Danny Boyle Talks 'Yesterday,' the Beatles, and the Power of Music

'Yesterday' | Universal Pictures
'Yesterday' | Universal Pictures

Director Danny Boyle is looking to bring a little joy to the world again. The energetic and propulsive filmmaker behind Slumdog Millionaire has made his most crowd-pleasing film yet since his globally beloved Oscar-winning pic. His new movie, Yesterday, is a story with a lot of love, similar to the music the romantic comedy is all about. 

The premise is more than a little outlandish: One day, the Beatles just go away. When a struggling musician, Jack (Himesh Patel), is ready to put his guitar down and trash his dreams, the universe hands him a gift and a curse. The world loses electricity, and somehow, the universe forgets the Beatles in the process. Jack, on the other hand, still remembers "Yesterday," "Let It Be," and the rest of their classics. Soon after the unexplained incident, he shoots to stardom after stealing the band's catalog. 

Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love Actually) wrestle with the moral ambiguity of Jack’s theft, but first and foremost, Yesterday is a romantic comedy. It’s another eclectic choice from the unpredictable Boyle, who’s tried his hand at an array of genres throughout his career. With films such as 28 Days Later, Trainspotting, 127 Hours, and Sunshine, Boyle never repeats himself. We talked to him about his career and what made him want to tackle a rom-com that dabbles in fantasy. 

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Thrillist: Your movies seem to be reactions to what you made last. Did your previous project make you want to direct something more pleasant and joyful?
Danny Boyle: It did. I spent the last year making the first three parts of a TV series about the Getty family. It's called Trust. Despite the fact that it was wonderful working in Italy, and it's an extraordinary story, it is a particularly joyless, loveless story. That's not a criticism of it, that's its nature, but I have to say, when you're submersed in something like that, you're susceptible then to something like what the Beatles’ music represents. There's a joy in their music, even in the sad music there's a joyfulness. And in their joyful music, there's always a melancholy as well, which makes it a very fully rounded experience, so I was kind of an open door for this experience, to follow the Gettys, so I jumped at it, yeah.

Obviously it's a very different experience than some of the other things I've made, and you do notice that difference, because I think it helps you push yourself to be more original, because you don't go in thinking you know how to do this. It feels like a real challenge, it's almost fearfulness about how I'm gonna do this, you got to push yourself to work how best to do it. I loved it.

'Yesterday' | Universal Pictures

Yesterday is also your first romantic comedy. What was new to you working in that genre? 
Boyle: You have to abandon a certain degree of editorial control, and abandon is the wrong word. You have to allow it for the actors to perform the rhythm of the film in their shots. So you put actors in two shots or three shots or even four shots, so that they're good and you let them play the scene. It's an old rule about comedy, especially, to let the actors act it and be less aware of the editing. So you don't do singles and you don't try and control the rhythm of a scene. You don't try to over-control the rhythm of a scene and then you let the actors dictate the natural rhythm of it. 

It looks like less directing. In fact, weirdly enough, it's more. You've got to be more cunning about the way you do go about maintaining control of the pace and energy of the experience, but it looks like the actors are in control, which is important. They should feel effortless. There should be an effortlessness about the way you are depicting the story really. I loved that challenge. That was really special.

'Yesterday' | Universal Pictures

Some actors and directors say making a lighter movie is more challenging than a drama, so was that your experience? Is a movie like Yesterday harder than a drama?
It's interesting. I don't know whether hard is the word. It's something to do with the fact that you have to have a much lighter touch, even though it gets hard and you do have hard days, you've got to maintain that more than anything. What you mustn't do is stomp your feet, literally, on the porcelain of it all because you'll ruin it. It's a very delicate thing. It's to do with a bit of actor magic. It's to do with maintaining a joy in the feeling of everybody, not just the actors, the crew as well. 

For whatever reason it's not gone well that day or whatever problems there are, it's [important to] maintain the soul of the piece. It feels lighter and I, as I said, loved that about it. It was unusual to me to be able to do that, ‘cause I tend to make things that have a more grueling element in them. It's nice not to do that, although, obviously, there's plenty of problems in the film for Jack. Certainly, the moments of crisis are still very, very heightened, but they're accompanied with the most amazing soundtrack of all time [Laughs]. 

That's the other thing about doing a film like this... normally I have this whole process of choosing the music and, of course, initially some of the greatest songs ever written are chosen for you, for the story. That's such a thrill. And then you work out how to cover them because you know you're gonna have to have incredible variety, because it's like 17 pieces of music by the same band. So you know it needs variety, but you also don't want it to look like you're shooting a series of pop videos. The coverage of it has variation in it, but it's emerging out of the story. That was a challenge. But, again, it's not a kind of heavy challenge. You need to approach it like a kind of tap dancer, really be light on your feet if you approach it. I really enjoyed that.

How close are the arrangements to the original Beatles songs? How much freedom did you feel altering the sound of them? 
Boyle: There is one or two exceptions, but they are pretty close. And that was [Himesh's] natural instinct, to get to the simple heart of the song and to play that. It's kind of got a purity about it. He has a connection with them, I think partly because he has a bit of melancholy in him himself. The exception was "Help," which was wonderful to do as a kind of punk version, almost, of the song. Because the song has been misinterpreted and was seen as a great pop tune, sing-along pop tune, when in fact it was a cry from the heart from John Lennon about feeling trapped inside the maelstrom of their fame at the time. It was a cry for help. Of course, in terms of our character, he's also at a low point at that moment because he feels like his eschew to fame and his journey he's on is taking him further away from what his true destiny should be, which is Ellie, the girl that he's known all his life. She has always had real faith in him, rather that the people having the faith in him because of the songs, which he knows are not his. Ultimately, he is honest to himself in the end.

I wanted to ask how you connect to Jack’s journey. How do you relate to his days as a struggling artist and as a successful artist? What changes does success bring?
Boyle: Well, I'm not sure you can never feel like yourself. If I was going to ever feel it, I'd ultimately say I would think I'd stay the same. But I think some people would disagree with that [Laughs]. I think they'd say, "No you didn't." So, I think I can understand people, and it does change you. If you are of a mindset like I am, you think you wish you'd stayed the same, but I think you can't help but change to a degree, and the weight of your life changes, it gets easier in some respects. I think probably a bit tougher in other respects, as well, but what you've got to remember is they're what we call champagne problems, really. If you are having success you gotta be careful to remember that. My favorite expression of all is one said many thousands of years ago by Plato, which is, "Be kind because everybody you meet is fighting a hard battle," which I think is so true. And if you are in a privileged position, which I am, then you should be especially mindful of that, I think.

'Yesterday' | Universal Pictures

When you signed on to direct Yesterday, the Beatles' camp had already signed off on allowing the use of their songs. What convinced them? 
Boyle: I think it was the insolence of the idea. They didn't go for a biopic or a life story or your traditional way that you would cash in on your catalog, your great catalog. The way to cash in [is] you just need to renew it, find a way to renew it, and the traditional route is a life story biopic. I think the idea that they would back a film that saw them erased from history as a starting point, I think that probably appealed to their perverse and vibrant sense of humor. You see it all the time in your research about them, they were cheeky and they maintain that. They come from Liverpool, where they call them Scousers, they're very Scouse with [their] sense of humor. I think it's typical of them that they would give the go ahead for something like this [laughs], that [they're] erased from history, or erased from the consciousness of everyone. I think they probably like that idea, really.

I can imagine an artist with a big ego not going for it.
Boyle: Yeah. Just the opposite. There's something about them that they've retained the common touch. They really have. And I think they come from a very ordinary background and despite everything that's happened to them, and I am sure they've been changed by fame, like you're asking me, but they have retained a common touch. When you hear of how Paul McCartney brought his kids to regular comprehensive schools and made them work, and the values, obviously, do them good in the end. So, you keep a kind of respect for those people who are fighting a hard battle every day.

You said earlier how maybe they wouldn’t go for a traditional biopic, which makes me wonder, whom would you like to make a musical biopic about? 
Boyle: We have got a script, actually, about [David] Bowie. I was a big Bowie fan, and probably more so than the Beatles, in a way. Yeah, we've got a script, which is a slightly unconventional story. So that's a possibility. We approached him about it, actually, a few years ago before he passed away and he didn't really want to do anything about the past 'cause he, obviously, it didn’t fit his creative life. We didn't realize, at the time, that he was unwell and all that. He wasn't sharing that news with anyone other than his family. So we might be able to go back to that. You never know. You might, if that really is your wish, you might get it fulfilled sooner than you think, you never know.

I'm happy to hear you say "unconventional biopic." That is the only way you can do Bowie justice.
Boyle: I agree completely. And it would be unconventional. There’d be some dancing as well, you know, that kind of thing. It'd be a bit of fun.

Throughout your career, [The Man Who Fell to Earth] director Nicolas Roeg has been a major influence for you. When you make a romantic comedy like Yesterday, how does Roeg still inspire you? 
Boyle: It's interesting because we did a little tribute to him at the BFI just a couple of weekends ago, which was extraordinary. It was interesting thinking about him, you know, and he would have liked the psychedelic Beatles, I think. You know, I think that would've suited his sensibility. And his control of sound is inspiring, even in the film you may not think visually is his world, his mastery of sound is fun. Even now when sound has become so sophisticated, his use of it back in analog days with was supreme. So, I would imagine that he's influenced me in that even in this film. 

There's a cut at the end [of Yesterday] after [Jack] sings "Help" on the rooftop, and there's a really hard cut to Jack alone in the dressing room immediately afterwards and then [his friend] Louie walks in to the emptiness and it's a kind of dream in almost in a way. And that's very Roegian use of sound. Like one of the things we showed at the BFI tribute was the use of sound at the beginning of Don't Look Now, which even now is rather cool. Even now, that's rather radical, and it still feels original and different and uneasy. It immediately sets you to feel ill at least, even though most of what you're looking at shouldn't make you feel like it does. And it's the use of sound to convey that I think. 

Yesterday is another movie of yours with a great soundtrack, but what songs have you yet to use in your career you’re itching to put in a movie? 
Boyle: There's a lot, definitely. There's lots and what's lovely, I mean, I'm not [as] current with music at the moment as I used to be. You know, it used to be effortless the way you knew new music, and now it's more of an effort or I access it through my kids. But I still listen to it every day, and it kind of makes me feel like I value what the Beatles began, the pop culture that the Beatles began. It was still playing out and that element of it, the music element of it, I access every day. And I don't make films every day, I don't watch films every day, I don't watch television every day, but I listen to music every day.

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Jack Giroux is a contributor to Thrillist.