Posted April 10, 2013 by Jeff in Flicks

Danny Boyle: Playing with perception in ‘Trance’

Director Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) has a host of great movies to his credit. Following 127 Hours, his 2010 film about a rock climber who cuts off his own arm to survive, Trance is yet another work of art. The visually provocative thriller stars James McAvoy as a thief who can’t remember where he put a stolen painting. He seeks the help of a beautiful therapist (Rosario Dawson) as he attempts to retrace his steps and find it before his crime lord boss (Vincent Cassel) has him killed. We recently spoke to Boyle via phone about the movie. Here’s what he had to say.

You signed to do this film about the same time that you started work on 127 Hours. Talk about what first drew you to the story.
We’ve been very lucky. Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours have serious redemptive themes. We wanted to make a thriller for fun. We wanted to make a mind-bending bit of fun where the deliciousness of the thriller genre and subgenres are rolled together. We were involved with the Olympics over a long period, which is an important responsibility. It’s a national celebration and family friendly. It’s nice to go to the dark side and deliver a film in which the woman is the ingénue. I’ve never done that. The idea of trance in a movie was appealing, too. It’s lovely that all movies are like that to a degree and this movie has trances within trances.

Talk about the three main actors and what each one brings to the movie.
We wanted it to be three great parts and get three actors and let them fight it out. What was attractive about the film to them was that they started in a place you might be familiar with and change–especially Vincent Cassel who seems like a tough guy in the beginning but by the end is vulnerable. He’s like a kid. McAvoy is the perfect narrator early on. He has a voiceover and looks in the camera and builds a relationship with you, but turns out to be the most unreliable narrator. He goes on a huge journey and discovers himself. Rosario Dawson of course looks like a professional bystander who is brought in to advise. She played that role in Unstoppable. She’s brought in to provide a bit of authority. She turns out to be in the engine room. They were brilliant, super bright all three of them, which is what you had to be because of the whole process of leaving clues and when to leave them and not leave them. Rosario is very underrated. Not underrated, but underused. There aren’t that many roles like that.

You can create that fictional bubble that people sit inside. In this film, there’s no police and no one is interested in talking to their relatives.

What was it like shooting in London? How does the setting work as a character in the film?
We originally were going to shoot in New York. But it could be set in any big city. You can create that fictional bubble that people sit inside. In this film, there’s no police and no one is interested in talking to their relatives. They’re locked inside a bubble of their own making. Cities have that. Any big city has that really. It’s got the potential of crime and anonymity.

It seems as though at some point the story would become incoherent. Is the fact that it doesn’t  a testament to the script?
You’re messing with someone’s perception and reducing the differential between illusion and reality for the characters and also for the audience. We had a chronology and if you saw it in chronological order, it makes absolute sense. You disguise where you’re trying to make sure people don’t get ahead of you. You have these two forces. You want to make sure there is something there. It can be as simple as a look that you don’t understand at the time. But if you went back and watched it again, you would understand what that look meant.

The movie has hypnosis as its theme and it’s also very hypnotic in the way it’s structured. What did you do to create the trance-like quality that it has?
Normally, you would not admit this. When you make a film, sometimes you make all the decisions you need to make. Sometimes, they’re based on the social realism of the character. In this case, we made every decision with an eye on seducing you as if you’re in a chair being worked on.

But you decided not to shoot in 3-D.
I’m not a big 3-D fan because I wear glasses anyway. It’s a nightmare when I go to see a 3-D movie. I’m being facetious, but I’m not personally drawn to 3-D. I like making the flat process as visceral and vivid as possible. I like the effect of 3-D without it being literally 3-D.

What role did Rick Smith’s score play in bringing about that sensation?
He’s amazing; our philosophy to have a mixture of songs. They were like little oases, like a memory. They were like a refuge because the rest of the score was about pulling you into the darkness that’s developing as Simon’s mind is revealed and it’s pulling you deeper and deeper into that with the occasional respite before the inexorable revelations of his mind. It starts out with a track that has a David Bowie sample in it that’s luring you into the film. The score is actually telling you what is going on, which is a gathering storm really.

You have a great track record. Talk about your work ethic and approach to film-making and what you do to ensure that the final product is up to your standards.
You’re lucky to work. We deliberately cap the money we work for. The cap is $20 million. This one cost $15 million. Limitations are freedom. It can be frustrating, but it’s a lot of money anyway and our mission is to make that look like $100 million. I love that. That’s constantly making everyone in the film strive for something. You try to make everyone deliver something more than they do. You’re hoping that that will continue. Everything we made apart from The Beach has been true to that philosophy. When you have some success, you can dictate a scenario. It’s ambitious but responsible and we can make that part of the delight of the film.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].