"Early on, I remember being accused of making films that were like MTV videos," says Oscar-winning, British director Danny Boyle, whose new film Trance premieres April 5th. "But I always loved MTV, so I didn't see it as anything to be ashamed of. I was quite proud of it, actually. Like, 'No, fuck off!' With the arrival of Walkmen and earbuds, the music was running in your head all the time." From the dance anthems of Trainspotting to the throbbing dread of 28 Days Later, the thumping M.I.A. of Slumdog Millionaire, and his jagged soundtrack for the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, Danny Boyle's career has had a bold pop backbeat. "Pop music has just become so much a part of our lives," says Boyle, 56, who grew up on the Beatles, then fell in love with Bowie and Zeppelin, punk, dance music and Britpop. "I emphasize that in the work because pop music refreshes us, it completes us, it renews us." Here he walks through his filmography's greatest hits.
"I didn't really know how to work with composers, so it was much more about records in the beginning," says Boyle. As the twisty noir ends, Ewan McGregor, knife stuck through his chest, grins sublimely as his blood drips down onto the stacks of money stashed between the floorboards. He grins, knowing his double-cross worked, as the soundtrack booms with Andy Williams corny old uplifting classic, "Happy Heart."
"You don't want to do anything too obvious. You're trying to find an extra irony, an extra delight," Boyle says. "That was a big track for my dad. He loved crooners. And, God's honest truth, we were hanging out in Glasgow where we did most of the shooting, and as we got into a black cab, the driver was playing it. That moment, as you get into the cab, you go, 'That's the end of the film.' You know. It's perfect. Despite what you're seeing, inside he's feeling, 'It's my happy heart,' and singing loud as he can."
Boyle's 1996 breakthrough about Scottish junkies opens with a messy, thumping blast of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life." "There's actually an amazing scene in the [Irvine Welsh] novel where they go to watch Iggy in concert," says Boyle. "And they have that moment where you're there and he looks straight at you. We've all had that. And it begins with that because the book was written over many years, and you can feel the hinterland of music changing behind it. We wanted the soundscape of the film to feel like it was covering these eras. So it starts with 'Lust for Life' and then it goes through punk, and then it ends up with Britpop and dance music."
"'Perfect Day' was known as such a sublime, beautiful song, which it clearly is, so there's no point in trying to reemphasize that directly," says Boyle. "So we thought we'd do the opposite of that and use it completely ironically in the grimiest part of the estates of Scotland in the worst moment of the overdose scene. We carry these songs with us. So you try and say: I know it's in your head. But try and see your favorite, favorite song used like this. Go on, then . . . "
In Trainspotting's final scene, Ewan McGregor's character carefully lifts a bag of money from a sleeping sociopath's hands. "If you were scoring that conventionally, you wouldn't be able to hear a pin drop as he lifts the bag up and steals it," says Boyle. "Instead you've got this beat like his heart is beating at that moment." That song, Underworld's "Born Slippy," the ".NUXX" mix, became a chart-topping phenomenon despite its origins as an obscure B-side, when Boyle discovered the single in an HMV record store.
"I was using Underworld's album Dubnobass as the rhythm of the film but I thought, 'That's weird, that's not on their album.' You do come across these moments where you [find] bands don't realize what their strongest tune is. They thought it was a bit cheap, 'cause they were doing these 10- or 11-minute cool tracks, and here was this chant song with a big beat. It went mad. We had an anthem, which appeared in all the clubs and was remixed to hell. And that was perfect. The film wasn't really about heroin. It was about club culture. The film's rhythms are more about ecstasy. And that track just builds to that explosion of sudden delight."
"I decided to use it for this key moment of [Leonardo DiCaprio and pals] discovering the actual beach itself," says Boyle. "And it was a bit of a clash with my composer, Angelo Badalamenti, because I picked that song over his score to illustrate that major moment, and that's very cruel on a composer, and wrong. And it's illustrative of how I hadn't yet learned the language of composition and be able to trust it. I just preferred the Moby."
To score the gathering sense of post-apocalyptic terror and dread in his fast-moving horror film 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle collaborated with John Murphy, who would go on to score Millions and Sunshine. "It comes from Wagner," says Boyle. "All these big, swelling, slightly atonal pieces that are kind of dissonant but actually building. And a lot came out of my discovery of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and their song, 'East Hastings,' which we used at the beginning of 28 Days Later. It's got this very slow build and then explosive things come out of it. I love that dynamic. There's something beautiful about the way a very quiet beginning opens your ears in a film. If you sustain that for a while, you open up the audience's ears, and then they are vulnerable and open and you can charge in there, you know. You can make people feel loud, as well."
"We had 'Hitsville U.K.' at the end of 28 Days Later, actually, and there's a couple of times when I've been ashamed I've let the industry manipulate my taste. We got talked out of using it because they promised to release the CD as an album if we used this other song by Blue States. I always regretted that. So I put 'Hitsville U.K.' in Millions in a key section where the kids have got money and influence at school and feel like heroes. Right around then, Joe Strummer had died, and I felt very grief-stricken about it. Britain has always been so much better at music than film. What we're good at is, kids get together and make a band. British music is defiantly idiosyncratic. It's not fashionable. And it really is unafraid. That song represents that for me."
"My daughter sent 'Paper Planes' to me, early. And it was perfect. M.I.A. said, 'No, you can’t just use it. I want to see how you’ll use it.' And she's very smart. She gave us two or three notes on the film, which had nothing to do with the music. And she worked with A.R. Rahman, who did the rest of the score, and is like Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna and Beyoncé all wrapped up in one in South India. They wrote 'O Saya' together and were nominated for an Oscar, and that was just incredible."
Hiker Aaron Ralston's favorite band was Phish. He was so obsessed that in the movie, Boyle has Kate Mara look into James Franco's camcorder and say, "Aaron, you're never going to get a girlfriend if you keep singing Phish lyrics." But Boyle just couldn't bear to include a Phish track. "Listen, I tried listening to Phish out of respect to Aaron," he says. "I listened to it endlessly, continually. But I just thought, I can't. So I didn't. And then we were scouting locations in a truck, and Suttirat Larlarb, the designer on the film, was playing Free Blood, and it drives you into the beginning of the film. It's seriously quirky, like Aaron."
Boyle's latest film, a twisty, mind-bending thriller starring James McAvoy and Vincent Cassell as art thieves and Rosario Dawson as a mind-bending hypnotherapist, begins with a high-octane art heist, scored by Boyle's frequent collaborator, Rick Smith (who also supervised the music for the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony). "Because of the nature of hypnotism, which lures you into a sleepy state, there's a danger the film gets somnambulant and you doze off. It was up to Rick to try and score these trances as you go deeper but not make the audience fall asleep. So the instruction with Rick was always to really drive it. There are these reassuring counterpoints with songs by Moby and a bit of fun with Bowie sampled by U.N.K.L.E., but there are twists, which I don't want to spoil, so Rick's score was really about propelling you through this gathering darkness. And then Rick wrote a song at the end with Emeli Sandé, who worked with Rick in our Olympic opening ceremony. It's a love song, a Hollywood ending after all the darkness, to give you a little hope in the end."