From Goya To Bowie: Danny Boyle On The 5 People Who Inspire His Work

The Oscar-winning director of “Slumdog Millionaire” salutes the virtuosos who roused his creative energies for “Trainspotting,” the London Olympics Opening Ceremony, and his new movie, “Trance.”

From Goya To Bowie: Danny Boyle On The 5 People Who Inspire His Work

Danny Boyle is a passionate man. You can feel it in his movies–from the roaring highs of the drug-addled wild ride that is Trainspotting to the riot of color that bursts through Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle displays his unabashed enthusiasm in every frame.


Even in person, Boyle wears his heart on his sleeve. With his latest film, Trance, an art-heist thriller starring James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, and Vincent Cassel, opening in limited release this weekend, Co.Create put the British writer-director on the spot by asking which artists have most influenced him. Boyle was practically bursting with the answers. Here are excerpts of what he had to say.

Danny Boyle, James McAvoy, and Vincent Cassel


“Many people go on about the great British filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean. For me, it’s Nic Roeg. He’s an iconoclast. He’s not a perfectionist, he’s interested in the enigma of film, the wonder of film. He’s a fluid, nonlinear filmmaker but not abstract–he still works in the mainstream. The period [of his movies] from Performance to Eureka contained all these amazing films–Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bad Timing were all in there.

Don’t Look Now

“He uses time–time past, time present, time future. All is fluid time present. There’s no differentiation. That’s the point: You experience them as real time. The puzzle is, can you relax and go with it? It’s wonderfully rewarding if you can. If you’re rigid and trying to get it back to its correct order, it’s incredibly frustrating.

“He’s a big, big influence on our film. The film [Trance] resembles Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Those filmmakers do credit Nic Roeg, as well, as a huge inspiration.”


“Bowie is a huge, huge influence on my movies–and on me personally. I kind of grew up with him really.”

Ask how exactly Bowie has affected Boyle’s filmmaking, and you’ll get a surprising declaration. “I’m not really a filmmaker,” he says. “Really. It’s why the music is really important in the films. We’re not very good at films in Britain, I don’t think. I think what we’re good at is music. We’re such a small island. Our films don’t copy; they don’t follow a trend. They tend to be peculiar, idiosyncratic. But I’ve always thought that what we’re absolutely brilliant at–and what for me the biggest artistic inspiration has always been–is music. That can be very literal, like, a song you put into a movie, but Bowie’s Low album was a big influence on the beginning of our movie [Trance].” At the beginning of his new film, Boyle has placed a sample of Bowie’s “Be My Wife” while a pink car rides across the frame. “Then it goes through that famous piano break that we loop a couple of times…it’s difficult to talk about music, but it’s always there.”


Boyle says Bowie was “absolutely pivotal” to his second movie, Trainspotting. Originally the film was to have a sequence in which a girl sings Bowie’s “Golden Years.” “Renton [Ewan McGregor] sleeps with a girl he thought was 19, but he wakes up in her parents’ house and she’s going to school–she’s 15. Then in one of his hallucinations she’s meant to sing ‘Golden Years.’ But [the actress] didn’t know the song. When we came to it, she went, ‘Bowie? Who? What?’ ” Boyle looks exasperated. “Eventually she sang something else. She sang a New Order song. [‘Temptation‘], actually.”

The Man Who Fell to Earth, directed by Nicholas Roeg

Despite the fact that Bowie’s music didn’t make it into the soundtrack of that movie, Boyle says the musician was instrumental in attaining some of the songs that did. “He is the reason we got permission to use Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ and Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day.’ We had applied for permission [to use those] but we were nobodies. And they turn you down. But Bowie worked his magic behind the scenes because, of course, he knows those guys.”


“The Goya that gets stolen at the beginning of (Trance) is called Witches in the Air. It hasn’t been stolen in real life; it’s in the Prado, in Madrid, and if you can see it there, you must. Goya was the first painter who went beyond just portraits and landscapes; he was psychologically incisive. No one went inside the human mind as he did. That seemed like a wonderful place to start our film. Plus, it’s got an image of a man who looks like Simon [the character played by McAvoy] under the blanket–he’s only got a partial image of what is happening. There’s a surreal element in it, and there are surreal elements in the film.

Witches in the Air

“Goya is also the first painter to paint pubic hair. He painted two versions of the Maja: The Naked Maja and the Clothed Maja. It’s a double reason to use Goya.”

Laugh if you will, but this factoid about Goya hints at (but doesn’t spoil, don’t worry) one of the plot points in the movie. So, did the plot point come because of Goya, or did he choose Goya for that? “It’s often difficult to decide which came first,” says Boyle. “It’s all chicken-and-egg stuff when it comes to script development.”


Khan is a British modern dancer of Bangladeshi descent. He was featured in Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony, dancing a tribute to the victims of the London terrorist attack that was cut out of NBC’s broadcast. Boyle points to the dancer’s performance, “Dash,” as a big influence. “Akram Khan did a one-man dance show called ‘Dash,’ about being from Bangladesh. It’s 17 minutes, one man, utterly riveting. He’s helped me discover modern dance. It’s one of the most wonderful art forms. If you have not discovered it yet, let it be through him. He’s very idiosyncratic; he’s put down his own marker. It’s his confidence to work with music, scenery, light, sound in theater that’s not literary based; theater is so literary based. It’s that freedom, that past.


“I often think of [film scenes] as bits of dances. I like the camera to be fluid and moving, I like the actors to move all the time. I don’t want them stuck behind desks. It’s more expensive to have them move–the cheap way is to keep them static.”


“I think the most affecting book I’ve ever read is the Primo Levi double book, If This is a Man and The Truce. One of the reasons is that you’d never want to make a film of it. One of the diseases, one of the blights of being a filmmaker is you can’t really experience something without thinking, Can this be a film? Who’s got the rights? But that story is too, too important to make into a film. It should remain a book. I’m not saying somebody shouldn’t try it–that’s up to them.

“It’s the clarity, the honesty of the storytelling, despite the circumstances that he’s in. There’s a little kid in it who is a child without speech. He’s a tiny child of maybe 4 or 6. He does not speak and he’s surviving in Auschwitz. [Levi] talks about the look on the face of this kid who’s surviving. Of course, Primo Levi survived all his journey of life, and eventually its end was the burden of surviving, the guilt of surviving.

“I suppose you’re just reminded to be serious now and again [by this work]. I work in a pop-culture world making films that are entertaining, but there are stories that are truly important, that must never be forgotten. That’s one of them.”


About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.