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Director of Slumdog Millionaire

SS: Your style here is very visceral and direct, but you also play with time and linear order. It always feels like something is very disruptive.

DB: You’ve got to be free to tell the story, follow the narrative. I certainly instinctively felt the way to tell the story was very immediately. Even though it’s told during three different timeframes, and the way you’re watching it is through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, I never wanted to signal that. It should all feel like now. It shouldn’t feel like period. The film is fluid across time.

SS: What about directing scenes in a language different than your own?

DB: I learned a little bit of Hindi; it’s a beautiful language. I had this woman [Loveleen Tandan] who was the casting director, who I made the co-director. I had her with me every day, directing the kids, translating. She was a very good director in her own right. In acting, you can tell no matter what language. Once you get over the worry whether you understand it, you can tell straightaway whether they’re good or not. You can tell whether they’re being honest. The big thing with kids is whether they’re tired or not. Also, kids sometimes don’t bother about language. They can tell whether they like you or whether they trust you or not. Kids get the essence of things very quickly.

SS: Your cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantel, is a pioneer in the Dogme film movement. He’s photographed several of your films, and you’ve developed a fluent, visceral visual style.

DB: The way film cameras work in India is quite interesting because they’re quite big. You can’t insure them in India, so what they do is they bring all of these boys with them who sleep with the cameras, literally handcuff themselves to them so nobody steals them. I thought, I don’t want all this baggage. It’s just a circus. We got these digital cameras that were prototypes and they were not really ready to be used. They were very flexible, very high-resolution digital cameras. The Mac notebook is strapped to the cameraman’s back, and he’s attached to the gyro with a camera lens on it, and that’s it. You can both be very flexible in terms of movement, and you can also confound people who can’t really tell what you’re doing.

It’s a Danish cameraman and a British director, two white guys, and you can’t really tell what we’re doing. You can’t see where the camera is. That helps tell the story. I wore people out. It is ceaseless, India — certainly Mumbai is. There is no rest; just life all lived very vividly, all the time. I wanted to get that sense across the film. They had to drag me away at the end.

SS: You’ve made your dance in and around Hollywood. You turned down the chance to make Alien: Resurrection. The early success of Trainspotting made not only your reputation, but it gave you some freedom to choose projects.

DB: I don’t tend to make decisions based on whether or not it’s a Hollywood project. Should I do a Hollywood film or not? I don’t really think like that, though my agent does. I turned down Alien 4 not because of any revulsion with the system, just because I can’t do it. I didn’t think I’d be very good with the [computer graphics], the pupeteering and all that stuff. I made Sunshine, which involved some of those techniques I realized I was wise to turn it down.

I’ve learned, particularly from The Beach, that I’m better not quite having everything I want. It sounds like a contradiction, but it’s all true. The contradiction helps. You can never resolve the contradiction, but in the effort of trying to make the money go further than it ever can, that’s the film, that’s the ambition of the film. When people watch films, they don’t just watch them; they sense them. Sometimes you go to a film and it has no soul as you watch it. It can be greatly entertaining, exactly what it’s designed for. But when you feel a film, you feel it’s got something, it’s not about the money, it’s about the spirit. That’s what I felt. That’s what I’m better at than having everything you need.

You have a huge movie star that bullies the fuck out of the studio so you get any interference from the studio because the movie star will basically kill them if they try to touch you. I’m not very good at that. There are people who are good at that. I admire them and I watch those films avidly. I’m not really that way. Having said that, you do judge everything as it is.

There’s some wonderful stuff I get sent, and I don’t feel I’m right for it, but maybe one of those I’ll do one day. Maybe someday I’ll get on board and surprise everybody with a mainstream Hollywood film.

SS: In an interview I did with John Boorman, he said the key was working in recognizable, known forms but finding ways to subvert it.

DB: That’s either in the emotion of the film or the genre of the film. You find a way to get access to the mainstream crowd. Then you try to stretch it as much as you can once you’ve got their attention. You don’t waste it by delivering something they expect, but you try to stretch it as much as you can, so you surprise them. I would much rather make a mainstream Hollywood action film than a private film. I’m tempted by the mainstream action film. I’ve never been tempted by the private, precious films. Because even when you have something that feels a little bit more personal, like Millions, I tried to make it as popular and as accessible as possible.


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