For his new film, Yesterday, Danny Boyle teamed up with Richard Curtis, whom he calls "the Poet Laureate of romance and comedy"—the writer of Notting Hill, Bridget Jones's Diary, Love Actually, and many more rom-com classics. They make a formidable duo, each bringing an element of their oeuvre to the table. Boyle's kinetic energy is there in spades, along with Curtis's hopeless romanticism and flair for otherworldly plot twists. Together, the writer and director animate a genre-shifting script.
Yesterday is a romantic comedy with a twist of fantasy. It stars newcomer Hamish Patel as Jack Malik, a struggling singer-songwriter who just can't seem to catch his big break. He's about to throw in the towel for good when a supernatural event gives him a chance at stardom. Suddenly, nobody seems to remember that the Beatles existed—except Jack, who has memorized every single one of their songs.
No Film School caught up with Boyle prior to Yesterday's theatrical release to discuss his advice for new filmmakers, the challenge of recreating an iconic Beatles concert, and more.
No Film School: I thought this film was a really interesting choice for you, in terms of pairing Richard Curtis's script with your directing style. What was it about his script that excited you when you first read it?
Danny Boyle: It's so joyful. It's an attempt to see if you can do something with the spirit of The Beatles' songs. The plot is obviously delicious, too: The Beatles disappear, and one guy is left with access to them, and then begins to play them, et cetera.
It's also a love letter from Ellie to Jack, but the film is obviously from his point of view, and he doesn't realize it for so long until it appears to be too late. I love that.
There were these wonderful moments of melody and song, too. I haven't really done a film like this before. I had just come off a television series called Trust, which was a 10-part series about the Gettys. It's a brilliant world, but a particularly loveless and joyless one. So I read this [script], and I was just like, "I'm in. Let's do it."
We spent a summer making it, and it was wonderful fun. It had that spirit of joy in it always, which I'm very proud of.
"The fact is, there isn't a magic door that, if you get the key, you can walk through and be a filmmaker. There isn't one."
NFS: The film floats between multiple genres. How did you navigate that at the script stage?
Boyle: It's a romantic comedy, but with a sort of high-concept trigger. Richard and I did work on the script together and made it a little more dynamic. We added material. It was a very organic process.
We also worked on Jack as a character. He's got this anxiety—this guilt—that he's carrying the whole time. The more famous he gets, the more he feels like an imposter. That is something that I think we all can relate to, you know? You're always afraid somebody's going to turn up and say, "Stop this charade! You are a fake."
That hovers over everybody I know, anyway. It certainly hovers over me. I always think they're going to come to set and say, "This isn't a proper director. Can we just get a proper director, please?"
"Even if [an actor's performance] is terrible, I say, 'Good. Let's try that again.'"
NFS: Absolutely. Imposter syndrome is deeply correlated with success. So, how did you navigate this genre-shifting on set?
Boyle: To be honest, I kind of do all the films the same way: I try to create a communal atmosphere on the set, where actors feel safe. You know, nobody's going to humiliate them. Nobody's going to say, "Oh, that's really not good enough." Even if it's terrible, I say, "Good. Let's try that again, and maybe we'll do this next."
I try and build a convivial atmosphere on the set that helps everybody bring their best game. I encourage contributions from the actors, so everybody feels like they're working on something that they'll have a part in.
What I would say about directing a romantic comedy is that you have to have a light hand. You have to let the actors control scenes. I don't mean that they tell you how to do the scenes. What I mean is that you let them play the scenes, and you try and shoot them so that their performance is captured by a two-shot or a three-shot, and it's not just singles. Certainly, that's a rule with comedy, and, I think, often with romance—that you need to let actors play the scene. And then you'll work out how to keep the energy and pace of the film in the editing. But you need to let them explore the scenes themselves.
You're trying to empower the actors to make them feel like it's their film. It's not their film. They're about to leave quite soon, and you'll be working on it for months in the editing. But giving them that impression is extremely helpful for the film.
Boyle: When you're doing a thriller, it's different. You have quite a heavy hand. You're controlling. Actors can feel pointed in a certain direction and manipulated.
I regard Richard as a kind of Poet Laureate of romance and comedy. You've got his script, but then you let the actors play the scenes and put their own personality in them, and their own chemistry. That applied here especially to scenes that Kate McKinnon is in. She's a wonderful improviser. She'll do the scene as it's written, and then will improvise a scene to give you other options. It's wonderful to watch.
"I like unknowns. In a story like this, if you get a star in [the main role], it's less of a dynamic journey to the stardom."
NFS: Himesh Patel was excellent in the role, but I can imagine it must have been a battle for you to fight to cast an unknown actor.
Boyle: I like unknowns. In a story like this, if you get a star in his part, or somebody who's got a bit of a profile, it's less of a dynamic journey to the stardom. Whereas if you can persuade the studio to let you cast an unknown, then that arc of them rising to stratospheric fame and then kind of turning back on it and finding his true destination is much more rewarding, I think.
That's my own personal preference. It's not the studios' preference, obviously. They have to sell the film, and they would like someone who's got a bit of a track record or has done a very similar film. I understand that.
But, in this case, it was easy, because Himesh was the only person that we saw who actually had an ownership over the songs, which we certainly didn't find with anyone else. With other people, it sounded a bit like a bit of a karaoke performance.
Himesh was also very honest and straightforward and modest, and that felt like a wonderful place to start. Of course, then you see him begin to grow into the problems with fame—the guilt and the success. If you get success, you want more of it, and other people demand more of it from you.
But, yeah, I had to fight to cast him. Universal preferred a star. And so they challenge your choice, understandably. But they are testing your confidence in what you're choosing, and that's an important role for a studio to play. We worked with a great executive at Universal. You know, if you make a convincing case, then she'll back you. So she backed it all the way, bless her.
NFS: Can you think back to a specific point in the production where you were facing a directorial challenge?
Boyle: In the trailer for Yesterday, he sings "Yesterday" to his friends at the pub. That is one of the great folk songs of all time. Long after we're all gone, it'll still be around. And I wanted to invoke the [English] landscape with that because it felt like Paul McCartney wrote it like he was one of the English poets—Wordsworth or Coleridge or Keats or Byron. He had a melancholic relationship with the beauty of the landscape.
So we set the scene outside that pub, by the water, where you could feel a feeling of the countryside and, therefore, reinforce the idea that this is a timeless folk song. Obviously, for the real audience, they know what it is. But for the fictional audience, i.e., his friends in the story, they need to be moved to tears by it and say, "That's the most wonderful song I've ever heard." That sets up the parameter of the whole film: whether he likes it or not, he's being given the credit for writing these masterpieces. Before, everything he wrote was fairly forgettable. So we had to get that scene right.
"If you're going to evoke the famous rooftop concert that The Beatles played at Savile Row in London, it's got to be good."
Another challenge was the concert scene on the rooftop, where Jack sings "Help." If you're going to evoke the famous rooftop concert that The Beatles played at Savile Row in London, it's got to be good. That was a big thing—to try and illustrate something that has been talked about so much.
And so we built a roof on top of this pub, and he plays a concert in front of there. It was an upgrade to the way The Beatles did it in reality because The Beatles didn't have an audience. People on the street could hear them, but they couldn't see them, because of the angle of the building. With ours, we had access to this town. We'd been there for about six weeks. For four weeks, we planned this day when we hoped the whole town would turn up for this concert because we couldn't afford a big crowd, and we didn't want him to play to just a few people.
John Lennon wrote that song as a cry for help. Everybody took it as being a great pub song that you could sing along to, but, actually, it was almost like an existential cry for help from inside the incalculable fame that they were going through at that moment.
We did a punk-rock version of it. I wanted him to access the anger, rather than just melody. You know, I come from a punk era. That's my own heyday of music. So doing it this way allowed us to connect to the origin of John's song—which is the despair—and also allowed the concert-goers to bounce around like crazy.
NFS: You're obviously at a very established point in your career. I was wondering if you had any advice or learned wisdom from your journey that you would want to impart upon aspiring filmmaker.
Boyle: Curiously, the people you think can help you—like me, or someone who is established in the business—can't, really.
"The people you think can help you [become a successful filmmaker]—like me—can't, really."
People who help you are your peer group. And what I mean by that is your contemporaries. Ironically, it is hopeful, though, because it means that you're not dependent on getting in with an established filmmaker, which is a very difficult thing to achieve. That's what everybody thinks you have to do: "If I could only be a runner on this or that new Hollywood film." For those who can do that, they're lucky, and that's great. But for the vast majority of people, you're not going to get that job.
What you can get is look for and establish relationships with your peer group—people of a similar age, generation, or inclination. Start making work with them. Write scripts, shoot stuff, edit it. You won't know what you'll find until you start doing that.
Some people will annoy the hell out of you. That's good. You'll find that out. You might find that that is actually what you need to be a filmmaker, or you might think, "Oh, God, save me," and no longer work with that person.
Sometimes, it's best that you work with like-minded people. And then other times it's way better to work with someone who's got a completely different sensibility from you. Then, you're better than the sum of your parts.
The fact is, there isn't a magic door to which, if you could only have the key—if some established filmmaker could give you the key—you can walk through that door and be a filmmaker. There isn't one. If there was one, there'd be a long queue at the door, and the rich would be at the front, and the poor would be at the back.
It's a curious business. You're far better off beginning to work with your peer group and knocking out stuff yourself. And it's amazing what you'll find by doing that. That's my advice.