Once Upon a Trance: Danny Boyle directs mind-bending thriller about art, obsession and larceny
Hurling the Queen of England out a helicopter to parachute-jump into London’s Olympic Stadium while at the same time executing the grab of a Goya in a botched auction-house heist is, basically, how Danny Boyle spent his summer vacation.
“People simply can’t believe it, but we shot this movie while we were doing the Olympics,” boasts the multitasking moviemaker. “So much of a big event like the Olympics is just planning and procedural—it drives you mad—and this was a two-year process. Each year, we took a little sabbatical to keep our hand in, working.
“The first year—2010—we did a stage play in London at the National Theatre, Frankenstein, and in the second year—2011—we shot Trance. We didn’t edit it fully because we could only take enough time off to shoot the film, but it was wonderful. We’d do Thursday and Friday on the Olympics—and Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday shooting Trance. I can’t tell you how invigorating it was to do something so different. When you’re doing a national celebration—which is endlessly optimistic and promising—and then you’re able to make a movie like Trance at the same time, it’s like the evil-twin cousin. It was really nice to be able to go off and do that.”
The proof is in the playing, and the startling sight of the 86-year-old monarch sailing through the night air into the stadium proved to be one of the more outrageous spectacles of 2012. Yes, a stunt double was used for the actual jump, but Elizabeth II did show up right afterward for her close-up, with regal waves to her subjects.
The original idea of Good Queen Bess going “Geronimo!” before the widening eyes of the world came from one of Boyle’s production designers, Mark Tildesley, who used the trick to smudge a couple of boring but necessary spots in the opening ceremony.
“You have to bring the head of state into the stadium, and you’ve got to perform the national anthem at the same time,” the director points out, “and both of these were incredibly overly familiar for people, so we thought that we really needed to refresh that. Also, it was a good opportunity to try and catch our sense of humor as well.”
Not only was the Queen in on the joke, she became its chief cheerleader. “We sent her the idea initially because we assumed if in the most perfect scenario she would give her approval to it, we would have to get a good double. In fact, the shock was when they wrote back to us and said she’s delighted with the idea and wants to be in it herself! We were astonished! We pinched ourselves. We didn’t think it was real.”
The other half of Boyle’s summer workload, Trance, is being trumpeted by Fox Searchlight Pictures as a film “from the director of Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours,” and, while accurate and all worthy works, this leaves a lot of latitude for wild expectations. “We try to surprise people” is Boyle’s way of putting a nice face on his eclectic credits. “I love that in movies. Despite publicity, which is necessary, you do often get surprised by a film and where it takes you.”
If none of the above movies in the ad bears the slightest resemblance to Trance, he says, there is one of his that does: his very first. “There’s a similarity with Shallow Grave because it’s about three people, all of whom are not quite what they seem.”
The first trio were Edinburgh roomies fighting over money left behind by their late fourth flat-mate. What ignites and animates Boyle’s current crop of boy-girl-boy schemers is a stolen Goya painting, Witches in the Air; a French hood in charge of the heist (Vincent Cassel); his auction-house inside-man, who gets conked on the head during the bungled robbery and forgets where he stashed the painting (James McAvoy); and a voluptuous hypnotherapist who opens his mind just enough to see she deserves a cut of the action (Rosario Dawson). Again, every crook for himself.
“Obviously, with this kind of film where you have those three central characters, you’re never quite sure which way they’ll move and change,” Boyle delights in underlining. “You don’t know who to root for. I love that because most movies you know who to root for—and, okay, there’re going to be some obstacles in the way, but you know it’s going to be all right. I love it when the outcome is not quite secure.
“There’s something similar with the majority of movies. A lot of the movies are concerned with a hero who faces insurmountable odds and obviously overcomes them, so the audience always gets that surge at the end of the movie. With Trance, you’re never certain which character that will be. But—if you play in chronological order, in strict narrative order—you could see very clearly who that will be.”
John Hodge, who scripted Boyle’s first four films and this one, shares screenplay credit here with Joe Ahearne, who wrote and directed a 2001 British TV-movie version of Trance. In this feature-length retelling, Boyle aggressively races back and forth over the same plot turf, finding clues that inch the story closer to the truth.
“The mix of the way you use time-past-memories, time-present, time-future or time-imagined as one fluid [thing]—it’s cinema’s unique place to do that,” insists Boyle. “If the storyteller doesn’t differentiate those time capsules for you, you have no idea in cinema. You affect things. It’s such a powerful medium. Cinema is a wonderful tool to use to lead people into other illusions. The fact is that cinema is an illusion anyway. It’s one big trance for me. Good ones are, anyway, because you forget the real world. You laugh. You cry. You’re shocked. We clearly, deeply need that—to capsize ourselves into that storytelling. We love it because we’re addicted to it. It presents itself in different forms sometimes. It usually, almost always, involves actors, so cinema is a wonderfully powerful way of doing it.”
Goya, as an eminently steal-able star artist, was not casually arrived at here. “He’s actually wonderfully appropriate for this film,” Boyle advances. “He was the first person to paint the female form as it was. The Naked Maja and The Clothed Maja are among his most famous. He’s the first psychological painter—the first modernist, really. He painted the inside of the mind. Until halfway through his career, he painted portraits like everybody else, which could be psychologically incisive but they were surfaces. He, they say, was the first to ‘go into the bullring of the mind.’”
From the man who gave you Trainspotting, the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours and, now, Trance—what could possibly be next? Another Trainspotting.
“But not immediately,” he qualifies. Trainspotting novelist Irvine Welsh already wrote a sequel, 2002’s Porno, but Boyle doubts if his film will be closely based on that book, “although we’ll have Irving involved. It’ll be a 20-years-later version, and we’re hoping to get the same actors in the same roles. It’ll be lovely to go back to them 20 years later because, of course, they were hedonists. In their early 20s, they could do anything to their bodies and get away with it—in their 40s, not quite. What has happened to them could be interesting—and a proper reason for a sequel.
“But before T-2,” Boyle promises, “we’re doing a couple of period movies, which isn’t a deliberate shift just to surprise people. You don’t really think of movies like that. You work organically. I can’t tell you the period because you’d immediately know. It’s a bit self-evident. Then, somebody would be making a bloody movie about the same thing, and it will be typical Hollywood—two movies about the same thing.”