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When making the new hypnotic heist movie Trance, Danny Boyle took an abnormal approach to the production schedule. Having already committed himself to directing the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympic Games, the Oscar winning filmmaker completed shooting his thriller, took time to work on the Olympics, and only afterward returned to Trance for post-production. It was a schedule that some directors likely wouldn’t be able to handle, but, according to Boyle, it actually helped Trance be a better film.
Prior to the limited release of the new film this past weekend, I was given the wonderful opportunity to sit down with Boyle to discuss his latest work, and discuss not only how the Olympics impacted the filmmaking process, but the psychology of the three main characters, the fascinating use of primary colors, and the incredible soundtrack that he put together. Check it out!
WARNING: The following interview does contain some plot spoilers for Trance, so read carefully…
One thing I have always found fascinating when stories have three main characters is there’s often a comparison that can be made between the Freudian parts of the mind, the id, superego and ego. [Boyle laughs] With this movie, the characters of Simon, Franck and Elizabeth all match up with those perfectly. I’m just curious if that was something that was on your mind when you were making the film.
They talked about it in rehearsal. I don’t know enough about it, but we talked about it in rehearsals. The thing that came out of it, I remember, is that, and I don’t remember if it is part of this world, but it helped James to think that he had what was called an executive. I don’t think it’s called a super-objective. It’s an executive. There’s something in your brain and he used to say that it’s what helped you breathe. We don’t think about breathing. You just do it. You just do it. And it’s controlling that and he said it was this that what giving him clues that are represented by him [taps on the table] tapping on glass, like he’s telling him something is not right and also telling him you don’t known this woman and yet you’ve always loved her and you still love her. You’re still incredibly attracted to her and of course it was fucking with him, but it helped him to be able to... I remember when we were rehearsing and also when we were shooting that that’s how he would express it. He would say, that’s the executive speaking, [taps on the table again] there, like that. So, if we wanted a bit of executive, we would call for it.
Was there kind of that same kind of psychological analysis of Elizabeth and Franck as well?
Yeah, they have their own journeys to try and work out in this conundrum. Obviously, it’s a puzzle of their own making, but their own individual trajectories were complex about what they knew, what they didn’t know. She had a super complexity because obviously, she could be the source of great clues. Simon is full of clues, but they’re very, very obscure, opaque clues, because he can’t quite make enough of them. So, of course, we can and we don’t mind seeing them because we don’t understand them either, but if she gave clues, you’d begin to read it. So, she had to find reasons to hide the clues, if necessary and don’t to blanche when he walks back into her life, because part of him knew that he would walk back in. As a therapist, she knows that he will walk back in and that if he ever does choose a therapist for any other reason, he’ll choose her. Because what’s peculiar, people think it’s a plot point, what would be odd is if he didn’t choose her from all the list of therapists, because the executive is telling him, “Oh, you know that one. She’s the one. She’s good.” So, the executive wins again.
In terms of building the aesthetic of the film, in addition to being the three main characters, you also have a really interesting use of the primary colors, red, blue, and yellow, throughout the film. Can you talk about using those colors and also as they relate to the characters.
Part of the process was to try and very clearly delineate the physical spaces that either they belonged to or were important venues, like the club, like where the individuals live, because with a complex narrative like this, especially the fact that some of the sequences are only apparently happening and it was very important to know where you were very, very quickly. So rather than kind of realistically depict the social circumstances of a particular profession, what fine art historian wouldn’t have that kind of flat or a criminal wouldn’t live in that kind of place or a therapist from Harley Street wouldn’t have such an apartment, we said, “Ignore that. Just actually create psychological spaces that they live in.”
And obviously, that helped us to create reflective surfaces as well and we wanted them to be... Reflective surfaces are great for a film like this, because they are a natural part of your life. You don’t think the mirror, a mirror is a mirror, but the fact that you shoot him and there’s a reflection of him in the scene, it’s a signal your executive in the ordnance, this might not be quite what it seems. There are two or three or four images here and it’s not sure you should rely on that one as being the absolute reliable narrator is what it’s telling you and so you try to do it like that and you try to depict it in that way. You try to find a code that people pick up very quickly so they know where they are.
I’m also curious, when you have this kind of story, audiences go in expecting a twist. I mean, you have the heist set-up which is renowned for a twist, but you also add in the hypnosis element, which is a natural set-up for twists and turns. As you’re putting the story together, are you kind of defending, in a way, against that expectation?
I’ve never done a film like this before and I love the fact that you have to find out how to do it. So, when we first cut the film together, we shot the film while we were preparing the Olympic Games. So, we did a rough cut, but after the Olympic Games were over, six months later, we came back to the rough cut and looked at it and you realized straight away that we’d made a cardinal error, which is that we had not put enough clues, because when you’re making these films, you don’t put any clues at all. In fact, if an actor [goes too far with their reaction] you go, “Don’t do that. That will give it away. Everybody will get it.” There’s this kind of neurotic paranoia that you’re giving too many clues. In fact, when you’ve got a bit of distance on it, you think, “If you don’t give them any clues, they’re going to be totally fucking lost.” [laughs]
So, we went back and we straightaway, that was the first things that we did. That [taps on the table] only existed at the end of the film and we looped it back in as a motif, like three or four times, to give you a clue, to let you know there’s something not quite right. You can’t figure it out yet, which is important, ideally, but you know that there are clues that if you could put them together, would help you understand, so if you go back and see it a second time, you’ll see it a different way, but also, even if you see it only once, you’ll know that you’ve not been hoodwinked, the grand reveal is not, “Well, where the fuck did that come from?” You’ll know that there have been clues that you’ve been not quite able to put together and manipulate and assemble in the right way yourself.
Would you say that having the Olympic Games to kind of step away from the film and kind of think about what you were doing, would you say it kind of helped the creative process for you?
Well, I think Trance helped the Olympic Games be what it was, which is a very peculiar thing to say. So, the Olympics is a two year job, okay, and it would drive any sane person mad. There’s only two options. You either go completely insane or you become a committee/corporate man like they are. You just become one of those numb figures that sits in meetings and then flies to another meeting and then gets in a car and goes to another meeting. So, what we knew early on is, we can’t let that happen. So, what we did is we did two sabbaticals. We did one sabbatical where we did Frankenstein as a stage play at The National in 2010 and that kept us sane, very dark story and then we did Trance, which is a very dark story, but it kept us absolutely optimistic and safe and sane. And it’s weird, because these are the evil twin cousins of the Olympic opening ceremony, but without them the Olympic opening ceremony would have been unhealthy. Whereas it turns out, it was the flip side of a coin, which everybody was able to admire and enjoy.
So, it’s not something you’re ever going to be doing again? [laughs]
No. You only do it once in your life. That’s not a career trajectory you’d want to be on, doing that kind of stuff. You do it once off, because it’s in your backyard, you feel a sort of obligation, local and national, to doing it, which I did and I was very proud to do it actually and very pleased with what came out of it and all that kind of stuff. But no, I like the day job better.
I also do have to ask about music, because music has played such an important part in your career and it’s a great part of this film as well, so I’m just curious, where’s your philosophy when it comes to the utilization of music and also, just in the collaboration process, you’ve worked with Rick Smith and you also have John Murphy who you’ve worked with on a number of films.
And also A.R. Rahman, who’s incredible.
So, I’ve been very lucky with the people I’ve worked with. It’s interesting, the choices that you make are often, they’re not, as they shouldn’t be with music, they’re often not rational, because you know music, it’s very, talking about music if so tough sometimes. You just know. So, for instance, a big influence on the beginning of our soundtrack for this was the Bowie album, Low, and there’s a little sample from it, in it, but it doesn’t make any rational sense. You can’t kind of sit there and explain, “Well, it’s the beginning of electronic music and that led to dance music and that led to Rick Smith and....” You know, it doesn’t really hang together as a kind of, you know, with philosophical clarity for your work process, so it’s more instinctive than that and it’s more to do with your... It’s often, it’s sometimes specific, you pick a song which does end up in the movie. It’s sometimes not, it’s a series of songs that you hope to inspire a composer with and you’re looking to kind of... But, for me, I mean, this is my own theory, but Britain is way better at music than anything else. We are...
Beatles and the Rolling Stones alone…
We’ve got David Bowie. We’ve got New Order. It just goes on and on and on. So, you go, “Well, that’s pretty good for a small island.” And I’ve always tried to make sure, that in the films, that’s reflected in the films, the importance of music. And if people accuse us of being a bit, as they did in the early days, of being a bit MTV, I never thought of it as being... I thought, “Well that’s not an accusation. That’s some kind of compliment.” I was like, “Please...,” and it’s grown up like that because people now digest material so quickly. They’re able to absorb stuff so quickly and they want it to reflect the mix of cultures that everybody, you know, you’ve got... I always used to say that music is running in our heads the whole time and then the Walkmans came along and the ear pods and it is running in our heads the whole time, because you’re carrying it everywhere with you. You’re never without it. You can have 10,000 songs in the cloud, ready to come down at any minute. I always wanted it to reflect that, because it’s a wondrous thing really and it kind of opens up film.
I mean, I’ve changed a bit actually, because as you get older, you don’t have automatic access to everything that’s out there. I don’t know when the change happens, but it does change. I have more access via my kids now than via my own means, you know to what’s new and what’s interesting and fresh and stuff like that. So, but what I’ve done, I’ve changed. I’ve become more composer oriented, because in the earlier films, I didn’t really trust composers. I just wanted to have bits of tracks and make the music like that, but I’ve kind of recognized what a composer can bring you. You can bring them all those tracks, but what he uses them for is inspiration. He writes you a coherent soundscape that takes you through the whole film and you benefit from enormously. So, I’ve been lucky to work with those guys and increasingly to depend on them more.