Danny Boyle is the critically acclaimed director of “Trainspotting,” “Shallow Grave,” and the smash hit “28 Day Later,” Fox Searchlight's second highest grossing film of all time.
With his new film, “Millions,” he tells a heart-warming story of two little boys, faith, miracles, and money. Starting anew after the death of their mother, 9-year-old Anthony is practical, while his 7-year-old brother Damian uses imagination and faith to make sense of his confusing world. When a suitcase full of money falls out of the sky at Damian's feet, it sets the boys on a wild, revelatory adventure.
The film grew out of a conversation that Frank Cottrell Boyce had with one of the producer Graham Broadbent after the two had collaborated on Michael Winterbottom's drama Welcome to Sarajevo. Although the writer is a father of seven, it was actually Broadbent who suggested that this should be a film about children. Says Broadbent: “Frank encourages their most imaginative view of the world and I sensed this would make for a unique viewpoint. I knew hed make these characters extraordinary and individual, and we finally hit upon the idea of having two children who come across a million pounds from a robbery.”
Cottrell Boyce says: “Id always liked the idea of writing a film that my children could enjoy,” he explains. “As a man with many children, I spend most of my time in the company of people who think they are pirates, or saints, or are suffering some kind of colourful delusion, rather than mixing with filmmakers, so it was quite easy for me to tap into that energy. The characters in “Millions” are actually quite sane compared to some of my own children! A couple of mine are yet to discover that the Middle Ages is over, so I spend quite a chunk of my day with people waving cutlasses and wearing helmets.”
The team worked on the script on and off for years, seeing it through various different drafts. “It's actually impossible to describe how much fun I had writing this script,” says Cottrell Boyce. “It was like coming home. I loved writing about children, I loved that it was set near where I live, and I loved that we could create a story about how magical and complicated people really are.”
Having established himself with edgy, adult movies such as “Shallow Grave,” “Trainspotting” and “The Beach,” Boyle knew this project would be a departure and a risk. But, as fate would have it, Boyle was in the precise mood for that challenge. “Id just made a couple of small films for TV in Manchester,” he explains, “and I wanted to work there again. I thought the idea was absolutely captivating. I was also very keen to work with Frank, who comes from a long line of amazing writers from the North West. He was someone Id always admired and there's a warmth in his writing that is fantastic.”
The script still needed work, and Boyle kept pushing it forward and brought out the real essence of the story. “We worked on it relentlessly,” Boyle says, “until the only scene that remains from the original is the central robbery sequence.” The robbery allowed for more tension in the script, since one of the robbers, a shady Bill Sykes figure known only in the script as The Man, is hard on the trail of the missing money.
“The minute you see the money arrive, you know someone's going to be after it, because that's the language of cinema,” says Cottrell Boyce. “I wanted that person to appear like your worst paranoid nightmare or a little boy's bogey man like in “Raising Arizona,” where the character is after him and you never really know whether he's dreaming it, because it cuts from dream to reality. I wanted that intense fear that you only experience as a child.”
Although the writing took around five years from original conception, it was not beset by the usual production difficulties. Unusually for a British movie, they had little problem with funding. “It was quite simple,” says producer Andrew Hauptman. “We knew we had a really good script and a world-class director that everyone wanted to work with.” Frank just kept on writing it and we kept meeting up every few months. Frank says this is just our lunch club, were never going to make it.'
Although it takes place in a very recognizable, not-so-far-away Britain, Cottrell Boyce's script was unusual in many ways. On the surface, its two lead characters, Damian and Anthony Cunningham (Alex Etel and Lewis McGibbon) are two suburban northern brothers whose mother has died in tragic circumstances, although we never learn how. Anthony is a regular lad of his age, into Playstation, bikes, Nikes and football game Subbuteo, but Damian is a quieter, more thoughtful boy, visited by visions of saints who help him deal with the big questions of life. Clearly, this mystical element needed careful nurturing, and one of Boyle's earliest comments after reading the script was the need for truly extraordinary children in the lead roles. If the project was going to work, Boyle needed unknowns with movie star quality, magic and charisma.”
Casting commenced in September 2002 and the process was extensive. It was always intended that the film would be set in Liverpool and the North West of England, so the search covered children's drama groups across the whole region as well as schools and open auditions. “We went into a process of what casting directors call kissing frogs,” says Boyle, “where you have to see thousands of kids before somebody emerges as your prince.”
The casting team finally came across young actor Lewis McGibbon to play the older boy, Anthony, who has firm ideas about the value of money and how it should be spent. “He's a fantastic actor for such a young guy,” says Boyle. “He had timing, knew what acting was and had crossed the barrier from total innocence to knowing what it was about. I thought that was a great attribute for that particular character because Anthony is someone who has one foot in childhood and the other foot in the modern world.”
“The money changes him,” says McGibbon. “He's just a boy, but when his brother finds all the money, Anthony literally takes it over and in the end it takes over the house, really. Basically I think he's quite greedy–he just wants all the money. If I had the money, Id buy my Mum a villa in Portugal, Id buy my Dad a big Jeep, Id buy my sister whatever she wants and Id buy myself a big house with a massive widescreen TV and all the Playstation games in the world.”
Damian, however, proved much harder to find, simply because the character is so young. “None of the boys we saw of that age are truly actors yet,” says Boyle, who needed someone who could capture Damian's innocence and naivety. Alex Etel came out of nowhere, a novice discovered amongst the weekly audition tapes that would arrive in the production office. Boyle instantly loved his look. “I remember when he walked into the room, even before he opened his mouth. I had to stop myself from thinking, That's him.' But he was the one I wanted from the beginning and I stuck with that.” McGibbon and Etel went through five auditions before they were finally selected. “Danny's instincts paid off,” says Broadbent “Alex has the face of an angel and he's every bit the movie star too.”
Etel himself is not quite the cherub he appears to be onscreen. “I think Damian's a bit of a weirdo,” he says. “He sees saints and things that other people don't see and spends a lot of time reading and talking about the saints, which I think is very strange.” However, Etel certainly seems to share Damian's propensity for daydreaming. “If I had that much money,” he says, “Id buy a big car and a big house with a swimming pool, which Id fill with strawberry jelly and a big house boat.”
The core cast was rounded out with James Nesbitt, who plays the boys' father, Ronnie. “James is such a communicator,” says Boyle. “I think that goes straight to the audience and he has an immediacy that you believe him and you just want him to talk to you about anything. That seemed perfect for this part.”
It's a testament to Cottrell Boyce's screenplay that Ronnie's character, though poignant, never overshadows the two boys' story. “Ronnie is dealing with the death of his wife, adapting to being a single Dad and moving on to a new life,” says Nesbitt. “But although Cottrell Boyce doesn't ignore the tragedy in their situation, he doesn't tug at your heartstrings or overly play it up. Ronnie has to get on with life and he can't really stop to think about it too much as he's too busy getting the boys up and off to school in the morning and being both their mum and their dad. The way he deals with it is often funny and very touching.”
The final piece of this family jigsaw was actress Daisy Donovan, who plays Dorothy, the charity worker who stumbles into their life by accident and somehow never leaves. Again, Boyle decided to follow his instincts. “As soon as we started writing her role, Daisy just popped into my head,” he says, “just as Jimmy Nesbitt popped into my head for the part of Ronnie. You should always try and follow those instincts up. For Dorothy, I wanted someone left field who just bounces in with this enormous energy to her, very refreshing and slightly barmy. And of course, Daisy is also a fantastic actress.”
“I envisaged me as the father character,” says the writer, “being exasperated, preoccupied and kind of swamped by other people's fantasies, and I think Jimmy was perfect casting because he can carry it so well with such charm. Daisy was perfect too, because we needed a character that could keep you guessing, so that you don't know whether she's good or bad or whether she has her own agenda.”
The revelation that the money is stolen comes as a bombshell to the impressionable Damian. “I thought it was a miracle,” he laments, “but it was just robbed.” Nevertheless, along with providing the impetus for the story, the stolen money gave the filmmakers licence to explore the idea of money: what it is, what it represents and what it can really buy.
During pre-production, Broadbent was intrigued by the way children would deal with these questions. “When we were doing the auditions, the casting director asked quite a lot of the kids what theyd do if they had a million pounds,” he recalls. “The responses were amazing. Some had no concept of that amount of money, some said theyd buy ten CDs and others said theyd buy a car, or an island, but very few had any real sense of what that sort of money means.”
Through the two boys, the film plays out society's push-and-pull attitude towards money, to great comic effect. “Damian simply wants to give it away to good causes, charities and poor people,” says Hauptman, “and so he spends his time stuffing huge amounts of money in poor people's letterboxes or charity boxes. Anthony, being that bit older, is more aware of avarice and greed and what money can really buy.” Neither, however, gets their way. Notes Boyle, “The film shows how difficult it is for both of the boys to achieve their wishes, either to spend it quickly on consumer luxuries or desirables or on the other hand to redistribute it.”
Cottrell Boyce found it harder to explain Damian's attitude to the money than his older brother's. “To me,” he says, “Damian seems like a perfectly normal child. Loads of kids are like him, they talk to themselves all the time, theyre not quite living in the same world as us and often think theyre a knight, a footballer or a pilot. In this case, Damian just happens to think he's a saint.”
In creating Anthony, Cottrell Boyce presents an equally motivated child, albeit one from a completely different sphere. Although they seem to be extreme, they are inextricably bound by the loss of their mother and together present an almost complete, tough-to-break unit. “Theyve both got that fantastic thing you have when youre about eight or ten years of age,” he says, “when youre at the top end of your school, before you go to big school and youve got that feeling of being able to do absolutely anything. Anthony is kind of greedy and wicked, but there's something very attractive and endearing about his swagger. Damian's got a similar swagger, but it's because he thinks he's the equal of Saint Clare or Saint Nicholas!”
It is this richness of personality that gives “Millions” its depth. “When you originally describe the script, it could easily sound like some fluffy little British movie that will tug at your heartstrings and then make you giggle,” says Cottrell Boyce. “But Danny has made it so much bigger. He was involved enough to take on all its themes, like the saints, heaven and money. The film looks at what money can actually do. The two boys really come to understand what a vast and complicated thing money is and how it completely takes them over and kind of swamps them. What the boys are really wishing for is something that can't be bought. It's interesting to have a story that allows you to harness all the excitement of money and all the danger it brings.”
Boyle agrees: “I think the spirit of the film is about trying to see if goodness is possible in, not so much a cynical world, but one in which people are very self-protecting,” he says. “Like Britain especially. We tried to see if it's possible to make a film about an act of generosity.”
With the breakout success of his directorial debut “Shallow Grave” and its follow-up “Trainspotting,” Danny Boyle proved that British film talent was not simply to be found in London. With “Millions,” he was keen yet again to explore an area of Britain known and inhabited by many yet rarely seen on the screen. In British cinema history, the north of England has traditionally been relegated to the status of supporting character in a string of dour, kitchen-sink dramas, from the 1960s onwards. But here it comes into its own as a place where natural beauty contrasts with sophistication and modernity.
“The challenge was to make the film look full of colour and light,” says Boyle. “It's easy to slip into a different kind of realism of the north because I think the color and life are to do with the spirit of the people, because the humour of the people of the north is really special.” Boyle says he wanted the film to be “bright, optimistic and new, portraying an image of Britain going forward.”
To transform the images in his head into moving pictures, Boyle turned to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, with whom he collaborated on the visually groundbreaking “28 Days Later,” which was shot on high-definition video.
The fact that the events of Boyle's film occur in the run-up to Christmas posed something of a problem for Dod Mantle. “It's kind of schizophrenic because it's a winter film, but weve shot in summer doing sixty per cent of the film in exterior day sunshine. We also shot a small percentage of the film in the studio.” Despite frequent light changes on its Liverpool and Manchester locations, Dod Mantle worked hard to create a strategic colour palette for the film, which would enable him to make last-minute tweaks and enhancements in post-production.
Though Boyle and company were keen to give the North its dues, the characters themselves were an integral part of the colour scheme. “We did a lot of tests to choose the color of the kids' tops and we visited a lot of schools near where we were filming,” says Boyle. “We went to this one school and I saw this mixture of yellow and blue and I thought that's just perfect for the film. I knew that Anthony would make it burst into life and it was a great key that our production designer, Mark Tildesley, could use to bounce off.”
The result is a vibrant, lustrous and even magical film (in the purest sense of the word), quite unlike anything attempted in the north ever before. “The film was not going to be pallid or muted at all,” says Hauptman. “It was going to take risks.”
There's an old showbusiness tenet that recommends you should never work with children or animals, but then again, that saying basically favors the business rather than the show. Danny Boyle, on the other hand, enjoyed the experience immensely and has nothing but praise for his young stars. “The thing about working with kids is that you learn so much,” he says. “Ive learnt more as a director working on this film than on anything else. You learn about acting, about presenting stories, and you can see those kids grow as they take in information. Theyre so hungry for knowledge, even if it sometimes appears theyre bored and want to get back to their play stations. By the end of the shoot, I could see a huge difference in them. We got to a stage where they didn't need any telling.”
Though the film deals with saints, marvels and even miracles, its message says more about the inquisitive and thoughtful minds of our young than the scriptures. “It's not necessarily religious,” Boyle says, “it's just saying if you believe in your dreams, they will work for you in the end. And sometimes they really do come through.” Which, fittingly, may just be the story behind this extraordinary production too.