The Reeler


July 19, 2007

Danny Boyle, Lost in Space

Sunshine director weighs in on optimism, science and a few really good deaths

Director Danny Boyle on the set of Sunshine, opening Friday in New York (Photos: Fox Searchlight)

(ADVISORY: Spoilers ahead)

Danny Boyle called himself an optimist. That was the least of it. The director engaged his listener, then listened himself, an enthusiast of seemingly everything, the nicest guy you could ever want to meet, nice enough to make you a pessimist, really -- to spoil your optimism that a more hospitable subject could follow. Even there, in the zillionth interview for his trippy new Sunshine, his spirit buoyed, he smiled and acknowledged that he's still open to its revelations.

Especially the bleak ones.

"I hadn't really realized it, but the film -- the structure of the film -- works as a series of deaths, really," he told The Reeler during a recent visit to New York. "Really good deaths. One after another -- they're all going to die. And they do. Films are only 120 minutes long basically; this is 110. You’ve got eight deaths, you can break it up. Every 10, 15 minutes one of them dies a really spectacular death. And that's the structure of the film. It took [me] two years to make it, but I hadn't really realized that until you sit down and start talking about it this way."

Obviously the press is thrilled to help where it can. The real secrets, however, are in the technique: Boyle's first sci-fi film is all spectacle and menace, pitting a cosmopolitan crew of eight astronauts on the Icarus II against a burning-out sun and the cold, infinite unknown around it. Their mission detours after the crew receives a distress signal presumably from their predecessors in the Icarus program, who disappeared years before with a Manhattan-size payload that would reignite the massive dying star. A few key miscalculations later, physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy) and his colleagues face an escalating succession of crises that bring them eye-to-eye with glowing eternity and a far less abstract nemesis who may or may not look a lot like them.

Wedged implacably between drab and sterile -- an Alien/Solaris love child whose parents died in its first year at Catholic boarding school -- Sunshine traps its characters in frames so constricted it's a wonder their fates are ever in question. Space suffocates from the outside in until finally the surface of the sun itself barges indoors. Such is the culmination of man's solar-centricity that science is spirit and worship is suicide.

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Boyle tempers the mysticism with authenticity -- or as much authenticity as one conjures on a sci-fi set. In actuality, the guiding principle for Boyle and screenwriter was something more akin to science fact: The Asian/American crew represented the economic powers likeliest to fund such space travel in the not-so-distant future during which Sunshine takes place; Icarus II's full-service kitchen and oxygen garden are practical considerations of long-term space travel, Boyle explained. They gleaned the psychologies of astronauts and cosmonauts around the world, visited training facilities in Moscow and the famous CERN physics lab in Geneva. The star British physicist Brian Cox joined on as a consultant. The cast lived together in student housing for two weeks prior to shooting to best simulate the ship's tight quarters.

Ah, yes -- the ship. Production designer Mark Tildesley's sets sprawled over eight soundstages east of London, a blueprint with elements drawn from submarine claustrophobia and grated, veiny corridors of genre films gone by. "It's so narrow, this genre," Boyle told me. "Much narrower than, say, a zombie genre. This is really narrow. There are two branches: The fantasies like Star Wars or Star Trek, where you can do anything you want, really. But this is the other branch, which is very narrow really. It's based on realism -- a man goes into space in a steel tube, basically. Because of that, you're constantly in debt to your predecessors. Like the steel blue-gray look of Alien? You create that inside the ship. Everyone wants to use that, and that's great. Or because you can't avoid that -- you literally can't avoid looking at them sometimes. And then occasionally you try to break away; you try to make your own little passageway through."

Boyle cited the film's gold spacesuits as an example. "That's very dangerous," he said. "The producers were very alarmed that we were going to do something as risky as that. Every other one uses the white suits -- basically based on the NASA white suits. But we said, 'No, this is going to be gold. Bling gold. And you're not going to be able to see into the helmet.' And that really worried them."

Another spectacular death: (L-R) Cillian Murphy with Danny Boyle

So Boyle and cinematographer Alwin Küchler instead jammed the camera inside the helmet, exploiting their anamorphic structure for all it's worth. It was almost the least of their experimentation compared to matching the staggering exterior visual effects to the forsaken industrial grit of Icarus II. They shared a "velvet black," Boyle said, the jumping-off point of Sunshine's style. The director added he had no experience with CGI; he just knew he hated the counterfeit. Sunshine's burnished surfaces had to look tactile, and the mystery of achieving that quality went a long way to restoring his filmmaker's sense of adventure.

'The first film you make is always your best film, because you don't always know what you're doing," he said. "And you're always trying to recreate that state of innocence. And it's fake, of course -- you do know what you're doing. More and more, you technically become more adept. But one of the ways you can get back to that innocence is by taking on projects that you've not really done before. ... We got this [effects] guy who had worked with Ridley Scott, and I don't think Ridley Scott tolerates fools. But I was very honest with him about what I was like: I didn't really know what I was talking about, but I would be passionate in saying what I wanted. My desire was stronger than my ability in terms of CG, and that's a good relationship to have."

So Danny Boyle is an obsessive and an optimist?

"You know all these things on a superficial level, and then you try to make the film while you're immersed in it," he said. Then he paused, his eyes telegraphing another aside. "Another thing we found out at CERN: In October, when they do hit these protons into each other, there is a small chance they'll create a black hole. And if there is a black hole created, then that's it. We're all finished." Boyle smiled. It figured.

Comments (1)

A series of deaths makes for a really, really boring movie.
Especially when it's hung on a series of plot holes you could drive the sun through.

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