By Bill Desowitz
It’s lucky that Danny Boyle lives in East London. His familiarity with the city came in handy for his latest zombie horror film, 28 Days Later, opening June 27. Shooting on digital video and sometimes guerilla-style without permission, the director made his hood feel abandoned for this creepy film about a psychological virus that puts the whole metropolis in a rage. Boyle closed down London’s streets working very early in the morning and using women to act as stewards to hold back traffic.
Below the Line: The timing of 28 Days Later couldn’t be better.
Boyle: Britain was pretty paranoid when we made it. Compared to now, of course, it was pretty low-level stuff… We ratcheted it up pretty staggeringly.
BTL: Now with SARS, it takes on a whole new nightmarish atmosphere. It really is a cross between Night of the Living Dead and The Omega Man.
Boyle: We did borrow heavily. It’s funny—I did watch The Omega Man as I was about to shoot the beginning of the film, and I thought, “How did they do that?” I’m about to shoot in a deserted London and I know exactly how I’m gonna do it, and I wondered, “Wow, how were they able to close down Los Angeles like that?” It’s a great advert for the film as well. Even people who don’t want to go and watch a zombie movie—and there are people like that—are still really intrigued by all that London stuff.
BTL: Tell me about working with your crew. We can begin with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, whom you’ve worked with before on Strumpet and Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise.
Boyle: I wanted to do something as small as possible. So I did these two films for the BBC, and I wanted to shoot them on digital video. Not so much because of the freedom it would give, but also because of the way he operated the camera. So I rang him up and we’ve had a fantastic relationship. He’s a genuine collaborator; he loves to share. He wants to hand the camera over to other people; he wants to learn from them.
BTL: What were some of the ideas the two of you came up with?
Boyle: The first thing was to use the DV. For urban, paranoid stories, it’s perfect. We all live in cities, and about 90 percent of cinema stories are set in cities, and these cameras are everywhere, even as I stand here on a street in London and I can see them watching me outside this hotel. The second-biggest thing is the way we did the infected. We used some of the technology available inside the camera—a mimic of a frame shutter—and it gave us this amazing quality…fast, highly contrasted. The zombies move quickly, and it’s much more reliable the way it captures [that]. So you can’t quite trust it and that’s a great quality if you’ve got something running after you that’s very frightening. It’s the camera snatching at the imagery rather than recording it perfectly.
BTL: Production designer Mark Tildesley, who did 24 Hour Party People…
Boyle: I saw his work on The Claim, which was shot in Canada. I knew the restrictions they had in terms of money and I thought his work was staggering. So I met him and we got on very well, but I don’t think this was his type of film at all. But I persuaded him to do it and I think he had a great time. I’ve always tried to create different levels of family, and the crew is one of them. There is also a cynical side to it, which is you get more work out of people. But that is not necessarily the reason that I do it.
BTL: What were some of Mark’s contributions?
Boyle: I guess a big one was that we weren’t going to make London look like it had just been through a physical catastrophe, to dress the streets with burned out cars, whatever. And that we would try and find a sense of abandonment and desertion. And then we came up with specific images to put into those streets, which were intriguing. A lot of them come out of history, really. There’s a bit of it where [Cillian Murphy] picks up a lot of money. And that comes out of when the Khmer Rouge left Phnom Penh and left millions in currency in the streets. The photographs of all the people asking for help came out of a photograph we found after a Japanese earthquake. After we shot it, everyone thought it referred to 9/11. It’s a response to a communications catastrophe. [Mark and I] work in very similar ways. We work with a lot of photographic material, some of which is specific, [some of] which we’ll recreate… it gives you a feeling. We use that as a language, as a way of communicating ideas.
BTL: Costume Designer Rachael Fleming, who worked with you on Trainspotting…
Boyle: I was very unhappy with the costumes on my first film, Shallow Grave, and I deliberately wanted to find a more modernist costume designer, and I think Rachael is the best at that. She has a knowledge of street culture and how to use it and her costumes are not quickly passé. She’s from Yorkshire and has a very no-nonsense attitude. She keeps the actors happy. The other one we should really talk about is my editor Chris Gill, who worked with me on Strumpet and Vacuuming.
BTL: Sure, go on.
Boyle: He has a style about him where he can track [emotion] or space, time, and then repeats it. It’s kind of compressed. It’s not very noticeable but it’s a wonderful technique he has. And when I spotted that in his work, I encouraged him to use it. I had him use it a lot in 28 Days Later. It’s unnerving.
BTL: And make up Designer Sallie Jaye from The Beach.
Boyle: Sallie Jaye—wow. Any film where you’ve got a monster, you’ve gotta work hard. And we did a lot of tests. The lesson we learned was you’ve got to affect their eyes. She was brilliant at that. She knew that and I was resisting that for a long time. You’ve gotta put lenses in for it to work.
BTL: What models did you use?
Boyle: There were a couple, really. The first was rabies infection, which is called hydrophobia. The face is frozen until it reeks of fear [of water]. She developed this gentle gauze that stopped people’s mouths open. The other thing was Ebola. We read a book by Richard Preston called The Hot Zone, and we used some of the symptoms—like bleeding from every orifice. Read the book if you want to be alarmed about viruses.
Bill Desowitz, former assignment editor of Below the Line, is currently editor of Animation World Network’s new online publication, vfxworld.com.