What do heroin addicts, a perilous Eden, post-apocalyptic zombies and Indian orphans have in common?
Their unconventional storyteller, Danny Boyle, the director of "Trainspotting," "The Beach," "28 Days Later" and now "Slumdog Millionaire," in theaters today.
Unlike his previous movies, "Slumdog" does not boast any big-name stars -- the cast is mostly local nonprofessional actors. According to Boyle, its biggest star is "Mumbai, which, like New York, is pulsating with the enormous arteries of life. ... Mumbai is an extraordinary force but you are never the same. I came to New York in the '80s and felt, 'Young man, you'll never be the same.'"
"Slumdog" is the tale of impoverished orphan Jamal Malik (played by British actor Dev Patel), who lives in Mumbai's sprawling slums. He gets on the biggest game show in the world, the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," and wins the top prize, which had never been won before.
The authorities assume he cheated his way to victory and torture him. Although he didn't cheat, Jamal hijacks the show for another agenda -- to find his love Latika (Freida Pinto), who is also a street urchin.
Boyle wryly recounted how they expected to have to cut the torture scene when they showed it to the Indian government, but were told to their amazement that "it was fine as long as no one above the rank of inspector was in it."
The movie was originally written in English by Simon Beaufoy ("The Full Monty") but Boyle found when he went to make it in India, it just didn't work. He asked Beaufoy and his Indian casting director Loveleen Tandan to translate it into Hindi, which, according to Boyle, "made it come alive."
He called Warner Brothers, which financed the film, to tell them that a third of their movie was now in Hindi, and had what Boyle laughingly called "a wonderful conversation." They hung up on him when he rashly promised that the "subtitles will make it more wonderful," he said.
Boyle's cheerful, yet willful, defiance of authority is also visually evident in his movie. He did not let lack of permits stand in his way. He recalled how they applied for permission to do shoots from the sky. Because of Mumbai's naval bases, authorities are traditionally wary of aerial photography. It took Boyle and his team 14 months to get their consent, by which time Boyle had already completed his shots.
"They have this head wobble in India, which can mean yes and can mean no and everything in between, so that's the answer to your permit question," he said.
When he didn't get enough shots of the Taj Mahal, he sent a crew who pretended to be a German documentary group. It is guerilla filmmaking at its best.
Boyle said he felt they were "lucky to be there and didn't worry about what we didn't get. It's an incredible place. It looks impossible but is eminently possible. ... You can't be rigidly disciplined there. You have to be eminently flexible."
Boyle was originally determined to cast Bollywood stars but wasn't a fan of the fact that they "have to be ripped and were in gyms all the time." He wanted a guy who "looks lonely, vulnerable and fragile."
His daughter told him to watch Dev Patel, who was in the British teen drama "Skins." Patel had the look Boyle wanted, but also a problem –- his mother. Boyle found out she goes everywhere with Patel and was very protective of him. He issued a warning: "I am casting you as a romantic lead, you can't bring your mom. ... She backed off and he emerged."
With Pinto, whom he describes as a "transformational beauty," Boyle saw her on tape and "a barb in the back of my brain went off -– I kept thinking, 'I bet that's her.'" He recalled the same thing happened with "Trainspotting's" Kelly Macdonald and "Millions'" Alex Etel.
Boyle said that filming in Mumbai's slums was an incredible experience. In the West, the term slums is used pejoratively, but he said that, in reality, they are "amazing places with extraordinary people who didn't want to be pitied." The movie did not pull any punches and shows the abject poverty and harsh cruelty as well as the stark contrasts in India.
"Human excrement is in a lot of places (in the slums). It's part of life there," he said. "Another part of life is that movie stars are deities. You smash the elements together all the time. ... Life is everything and life is nothing in India. How do you reconcile it? You don't. You can leave India but it never leaves you."
Boyle said his favorite scene is when Jamal is being taken back to the show to answer the final 20 million rupee question. He's in the police car, which gets stuck in traffic. A beggar woman taps on the window, but instead of asking for money, all she says is "good luck."
"That's India," Boyle said. "It's full of big love. The scene still makes me well up. That woman was really a street person who gave it her all."
Boyle marveled that "Slumdog" is getting Academy Award buzz.
"It is extraordinary," he said. "We were so far away from that. The local crew in Bollywood are Oscar spotters. They're on Google alerts all the time. They read my interviews and call me immediately. Just to be in the season is crucial for a film like this. You need critics to champion it and a word of mouth campaign. Just to be riding along in the wave is great."
For someone who almost never made it into film, it's almost surreal. Boyle's "dear old Catholic Irish mom" wanted him to join the clergy, but he was "fortunately" dissuaded by his priest.
His favorite movie is "Apocalypse Now" and he loves big action movies, describing them as the "best pleasures in life." As a fan of the genre, Boyle wanted all his movies to have some aspects of an action thriller.
"So many people criticize me for getting zombies to run [in '28 Days Later']," he said. "There is something about momentum in movies –- in motion pictures -– moving forward is incredibly inspiring. ... The city is like that all the time, with moving stories you can harness to the spine of your narrative."
Despite his success, including his recent honor at the American Film Institute, Boyle said he never feels satisfied. In fact, he claims "the more dissatisfied you are, the better the film is. ... In 'Slumdog' I never quite captured the city. Same with 'Trainspotting,' I never felt I captured the book."
What he does feel he's good at doing is keeping a low profile.
"I'd like to make a film about language," he said, "which is guaranteed to keep me off the radar."