14 May 2009 - 1:12 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM


British filmmaker DANNY BOYLE – who most famously directed the era-defining Trainspotting and won a load of Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire – looks to the stars with SUNSHINE, his bold, unusual and highly invigorating take on the outer space sci-fi film. BY FILMINK'S DAVID MICHAEL

It's the 25th anniversary screening of Ridley Scott's Alien in London's Leicester Square in 2003, and distributors 20th Century Fox have invited a special guest to introduce the film. Best known to the audience as the director of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, Danny Boyle, despite being an enthusiastic cinephile, at the time had not directed a film in the sci-fi genre. But unknown to the audience, the director was working with writer and collaborator Alex Garland on a script to rectify the matter.

On stage, Boyle extols the virtues of Alien, but in the same breath also highlights the struggle and difficulties that Ridley Scott was subjected to in getting the sci-fi classic on the screen. If Boyle didn't know then, he would eventually realise in creating his own sci-fi film, Sunshine, why Ridley Scott never bothered helming any of the sequels to Alien.

“Directors make one space film and they never go back to it,” Boyle tells me much later, after having completed Sunshine. “The carnage that is involved…you have to push people so hard. Ang Lee says that directors aren't really nice people – although he's actually a nice guy – and I try to think of myself as a nice guy, but actually directors are not nice people. When you make a normal film, it can be 100% brilliant, or it can be 95% brilliant, but when you make a space film it either works or it doesn't. There's nothing in-between.”

Today, Boyle is again on stage. We're sitting in front of the screen of the Soho Hotel's private cinema in London. Unfortunately there is no audience filling the seats to listen to what is an engrossing and impassioned insight into the trials and tribulations of creating his own sci-fi opus, Sunshine. The man's passion for his art burns brightly.

Set fifty years into the future, Sunshine tells the story of the spaceship Icarus II and its disparate crew of eight astronauts and scientists, who are sent to recharge the dying sun with a massive nuclear device. Deep into the mission, the team discovers a distress beacon from the spaceship Icarus I, which failed in the initial mission to reignite the sun seven years previously. Their journey is thrown into disarray, and the crew's own disintegration threatens to come quicker than the sun's. And, naturally, the fate of mankind hangs in the balance.

Sunshine is the biggest production that the director has undertaken. It is also a testament to Boyle's production company DNA (which he runs with producer Andrew Macdonald) and its ethos of creating films in the UK under their own conditions. “I think I'm better at making films on my home turf, really. I love big movies, like Gladiator, but I'm better at smaller films,” Boyle once said, obviously many years before he started shooting the gargantuan Sunshine.

Bringing Boyle back to the night he introduced Alien, he admits that Scott's film, as well as being an inspiration, proved to be a daunting yardstick to measure up to. “When you're making a sci-fi film, there are three films that hover over you in terms of the genre,” he rationalises. “Alien, 2001, and Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris; whichever way you turn, you're trapped, and they're like giants casting their shadow over you. That was always intimidating in terms of making one, but when Alex [writer, Alex Garland] came up with the idea, I thought, 'That's it; let's do that.'”

With the film being set just fifty years in the future, it was important to ground its brand of futurism in reality. “It's not going to be like Luc Besson or Tim Burton; it's not going to be a flamboyant sci-fi,” he says. “So you think, 'In fifty years' time, who will be paying for space?' It takes a large proportion of the gross domestic product of a country. They say that the Americans would never have paid for the moon missions if they knew how much it would have cost them per person in that country. I thought that in fifty years' time, maybe America will still be there as an economic power, but it will be certainly accompanied by, if not eclipsed by, the Asian economies. So I thought I'd mix it up, and have an American-Asian crew. I absolutely stuck with that “

Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada, suggested to Boyle by Wong Kar Wai, takes the role of the ship's captain, helming a multi-national crew played by actors including Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Cillian Murphy (28 Days Later), Chris Evans (Fantastic Four) and Australia's Rose Byrne (Troy). “I wanted the captain to be Asian, because on the first mission the captain is a westerner – so the second should be an Asian,” says Boyle, before implying that there was opposition to his decision. “You realise how many people you upset when you have to be so stubborn. I never realised it about myself previously, but I realise it now – you have to be so difficult and unpleasant.”

With nice guy Boyle already making several references to the fact that he diverted from his natural demeanour, I ask him to elaborate. “I tend to be quite passionate, and if you don't respond to that passion, then I'll boot you out of the way,” he admits. “That's your responsibility as a director – to deliver in the end. You can't deliver it with any 'if only' clauses – you have to deliver it full-on.”

Boyle also suggests that Sunshine offers a warning to the unchecked advance and blind acceptance of man's scientific development. “We've inverted the malaise,” he says. “The sun is dying, and with our science – which can be argued is what got us into this trouble in the first place – we're going to solve the problem. One of the things that this film is about is the arrogance of science. It's a necessary, brilliant and breathtaking arrogance that we have – we think we can go to the sun and that we can affect it and change it. That's part of our problem as humans. We're warming up the planet, and ruining it with our technology, but we believe in it. We don't believe in God anymore; we believe in science.”

Unlike the video game-like fabricated CGI landscapes of George Lucas' Star Wars prequels, Boyle has used CG in a more naturalistic and mature way in Sunshine, stressing his intention to make it look like it was shot in-camera. “Everything comes up against realism, however twisted and disfigured it might be,” he says. “The film has a realistic template, and it does look very convincing. You won't think it's CG when you see it.”

When mentioning Darren Aronofsky's declaration that his CGI space sequences in The Fountain are best viewed on drugs (the more drugs the better), Boyle responds with relish. “You only need drugs at the end of this one,” he chuckles. “Listen, seriously, you could take drugs at the end of this film and have a very interesting time, and I hope it picks up that cult following. You can sit at the back and just get lost at the end of the film.”

If Lucas' ultimate shortcoming in his Star Wars prequels was his ham-fisted incorporation of his actors into their CGI worlds, Boyle's grounding in the theatre stood him in good stead. Before his career breakthrough with the BBC in Northern Ireland, Boyle was the Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre from 1982 to 1985, and also directed five productions for The Royal Shakespeare Company.

The first foundation that the director laid on Sunshine was to build up team camaraderie to facilitate more comfortable and naturalistic performances. Boyle sent his crew to “space camp” to endure two weeks of science lessons, simulations and space study. “We got them to live together in this student place for two weeks,” Boyle explains. “I couldn't believe that they agreed to do it. I hoped it would create a sense of them knowing each other for a long period of time. I think it really lifted the film. Actors make two to three films a year; they fly from one place to the other making films – so, in this case, I think it lifted it and made it special.”

The key to sustaining the film's suspense and narrative dynamic is in its ensemble framework, with the eight crew members all initially on an equal footing. “I didn't think it would survive the editing,” Boyle says. “In ensemble films, characters get discarded or reduced in importance, but this film has really remained an ensemble. That's one of the key elements in the film. It's important that you have an equal band of people – you don't know who's going to fall.”

As he has alluded to already, huge emotions were definitely the order of the day on the production of Sunshine. When I return to his post-production slog (“It made me feel extremely aggressive and I am only now beginning to settle back down”), I ask if Boyle found new levels of patience within himself. “You have to, but then it's exhausted, and you become that unpleasant guy again,” he replies candidly. “The problem with patience is that there's a fallow level it drops to. It descends like an early morning mist and you have to kick against it. When they were putting the film's website together to monitor the production, they asked me what I was going to do for the internet. I thought maybe I should do a Peter Jackson video diary and film myself each evening on my own, saying what I thought on the day. I'm glad I haven't…that's all I can say! It would be great to watch, but I wouldn't be delighted to be the author of it.”

After the time and effort he spent making Sunshine, Boyle will stay true to his earlier reasoning that directors only make one sci-fi film. The filmmaker is visibly happy that he's finally conquered the most troublesome of genres, and has finally added the sci-fi string to his directorial bow. “They say that when you film on a boat, it takes at least eight times longer than filming on dry land,” he concludes. “You think that's ridiculous, and that you'll be able to do it much quicker than that, when actually in reality it takes twenty times longer than on dry land. With filming in space, it's 100 times longer, just to get it right! If you want to put it out and it's not right, you can meet the deadlines; but if you want to be difficult and get it right, people have to wait!”