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The A-List: Director Danny Boyle on posting ‘Steve Jobs’

With Academy season approaching, we checked in with the Oscar-winning director

By Iain Blair

Danny Boyle, who won the 2008 Oscar for Best Director for Slumdog Millionaire, has always been attracted to controversial stories and pushing the cinematic envelope as far as he could, as such eclectic films as Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary, 28 Days Later, Trance, Sunshine and 127 Hours make very clear.

His latest film, Steve Jobs, continues in that tradition with its complex portrait of the visionary co-founder of Apple. Starring Michael Fassbender in the title role, it eschews the usual lazy Hollywood conventions of biopic storytelling — taking a strictly linear approach and throwing in some flashbacks — and instead presents, thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s impressionistic script, Boyle’s inspired direction and editor Elliot Graham’s fluid cutting (which is getting a lot of Oscar attention), a visually and thematically audacious take on its notoriously enigmatic subject.

Writer Iain Blair and director Danny Boyle

I met up with Boyle recently about making the film, his love of post, and the Oscars.

You took a very complex anti-hero and threw away the usual biopic rulebook.
I’m glad you said that, because you always want your form and your subject to be the same, and here’s a guy whose mantra was, “Think different.” So right there, that’s a command to not do the same old biopic treatment — and Aaron Sorkin wrote this brilliant, unorthodox script, which really attracted me to the project. I felt this had to rock you back on your heels right away about how you approach this story and personality.

Biopics can be great, but they usually skim the surface, as they have to cover a lot of territory. With this I thought, can you do the same? Assemble the same sense of a person by intensively exploring three particular moments? And I believe you can. I’d argue you learn more this way than with the traditional skimming stone approach.

You always post in London, right?
Yeah, we shot it all in San Francisco — I insisted on that. It’s expensive, but the value of the real locations was enormous. There aren’t many in the film, so we probably could have replicated them somewhere else, but you get that organic element and legacy of the place that birthed this whole new era we’re all living through now. And then we moved back to London to edit it and do all the post. We cut at Goldcrest in a tiny room, and it’s always the same huge change of post — after the massive beast of the shoot with all these people, you end up in a little room where you actually make the film. Every DP hates hearing that, but it’s the truth. You make your film in the editing and post.

Film Title: Steve Jobs Film Title: Steve Jobs

The film was edited by Elliot Graham, who also cut Milk and X-Men 2. Is it true he wasn’t even originally brought on as the editor?
Yes, he was hired as a temporary, or assembly editor, just to do the first assembly while we were shooting because our editor wasn’t available for the shoot. But as soon as I began working with him, when we started cutting during the shoot, I realized just how amazing he is, and I told producer Christian Colson, “Tell the original editor to go and find another job, as this guy is so special.” And we persuaded him to come back to London with us, and I think what he did is absolutely brilliant — world-class work. We cut together for three months, and then we started the test screenings, and got the composer back in to polish some of what he’d done, and went from there.

I also heard that your approach to the music on this film was very different?
Yes, I really wanted to change the usual way I go about dealing with music in post. I’m very dominant and hands-on with music and composers, and I loved Daniel Pemberton’s work, especially what he did for Ridley Scott with The Counselor. So I told him, ‘Write all the music for this before we even start shooting it,’ but it’s very difficult to compose for Sorkin’s dialogue, as it’s continuous, emphatic and rhythmic, and you need to be able to follow it. That’s the buzz of it. So he had to respect the word, and he also had to create three different scores for the film’s three parts, to differentiate them as much as possible, but they’re also inter-linked, like a fugue. And there was no film to show him. It wasn’t easy for him, as it’s a bit like working in the dark, but he wrote some wonderful pieces that actually fit the scenes perfectly.

Film Title: Steve Jobs

Where did you do all the sound mixing?
At Pinewood, with Glenn Freemantle and his team at Sound 24. Then we added all the music from Daniel, and that way you get a great soundscape for the film. I’ve always been very particular about sound.

You must have a very well-oiled post machine by now. Was it the same team doing the VFX?
Yeah, I did all the visual effects with my usual guy, VFX supervisor Adam Gascoyne at Union Effects in London. He’s done all my films for a long time now. It’s a great relationship, and he’s very much a part of building it all. We had some very obvious effects, but as we were shooting so freely in these dressing rooms — which all have mirrors — that it was a problem.

So Adam was on set with us the whole time, and every day after we’d finished he would go in and take all these still shots of the process, and that enabled him to replace all the times we caught crew in the mirrors and stuff like that. So we had a lot of invisible VX work like that, a lot of clean up, as well as the more visible stuff.

Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin on set.

Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin on set.

There’s a great sequence where Jobs is in a corridor talking about a NASA rocket launch, and the corridor’s like a launch tube, and that was the most fun VFX shot to do for all of us. There’s also a bit where we wanted an image of the NASA ground control, stripped along the wall, and we tried the real stuff but it just didn’t look real! We ended up using footage from Apollo 13. I called Ron Howard and said, ‘Can we use it? It’s much more convincing than the real footage.’ Isn’t that weird? We also used Ridley Scott’s iconic 1984 ad in the film.

Where was the DI done?
At Technicolor in London with this really great colorist, Jean-Clement Soret, who does all my grading. It was very complex as we shot on 16mm, 35mm and digital, and all that had to be graded while retaining the original quality. I’m there for the whole DI as the look is ultimately down to me, but I like to leave them to it for the most part. (Editor’s Note: Soret used the FilmLight Baselight and Technicolor proprietary LUT in ACES colorspace.)

How important are the Oscars and all the awards?
They’re all extremely important, I feel. Not just the actual awards, but the increased visibility they give your films.

Film Title: Steve Jobs Film Title: Steve Jobs

Where do you keep your Oscar?
(Laughs) To be honest, it’s a bit intimidating, so I keep it out of sight. I don’t need the added pressure of looking at it when I’m starting a new film.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

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