"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
British director Danny Boyle first burst onto the scene with the acclaimed Hitchcockian thriller “Shallow Grave” in 1994, and quickly followed it up with a bona fide pop culture phenomenon, “Trainspotting.” Then, Boyle promptly lost his way.
His next two films, “A Life Less Ordinary” and “The Beach,” boasted bigger stars (Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio) and fizzled with critics and ticket buyers alike. When he countered with the biggest hit of his career, the thrilling and intelligent zombie picture “28 Days Later,” he had returned to an earlier formula of a lean budget, a cast of largely unknowns and an unapologetically grim story line.
That success has perhaps put Boyle, 48, more at ease, and in control, of his career. His new film, “Millions” (opening wide March 11), is about two young suburban British boys who find a bag of money on the eve of Britain’s conversion to the euro — meaning the money has to be spent right away. The plot might sound familiar, but Boyle turns it into a visually stunning film full of fantasy and dream sequences that question everything from material culture to the existence of God.
After a rough-and-tumble childhood in working-class Manchester, Boyle got his start in the theater, which gave him a knack with actors. But his greatest talent has always been on the visual side. There are so many images in Boyle’s career that are branded on the brain: the squalid rock-club toilet in “Trainspotting” that becomes the unlikely setting for an Esther Williams-esque underwater dream sequence; the haunting view of an entirely empty London that begins “28 Days Later.”
Still, for all his talents, perhaps the best thing you can say about Boyle is that he’s still just an unassuming lad. Directors doing press tours for their movies can get weary fast, but during a recent conversation, Boyle thanked me profusely for driving three hours to the interview, chatted boisterously about soccer (he explained to me why bullying Manchester United better represents the game than the “pretty” style of rival Arsenal), and talked as openly about his failures as his successes.
Your films are very diverse, but to me there’s a connection in how they collectively portray people looking for some kind of escape, whether it’s heroin or society or zombies. Is that intentional?
There’s a British poet called John Betjeman, who was the poet laureate. He used a term called “third way,” way before Clinton and Blair. He said Britain used to be the idealized village society, and then later it became a more bleak industrial landscape. But the third way that’s come upon us was High Street shopping, that commercialization and corporatization of the world where everything becomes the same — a Gap or Starbucks on every corner. I think all my films are about how much that third way of life today has a hold over us: how much you are dedicated to it, and also how much you want to flee from it.
And in all your films the characters are faced with false idols to worship once they do escape, whether it’s heroin in “Trainspotting” or a jungle utopia in “The Beach,” or a squeaky clean but more materialistic suburban environment in “Millions.”
When I was a kid my dad moved us to a better neighborhood just like they do in the film. I could feel him trying to get us out of the path that was set for us. My dad was a working-class laborer. He was a big man and worked all his life with his brawn, really. He worked in a power station at a stove boiler. But he was smart, and he knew enough to make sure that I didn’t follow him. That’s what gave my sisters and me the chance to break from the pattern that all my old school friends remain in. They’re still in Manchester and they’re doing not very interesting jobs, honestly. That’s one of the reasons I made the film. My mom’s dead now, but it was a kind of gesture of love to her and my dad.
The “Millions” script reportedly was tinkered with for years. Was that a sign of trouble or just part of the process?
That isn’t always a good thing, of course, but it was with this film. Frank Boyce [the screenwriter, who also wrote "24 Hour Party People] and I worked together very well. Both of you have to give up a bit of ego. The writer has to take criticism, and as the director you also have to acknowledge that they are the writer, and their imagination created this thing. That relationship often gets spoiled by people wanting to be known as auteurs, who say that scripts are just the skeletal framework for the real film. But I don’t believe any of that. This movie was Frank’s idea. And then we bounced ideas off each other for a long time. I was also able to do that on “28 Days Later” with Alex Garland, and I think that’s why it was successful. With “Millions,” Frank did a lot of drafts over the course of a year, and we completed it together. It was a very personal project for both of us.
Working with child actors can be a real challenge. How did you handle it?
You have to be lucky. Child acting is not a profession that’s well organized. The best people might never walk into the room on their own, and sometimes you have to do this endless searching. And when the filming starts, you can’t let it be just a dreary sort of field trip where they’re just led around. You have to involve them, and make the film feel like a playground for their imagination. It has to feel like the film belongs to them too. Any time I tried to really impose a strong direction with the kids, I’d go back and look at the footage and it was horrible. I was just watching kids say what they were told to say. You have to make it emerge from them, and if you can’t do it, it’s because it’s wrong — not because they can’t do it, but because it’s not a genuine part of their world.
And that worked?
Yes and no. The kids were interesting collaborators, because on one hand they’re just sponges. Their brains are just waiting to soak up knowledge. I didn’t have to tell them anything twice. But on the other hand it’s tough working with kids because sometimes they’re just gone, they’re disengaged. You can threaten them, bribe them, all the things you do with actors when a scene’s not working, and none of it will change things. You just have to close the set and go home for the day.
How do you keep them from turning into the next child-actor tragedy later in life?
Film is a bit pernicious sometimes. It can flatter people and then drop them. I didn’t want that happening to these kids. They’re very vulnerable at this age to the glamour of the world. I remember at the Toronto Film Festival we had this hugely successful screening, and you’d see the kids getting a tiny glimpse of this vain world, and you’ve got a responsibility to protect them from things like that. There are obviously good things to be had in this life of movies, but it can be really cruel to you as well.
What was it like before “28 Days Later,” when you were coming off perceived failure with “The Beach”?
I had a really tough time of it. I was wounded after “The Beach.” I’d really had enough of making a movie on that kind of scale. I went back to Manchester and made a couple of very small TV films with digital technology. And it was out of that, and the relationship I developed with the cameraman, that “28 Days Later” grew. The lesson to me was that you have to keep learning. You can’t blindfold yourself and say, “No, I was right all the time and they’re all wrong.” You learn what you’re good at and what you’re not so good at, and how to harness the best of what you do.
Are you a true convert to digital filmmaking then?
I love digital, but I think your story needs to have a reason to use it.
You’ve also moved away from big stars like Ewan McGregor and Leonardo DiCaprio.
It wasn’t so much them — they are both great guys — as the scale of making a film like “The Beach.” When you have that kind of money involved, all the departments have to know everything in advance. That doesn’t suit me. What I’m good at, or at least I think I am, is making it up on the day. You set certain parameters with people, but the rest you’re kind of doing it on the hoof. And that’s a wonderful feeling, the energy you get from it.
So what if “Millions” made a lot of money and you were offered another big-budget project?
Yeah [laughing], the little man on my right shoulder says, “Yeah, you shouldn’t do it.” But there’s a little man on my other shoulder as well saying the opposite. Because I love big movies as well. There is something about film going all around the world showing on huge screens: It’s an international language that we all celebrate together. You see a big movie like “Gladiator” and you want to make that. One voice is saying, “Do it! Do it!” And the other one is saying, “You’d fuck it up!” So it’s a constant battle, really.
And it’s not as if your style is stripped down. Your movies have a lot of visual sophistication.
I always try to be ambitious, not in terms of budgets but in terms of being imaginative. I don’t want to make documentary-type, socially realistic films. I want them to be bigger than life. That’s what the screen is about.
What about your next film?
It’s called “Sunshine,” and it’s about the sun. It’s written by Alex Garland. There’s a mission called Icarus 2 that is taking a bomb to the sun to try and reignite a section of it. The bomb is the size of Vancouver and it’s been built in space. There’s been an earlier mission, Icarus 1, which has failed. And what’s happened to it is a mystery. There’s a religious element to the film — the sun is God, really.
It sounds expensive — so much for not getting sucked into big-budget films, eh?
Well, we’re trying to keep the price down, so it’s nowhere near “The Beach” level. It’s going to be somewhere between 20 and 25 million pounds (about $40 million). It also is probably going to have an ensemble cast without any really big stars. But it’s hard to make it under budget because the dollar is so weak. There are all these bribes to go to Moscow or New Zealand or Toronto, because it’s way cheaper, but we want to make the film in England and it’s very expensive to do that right now.
Ewan McGregor was unknown when he began working with you, and now he’s Obi-Wan Kenobi — a real star. What are the chances of you working together again?
We fell out a bit over “The Beach” [McGregor was reportedly miffed that Boyle chose DiCaprio as his lead] but I’ve seen him a couple of times since then just to say hello. And there is a plan, a very long-term plan, to do a sequel to “Trainspotting.”
You don’t seem like the kind of director who’d make a sequel.
It’s not an easy, cash-in sequel. It’s to try and take those characters and look at them when they’re about 40, when they’re losing their hair and they’ve got all these decisions facing them about what they’ve done with their lives. But we don’t want to shoot it until those guys really look like their best years are behind them. I think it will take another 10 years still before they’re sufficiently middle age. I want to look at these guys who’ve abused themselves so much and how they deal with the crisis of getting old.
How did you get interested in film originally?
When I was a kid I used to go to this cinema in Manchester called the Aaben that showed these really weird films from Europe, partially because they had a lot of nudity, but also I loved the films — at least at the time. I’ve looked at some of them since and they’re rubbish. But that’s definitely where I got the bug. I couldn’t get into the British film industry because it was very fenced off at the time, very clubby. And it still remains that way, I’m afraid. Our music industry on this little island has produced the most amazing bands, but our films are rubbish compared to music.
Why is that?
Basically working-class kids join bands. You don’t need money and you can just do it. The film industry isn’t like that, but it needs to be. But it turned out well for me. I went into theater, because it was a lot more open. And theater gives you a lot of experience working with actors. A lot of film directors don’t like actors. They think they’re impenetrable and stupid. But I love actors, and I think that’s become a strength for me.
Brian Libby has written for the New York Times, Premiere and the Christian Science Monitor.More Brian Libby.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)