I mix ingredients as much as possible.”

It’s that mixture that makes Yesterday so special. As with any Richard Curtis script, there are plenty of laughs but also romance, sadness, struggle. And the moments of joy do often come from unexpected places, and an unexpected cast. Taking the lead role is Hollywood-newcomer Himesh Patel, previously of EastEnders fame, and Danny knew from the moment of his audition that he was the man for the job.

“We saw people who could play better than Himesh, but his voice, has something about it which I still can’t quite put a finger on. When he played in his audition, it was like being reintroduced to the songs. ‘Yesterday’ is a song I know so well, and yet every time he plays it it’s like hearing it anew. There’s a moment in casting that you get occasionally where you go, ‘that’s her’ or ‘that’s him’ and even though all the other factors tell you no—perhaps the studio wants someone more famous—you just know that’s the person.”

Perhaps another unexpected choice was the decision to cast singer Ed Sheeran, who had previously dabbled with acting through a Game of Thrones cameo, but had never taken on a role of this muster.

“The first time I met Ed, he didn’t really know who I was—it was very funny. He was sat opposite me and I could see that he had his phone open under the table, and he was googling me,” Danny laughs heartily. “But given that he’s the biggest pop-star in the world, he’s very genuine. I’d seen him acting other things when he wasn’t great. I thought that was because nobody’s helped him. He’d been left exposed and I could see that.”

 

It’s been widely reported that as a young man Danny intended to become a Catholic priest, before a wise teacher steered him to a different path. But with music playing such a huge role in so many of his projects, I wonder aloud if he ever had musical ambitions of his own.

“I played in a school band rather badly. It was run by a tyrant called Father Jock McGovin. He’d say, ‘stop playing’, and then ‘just the brass’, and then ‘just the euphoniums’, and then he’d go, ‘Boyle, you play on your own’. And I was terrible. But I love music and I compensate for how bad I am at it by my devotion to it.” He lists David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and punk as defining musical influences.

“The most important part of culture, arguably, is music. It binds us in a way that almost nothing else does. It’s primitive, you’re overtaken by it. Popular music released a stratum of the population who really had no access to culture. And it created a voice for the disenfranchised, for the poor, because music is something you can pick up without high education or wealth and you can speak through it. I mean you look at The Beatles, they’re just four ordinary guys. Music is the great art form of the less privileged.”

"I wouldn't make a very different olympic opening ceremony now"

Answers from Danny tend to take this turn. They begin breezily, but quickly descend into deeper musings. He’s easy company, but he’s also quite clearly a philosopher. A trait that ekes out again when I ask if his perception of Britain has changed since his orchestration of the much-lauded London Olympic Opening Ceremony back in 2012. A ceremony that incidentally won the director a knighthood, though he turned it down, claiming it wasn’t his “cup of tea.”

“I don’t subscribe to the fact that this is a different country now,” he answers, decisively. “What has happened is that politicians, for whatever reason, have chosen to emphasise something that has the potential to divide us. And they haven’t covered themselves in glory in doing that.” He draws out the “o” in glory, that Mancunian accent satisfyingly in-place despite years of working in Hollywood.

“I still have great faith in people. We’re not that different really. We like to think [that Brits] have more of a sense of humour, or we’re better at music but [the ceremony was] really celebrating the potential of people, and a belief in people. You have to sustain that belief even though it’s often challenged by weak or duplicitous politicians. I wouldn’t make a very different ceremony now.”

Another thing the ceremony celebrated was our collective memories of Britain. It’s a theme that runs through much of Danny’s work, whether that’s the world forgetting The Beatles, Jamal remembering all the right answers in Slumdog Millionaire or an auctioneer with amnesia in Trance.

“It’s how we hang on to our sense of self I think, memory. But memories are not that important to you in your early adulthood, I watch my kids who don’t keep photographs or cards and think, Don’t throw that away, in 30 years that memory will mean so much to you! And you wonder, what did I throw away?”

Yesterday is in cinemas from June 28

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