Danny Boyle’s triumphant “Slumdog Millionaire” is a testament to the power of underdog tales, onscreen and off.
This inspirational story about an Indian 18-year-old who wins millions on that country’s version of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” has become this season’s out-of-nowhere buzz film. Despite featuring no-name stars (at least in the U.S.), with about a third of its dialogue in subtitled Hindi, the movie has received raves and film festival awards while generating best-picture Oscar talk the way “Juno” did a year ago.
Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan
Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan
(Fox Searchlight; US theatrical: 12 Nov 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 9 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
Yet two months ago, Boyle not only didn’t think his film would be in the Oscar race, he doubted it even would get released in the U.S. Warner Independent Pictures had co-financed the movie along with some European companies and planned to distribute it in North America - until Warner Brothers shut down its specialized subsidiary in May. The parent company, which basically declared it was abandoning the small-films market, wasn’t interested in releasing “Slumdog Millionaire,” so the movie appeared bound to go straight to DVD.
“Eight weeks ago, it looked like we were dead in terms of North America,” said Boyle, the 52-year-old London-based director of such energetic fare as “Trainspotting” and “28 Days Later ...” “It’s just, like, forget it.”
But toward summer’s end, Warners showed the film to Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice, who had overseen the distribution of Boyle’s previous films, going all the way back to “A Life Less Ordinary” (1997).
“It’s so propulsive,” Rice said. “It just takes you on this incredible journey, and it’s so emotional and so unique and ultimately satisfying on a humanity level.
The lights came up, and everyone in the company was, like, ‘We have to be involved in this movie.’”
Perhaps because Rice was so enthusiastic, Warners opted to keep half of “Slumdog” while selling the other half to Fox Searchlight, which took charge of the release. A couple of weeks later, the film received a rapturous reception at the Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals, the latter of which awarded “Slumdog Millionaire” its top audience prize. Writing out of Telluride, the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern declared: “There’s never been anything like this densely detailed phantasmagoria - groundbreaking in substance, damned near earth-shaking in style.” Fox Searchlight quickly announced a November release date and rushed to drum up publicity, which sent the affable Boyle crisscrossing the country, with a stop at the Chicago International Film Festival (which gave “Slumdog” another audience award) followed by San Francisco that evening and Boston the following day.
“I think they rely on the fact that I don’t really know the geography in America,” a laughing Boyle said of his not-quite-logical travel itinerary while enjoying an Indian-Brazilian fusion lunch.
Festival audiences made Boyle realize that his film has a natural appeal in the U.S. “It’s the underdog, just classic American, isn’t it?” he said. “You can battle through. You can make it. There’s nothing absolutely intractable against you. And then there’s the warmth thing, which is that this place loves a warm film.”
“Slumdog Millionaire” also presents a vibrant new world through the familiar prism of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.” The show’s format is the same, but how orphan Jamal (Dev Patel) gets to that point - growing up in the slums of Mumbai and becoming involved in a plot that involves gangsters, brotherly loyalty and, of course, a girl - is eye-opening.
Boyle had never even been to India before signing on to direct “The Full Monty” writer Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay based on Vikas Swarup’s novel “Q&A.”
Working with an Indian co-director, Loveleen Tandan, Boyle soon realized that he had to adapt to the freewheeling ways of his Indian crew rather than listen to the Westerners he had brought with him.
“You learn really fast that you’re not going to be able to work like you normally work,” he said. “You cannot be controlled, which is usually what you’re setting out to do, and if you come rigidly expecting or wanting that control, you’re not going to get anywhere, because it just evades you.”
Boyle shot most of the movie on small digital cameras that captured the environment’s immediacy while enabling the director and crew to move through neighborhoods with little disruption. Around the Taj Mahal, which prohibits video cameras, they used a Canon still camera that shoots 12 frames per second. Boyle embraced the spontaneity.
“You’ve got a script you’re going to shoot, but you try and make the decisions on the day,” he said. “It doesn’t always work, but when it does work, that’s the best bit, when you feel something new that you’d never thought of before.”
He was enjoying himself so much that he found himself working on off days with the second unit. “They did have to drag me away at the end,” he said. “All the Western crew left, and I stayed. I kept filming with this other crew. Eventually the producer went home.”
The experience confirmed for Boyle what he already sensed after the disappointing reception for “The Beach” years ago. With that film, he had $55 million to spend and no idea how. With “Slumdog Millionaire” he had to innovate on the fly.
“I’m much better not having everything I want,” he said with laugh, “and then I find a way of getting it if I can.”
Everyone loves a rags-to riches story, after all.