Danny Boyle Explores Hypnotism in ‘Trance’
Director Danny Boyle on the set of "TRANCE." ©Fox Searchlight. CR: Susie Allnutt.

Director Danny Boyle on the set of “TRANCE.” ©Fox Searchlight. CR: Susie Allnutt.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Danny Boyle is an unstoppable multi-tasker. While preparing 2012’s elaborate opening ceremony for the London Olympic Games, the Academy Award winning filmmaker (“Slumdog Millionaire”) used his down time to make a movie, the dreamlike sci-fi thriller “Trance.”

“We decided it was the perfect opportunity to make a film during all the committee stages,” the gregarious Londoner recalls. “It was kind of my sabbatical.”

James McAvoy (“X-Men: First Class,” “Atonement”) stars as a fine art auctioneer, who teams up with a criminal gang to steal a Goya painting worth millions of dollars. After suffering a blow to the head after a brazen heist during an auction, McAvoy’s Simon awakens to discover he has forgotten where he hid the painting. That displeases his boss, a ruthless gang leader named Franck (played by Vincent Cassel), who after contemplating killing his bungling accomplice instead hires a hypnotherapist named Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) to delve into the darkest recesses of Simon’s psyche. As Elizabeth probes into Simon’s fractured subconscious, the lines between truth, suggestion and deceit start to blur.

Though “Trance” originally was set in New York in Joe Ahearne and John Hodge’s script, Boyle opted to move the action to London so he could work on the film on the days he wasn’t overseeing the complex logistics of creating a grand program to kick off the international athletic event. Obviously, the bespectacled Brit has a lot of stamina and enjoys a good challenge.

Boyle, 56, recently spoke about making “Trance” and his plans to revisit “Trainspotting,” his acclaimed 1996 black comedy based on the Irvine Welsh novel, with a sequel.

Q: “Trace” is reminiscent of some of Christopher Nolan’s complex and multilayered films that jump around in time. How many times do you think moviegoers will have to see this before they figure out what’s really going on?

Boyle: I love that kind of puzzle in a movie. Of course, it makes you think about “Memento,” but what Chris says about his movie is that he invokes (the films of) Nicolas Roeg, who also is one of my favorites. Of course, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean were amazing but, for me, our greatest director was Nicolas Roeg. He does that thing where he takes time present, time past and time future and it just floats in front of you with no differentiation. There’s no sepia color or other camera tricks to let you know where you are. The viewer has to work it out himself. So when you make a film (involving past, present and future), it’s got to stand up on second viewing. In the first cut, we had no clues (about delving back into Simon’s past) because we were paranoid about giving it all away. Gradually, I realized I had to allow some clues seep in so the audience starts to think if they watch it again, they’ll be able to follow it. So twice is the short answer.

Q: Why did you set this London?

Boyle: Originally we were going to (shoot) it in Manhattan, with an English actress playing Elizabeth. We always wanted Elizabeth to come from the other side of the ocean so she wouldn’t have anyone to fall back on. Then I got involved in the Olympic Games opening ceremony it meant we had to shoot (the film) in London. The truth is, the city didn’t matter. It could have been any large anonymous city so we moved the production to London and started looking at American actresses for the part of Elizabeth.

Q: How did you cast Rosario Dawson?

Boyle: I’d met Rosario a long time ago on a film that never happened. It was around the time she did “Men in Black II.” had watched her since then and thought of her as a fantastic actress who wasn’t playing big enough parts. So we cast her and she was fantastic.

Q: How about James McAvoy? This role is a departure from his previous work.

Boyle: I worried at first that he was too young for the part but I met him and I could see that he’s changing now. He’s 33, so he’s looking (more mature). He’s playing “Macbeth” at the moment (on stage at London’s Trafalgar Studios) and he’s keen to do darker stuff. So this part was great for him. His character starts out slightly boyish, and then things happen to him.

Q: What can you say about French actor Vincent Cassel, who plays the gangster boss?

Boyle: All I can tell you about him is he’s one of the world’s greatest actors. He’s acting not in his native language. We know him as playing gangsters so casting him as a gangster was a way to fool (the audience). Sure, he’s a bad guy, but by the end of the film, he’s some forlorn, love struck 40-year-old who doesn’t know what’s happening. We flip all the characters over the course of the film so audiences think they know what they’re getting but it’s not quite it.

Q: What can you say about the soundtrack for this movie?

Boyle: I remember when (David Lynch’s) “Blue Velvet” came out. I wasn’t making movies yet but after seeing that I thought you have to have a great song in a movie. In this film, that song is “Sandman,” which is sung by Kirsty McGee. It’s not well known but you hear it during the film. We did a second version of it with Rosario singing bits and pieces of it throughout the movie. So I worked with Rick (Smith) from Underworld. We’d worked together again on a number of films since (1996’s) “Trainspotting.” We’ve worked on (the 2011 stage musical) “Frankenstein,” the Olympics opening ceremony and “Trance.” You need a good score in a movie like this because all the hypnosis stuff is lulling you throughout. He used this motif of driving it along to keep up the momentum.

Q: How were you able to work on the Olympics while you were making this?

Boyle: We worked two days a week on the Olympics, Thursday and Friday, and then we’d shoot “Trance” Saturday through Wednesday.

Q: You see Rosario naked in this but there’s no male nudity. Why?

Boyle: Her (nudity) is a plot point. You can’t cut it or change it. In fact, when we were auditioning actresses for the part, I made it absolutely clear (nudity) was not negotiable. When she takes Simon (McAvoy) into a trance, sometimes she uses the lost paintings (being found) to make him feel secure and happy but (for in her nude scene) she uses the secret that only the two of them know. We tried to balance out (Dawson’s nudity) with lots of James’ butt and then we have Vincent running after her naked after they’ve made love. You can see him (full frontal) in the mirror.

Q: Have you ever been hypnotized or would you even want to?

Boyle: I’m a bit of control freak really, so probably not. I don’t think I’d like to know. It was interesting researching hypnotism. About 5-15 percent of the population are highly suggestible. They’re known as virtuosos. If they get into a trance, they will do things— as they do in our film—that are ethically dubious but clinically possible.

Q: What do you supposed will happen if virtuosos watch your film?

Boyle: I don’t know. (He chuckles.)

Q: Did your actors go through a trance?

Boyle: Rosario did some research on it and we had a hypnotist come in to rehearsal. He relaxed James and Vincent, but they didn’t really go under. A lot of actors are believed to be suggestible because its part of their imaginative, professional life.

Q: Can you talk about the sequel to “Trainspotting?”

Boyle: It will be set 20 years later, which is 2016. The original was a popular film but rather than do a quick cash in, I wanted use the idea of a sequel imaginatively. Usually, people can’t remember the names of movie characters, but (with “Trainspotting”) people remember the names—Begbie, Spud, Sick Boy and Renton— and they identify them and with these actors. I’m sure some days these actors (Robert Carlyle, Ewan Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Ewan McGregor) regret it because people still ask them about their characters from the movie. So I thought we can use that when their characters are 20 years older. These guys took enormous risks with their health with what they ate and did then and how that affects them when they’re 40. It will be doubly reflective because the actors will have aged and the characters still will be locked inside their world in (working class) Edinburgh and the audience also has aged.

Q: Are all the actors on board for returning?

Boyle: Not yet. We’ve got to get the script right. They will only do it if they feel the script’s good enough. They’ll have to make their own decisions but we won’t do it if we can’t get them all. Then it becomes an event.

Q: Who’s writing it?

Boyle: (Screenwriter) John Hodge has done an exploratory draft of it.

Q: Could there be an art heist like the attempt we see in this movie?

Boyle: The older auctioneer you see in the film is one of Sotheby’s senior auctioneers. He gave us lots of advice. We heard how they protect (the art from thieves). It’s weird with stolen paintings because you can’t sell them openly so. There’s this myth that there’s some evil tycoon who wants a certain painting in his bunker so only he can look at it but the reality is stolen paintings are currency used by gangs because they’re easier to move around than large sums of money or gold. What happens is the insurance companies have art detectives to find them and do a deal to recover the painting. They will give maybe 10 percent of the payout to the gang to get the painting back. Nobody loses, because once a painting is stolen it accrues value. It goes up 10-20 percent. The Rembrandts we feature, like the Storm on the Sea of Galilee is the Holy Grail, if you could find it. A lot of people think it’s destroyed because it’s never turned up and its value is incalculable.