“I find that people find a way out of misery through humour and it’s humour that’s often unacceptable to people who are not in quite such a state of misery.” – Danny Boyle
English filmmaker Danny Boyle is known for his cult-classics like Trainspotting and 28 Days Later as well as highly successful films like Slumdog Millionaire, the most successful British film of the decade. Boyle has received commercial success as well as critical recognition, including an Academy Award for Best Director, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award. In 2008, he was presented with the Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking Award at the Austin Film Festival, solidifying his legacy within the industry.
In an interview, Boyle said, “I’ve thought about this. I traced it back to when I was seven or eight, and my dad took me to Battle of the Bulge, and my mum took my twin sister to The Sound of Music. And that’s the first I’d ever been in a cinema, or knew what cinema was. Although we had a telly, we didn’t really watch films on it. People from my kind of background just didn’t—films were a real birthday treat.”
He added, “I really got the directing bug through theatre. Although I was very interested in films when I was a teenager and went to see lots of art movies, in college I studied drama and English. I did a lot of acting as a result: When you are energetic and loud, as I was, they pick you for parts in stuff. Then I did my own production.”
On his 64th birthday, we revisit Danny Boyle’s illustrious career as a celebration of one of the top contemporary filmmakers.
All Danny Boyle films ranked:
13. A Life Less Ordinary (1997)
This was Boyle’s first attempt at making something that could be categorised as commercial filmmaking but it lacked coherence and not in a good way. Boyle later admitted that this was because they had to cut large portions of it from the final work. The film is about two angels (Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo) who are sent to Earth to make a janitor (Ewan McGregor) and a millionaire’s daughter (Cameron Diaz) fall in love. However, the janitor ends up kidnapping the daughter after he is fired from his job.
Boyle reflected, “Looking at the film now, I think one of the good things about it is that it is slightly free-form. If people get caught up in it, they will enjoy the fact that some of it is pretty inexplicable – not in the way a David Lynch film would be, because it’s lighter than that – but it is quite free. And the justification for that, and this is the pompous bit, is that that’s a bit like what it’s like to be in love.”
12. Yesterday (2019)
Boyle’s latest film is about Jack (played by Himesh Patel), a struggling musician who meets with an accident and forgets that The Beatles ever existed. In order to achieve fame, he tries to pass off their songs as his own. Yesterday had a lot of interesting ideas but it never really executed any of them well enough.
Boyle said, “Although obviously, our fictional audience in the film have their memory erased of The Beatles, but of course, the real audience watching the film in the cinema doesn’t. So, you have to have someone who can represent the songs to both those audiences. And it was a struggle at first to find someone.”
He added, “Most of the people came in, it felt a bit karaoke. And then [Himesh Patel] walked in and he did ‘Yesterday’ — and yet it was almost like it was his. And I had this … double take for a moment and I thought: That’s what we need!”
11. The Beach (2000)
An adaptation of Alex Garland’s eponymous novel, The Beach follows the story of Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio), an American drifter who gets obsessed with the idea of finding an island paradise in Thailand. Boyle explores a lot of genres simultaneously: romance, adventure, drama but in The Beach’s case, they don’t work well together.
“It’s an amazing idea,” Boyle mused. “It is a brilliant idea from Alex Garland’s novel. And I don’t think that I made the best job of it as a director… I’d make a much better film of it now. I was rather overawed by the money, and the way the film was set up. It was huge, not really suited to what I’ve learned I’m better at.”
10. T2 Trainspotting (2017)
This sequel to Boyle’s beloved 1996 cult classic continues the story of Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), twenty years after the events of the first film. Renton returns to Edinburgh to meet his old friends. Slipping back to his old ways, Renton decides to start a brothel with his best friend Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and his lover.
“You have to work at the relationship with the original film,” the director said. “And the initial premise is very complex because there’s a lot of expectation and you don’t want to let people down, but you are determined to return to it because you have a good reason.
“And we had a good reason because this story is more personal and confessional, I think than we all thought it might be. So, me and the screenwriter, John Hodge, worked on it and then we passed it onto the actors and it becomes theirs as well. They delve into it for you.”
9. Trance (2013)
Trance is a British psychological thriller which stars James McAvoy as an art auctioneer who teams up with criminals in order to steal a priceless Goya painting. During the heist, the auctioneer gets knocked on the head and forgets about what happened to the painting. A hypnotherapist is hired to unlock the secrets trapped in his subconscious as the film oscillates between the realms of fantasy and reality.
While speaking about what attracted him to the project, Boyle said, “There’s a very, very simple answer to that. There are also long, complicated ones as there always are. But the very simple one is that I had never made a film with a woman at the centre of it, and this was a story which stuck in my head a long time where it was disguised. You don’t think that at first, and it’s one of the reveals, I guess, of the film. I loved that she’s in the engine room in the film.”
8. Millions (2004)
When Boyle decided to make Millions, a children’s film, it came as a surprise to many of his fans who were used to his gritty and violent works like Trainspotting and 28 Days Later. Adapted by Frank Cottrell Boyce from his own novel, the story follows the adventures of a young British boy Damian who finds a bag of money in his backyard and learns how the world works.
Boyles later stated that he should have made Millions as a musical, “It’s not impossible, it’s finding the right vehicle for it where people can burst into song. And we had one: Millions was the vehicle.
“And we didn’t have the confidence at that time to push it through. If we were approaching Millions now, I’d definitely do it as a musical. It’s the perfect vehicle for singing. There’d be no strangeness about it, you’d just accept it.”
7. Sunshine (2007)
Yet another collaboration between Alex Garland and Danny Boyle, Sunshine is a sci-fi adventure about a team of astronauts who are assigned the monumental task of saving the sun. The have to reignite the sun by dropping a nuclear weapon in the dying star but things get complicated when an accident occurs, endangering the life of the crewmates.
Boyle commented on the film’s influences, “There are three huge, titanic, space movies which if you ever make a film like this you cannot avoid. You may want to avoid them but you cannot. I’ve never known a genre like it where you are dictated to by these films, 2001, Alien, and Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Believe me, they hover over you the whole time and sometimes you just have to tip your hat to them — reference them in some way.
“They are there and you’re judged against them, not just on whether the film ultimately works as a film but technically. The way you depict space has been dictated by those three films and you have to get to that level. And I had no idea how intimidating that level was, when I set out to make it.”
6. Shallow Grave (1994)
Shallow Grave was the brilliant and underrated directorial debut of Danny Boyle. This black crime thriller revolves around three best friends, doctor Juliet (Kerry Fox), accountant David (Christopher Eccleston) and journalist Alex (Ewan McGregor), who find their new roommate dead with a suitcase full of money beside him. Their friendship slowly devolves into hostility as greed gets the better of them.
Boyle recalled, “We had a million quid and made it on celluloid. As you can see by the telephones, it was a different era. There were computers, but they were strange big fat things that sat in offices and stuff like that. We spent all our money on the set, the flat and we ran out of money by the end.”
He added, “The police scenes where the policemen come to interview them were all done right at the end of the movie on the last day, and we had no money left, so we sold off bits of the set and bits of the furniture because it was pretty cool furniture. We sold it off to members of the crew in order to buy more celluloid.”
5. 127 Hours (2010)
On paper, it feels like this film should not have been possible at all. 127 hours goes against all the voyeuristic conventions of cinema but you still cannot take your eyes away from it. The film follows the true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), a mountain climber who gets his right arm caught under a boulder. He has to spend 127 hours in that seemingly endless nightmare before he is rescued. It earned Boyle Oscar bids for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, plus a BAFTA nomination in directing.
“Well, we wanted people to feel it, almost,” Boyle said. “That’s why I wanted a great actor to do it. What happens in the scene itself is that he occupies these plateaus of pain so brilliantly … that people imagine it’s the sound effects that are [putting them] on edge — and they obviously contribute to it. But the real issue is that it’s an extraordinary performance by Franco.”
4. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Slumdog Millionaire was objectively the most successful work in Boyle’s career. It chronicles the journey of a poor Indian teenager (Dev Patel) from Mumbai who somehow makes it big on the Indian iteration of the show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire”. Slumdog Millionaire was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won eight, including the Academy Award for Best Director. Boyle also picked up Golden Globe, BAFTA and DGA prizes for Best Director.
Boyle was initially hesitant about taking the project, “They sent the scripts, and my agent, I think says, if I remember it, they said, It’s about ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire.’ And I said, ‘Why would I want to make a film about that?’ But I saw his name on it, Simon Beaufoy’s name, and he’d written The Full Monty, and I knew his work, and I thought, that’s– there aren’t many really good writers in Britain.
“I thought I should read it out of respect for him and then I can write him a note or something. And seriously, page 20, I was like in. I just knew, I– what I say is you get this kind of like, the really great decisions you make, you get this common sense amnesia, like, then it just goes out the window.”
3. Steve Jobs (2015)
Danny Boyle’s 2015 biopic paints a compelling portrait of one of the biggest tech icons of all time, Steve Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender). The film received two Academy Award nominations, including a Best Actor bid for Fassbender, as well as a Golden Globe for Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant screenplay. Sorkin said, “Before I knew what I wanted to do, I knew what I didn’t want to do: write a biopic.”
“It’s an abstract,” Boyle added. “That was one of the reasons we didn’t want [Michael Fassbender, who plays Jobs] slavishly to look like him. We wanted to send the signal very early on… that it’s clearly not a photographic impersonation.”
2. 28 Days Later (2002)
One of the defining works of the genre, Danny Boyle’s 2002 work is famous for making the “infected” sub-genre a common practice in zombie films. In a society that is ravaged by a virus (yes, it is especially relevant now), 28 Days Later conducts a fascinating investigation of loneliness amidst societal collapse.
Boyle said, “With all of the films that we’ve done, we try and take a genre and fuck with it a bit. We love doing that. It helps market the films, and the studios or whoever is distributing the film love that and it contacts a mainstream audience, which is part of the deal for us. We want the mainstream audience.”
He added, “And then we want to blow the genre apart so you don’t get it. So, the zombie fans who show up for this aren’t just going to see a gore-fest zombie film. They will get something in addition, and I think that’s a great dynamic really.”
1. Trainspotting (1996)
This 1996 film is a cinematic adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name. Trainspotting poses an incessant but a necessary demand: that the people who occupy the lowest rungs of society, the addicts, deserve our attention and our concern too.
Mark Renton (played by Ewan McGregor) is a heroin addict with no prospects and no ambitions. The film follows him on his adventures to finance his drug habits while other people automatically neglect him.
“Trainspotting is such an important novel,” Boyle said. “It gives voice to people that are marginalised and are regarded as stupid or evil or victims if you pity them, and it gave them an ascendant voice.”