Director Danny Boyle’s latest film, the India-set magical realist romantic fable Slumdog Millionaire, is vastly different to his previous film, the set-in-space thriller Sunshine. Both have settings that might strike western viewers as fantastical: the latter, in a spaceship headed for the sun, the most recent, in the slum, streets, alleys and more, of Mumbai.
Of the sprawling, emblematic 21st century city, Boyle notes that it was “extraordinary, the contrast” with Sunshine, which had to be “very specific” in its science, and the plausibility of its technology. As for India’s most densely populated megalopolis, Boyle had to put aside precision and be ready to “accept any story within it,” while he was shooting.
The story he was aiming for involves an 18 year-old orphan named Jamil, who is about to win millions of rupees on national TV. A la Jeopardy, Jamil is set to come back the following day for the winning question, but the intervening night proves to be both a dark (and light) one of the soul, replete with flashbacks, stories of lost loves and past tragedies, all leading inexorably, it would seem, to the fateful moment on the vid screen.
“They call it ‘The Maximum City’,” Boyle says, of India’s own nickname for the former Bombay. And to try and grasp that maximum- ness, Boyle says he was there, on and off, for close to a year.
After the precision of Sunshine, he found the move to Mumbai “incredibly invigorating,” though one man’s vigor is another’s disruption: “The continuity guy went mad, really” he laughs—Boyle is giving to rather frequent, large-hearted laughs—“You can’t make a Western film here.”
“We started shooting straight away,” he says, delving right in to this “city in fast forward,” and moving at such a speed that when Boyle ran preliminary camera tests with film, the medium “felt very wrong to me.” What felt more right were the images coming from a Silicon Imaging SI-2K camera, which required a hard drive to be strapped to the operator’s back.
But his DP, Anthony Dod Mantle, was up to the challenge, living “on a different planet,” with his expertise—honed in such films as the under-appreciated faux rockumentary, Brothers of the Head— “as a hand-held cameraman.”
But there were other, Mumbai-specific camera duties the crew had, unknown in more static, Western filmmaking situations: “In Bollywood,” Boyle says, “they don’t insure cameras. These boys live with the cameras,” in order to keep the equipment from being stolen.
On which note, as energizing as he found the city, Boyle and company found that “it wasn’t safe to do one or two of the sequences in (the actual) slums” of the city, so those were recreated on soundstages, with the help of production designer Mark Digby, with whom Boyle was “in the city for months,” immersing himself in a world that he describes as having “no architecture,” of any specific style, or look.
Which was helpful for the flashback sequences in the film, since in Mumbai “everything looks like it’s ‘now’—there are no ‘periods’,” all of which made his job back in London, posting with editor Chris Dickens, somewhat easier.
But if the helter-skelter architectural style of the city made it easier to be historically authentic within a certain span of years, Boyle wanted other kinds of authenticity, too, and toward that end, shares a directing credit with Loveleen Tandan, who originally came on board as a casting director.
“I needed her to be with me on the set the whole time,” he says, not only because she speaks Hindi, but she because she wasn’t “afraid to tell me I was wrong,” when Boyle was “mistranslating” an aspect of local culture. “She was amazing like that,” he adds. So amazing, in fact, he eventually sent her off to direct second unit footage, since he found he needed “better leadership” for that crew.
He also credits first AD Raj Acharya, with his Bollywood experience, as helping Boyle “get the best out of the streets,” in the flexible, sometimes nearly improvisational, shoot.
That included sound, too. “If you don’t use live sound in Mumbai, it feels fake,” Boyle says, and points to another difference with Western crews: “In India, the guy who records the sound mixes it as well,” so duties were split between Resul Pookutty, who mixed ADR and sound in Mumbai, and Boyle’s postproduction sound designers and editors back in London.
The whole experience, he says, was “like going back to your first film—it was sort of technique-less.” And you had to be ready to improvise: You might have a location scouted out, but “you’d turn up some places, and they’d built a wall over the weekend!”
Could we knock the wall down?, everyone on the production wondered. No, the answer came, you’d need a High Court order for that.
And for those sorts of things, Boyle had a group he called “The Three Musketeers,” production locals whose full-time job was dealing with the bureaucracy for permits, and such. Though Boyle also maintains that this bureaucracy had little real-world affect on the film, since “they run it as a completely parallel, imaginary universe,” mostly dealt with by moving “fat wads of cash” from one universe to the other.
A little over a year prior, the production of Slumdog applied for permission to shoot from a helicopter. It never came during production, so alternate plans were made. Though the permit did show up at last—“two weeks before the film opened!”
However, the Musketeers would be able to “sell the permit to another movie,” and thereby make someone else’s dream come true.
In spite of it all, Boyle refers to the experience of making the film as “wonderful, glorious,” and as for Mumbai, “it’s like a planet in its own right. You’re like a visiting spaceship.”
In which case, perhaps Slumdog Millionaire isn’t so far apart from Sunshine after all.