Danny Boyle Talks ‘Trance’, Fine Art, and Directing

FanBolt had the pleasure of talking with award-winning director Danny Boyle about his new film Trance. The film is out in theaters today, and we got the lowdown on everything from the how choreographing the opening ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics affected the film to how the art in the film was selected, and so much more! Check out our interview with Danny Boyle below!

I can’t see that this film could’ve been made without Dod Mantle.

Danny Boyle: Yes! He’s great! Anthony is a fantastic cinematographer. We have a long relationship now, and there’s something wonderful about that. There’s so many corners you can cut, and you don’t have to speak very much to each other anymore. You sort of know.

How did you go about selecting the cast for this project?

Danny Boyle: The thing about this that’s interesting about this project is that I don’t normally work with three really established, experienced actors like this, but it was the kind of script where you needed it. And it was fantastic to get them, and I think Rosario Dawson is very, very underrated. It’s a problem for all actresses, I think. So many of them have talent, and there aren’t the parts to go around. James McAvoy… I’ve always thought he was maybe a bit too young for this, but he was amazing because he’s growing up. He’s 31 now. And Cassel is, for me, one of the world’s greatest actors. So that was amazing and kind of different. Usually, I cast a bit younger and less well known, you know? But I really enjoyed it, actually, working with them. They’re smart, the three of them. It is a complicated story, and they have to keep a grip on it themselves, which they did.

There’s such a great play with color, with the use of mirrors, glass, the whole duplicitous state. How did you go about developing the whole visual tone of the film?

Danny Boyle: So you start off thinking about how can we send an unconscious signal to the audience not to believe exactly what they’re seeing. And, of course, you do that through reflections, natural reflections, which nobody thinks about until they’re broke. Because a mirror is a very natural thing, or a glass surface. But you begin to pick up, you begin to assemble this baggage that you’re seeing double and triple. It’s kind of telling you, subconsciously, “That’s not the only story. There’s other things going on here.” The biggest thing we used was the iPad, because that’s a highly reflective surface that you can see yourself in. Also, for a modern young professional like James McAvoy in the story, it’s kind of a place that you entrust secrets to… Your intimate life to. This is why she uses it, because you can control it. You can turn it off, you can move it backwards, whip it forwards. It’s all those kind of things, and that felt like a lovely addition to the reflective surface idea. And also, it is weird, cause Samsung yesterday released this phone that’s watching you. And if you take you eyeball off it, it switches off. And that’s really weird! Where are we going? Because that’s obviously just a starting point.

How did stepping away from the project to do the Olympics and then coming back affect the end result?

Danny Boyle: I think we were very lucky to be able to do it. Very, very few people ever get the chance. It’s usually based on an actor’s changing shape, like Tom Hanks in Castaway and De Niro in Raging Bull, famously. Very, very rare that you get the chance put the material, once you’ve shot it, in storage for six or eight months. I think it helped us a lot in this, because when we came back to it, I was surprised to see I’d forgotten it. Cause normally, as a director, you’re over familiar with the material you’re working with. You know everything about it. And ironically, you’re not that well qualified to prepare it for someone who’s just going to see it once. Because you know everything about it, and you’re showing it to people who know nothing about it. That’s a weird kind thing, but in this case, you’ve got a little glimpse of what it was like to see it for the first time. And when we looked at it, we realized we needed to put more clues in. Cause one of the things you do when you’re making a film with secrets is you’re paranoid. You hide everything. It’s like, you give no clues at all, because you think you’ll give it away. You think the merest look… “No! No! They’ll guess!” But, of course, the reality is you need to give them clues. So we started putting in stuff in the edit.

So for instance, there’s the bit where he’s knocking on glass. And we cut that in early as a motif running through it to give people a clue about it. It’s like he knows there’s something wrong; it’s not quite what it seems. We did stuff like that, and that was as a result of being able to wait, come back to it fresh, and go, “Oh, people are going to need a few more clues than that.” So it did help.

How conscious was the decision to go with Goya’s “Witches in the Air” as a kick off? That is just, like the movie, so rooted in reality, but it has this whole supernatural, metaphysical control, much like the painting does.

Danny Boyle: Yeah, it’s surreal. In the original script, the painting really isn’t nominated. So it was a wonderful opportunity. We did all the research about the lost paintings, and the other ones you see are all lost. They’re all stolen, they’re all absent. The most famous one is the Rembrandt and “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.” But we decided not to use a lost one, so we thought we’d have one that isn’t lost yet, but gets stolen. So we then went straight to Goya, because Goya, as we try to say in the film, is the first, great modernist. He’s the first guy who paints the inside of the mind. He’s the first great psychological painter. Up until then, people painted portraits or landscapes, surface values. They could be, incisive and brilliant analyses of people, but they were the surface, really. And he went inside the bull ring, is what they always said about him, and he painted in there. He’s all madness. He was illustrating his own madness. So it’s a wonderful place. We picked that particular one for a couple of reasons. One was there was an image of a guy, like, under a blanket, and that for us was Simon, James McAvoy’s character. He’s sort of lost and not seeing everything, you know? And that was that. The other reason was the witches in the air above him, which was this surreal image that could be interpreted in many different ways.

You’re right. All the films that I make are realistic; they’re not abstract, but you try and have the realism stretch so tight that it’s slightly heightened. And it allows you, then, to jump into the surreal, into a half head, or into a guy disappearing down a toilet, you know. Which are surreal images. They’re not real, but they’re like, “What?” And it’s because you heightened the realism. We always use this expression, and you get it through the acting. It’s the actors who give it to you. They’re not doing the “do nothing” acting. It’s like they’re humming, and then you can leap off that, and it helps you get the surreal, without it feeling stupid.

And hand-in-hand, that is the neurolinguistic programming that you incorporate into this with Rosario’s character. How difficult was it to get that cadence, that rhythm, and that sound design with it?

Danny Boyle: There is another version of this film, because what she had to learn, the speeches. Each trance that you see, she’s actually dictating. She’s talking him through it. In fact, what happens in the movie, is that we cut to — we visualize it, so you see the French countryside. We go and film there. But, in fact, there is a version of the film where you don’t see the French countryside, she just talks you through it. She was amazing at that. It was very cruel, because she had to learn pages of stuff. We would film the whole thing, because I’d only decide in editing which bit we would use — if we ever did cut back to her actually dictating the trance. Most of the time you don’t hear her voice. You hear it occasionally, but she was very, very good at it. She found a beautiful rhythm for it. Since it is word based it’s more like a radio play in a way, but where the audience is doing the imagining themselves. We take you to the French countryside or, to whatever it is, whatever trance it is that she’s suggesting he’s on, and if you saw it, I think if you kept to it, obviously, it would give it away eventually.

Interview By: Emma Loggins

Trance is out in limited release today! Check out their official site for more details!


  1. Thanks for the interview, Trance sounds fascinating. I love the insight into movie making and the thought and planning that goes into each scene individually, editing and the film as a whole. I was all but oblivious to most of this back in the day and it makes media so much more interesting. Thanks for the great site!

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