When Danny Boyle was asked to produce the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, he thought about his father.
“My dad was a mad Olympics fan. I mean seriously lunatic,” the acclaimed British film director told reporters Friday afternoon. Boyle recalled how his father, Frank, sat up late into the night, watching Games coverage from Mexico and other far off places. “He introduced me to the Olympics,” he said adding that Frank would have turned 91 Friday. “Sadly he died about 18 months ago,” he added. “He didn’t quite make it.”
For Boyle the opening ceremonies represent a personal take on Britain, it’s history, culture and contributions to the world. And it is a varied rendition, covering everything from Shakespeare and the industrial revolution to Peter Pan, James Bond, pop music and even a tribute to the National Health Service.
“We are almost unique in having universal health care,” he explained.
“It’s very near and deer to people’s hearts.”
Boyle said he created the show he wanted and didn’t cater to the whims of politicians or organizers. “You do it for yourselves,” he said noting that he started planning the performance with three other people two years ago. “I did it because I’ve never done anything like this before. You want to keep testing yourself.”
The program is certainly ambitious. It includes 10 separate scenes, 40 farm animals, 7,500 volunteer performers and 70,00 pixels for each member of the audience to wave and create special effects. Paul McCartney will sing Hey Jude, JK Rowling will read from Peter Pan and actor Rowan Atkinson will offer a skit. There’s also appearances by Mary Poppins, Cruella de Vil and Captain Hook.
Boyle said he knows not everyone will enjoy it and some will find parts genuinely baffling. He also had to cut out one sequence involving a bicycle routine because the show ran too long. And he had dust ups with Olympic organizers over camera positions and other artistic issues.
But he said his intention over all was to create a portrait of Britain as a proud, but modest country.
“I hope the show feels gracious. I hope it doesn’t feel bombastic or messaging,” Boyle said. “We have no agenda other than [to say] actually something that was true, values that we feel are true...There’s no bull in it.”
Ironically Boyle he has never attended an Olympic opening ceremony. And he made it clear he was not trying to create something comparable to the extravaganza in China four years ago with its powerful drummers.
“After Beijing you can look back and there’s clearly and escalation, the shows get bigger and bigger and bigger and you can’t get bigger than Beijing,” he said. “So that in a way kind of liberated us. We thought great, okay, good, we’ll try and do something different then.”
Britain is in a very different position globally than China, he added. “We are learning our new place in the world. One hundred years ago we were everything. But there is a change,” he said. “You have to learn your place in the world and that’s a good thing. It’s a very proud [show] but in a modest way.”
As for the cost, Boyle acknowledged the budget was extraordinary. His films, including Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting, cost around $20-million to make, so having more than double that amount for a one-night performance was “staggering”.
“You can always argue that of course it would be better to spend it on some other things,” he said. “But it is what it is. We are all in it together. And I hope that the benefit for everyone will feel tangible, really, and it will feel like money well spent.”