“Trance” director Danny Boyle does not make a particular kind of film — he appears just as comfortable making a genre-bending zombie thriller as he does making a film a about saints, or drug addicts, or a last-ditch effort by astronauts to reignite the sun. Boyle actively butts heads with expectations and has done so since he made his directorial debut in 1994 with the dark comedy, “Shallow Grave.”
And yet, for a brief and recent period in his career, Boyle fell into a rare pattern when he made two films about individuals triumphing over unfathomable adversity. In 2009, “Slumdog Millionaire,” a triumphantly inspirational film that chronicles a young man's Horatio Alger story through his appearance on India's version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” won eight Oscars, including best picture and best director. He followed “Slumdog” with “127 Hours,” the true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston, who severed his arm with a dull utility knife in order to free himself from a rockslide. The film generated an Oscar nomination for star James Franco and mostly received rave reviews.
But in a recent phone interview, Boyle told The Oklahoman that it was time to shake things up a bit. And while his near future will involve revisiting the subject of one of his earliest films, he felt he needed to venture off into a new direction for “Trance.”
“You can become a certain kind of filmmaker,” Boyle said. “You make a couple of award-season films, and you kind of get locked in there. It's lovely to kind of let your hair down a bit, really, and kind of play.
“Obviously we did a couple of films which we were very lucky with, ‘Slumdog Millionaire' and ‘127 Hours,' that were lucky enough to get into the award season. And they were particular kinds of films, obviously, and we wanted to make a film for fun.”
But “Trance” is anything but a lark. A twisty experiment that melds elements of film noir, heist thrillers and science fiction, “Trance” follows crooked art auctioneer Simon (James McAvoy), whose audacious plan to steal a Francisco Goya painting takes him down a psychological rabbit hole in which hypnotic suggestion might be the only way out. The film, which also stars Rosario Dawson and Vincent Cassel, took Boyle into hard-edge emotional and visual territory at the same time he was directing his ambitious live production about the history of England for the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
“That was our day job, if you will,” Boyle said. “Then at night, when the moon came out, we made a dark, twisted thriller about what's happening to your mind. And believe me, when you're making the Olympic Opening Ceremony, you sometimes wonder what is happening to your mind.”
The origins of “Trance” go back to the time of “Shallow Grave,” when the story's original writer, Joe Ahearne, approached Boyle about doing a story about hypnosis and suggestibility. While Boyle was intrigued, he moved on to 1996's “Trainspotting,” the adaptation of Irvine Welsh's pitch-black novel about Scottish heroin addicts that launched Boyle into the directorial A-list.
Ahearne, a lead writer on the 2005 relaunch of “Doctor Who,” made a TV version of “Trance” in 2001, but once Boyle and his “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting” collaborator John Hodge, decided to re-explore the story, they saw an opportunity to explore many layers of consciousness and reality.
“Given that films are pretty trance-like anyway, of their nature, you could push that further and make a whole series of trances,” Boyle said.
As part of the research, Boyle and Hodge consulted with the British hypnotist Derren Brown, who Boyle had seen several times on stage and television. While Boyle declined to be hypnotized during preproduction, he learned from Brown that there is a small segment of humanity that can be put into deep trances. With the aid of cameras and assistants, Brown identifies the audience members who will go under with ease.
“In the early part of his show, through neurolinguistic suggestion, he is selecting the five to 10 percent of people in the audience who are highly suggestible,” Boyle said. “Sometimes you have to separate out the ‘X Factor' lunatic, who just wants to be on there for ‘America's Got Talent' purposes.”
But with the right people, hypnosis is entirely possible. “And in the wrong hands, it can make a very fine subject for a feature film,” Boyle said, laughing.
And now that “Trance” is in theaters, Boyle is circling another fine subject: a sequel to “Trainspotting.” While Welsh published a sequel titled “Porno” in 2002, Boyle said the new film will mostly use that novel as a jumping off point, and while it will likely feature Ewan McGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Ewan Bremner and Kelly Macdonald returning to their roles from the original film, they will be playing the same characters 20 years later.
“This is not a tease — it's a genuine ambition: to see if we can make a sequel to ‘Trainspotting,'” Boyle said. “‘T2' we're going to call it if James Cameron will allow us.”
Boyle said he feels a strong responsibility to make the film mean something. It's not just about checking in on some fan favorites, but really exploring what happens to a group of people when their youthful misdeeds start to wreak havoc on their 40-something bodies.
“You could make a quick copy of it, a quick sequel which is usually disappointing, but we really didn't have a reason for doing that,” Boyle said. “It is to take a serious look at time passing. The event we all go through in our lives in which time passes and what have you done with it? It's that journey from the headiness of them in their 20s, when they can sort of do almost anything to their bodies and get away with it, to their 40s when you cannot do that stuff anymore. Time catches up.
“People remember the names of these characters,” he said. “I mean, I cannot remember the names of some characters and I've made films about them, but everybody seems to remember Begbie, Sick Boy, Spud and Renton. They will look like 20 years have passed and the film will be about what they've done with their time, if you like.”