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Danny Boyle Gets Inside Your Head

The Slumdog Millionaire director talks about his genre-bending hypnotherapy film Trance.

Hypnotism plays a major part in Trance, the slick, stimulating new thriller from director Danny Boyle, but it’s not just the characters on screen that are being brought under. Viewers may fall prey as well.

“There’s a process in making a film where you have the opportunity to set a decision-making criteria, and the default decision making is social realism,” says Boyle, who won the Best Director Oscar for 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. “What we tried to do with this film was something a bit more delicious. We decided that every decision we’d make—the lighting, the characters’ flats, the clothes they’d wear, the sound of their voices, which was recorded in a very particular way—would be done to seduce the audience.”

Boyle’s overtures are certainly robust. Trance starts out like an art-heist film with James McAvoy’s Simon, a young Turk at a London auction house, providing the voiceover as a gang of natty ne’er-do-wells bust in to snatch Goya’s “Witches In The Air,” a multimillion-dollar painting that does not go home with the highest bidder. (An early plan to open with a montage of clips from great heist films was scuttled because of its price, says Boyle.)

It’s quickly revealed that Simon was in on the deal and that he added his own twist to the artfully crafted robbery—and when he’s bashed on the head in the melee, he forgets exactly what he did with the masterpiece. That’s when he ends up in the office of Elizabeth Lamb, Rosario Dawson’s beautiful hypnotherapist.

“Obviously she’s inspired by a professional hypnotherapist and the power that role has,” Boyle (whose off-set relationship with Dawson is said to have ended recently) says. “For the vast majority of the population, it’s a benign experience but for a small group of people, it’s a much more powerful tool.”

Indeed, Elizabeth is able to pull Simon under, but in doing so spins the movie 180 degrees. When she takes the power she has over Simon and uses it to force her way into the gang—and get a cut of their profits—a series of unfathomable but enjoyable twists and turns are set in motion. It’s a tangled tale and calls into question what is truth and what is just a dream, but that’s just what Boyle says he was going for.

“You take a genre like an art heist and then turn it on its head, because it’s not really about a stolen painting, it’s really about stolen memories,” the director, who created the eye-popping film for a relatively low $15 million, says. “Then you have this brief dalliance with the idea of amnesia, and that’s a lovely thing in movies. But then it’s like a classic noir. When you make a film for this amount of money, you don’t have to obey the rules of any genre.”

Boyle also benefits from having time on his side. The director says screenwriter Joe Ahearne initially approached him about Trance after the release of Boyle’s 1994 film Shallow Grave.

“I said I’d love to do it, but he wanted to direct it himself—he had no experience of any kind, so I didn’t think it was the best idea,” Boyle recalls. “Eventually he went off and raised a very small amount of money and made a television film out of it. But it would be unfair to compare the two, since we had a lot more money and experience. And this Trance barely resembles the original because [screenwriter] John Hodge started working on it a few years ago, and it took on a life of its own.”

Another break that helped Boyle was the one he took to direct the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics. Trance had finished shooting when Boyle started working on his epic event for the Games, an experience that took him away from the movie for almost six months. Despite the juggling, Boyle says the experience was beneficial.

“Doing them at the same time kept me fresh; people often think that it wore me out, but it wasn’t like that,” he says. “It opens you up, the contrast between a family-friendly, national celebration and a dark, twisted thriller. They fed each other in a way.”

He continues, “Normally when you shoot a film, you go straight into editing saturated with knowledge about everything you’ve got. So even though we took six months off, I assumed I’d retain that knowledge but I didn’t. When we came back, it was amazing because we couldn’t remember it. It was the closest thing to having an audience’s experience of seeing something for the first time.”

The director, whose next project will revisit the characters from his breakout 1996 film Trainspotting, says looking at work with fresh eyes “is a great way to make a film.” In order to make this artful movie about the power of hypnotism, it seems all Danny Boyle needed was some time to forget.