The crucial difference is, Sunshine’s director is none other than Brit Danny Boyle, the same guy who turned Trainspotting into a pop-culture phenomenon in the ’90s and who, more recently, revived the all-but-dead zombie genre with 28 Days Later (it had been in a coma since the mid-’80s, so it was no small feat). With a cast of relative unknowns led by Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, and martial-arts great Michelle Yeoh, he has again elevated the cinematically mundane into something akin to art. So we jumped at the opportunity to sit down with him at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.
Sunshine’s cast is incredibly ethnically diverse, even though they exclusively play American and Asian citizens. Can you discuss how that happened?
It’s interesting about space. There are no nationalities in space movies, and in the script there was no gender, no race, no nationality. I remember we cast Michelle Yeoh first, and I remember saying to her, “You can play any character you want of the eight.” When you go out there in space, they’re just human, they’re battling something much bigger than what divides us or worries us on Earth.
But why only American and Asian citizens?
We thought realistically about who would pay for this mission in 50 years time, and maybe the American economy would still be relevant. Some argue it won’t be. Some argue it will be India, Brazil, and China that will be driving the space race in 50 years time. But we thought, because of the strictures of cinematic audiences now, we’d make it part American and part Asian.
The sun, something we generally pay little attention to in our day-to-day lives, becomes a spiritual presence in the movie that offers both salvation and destruction.
It’s almost unknowingly, incomprehensibly powerful to be in the presence of something that extraordinary. The mental effects on the brain — and NASA talked about this with us, as well — would be one of their biggest concerns about long-term space travel. The effects on the mind of the scale, the eternity of things we’ll be confronted by. We all come from a tiny planet where we live 70 or 80 years, which is a blink of an eye compared to these other forces. What kind of effect would that have on people?
You’re one of the few major directors working today who can shift effortlessly between genres — horror, gangster, family, and now sci-fi. But for you, specifically, this seems like a necessity.
I always say you don’t make a film as good as your first film. Even though technically your films are better — they’re more sophisticated, or whatever — there’s something about your first film that’s really special. It’s because you didn’t really know what you were doing, there’s a kind of innocence, this loss of your virginity as you do it. You can never get back to that, of course. You can fake it. You can pretend to be a virgin again. But you can never be a virgin again. But one of the things that allows you to fake it reasonably is to change genres. Because you suddenly throw away a lot of the tools you might have, and suddenly you’re a bit more naked again.
Your movies tend to be quite ambitious, but you always manage to deliver them with relatively modest budgets. Do you have any desire to deliver the next mega-million-dollar Hollywood blockbuster?
What I’m good at is actually making a smaller-budget film be ambitious, where you take a limited amount of money and try to explode it into a film as big as those films. It makes you more of a guerilla in a way, working with people to make the money go further. The problem with the big-budget films is that the money just gets bloated, it gets lost everywhere. Maybe because I’m Catholic, I feel guilty about that. I don’t want to see money wasted. I don’t like people being paid staggering amounts of money. I think it’s obscene. I think there’s a way you can work together to make it more morally reasonable in this world.
Getting back to Sunshine, one always hears about the research filmmakers get to go through when making movies set in space. Did you get a chance to partake?
I did the weight flight, I did the “vomit comet.” Look, if you ever have $3,000 you can afford to throw away, throw it away on that. I’ve never done anything like it. You do those parabolas `in flight` and you’re weightless for 30-second periods. Wow.