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MOVIES | THE DIRECTOR'S CRAFT

Sweating it out on a sci-fi set

July 01, 2007|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

London — IN "Trainspotting," Danny Boyle turned junkies into charismatic antiheroes. With "28 Days Later," the British director transformed typically lumbering zombies into sprinting killers. In his new movie, "Sunshine," Boyle faced perhaps his greatest challenge yet: making weightless astronauts actually look ... weightless.

Just a few days into production on the science-fiction film at London's Three Mills Studios, Boyle was growing more exasperated by the minute. His film's astronauts, sent 50 years into the future to reignite the dying sun, were supposed to be carefully maneuvering outside their spacecraft. But the crane on which the actors' stunt doubles stood was jerking around like a '57 Chevy.

Still, it was an improvement over Boyle's first pass at a zero gravity a few days earlier. "That would have looked better if I had just carried the person in my arms," Boyle said of the subsequently discarded footage.

As his effects team labored to reset the crane, the Shakespearean theater director turned independent film darling tried to console his actors, who had been pacing around the London soundstage all morning. "My apologies," Boyle said to his film's costars, Cillian Murphy ("Batman Begins") and Hiroyuki Sanada ("The Last Samurai"). "I guarantee you we will do your scenes first thing tomorrow."

In the scheme of "Sunshine's" difficult production, that one-day delay would prove minor. From that frustrating morning in September 2005, Boyle would spend more than another full year working on "Sunshine," with Fox Searchlight having to reschedule the film's release not once but twice.

While he could not have imagined on that September day two years ago how challenging the film's special effects would be, Boyle seemed to sense the trouble ahead. A video team shooting interviews for the film's website stopped by, asking "Sunshine's" cast and crew what item they would bring into space. The 50-year-old Boyle had a succinct answer: "A noose."

Nearly two years later, "Sunshine" is finally finished -- and Boyle didn't quite kill himself making it (though he went about $5 million over budget).

If Boyle faced a difficult test in reproducing zero gravity, distributor Fox Searchlight now is confronted with an equally daunting trial. In a season filled with big-budget blockbusters on the high end and smaller, personal films on the low, the studio somehow must fit "Sunshine" in between.

Neither a glossy popcorn movie nor an intimate art film, "Sunshine," premiering tonight as the closing film of the Los Angeles Film Festival and opening in theaters July 20, occupies dangerous territory: it's a thinking-person's save-the-world film. Imagine "Armageddon" -- with good reviews.

Like much of Boyle's earlier work -- the Manchester-born filmmaker burst onto the scene with 1994's "Shallow Grave" and made "Trainspotting" two years later -- "Sunshine" is visually stylish and narratively idiosyncratic. His new film embraces some of the familiar beats of science fiction and tries to reformulate others. Where Boyle brought new urgency to the zombie genre with "28 Days Later," he delivers contemplative patience to "Sunshine."

"I think fans of original science fiction will really appreciate it," Steve Gilula, Fox Searchlight's distribution president, said of "Sunshine." "The question we had internally is, 'Can you release a "2001" in 2007?' We think there is an audience, but we don't want to minimize the challenges."

Together again

"SUNSHINE" marks a reunion between Boyle and novelist-screenwriter Alex Garland, the director's collaborator on both his biggest hit -- 2003's "28 Days Later" -- and his principal disappointment, 2000's "The Beach."

Both movies grossed about the same domestically, but "The Beach," adapted from Garland's novel of the same name, was a $50-million, post-"Titanic" Leonardo DiCaprio movie whose difficult production (and subdued reception) led Boyle to steer clear of sprawling, big-budget movies for a while.

But Hollywood kept calling, and after his "28 Days Later" and his saints and miracles fable "Millions" were behind him, Boyle was set to direct "3000 Degrees," a hefty Warner Bros. movie about a Massachusetts blaze in 1999 that killed six firefighters. But then that movie fell apart, as some of the victims' survivors and other firefighters opposed the production.

Around the same time, Garland's "Sunshine" script came in. "I knew it was a mission to the sun," Garland said of his initial "Sunshine" idea, "and that it was going to belong to the strand of science-fiction movies of the 1960s and '70s -- '2001,' 'Silent Running,' the original 'Solaris.' "

Those movies are anchored more by big ideas than big effects; the movies may be set in the cosmos, but space is used as much for mood as for drama.

"You go into deep space," said Garland, whose novels include "The Tesseract" and "The Coma," "and you encounter your subconscious."

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