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'Millions' Director Looks to His Boyhood

Danny 'Trainspotting' Boyle Finds a Catholic Past in His Present Work

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 21, 2005; Page C08

Do we have this correct: Danny Boyle has made a PG-rated movie about children? The same bloke who made "Shallow Grave," that sardonic black comedy about yuppie murderers and the sawing off of body parts? Or "Trainspotting," the grim, Iggy Pop-pounding saga full of Scottish heroin junkies? And there's no way we could be talking about the same director who gave us "28 Days Later," with its post-apocalyptic, flesh-eating zombies.

Way, laddie. He's one and the same. And the film is "Millions," a gore-free charmfest about two preteen brothers in the north of England who find a huge bag full of English pounds just as Britain is preparing to convert its currency to the euro. One of the boys is Damian (newcomer Alexander Nathan Etel), a chirpy 7-year-old who sees visions of saints, including one that lights up a cigarette in front of him.

Alexander Nathan Etel, left, and Lewis Owen McGibbon play brothers in the north of England who find a suitcase full of money in "Millions." (Giles Keyte -- AP)

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"You can do what you like up there, son," the haloed St. Clare tells Damian, amid a puff of smoke. "It's down here you gotta make the effort."

While we're dispelling wrongheaded notions of Boyle, he is not a tough-talking, Marlboro-chaining, tattoo-festooned punk-poet waiting with impatience for your next stupid question.

"I'm not that guy," says Boyle in the kind of gentle tone you'd expect to hear when the library is about to be closed in 20 minutes. Or offering you wine and wafers at Communion. Rather, Boyle is an amiable 48-year-old from Radcliffe, a small town in the north of England, who at one point seriously contemplated the priesthood.

"My mom was desperate for me to become a priest," says Boyle, who attended religious school as a teenager. That is, until a certain Father Conway took the 13-year-old Boyle aside and counseled him not to join the seminary. "I don't know if he was trying to save me or the priesthood," says Boyle, who took the priest's advice and eventually took up drama at the University of Bangor in North Wales.

Up until "Millions," there hasn't been much indication of his former spirituality, although it could be said he has created a religion out of darkly limned humor. There's an indefatigable cheeriness in his work, even in "Trainspotting," which not only features characters shooting their veins full of heroin but one surrealistic scene in which a junkie, attempting to retrieve narcotic suppositories, dives headlong into a toilet. "In the middle of this horrible filth and squalor," Boyle explains, "there's this amazing Glaswegian sense of humor that shines through. The story's set in Edinburgh but there was definitely a Glasgow spirit."

In many ways, "Millions," which opened Friday, is autobiographical. Frank Cottrell Boyce's screenplay (which he then turned into a novel, in a reversal of the usual process) is set in the world where Boyle grew up: the Catholic north, a very different England from the southern, London-centric version that most British films show. One of many settlements for Irish emigres, like Boyle's parents, the region is a world where little boys and girls recite the catechism in their sleep and know their saints intimately.

"Oh, big time," says Boyle about his familiarity with things Catholic. He stopped going to church at 17. "You think you've forgotten it all but it all comes back." (Scriptwriter Boyce, he adds, is a practicing Catholic "and has seven kids to prove it.") The Boyles had a statue of Our Lady of Fatima in the front yard during his childhood years. Young Danny went to Communion every day, twice on Sunday. But he finally persuaded his parents to give him a break on the afternoon Benediction since it interfered with his homework. When they came back from church, he says, his parents always touched the back of the telly to feel if it was warm.

Those memories, so vivid, made Boyle determined to make "Millions" reflect the life of a northern boy, even though he and Boyce ( a Liverpool native) grew up during the 1960s. "I always remember what it was like to be a kid," says Boyle. "Very vividly. So making this film was like an open door for me. . . . I really connected this story to my past and wanted it to feel like the way I viewed things. I also don't like the way the north has traditionally been presented -- in those kitchen-sink British dramas of the '60s -- as a victim culture. Growing up, I didn't feel that way at all."

He wanted "Millions" to make childhood "feel great. I wanted vibrancy, not pole-faced kids." Although he had interviewed hundreds of children for the part of Damian, he couldn't find an actor with that spirit until Etel, a nonprofessional, answered an open call. "He walked in the room with some other kids," says Boyle, "and I saw him at a distance and I thought, 'I bet that's him.' I just had that feeling. Someone later said to me it's because there's an old soul in that child. Well, I find that very pretentious but I can't find any other way of explaining it. I just thought, 'It's him.' "

His instincts proved correct. Boyle imitates a line from the movie, in which Etel's character -- looking for candidates to give away money to -- asks someone in the street if they're poor.

"Are you poo-ah?" says Boyle, laughing in a sort of slow-motion, sotto voce bray.

"I love the way he does that slightly flat northern accent. I had to kind of back off directing him because there were some things that came out of him you couldn't direct. He was just so unique and extraordinary." Halfway through the filming, Boyle's director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle, leaned into Boyle to make a comment about Etel. "He said to me, 'The kid doesn't blink. Watch!' So in the editing room, we fast-forwarded through all these long takes, looking for him to blink. Couldn't find anything. Very strange."

Aside from a 1989 television movie called "The Hen House" (about an Irish boy, born out of wedlock, who was raised in a chicken coop), this was Boyle's first serious encounter with young players. With the help of a youth acting coach from Manchester, Boyle worked closely with Etel and Lewis Owen McGibbon, who were 8 and 10, respectively. He also brought the actors' mothers into the process, especially to help the boys appreciate death, since both their characters have lost their mothers.

Boyle also prepared for this movie by studying such childhood-themed films as Louis Malle's "Au Revoir Les Enfants," Rob Reiner's "Stand by Me" and Lasse Hallstrom's "My Life as a Dog." He says the most important thing he learned was "being careful not to leave your fingerprints" on his performers. He points to one scene in which the boys discover Internet pictures of a woman modeling a brassiere. Anthony identifies the dark spots in the bras as nipples. And when Damian asks what they're for, Anthony explains they're for feeding babies.

"It's such a delicate moment," says Boyle. "If I explained all the resonances to them, those fingerprints would start to show." The scene worked precisely because of their innocence, he says.

"Children are like gossamer. You learn to give them the right atmosphere and the confidence. And you just leave it to them."

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