Talks about the new release, “Sunshine”
“Sunshine” is about to be released on DVD in Australia. Moviehole talks to Danny Boyle about the film.
Q. What was the first thing you studied when you took on the project?
Danny Boyle: The sun. Because that was what was so unusual about the script: going to the sun. So, I started way, way back, collecting books and photographs, that’s what I tend to gather. I spend a fortune on them. And as soon as you start to delve into it, you get lost in it, and that’s a good sign, because it’s one of the things that the film is about. Your mind, as you try to take on the enormity of it all. And it’s interesting, because we take it for granted. Up until the last couple of hundred years, the sun was everything in people’s lives. They sacrificed lives to it, built their culture around it. Everything was dictated by the rhythm of it returning in the morning, the theories based on its absence. Our entire lives were built around it, but we’ve forgotten it, because we’ve invented electricity, which we also now take for granted. We no longer have to be frightened it the night. So what about if it did become part of lives again? And if it were dying, then it fucking well would be! If Earth was frozen and only parts of the planet are inhabitable.
Q. How close can we get to the sun?
DB: The surface of the sun is about 15,000 degrees centigrade, but as you go inside it, it goes up to 15 million. Now, the 15,000 is a temperature we can create on Earth. And a lot of machinery will work at temperature approaching about half of that. They have satellite that flies around between the sun and Mercury, taking photographs. And they use gold leaf to reflect the sun’s rays. So while it is impossible to go up to it, but it’s not impossible to get close to it. The thing that would kill humans is the radiation, but you could send robots, which is presumably what we’d have to do, because there are alloys in existence. That’s what the scientists told me, anyway!
Q. Have you always been into science, astronomy and physics?
DB: No, because all that stuff comes down to mathematics, and I come out in a rash when faced with maths! I can’t pretend to know anything, but I loved hearing about it in a palpable way. Our science advisor tried to explain these phenomenon in a way that I could understand, while really he wanted to explain it with maths! And the actors are like me too; they’re not scientists. My daughter’s a scientist, studying chemistry, and she works in maths. It’s extraordinary watching her work – it’s like some cryptic language from ancient Egypt! And I don’t get it at all.
Q. You make a lot of the film being science fact rather than science fiction. Are there any other films of that ilk that inspired you?
DB: The Right Stuff is based on fact, and that’s a wonderful film. There have been a few TV series about space that were useful, and we watched those. There’s one that Sam Neill introduces about the planets, and that helped a lot. But despite all the research we’re more indebted to movies like 2001, Alien and Solaris – that narrative, imaginative world. You check the science, and it’s inspiring, and you have to get it right, but really it’s the other movies rather than factual material. There is a branch of sci-fi, which I call fantasy sci-fi, your Star Wars, Star Trek and the like, where anything goes. It’s a playground. But we started with the fact that the beginning of the film could be real. The end, of course, is real fantasy – that a human can touch the sun, but because the basis is realistic, you’re gathering the audience and taking them with you on that journey and then you begin to fry their brains.
Q. Making this film, was it like being a kid in a candy store?
DB: I can see why you might think that (laughs). But it’s so tough making these films. You’re very tempted to come to these interviews and say it’s wonderful fun, but the truth is that it’s absolute agony. You’ve no idea how difficult it is. People expect such a high standard of filmmaking, and to be frank there are quite a few sci-fi films made that do not meet the necessary standard, although I think Sunshine does. And I’ve never done a genre where that critical line is so acute. You have to be above that line, for people to believe it, and to get there is terrifying. It’s the opposite of being a kid in a candy store! Dragging people by their teeth and forcing them to make it better, because it just desiccates in front of you if you get it wrong. There’s so much latitude with films set on earth, but here the spotlight is really intense, so I didn’t pretend to have a whale of time making it!
Q. What about watching the film afterwards?
DB: I’m proud of it, and I wanted the experience to be truly viscerally and visually exhilarating, that you feel as though you’re being taken on a journey somewhere. Brits tend to be a bit modest, but I am proud of it.
Q. The captain of the first ship, going mad towards the end of the film, he kind of comes out of nowhere…
DB: He is set up in a certain sense, very subtly. This guy has spent seven years baking in the sun, like those people you have in Palm Springs! We wanted to give the impression that, somehow, people are space, and the miracle of life is that we’re held together by these forces – neutrons, protons and electrons – but basically you’re nothing! So we wondered what would happen if those forces were rearranged. He’s a challenge to Cillian, his sanity; is seeing him defining his as insane? One of the effects of getting close to the sun, the maker of all things, is that you might become delusional, and lose your sanity. When we did the research and you here about the physics, you can feel your brain melting! So getting closer to the sun every day would be an extraordinary pressure on them.
Q. We don’t often see oxygen gardens in sci-fi films. What went into creating that?
DB: It was very different from creating the rest of the ship. It’s based on realism – when they do launch longer space travel, they will generate oxygen. They won’t have an array of plants like we had – and the grass inside the chambers is nonsense, it was just visually lovely! They will take ferns, because they supposedly generate really excellent oxygen. So as it was based on some sort of fact, and we almost wanted to make it so sacred, that you’d celebrate it in a way, because we knew we were going to burn it. And when you rob them of that, it changes everything. Michelle’s character it turns her hard – she loses all faith in them, and everything apart from the clinical delivery of the mission. For her it’s like losing a child. And then she gets the little plant back, a glimmer of hope, and then she dies. You can imagine what Fox said when we showed this bit of hope and then took it away!
Q. How many sound stages did you use for those sets?
DB: A lot. It’s a small studio in East London, used mainly for pop videos. It’s not soundproofed or anything, but it allowed us to work under our terms.
Q. There’s an alternate ending on the DVD. Was that ever going to be used?
DB: The epilogue that takes place at the end in the snowy Sydney, well there’s a test version of that, which we did in Victoria Park in London, without any snow. We’d run out of money, so we did that and sent it to Fox, asking them for the money to go and shoot it in Stockholm in the snow. There’s also another ending with another more extended version of Pinbacker, which becomes a big debate between him and Cillian.
Q. There are two short films on the DVD. Is there any connection between them and Sunshine?
DB: I like to put short films on the DVD that have no correlation to the main film, they’re just people that I like and it gives them a bit of exposure really. On Millions I put a little film by Sharon Colman on it, and she got an Oscar nomination for it, and then landed a jobs with DreamWorks. On this DVD, well one of the runners on the film had made a little film about molehills appearing Brixton; he’s a lovely guy and it’s a lovely film, so we put that on there. And there’s also a very, very good film on there, called Dad’s Dead, and it’s amazing. A mix of animation and real footage and it’s really disturbing and strange. It’s by Chris Shepherd.
Q. When Alex came to you with the script, what was the one thing that really leaped out at you?
DB: I had this image straight away, which you see at the beginning of the film, where you see a hot, bright spot of light, that appears to be the sun, and you’re going towards it. And it becomes the shield, which turns, and heads into the sun. It’s the longest CG shot that this effects house had ever done. I imagined that before I even got into the script.
Q. Does Alex write very cinematically?
DB: He had a different opening actually. His was about different images of the sun and the scale of it, but I always had the image of the ship turning towards the sun. I also remember the scene where they see Mercury. We found this photograph of Venus, which was seen as a little speck against the sun, so we thought that’s how we should show Mercury. Because everyone would expect it to be this huge planet, but it’s really just this little pool ball sized thing, which gives you a great sense of scale.
Q. With all the research you did, did you bring any of that into the characters and their beliefs?
DB: I tried to. I didn’t address them individually. We had individual sessions to do with their back-stories. Some of them really wanted to know, and some, interestingly, really didn’t want to know. Rose didn’t want to know hers, even though hers was amazing! Other than that, I tried to inspire them; we had three weeks of lectures, with scientists explaining the physics and me talking about the project, and they could take what they wanted. They all did different things, too. Like Cillian, for example, went off to CERN in Switzerland, to see this particle accelerator, and he came back with all these mannerisms that the people there had. He kept doing these things with his hands in the film, that the scientists did at CERN when they worked out equations. And Chris Evans met this astronaut, which was very helpful. It grounded Chris in how applied this guy was to the problem. And that’s what Chris’s character became.
Q. Sound is so important in creating tension, so were there any specific things that you recorded to help that?
DB: Nowadays, the sound designers are constantly doing stuff, creating new things, and it’s interesting looking at the ground they broke with Gary Rhydstrom, but now they give you a huge landscape of sounds. I love it. It’s 70 per cent of the movie. People always think it’s the visuals, but if you turn the sound off, people drift out after about 10mins. It’s amazing how much of it is this hidden language.
Q. Was there any from the studio pressure to get a big a name?
DB: Yeah, because the studio will always try and buy insurance, because they don’t know how good the film’s going to be. So if they can get a name in the film, even though it will cost them more money, it means they can guarantee a certain level of exposure, interest from the press. And if it’s terrible and doesn’t get a theatrical release, then with a name actor they can guarantee a level of DVD sales. So there’s always some lobbying. But on this film, we made our choices, and the studio was happy with the cast. They rated Chris Evans because of Fantastic Four’s star quality; Cillian had been in Batman and in 28 Days Later, which was hit in the US. Space movies don’t tend to be star vehicles, they’re usually ensembles, suiting a group of characters. They are exceptions, with Tom Hanks in Apollo 13, but they do tend to suit ensembles.
Q. Hitchcock used to create stars; are you interested in doing that?
DB: Yeah. This sounds like false modesty, but one of the jobs of the director is to shine light upon the talent. Pick good actors and make them look good. Make them feel confident and give them good advice. You learn as a director that the audience, 97 per cent of them, go to watch actors. Only a few go to watch directors. A tiny amount. You are in control of the film, but actors are the key in terms of mainstream audience. So it’s lovely if you can create a star, and if you hire a star then can come a bit self-contained.
SUNSHINE is on DVD August 29