Outer space is no place for romance or comedy - at least that's what British filmmaker Danny Boyle discovered during the year-long script development of Sunshine, his latest feature collaboration with Alex Garland, who wrote the Boyle-directed The Beach and 28 Days Later.
"Just try to find a space movie where romantic relationships work," asserts Boyle, during a lively interview in Toronto earlier this week. "We tried several times to develop a bit of romance between two characters and found there's too much at stake. You get intensity of experience in space movies but not joy. So there's not much room for comedy or sex - everything is waiting to destroy you."
Sunshine, a space thriller set in 2057, follows the fate of eight men and women who have spent 16 months aboard the massive spacecraft Icarus II, which is carrying a nuclear device the size of Manhattan designed to reignite our dying sun. When the crew discovers and tries to rescue Icarus I, which disappeared seven years earlier, the crew's safety and sanity and, of course, the future of humankind, are suddenly in danger.
Despite making the popular 28 Days Later, a zombie thriller that helped rejuvenate the subgenre and began a wave of Brit-made horror flicks, Boyle, who also made Trainspotting, definitely leans toward the realist school of filmmaking.
"There are two branches of space movies - fantasy sci-fi like Star Wars, where anything goes, and films based in reality, which people also really love," explains Boyle, who entertained a preview audience the previous evening with stories about research he and his collaborators undertook as the ambitious but (relative to Hollywood) low-budget film was taking shape.
"We went through about 35 drafts, which is one way to make tightly-controlled-budget films because you explore everything on paper and make your mistakes there," Boyle says. "As we started to think about the film visually, we were in constant contact with NASA. We also had physicist Dr. Brian Cox with us the whole time, who found a human way to express the maths, which was extremely important because it's all about mathematics."
The look of Icarus is partly inherited from Alien and its ilk, but also influenced by NASA research, in particular the ship's greenhouse. "If NASA ever does long-term space travel, they would take ferns because they're amazing producers of oxygen," explains Boyle. "And the crew would grow their own food, because the whole culture of eating - washing, preparing and cooking - is crucial to sanity."
Indeed, both the physical and mental fortitude of the Icarus crew is pushed to the brink in Sunshine, which Boyle says has much in common with submarine movies. "They say the two types of movies that never fail are movies with 'wedding' in the title and movies set on submarines," he says with a laugh. "There's something we love about claustrophobia. Everybody thinks movies are big landscapes, but actually we love the opposite - trapping people. That's why people love space movies. You take your finest representatives of Earth, seal them inside a steel tube and send them off into space."
As for Boyle, he took his fine international cast and sealed them in a student dormitory in East London before sending them onto elaborate production sets. "During rehearsals they each had a dorm room and shared a communal kitchen." Boyle says. "They put up with it for two weeks but it did create a group mentality." The cast's preparation included scuba diving and working flight simulators at Heathrow. "Actors arrive in a bubble of self-concern and baggage from previous movies. So you need to pop that bubble and make them live in the film."
Boyle was particularly impressed with the transformation in Sunshine star Cillian Murphy, who plays the ship's physicist. Murphy's first major film role was in 28 Days Later. "Since then he's done some really good films [Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley]and what he's learned is responsibility," Boyle says, explaining, "A good actor, in the end, takes responsibility for the film; otherwise you don't have a film."
Sunshine marks Boyle's first time working extensively with computer graphics. "CG is not necessarily liberating," he says. "When you can have anything, it can be baffling, plus you're not going to see it for a year.
"I wanted the CG to feel real, like it was touching you," he says. "To do that, I had the CG follow the actor, as opposed to the other way around. I always had something there for the actors that [represented]the experience, so disturbing and frightening things happened to the actors on set." For example, in a scene in which Cliff Curtis ( Whale Rider) dies in a dust storm, massive blasters hammered the actor with biodegradable dust ("disgusting stuff that goes in Cornish pasties.")
"He was very brave," Boyle says, after an energetic demonstration of the actor's ordeal. "So what he did was just act the dust; he didn't have to act the bigger picture of the sun and the power of the universe. That came later." Just another working day on the final frontier.