TIME reporter Stephen Short caught up with director Danny Boyle via phone from London Feb. 1, just as his latest feature, The Beach, opened across AsiaAlso in this interview:
TIME: It's hard to ask you anything about The Beach without immediately asking the environmental question. Did you wreck the place?
Boyle: No. In fact, we were there last week briefly and were welcomed by all the people. You know, I think environmental problems in places like Thailand are worse than the government will sometimes admit to. In that way, they try to protect the people from bad news, it's like a more polite Los Angeles. From what I know, from a voyeuristic point of view, the common people where we were, students, intellectuals, tend to protest against their government because they get fed a certain degree of misinformation. I think people there used Leo as a way of raising the profile for them, which was very hard for him and us, but we did take a great deal of care while we were there. In the long run, we as a crew approve of raising awareness in the way the local people did.
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TIME: What about the Leo factor? For a start, when I read the book, the Richard character he ends up playing was to my mind always either one of two British actors, Rufus Sewell or Jude Law. Why him--pure box office?
Boyle: I think that's very perceptive of you. If I'd wanted a Brit they would have been inspired choices, but then, you also know I could have used Ewan McGregor, but I wanted to branch out a bit and make the story a wider one by using Leo.
TIME: Did you consider The Beach a big risk? Did it worry you as it progressed?
Boyle: We always try to take real risks. People have said to me that using Leo was just playing for the dollar. Well, if I wanted to take the least risk possible, I'd have made Trainspotting 2. I've been asked often enough. The Beach with Ewan McGregor would have been too easy.
TIME: But that other actors don't have?
Boyle: We wanted to lure people in. This is a beautiful island, it's secret, a very sacred place. If you add to that the young romantic hero of world cinema as he was then, the two were absolutely made for one another. Using his Titanic persona was obviously attractive to us. I talked to Leo about this and he felt his options prior making the movie were either to confirm his standing from Titanic, dynamite it with American Psycho, or to use what he had and take the audience with him. The latter was, to both our minds, more interesting.
TIME: Did he seem a troubled young lad to you?
Boyle: Well, I felt he didn't want to simply confirm his romantic appeal. He's embarrassed by how much of a Valentine's figure he's become. He really struggles with that and it frustrates him everywhere. You know, after all, he's only 24-25, he's young, he's got a lot of innocence about him and he thinks he's more clued up than he really is. That's true of him in real life and when he's acting. I think he's very idealistic.
TIME: Were you ever thinking of anyone else for that part?
Boyle: Well no, but would you believe me if I told you the studio said at one point, we ought to use Will Smith? It's not that I don't like him--I'm a fan of his--but I said hang on, Will Smith wandering onto that beach? Let's be serious about this movie.
TIME: Was Leo a better actor than you imagined he would be?
Boyle: I think he's only just beginning to find out what he's capable of. One of the biggest surprises for me was how much contact you get with him, you get an immediacy which is frightening when he speaks to you or when he's acting. That's not something you just pick up. Some people are born with it and it's just the most immediate form of contact. Even if he's bullshitting, you believe him and because of the mystique of cinema, you'd jump off a cliff with him and feel good about it. Even if it's a lie, you still feel you'd put your trust in him. Some actors can practice all day long to look more watchable, but put the camera on them and it's just not interested. All it wants to do is turn around and look at the other guy--in this case, Leo.
TIME: Did he really eat that caterpillar in the movie?
Boyle: Leo told me to tell everyone that he ate it, but that's a lie. It's a sleight of hand trick, or should that be sleight of mouth. It would have been tough to do it for real as I'm told it's hard to find insects over there that aren't toxic.
TIME: On an aesthetic level, I watched this film three days after Joan of Arc with Milla Jovovich and you could almost have had her and Leo swap roles.
Boyle: I can see that. Leo's a very, very feminine guy. He's very appealing that way. In fact, the '90s has been so appealing in that way too. You'd never have had such a feminine guy playing roles like that in the '80s. It's all so much softer now and less macho. Jude Law I think has the same feminine touch.
TIME: What about Virginie Ledoyen who plays Francoise, well known in France, but an odd choice, unusual and rather risky? Did you ever think of a Caroline Ducey or an …lodie Bouchez?
Boyle: Again, that's perceptive of you. I collect books of photos of people so I always have something to refer to. Sometimes I stick pictures of actors in it, but often it's just advertisements and magazine clips. I'd stuck a picture in the book of a girl in a hotel lobby and when we got to France I asked the casting director if he knew anyone like the girl in the photo. He didn't even have to think, he just said Virginie Ledoyen. I did interview a lot of the top French actresses like …lodie Bouchez, but I was biased toward Virginie from the start. Alex Garland, the writer [of the novel The Beach], said the most frightening thing was looking at Virginie and Guillaume Canet [who plays her boyfriend Etienne] because they looked exactly how he envisaged when he wrote the book. I was a bit worried about how the idea of an unavailable French girl would translate to an American audience, but Leo told me Americans are no different from anyone else in the world and can't get enough of French girls.
TIME: Why didn't she or any of the women ? Any group of backpackers on a remote island probably would be.
Boyle: We had a big discussion about topless women, as to whether breasts should be shown or not. In rehearsal, many of the actresses were topless. We thought the danger was that it would make the movie prurient and people would watch it for the wrong reasons. There was one big topless scene in the film, where all the women are bathing in the sea, but we ended up cutting it.
: A lot of people in England say you, John Hodge and Andrew MacDonald, with whom you always make your films, are like vultures going in after the kill, looters after the earthquake, as you tend to steal from other movies. Whom did you steal from for The Beach?
Boyle: You're right. Trainspotters was pretty much lifted from Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. The Beach certainly references Apocalypse Now, playing with Hollywood's image of the Vietnam War. It's also got a lot of Deliverance about it, the 1972 John Boorman film. I consciously took from that.
TIME: What do you want to give back?
Boyle: Well, a private worry of mine is that if you look at the films we celebrate, virtually none are ever set in rural areas. I know Jane Campion's new film Holy Smoke is set in the Outback, but it's damn hard to find a rural film that captivates an audience, which is doubly ironic when you think the only reason we go to movies is for escape. But I think audiences want to escape into what they live in, into different pictures of different urban societies. It seems we only want to see cities. Ultimately, Deliverance was an urban film and ours isn't much different--it's about oppression in an urban environment. I'd like to do something rural.
TIME: Have you created something new in this film?
Boyle: I've absolutely no idea. All the films we make we try to do something different, rather than make the same film again and again. I think that's in the lap of the Gods. You make your choices and just hope they work out.
TIME: Do you resent that your actors get more attention than you?
Boyle: Not much. We kid ourselves that an audience wants to see a Spike Lee or a Martin Scorsese film, but ultimately all they want to see is actors. A mass audience always go to a cinema for actors, not directors.
(The Beach is now playing in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan; it opens in Thailand March 10; Indonesia March 22; Australia March 30; India April 8; the Philippines April 22; and Japan May 13. Release dates are subject to change without notice.)