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MOVIES / THE DIRECTOR'S CRAFT

The answer man

Danny Boyle finds solutions to the challenges of filming 'Slumdog Millionaire' in Mumbai.

November 09, 2008|John Horn | Horn is a Times staff writer.

Danny Boyle wasn't yet done with the Taj Mahal, but the Taj Mahal was done with him.

The British director needed to grab a few more shots inside the Indian landmark for his new movie "Slumdog Millionaire," a drama about the remarkable life story of an orphan from Mumbai's slums. Yet the production was no longer welcome. "The people who were helping us there," Boyle says, "didn't help us."

Some directors would have moved on and made do with what they had in the can. Others might have scouted another location. A few might have called up a special effects house to re-create the palace in a computer. Yet Boyle rarely has followed custom, and the outside-the-box thinking that has yielded his eclectic filmography also helped Boyle and his "Slumdog Millionaire" team conjure up a novel solution -- they sent in a fake documentary crew to get the footage.

"I can't remember if they posed as Indian or German or a mixture of both," Boyle says of the "Slumdog Millionaire" team sent to the Taj Mahal. The trick was picking production members who hadn't been there the first time so they wouldn't be recognized by security. "We had to do a little bit of stealth," Boyle says.

Boyle ultimately got what he needed, yet that was hardly the only impediment he faced in making the movie for half a year in and around Mumbai, India, one of the world's most populous cities.

While casting the film, Boyle and his Indian co-director, Loveleen Tandan, decided that the movie's first third should be in Hindi, rather than mostly English, jarring news for his French and American backers who knew that foreign-language films don't usually perform very well at the box office. Later, running low on funds, he had to abandon a planned monsoon sequence. And then, just as filming wrapped, U.S. distributor Warner Independent Pictures was shut down by Warner Bros., and the parent studio briefly considered releasing "Slumdog Millionaire" straight to video before Fox Searchlight came to the film's rescue.

At its heart, the film is a story of fate, and just as Boyle and his crew were swept up by Mumbai's whatever-it-takes spirit, the film's optimistic story line somehow altered "Slumdog Millionaire's" destiny. "If you trust it," Boyle is fond of saying about working in Mumbai, "it will come back to you."

And that's exactly what has happened to the movie. "Slumdog Millionaire" not only found a new distributor (Fox Searchlight, which is releasing the film Wednesday, is sharing costs and proceeds with Warner Bros.) but also is one of the holiday movie period's best-reviewed titles.

After premiering at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day, "Slumdog Millionaire" also played at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the festival's People's Choice Award, an honor previously bestowed on "American Beauty" and "Chariots of Fire."

For those familiar with Boyle's filmography, it's not an entirely surprising outcome, given the 52-year-old director's remarkable artistic range. He has made a zombie flick ("28 Days Later"), a children's fantasy ("Millions"), a sci-fi thriller ("Sunshine"), two big star vehicles (Leonardo DiCaprio's "The Beach" and Cameron Diaz's "A Life Less Ordinary") and an often horrific, often hilarious, sad, sick and ultimately impossible-to-categorize drug story ("Trainspotting").

As varied as all of those films have been, they are inherently united by Boyle's fanciful vision, unexpected images in unexpected places: babies crawling on ceilings, houses materializing out of thin air, flesh-eating monsters running like Olympic sprinters.

"I always try to make films intense -- intensely pleasurable or intensely frightening or intensely joyful," Boyle says. "Intensity is something I go for. That's how I judge things."

There's plenty of intensity in the R-rated "Slumdog Millionaire," too, including a few brief but troubling scenes of torture, a glimpse of teenage prostitution and some terrible cruelty to homeless children. But amid the heartache there's something else that's not always so obvious in Boyle's other movies: naturalism.

Even though "Slumdog Millionaire" is a work of fiction, it feels so consistently real that some early audience members are convinced it's based on a true story.

Freely adapted by Simon Beaufoy ("The Full Monty") from Vikas Swarup's novel "Q & A," "Slumdog Millionaire" tracks the life of Jamal Malik, an impoverished orphan living in Mumbai's sprawling slums, in which half of the city's 16 million residents live. As a child, Jamal (played as a teen by Dev Patel) meets Latika (played as a teen by Freida Pinto), a fellow Indian street urchin.

Jamal's childhood travels are filled with memorable encounters, not all of them pleasant. Those experiences shape Jamal into a romantic dreamer determined to be reunited with Latika and a savant possessing a wealth of seemingly inconsequential pop culture knowledge.

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