star Dev Patel
, a heretofore unknown British actor making his feature debut, is a bundle of energy when I had the chance to talk to him at a Millionaire
screening, Q & A, and cocktail party at Tribeca Cinemas
After all, he's starring in a Danny Boyle
film, and Boyle is known for films that are a blast of kinetic energy, whether it's the zeitgeist-defining chase that opens Trainspotting
, the terrifying zombies who run at full blast and leave London empty in 28 Days Later
, or any number of films in his eclectic and entertaining career. Millionaire
is a dream of a movie, an adventure into Mumbai, where we follow the hard-scrabble life of Jamal Malik (Patel), a mere "chaiwalla" (tea-server) who's on the hotly-contested verge of winning Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
The eighteen-year-old Patel, natty in a slim grey suit and taupe shoes, is performing some sort of martial arts stretch—legs out, knees askew—while he enthuses on how he feels about his starring role (where, ironically, he does the quiet, stoic thing quite nicely): "It's a blessing, really. I had a role in a little British show called Skins
. I wasn't proud of that. I didn't live up to my potential. Prior to that I'd only done school plays in front of my parents. And this came along and fell in my lap. As a new actor, I'd never been passionate about anything in my life, but I've been passionate about this, this is number one."
A host of Millionaire
-ites were out for that night’s event, including but not limited to Patel, his gorgeous co-star Freida Pinto
, director Danny Boyle, producer Christian Colson
, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy
, and co-director/casting director Loveleen Tandan
. What brought the team together was the script, which is loosely based on the novel Q&A
by Vikas Swarup.
According to Beaufoy (Oscar-nominated for The Full Monty
), Film4 sent him the galley print of the novel, which was "effectively a series of short stories, some involving an Australian spy, some about a Bollywood star. Film needs a through line; there was no narrative there. My heart doesn't sing writing a film about someone getting rich quick.” To make the screenplay work, Beaufoy had to go to Mumbai to figure it out. With a background in documentary film, he’s a believer in “having to go in there, to get in there from the ground up.”
He continues, “It's immediately apparent that [Mumbai] is the equivalent of Victorian London. Mumbai is a city that's rapaciously developing: rich vs. poor, with the intensity of Dickens' writing. Mumbai is too hot, the smell hits you, the tea strips the enamel off your teeth. I usually write English and repressed, but for this screenplay, [I figured] you gotta write melodrama [in] India—the whole thing is like opera. And it had to be a love story, really, and I had to work backwards to make it a love story."
Producer Christian Colson says that his first impression of the script was that it was “so original and weird, [and only] very loosely based on the book.” It demanded a director like Boyle: “We needed Simon for the warmth and Danny for the edginess. It could've been saccharine done wrong—and that would've been a crime. [The film] doesn't airbrush away the truth of what it was to live there.” And a significant part of the truth of the movie is money, class, how both relate to both Jamal and India, and the weirdness of Millionaire
’s (the TV show) high-pressure world. For Boyle, whose films always end up revolving around a bag of cash, that was a lure: “Money, I'm fascinated by it. Godard said all you need is a girl and a gun, and I think you need a bag of money as well.”
With the script in place and the production set to go, the Brits were off to their next adventure: filming on the streets and slums of Mumbai. It was a high-wire balance, and Colson still looks piqued recalling it: “Filming in Mumbai, I nearly had a heart attack. We drew huge crowds. But it gave the movie such authenticity and immediacy.”
Other things changed for the film as well—the lengthy casting process for the three main characters (at three different points in their lives: 7, 13, and 18) was arduous, and led to major changes. Casting director Loveleen Tandan was brought on as co-director in India, rewriting the beginning of the film in Hindi and casting street kids as young Jamal and his family.
Boyle was busy figuring out how to “capture the energy of the streets… this city is in fast forward the whole time.” The solution was in the camerawork; in India, normal film cameras have three boys who guard it at night as insurance, but digital cameras opened the city right up. Anthony Dod Mantle
, “the most amazing handheld cameraman I’ve ever seen” (according to Boyle), was outfitted in a prototype camera the size of a microphone and sent off. Boyle explained, “The only way we'll get away with this is to pull people into this headfirst with close-ups, a chase in the slums. [There was] no cooling system yet [for the camera]—so we had all this dry ice [and] this white guy running through the slums after two children.”
At the cocktail party, the Millionaire
team was clearly proud of their work and sanguine about the film’s Oscar chances, if confident that it will hit a chord with whoever sees it. They needn’t worry—there’s a scene early on that sends the audience into squeals of (oh no!) laughter, and at that point, they’re off running into the highs and Dickensian lows of Jamal’s life. While some of the buzz may be calling the film a comeback of sorts for Boyle, it’s really something quite different. Rather, the film is a chance for Boyle to again snatch the zeitgeist and say something about what’s in the air, the way that people are feeling right now—something he hasn’t done since Trainspotting
As is par for conversation these days, the very British Beaufoy and I eventually got to talking about Barack Obama’s election as president. He says, “We were in America when he won and it was amazing to see it, people with tears running down their cheeks.” I reply, “Well, it's similar to the end of your movie, right?” as Jamal’s run on Millionaire
becomes a media sensation.
“Yes,” Beaufoy replies. “It's about hope.”
Tribeca Exclusive! Writer Daphne Beal (In the Land of No Right Angles) on India's "maximum city" and Slumdog Millionaire.
Slumdog Millionaire is now playing at the Angelika New York, with more cities to come. Buy tickets on Fandango.
Who Wants to be a Millionaire? is still airing in syndication.