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."