Vincent Cassel, left, Rosario Dawson and Danny Boyle at the Four Seasons… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
LONDON — From the rooftop where he was filming a scene for his art heist film "Trance" in September 2011, British director Danny Boyle surveyed the construction cranes stretching across the east London skyline, finishing work for the capital's upcoming Summer Olympics.
Boyle, perhaps best known as the man behind the Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire," pointed out the neighborhood where athletes would stay, the sites of new sports facilities and the location of the opening ceremony.
It was not idle boosterism, for as soon as he wrapped principal photography on "Trance," Boyle would put the movie down like a baby on an epic nap. He and his creative team would then go off to stage the launch of the 2012 Summer Games — a creative celebration of British history, including a parachuting queen of England, a tribute to the National Health Service and an eclectic playlist with songs by the Sex Pistols, Pink Floyd and Arctic Monkeys.
PHOTOS: Hollywood backlot moments
"We tucked [the film] up in bed and said, 'Night, night,'" Boyle said. When he returned to "Trance" about half a year later, though, he was surprised that he scarcely recognized what he had left in the crib. Given that the movie — about a robber with a brain injury who can't remember where he stashed a stolen masterpiece — is principally concerned with memory, it was a fitting twist.
"At first I thought, I'll never forget it — the way you do when you finish filming: You remember everything," Boyle said recently while visiting Los Angeles. "But by the time we got back to the movie, I had forgotten it. The first time we watched it, after we regrouped after the Olympics, it was bizarre — I didn't know what was coming next. I didn't know that was possible."
That unfamiliarity proved to be a blessing, because "Trance" — which hits theaters April 5 — is rather complicated. The hiatus helped Boyle see not only where the movie wasn't lucid but also where it was too obvious. And perhaps most important, he discovered that it needed a new ending.
Soon after "Trance" begins, a seemingly lily-white auctioneer named Simon (James McAvoy) is revealed to be the inside man in the robbery of a Goya. Struck on the head during the heist, Simon can't recollect for ringleader Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his gang of thieves where he hid the canvas.
Franck decides that hypnotist Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson) could jog Simon's memory, and it turns out that Simon is highly susceptible to trances. What Elizabeth uncovers in her sessions with Simon may have less to do with the painting's whereabouts than her subject's suppressed personal history.
Planting a seed
Boyle, 56, had been ruminating on "Trance" for nearly 20 years; soon after he made the crime thriller "Shallow Grave" in 1994, screenwriter Joe Ahearne sent the director his "Trance" screenplay. Oddly, Ahearne didn't want Boyle behind the camera — he was hoping for his encouragement. But Boyle wasn't sure Ahearne, who hadn't directed anything at the time, was ready for such a complex tale. "It's quite difficult to do this," Boyle told Ahearne.
Ahearne ultimately made the script into a television movie in 2001. But the screenplay's central conceit and title lodged deep in Boyle's mind and bubbled up two decades later.
PHOTOS: Movies Sneaks 2013
Boyle said he was smitten as much by the genre — he's moved from zombie tales to Bollywood to biographical drama — as by the fact that its protagonist was not a man. "I have two daughters who are in their 20s now, and I had never made a movie where the woman was the absolute engine of the movie," Boyle said. "And I loved that challenge, because I make boys movies, really."
After a screenplay overhaul by frequent Boyle collaborator John Hodge ("Trainspotting," "Shallow Grave," "The Beach," "A Life Less Ordinary"), Boyle had a script he was ready to film (Ahearne, who came up with the original plot, shares screenplay credit). But how could Boyle possibly make a movie and stage the opening ceremony at the same time?
Boyle said that when he took the Olympics job in summer 2010, a friend warned that he would "go mad if you don't do anything else" during the two years of preparation for the Summer Games. So like an athlete who doesn't want to overtrain for a race, the filmmaker carved out two hiatuses within his Olympic schedule.
During the first, he directed a critically lauded stage production of "Frankenstein" in London in February 2011. After focusing on the Olympics over the spring and summer, he filmed "Trance" later that year.
"Frankenstein" and "Trance" were supposed to be simple breaks from the endless stream of Olympic committee meetings, but Boyle came to realize they served a deeper creative purpose.