Danny Boyle talks Steve Jobs and Trainspotting 2

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 04 Dec 2015

Livewire filmmaker Danny Boyle on working with Michael Fassbender, making Aaron Sorkin's Steve Jobs script cinematic and the long-awaited Trainspotting 2

Danny Boyle would make a great Aaron Sorkin character. He certainly talks fast enough. During the Q&A following a screening of his latest film, Steve Jobs, scripted by Sorkin, at Manchester’s HOME, the Radcliffe-born filmmaker runs through his answers to the questions put to him by the audience at a breakneck speed; his blethering rivals the rat-a-tat-tat dialogue spoken by the film’s cast, who include Michael Fassbender as the titular Apple tycoon, Kate Winslet, sporting a lilting Polish accent, as Jobs’ right hand woman, and Seth Rogen as Apple's other founder, Steve Wozniak, who was left in his partner's wake when Jobs took creative control of the business.

In many ways, however, Boyle is not a great fit for the Sorkin universe. He’s too bloody nice for one thing, living up to his whimsical national treasure status that followed his much-loved opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics. He’s not mealy-mouthed, though, and we’re pleased to report that he was happy to tell plenty of home truths to the HOME audience.

For example, the 59-year old freely admits that Michael Fassbender isn’t the easiest guy to work with. “There’s something about his work that’s very uncompromising; he’s very like Jobs in a way,” suggests Boyle. “I mean, he’s a much nicer guy than Jobs but he’s so uncompromising in the way he approaches acting. He’s not really interested in it being an easy journey for you.”

‘There’s something about Fassbender’s work that’s very uncompromising; he’s very like Jobs in a way’ – Danny Boyle

The resulting performance on screen – a best actor Oscar nomination is a shoo-in – more than makes up for any difficulties on set. “Fassbender is also compelling and mesmeric and funny, and I thought he was ideal for the role.”

Boyle is also very candid when one brave audience member brings up Steve Jobs' rough ride Stateside, in terms of box-office figures. “We got a bit of a kicking in America,” he says bluntly. “So we released it in two cities, four screens first, and it did brilliantly. Then it went to 60 cities and it did really well. And then it went to 2400 screens and it just dropped off the end of a cliff; it was released too wide, too soon. It’s our arrogance, we have to blame ourselves, because we assumed people would be interested rather than working towards that. And they weren’t as it happens.”

As any film fan knows, however, healthy box-office is not always a great indicator of a quality movie. Steve Jobs has plenty to recommend it. Firstly, it’s a pleasingly idiosyncratic take on the biopic. “I’m not very keen on the biopic, personally, as a genre,” admits Boyle. “We did one before, 127 Hours, which again concentrated on a very specific part of someone’s life rather than try to cover the cradle to grave.”

The quality of Aaron Sorkin's Script

Structured in three acts, Sorkin’s script condenses Jobs’ rollercoaster career into three scenes leading up to the launches of new products: the Macintosh, from 1984, a light, carryable home computer whose off-centre disk drive made it look like it was smiling at you (sales were disappointing and Jobs was fired); the NeXT, from 1988, an expensive black cube that looks more like an art installation than a computer (it tanked, but its superior OS brought Jobs back to Apple); and the iMac, from 1998, a gorgeously designed, brightly coloured, easy-to-use computer that took the world by storm and helped make Apple the world’s biggest home computing empire.

Boyle was so impressed with Sorkin’s vision, in fact, that he broke his own self-imposed rule about never working on a script he hasn’t had a hand in. “I’d never done a fully-furnished script from Hollywood before,” he says. “You get sent them, especially at first when you have a couple of successes, but they give up after a while because I’ve never done one – we always try and generate our own work.”

Sorkin’s effort was an exception, though. As well as its batty structure, it’s twice as dense as any script Boyle has ever worked with. “Normally scripts are somewhere between a hundred and 120 pages,” explains the director. “And they’re mostly description with some dialogue. They’re like a novel – they try and give you the feeling of what the film is going to be like. But [Sorkin] doesn’t do that. He just writes dialogue. It was just ‘interior’, ‘day’, and then dialogue for 200 pages.”

The upshot of cramming that many words into a two hour film is that the characters do a lot of talking, and Boyle reckons this is Sorkin’s trump card as a dramatist: “What’s clever about Sorkin, is that I think he’s found – in cinema or theatre or performance – a way of showing brilliance. Because what do you do? Do you show [brilliant people] doing algorithms or taking apart machinery? Or do you simply show them acknowledging the compliments of other people telling them how brilliant they are? Sorkin does it through the thing that actors are best at, which is of course language." In other words, the speed of thought with which characters exchange ideas or battles with each other in The Social Network or The West Wing or Steve Jobs implicitly reveals their intellect.

For a visual-stylist like Boyle, however, this did throw up some challenges. “Normally I show off quite a lot in films,” he admits. “I’m aware of it and it’s kind of my taste: I want it to be ballsy directing-wise.” Here, the energy stems from the script rather than the visuals, so for Boyle the question was, “Can you make it cinematic? Can you make it feel like it’s immersive and not just a filmed play?”

In this respect, he certainly succeeds. Despite similarities between the three scenes, with the same colleagues and acquaintances arriving before the launches to wish Jobs well (or more often than not, ill), including Jeff Daniels as Apple's CEO, and Katherine Waterston as Jobs' former girlfriend and mother of Lisa, the daughter Jobs is reluctant to admit parenting, Boyle cleverly gives each act a unique aesthetic. “You could have done it like a fugue, literally just repetitive, not separating the acts and make them as similar as possible. Instead we made each act as separate as possible to try and make it feel a fresh experience each time.”

Boyle does this through several techniques: he ages the actors (although, strangely, Winslet’s character’s Polish accent seems to get stronger as the years role on); they play out in three different arenas (a theatre, an opera house and a concert hall), each with their own unique acoustics and atmosphere; and each act takes on a different visual dimension due to the format on which it was shot. “We used 16mm for the first part, 35mm for the second part and then digital for the third. That was to sort of reflect the individual stories that were in each act.”

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Like one of Jobs’ products, Steve Jobs is a slick creation. The production design of each setting is spectacular, and Boyle's kinetic style is the perfect foil to Sorkin’s trademark walk-and-talk wordplay. But, pleasingly, plenty of our eponymous hero's rough edges remain, although Apple weren't overly pleased by this fact. “What you realise is that Apple, they are the biggest company in the world – by far,” explains Boyle. “They’re wealthier than half the nations on the planet. So they have a myth; they have a story, a narrative that they want to tell about him. And here’s their story: ‘Jobs was an icon.’”

Boyle insists that when it comes to Apple, Facebook, Google and their ilk, we mustn't trust their marketing spin too much. “Those companies feel very benign at the moment, and they do a lot of virtue singing where they say how much good they are doing. ‘Google is for everyone,’ all that kind of stuff. And it is, except they don’t pay taxes, for instance” – a comment that gets a hearty round of applause from the audience – “so it’s very important to make sure you tell the stories as you find them. It’s crucial, especially as these companies become more powerful, to remember that the people who’ve built them are just like me and you. They have the same problems that we have.”

Trainspotting 2 is happening!

Boyle's second round of applause came near the end of the Q&A with five simple words: “We’re definitely doing Trainspotting 2.” Two decades and a dozen films on and it’s still his most well-loved movie. Boyle puts his finger on what’s so special about it: “Most of the time you don’t remember characters’ names. You all remember Steve Jobs' name, because he’s the titular character, but if you remember anything else it's like, ‘Oh, that guy played it, what’s he called?’ Trainspotting is different.”

Perhaps it's down to its famous 'choose life' opening, where the characters’ names pop up on screen, but whatever the reason, those characters have become part of our collective consciousness. “People still come up to me on the tube and talk about Sick Boy and Spud like they know them,” says Boyle. “So around ten years ago we thought, ‘We’ll do another one, because these characters are still in people’s brains and it would be interesting to catch up with them.’”

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That script was closely based on Irvine Welsh’s book Porno, which is set a generation after Trainspotting, but Boyle didn’t think it much cop. “We didn’t even send it to the actors because we knew they wouldn’t do it and they’d be right, it wasn’t worth doing.” Two years ago, however, the original production team began talking about it again. “We went up to Edinburgh, a bunch of us, and we just messed about for a week talking about what we could do. Then John [Hodge, the Trainspotting and Shallow Grave scriptwriter] went away and wrote the script and it’s amazing – really good. It’s not really based on Porno very much, but there are a couple of ideas that come out of Porno and Irvine was involved in that original workshop.” All the actors are keen to do it, he reports, and they’ve already had a read-through. Boyle fondly recalls it: “It’s amazing hearing them in those same voices again: how comforting it is to hear Begbie ranting on about some fucker somewhere – it’s very reassuring for some weird reason.”

When can we expect to see it on screen? “A couple of them are involved with TV shows in America and the only time we can get them out of those shows, the only gap they have, is May and June next year, so that’s when we’re going to shoot it, and hopefully it’ll be ready by this time next year or maybe very early 2017.”

It'll be a pleasure to join Renton, Spud, Begbie et al back in the scuzz of Auld Reekie, but until then you can luxuriate in the high-gloss world of Steve Jobs.

Steve Jobs in on general release now. The Q&A was chaired by Salford University's Andy Willis