He's the republican who got the Queen to turn Bond girl, the avowed leftwinger the Tories chose to open the London Olympics, the Oscar-winning director determined to remain an 'equal citizen': meet the ultimate idealist
Last month, the BBC's head of drama, Ben Stephenson, addressed a meeting of writers, commissioners and producers. One key passage could be distilled into two words: Danny Boyle. Stephenson told his audience he wanted them to seek inspiration from the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, which, he said, had scale and brilliance and, above all, had succeeded not in spite of its Britishness but because of its Britishness, delighting viewers here and around the world by rooting itself in the authentic stories and spirit of these islands.
Stephenson hardly needed to elaborate. Boyle's Isles Of Wonder spectacular – with its rising chimneys, its fiery, forged Olympic rings, its bouncing children on NHS beds and its airborne Bond girl Queen – had barely finished before it had become a byword for a new approach, not only to British culture but to Britishness itself. Politicians would soon be referring to it, using it as shorthand for a new kind of patriotism that does not lament a vanished Britain but loves the country that has changed. Boyle's ceremony was hailed from (almost) all sides not only for getting London 2012 off to the perfect start, but for providing a nation that had grown used to mocking its myriad flaws with a new, unfamiliarly positive view of itself.
The man himself paid little attention to all that, reading few of the countless analyses that sought to divine the ceremony's true meaning. He did not watch it on TV, seeing it the way the world saw it only when he came to record his director's commentary for the DVD. He did not take a bow, gave no interviews where he might have soaked up the adulation. He is talking now only because he has a new film to promote, one he shot in London before the Games and edited afterwards: Trance, a stylish, high-concept thriller that sees the director returning to the devilish cleverness and sympathetic crooks of his debut, Shallow Grave.
That's partly because he saw the ceremony as work of an entirely different kind. It "felt weirdly more like a responsibility, a kind of civic or national responsibility", he says, the Lancashire accent surprisingly strong in a man who, now 56, has lived in the capital since he was 21. We're in a cafe in central London, not far from the office on Wardour Street where he and four others set up shop in 2010, steadily filling the walls with images – of favourite British places, TV stars, books and musicians – that would eventually brew into the show that played, one time only, on 27 July 2012.
"I do have an ego, to do with the success of the films or theatre, like anybody, but this one wasn't like that," he says. He wasn't looking for kudos and insisted on a similar attitude from everyone involved, no matter how stellar. "Paul McCartney, JK Rowling were told, 'This is the people's show and you're lucky to be in it.'" He smiles – an impish, playful smile that comes readily – adding that he thinks the audience noticed the difference. People came up to him in the street – "really ordinary people" – not looking to pose for a picture, as they might have in the past, but instead quietly telling him how much they had appreciated what he had done.
Some, perhaps especially on the left, were surprised by the love of country that shone through Isles Of Wonder. Had Boyle always known he was such a patriot? "No, I discovered it," he says, partly through the making of the ceremony itself. He worked with the estimated 10,000 volunteers who formed the show's cast – the director famously attending every one of hundreds of hours of rehearsals, in the car park of the abandoned Ford plant in Dagenham, among other places – including a hardcore of serial Olympic ceremony volunteers, people who had taken part in openings in Sydney or Athens. One day he got talking to them. "They see us as a beacon, this country as a beacon. As a modern, progressive country, and they aspire to it – especially London. And you think, yeah, we are actually. We're all right."
Dissenting voices on the night were rare. When the Conservative MP Aidan Burley denounced Boyle's show as leftie, "multicultural crap", it was Burley rather than Boyle who was slammed. (Boyle calls him only a "foolish man".) But that critique did not disappear. A week later, Stephen Glover declared in the Daily Mail that the show was nothing less than "Marxist propaganda".
Boyle rejects that, insisting that though he has his own politics, the ceremony did not lean to the left. "It was very important not to be trapped by that, because I knew the Tories thought it: 'He's a leftwinger and it'll be full of leftwing stuff.' But it was too important to have a narrowness defining it. I wanted this to represent as many people as possible – and the fundamentals of our society."
For him, the NHS was first in that category. "We've decided, as a country, that we're having that. You can change it a bit, you can fuck about with it a bit, but we're having that. A universal healthcare system is something we've decided is fundamental." He felt the same way about the BBC, though his show made less of it than he would have liked: "I couldn't big it up that much because they were broadcasting it." It would have looked like a conflict of interest, he says.
But surely both those institutions – the BBC and the NHS – are collective endeavours, automatically locating their founding ethos at least on the left side of the perennial argument? "The very fact that we do them collectively – there are many people involved in the collective, not just the leftwing. Otherwise it wouldn't work. Otherwise it would have gone." The whole nation, he reckons, agreed long ago that when it comes to a national health service or a national broadcaster, "We believe in that."
I ask if his faith in the NHS has been dimmed by the Mid Staffs revelations. He answers that of course things will always go wrong. He then cites a letter in a paper he had seen a couple of days earlier, from a woman whose father had been treated by the NHS. The letter had moved him and, as he speaks about it, I can see tears beginning to well, quickly chased away. Some will say the attachment is naive, but it's certainly not fake.
For all Boyle's insistence that he was presenting a settled, consensual British view, it still looked quite an achievement, given who was sitting in the front row of the politicians' enclosure. Watching Boyle's hymn to collective endeavour – with cameo roles for the Suffragettes and the first trade unionists – was the prime minister of a Tory-led government and a Tory mayor of London. Many wondered how on Earth they had let him get away with it.
He was helped in part by Steve Hilton, the now-departed Downing Street guru who served as the linkman between Boyle's team and the government. Hilton was one of the few people allowed in a couple of times to see what the director was cooking up. "I think he understood it," Boyle says, by way of a compliment. Where Cameron and his fellow ministers might have been baffled by the "pre-visualisation" storyboards and CGI modelling, Hilton "put it in a framework for them to understand". Hilton, used to prowling the corridors of No 10 shoeless and in shorts, acted as interpreter between the artistic genius and the Whitehall suits.
Further help in keeping interfering ministers and mandarins at bay came from the Millennium Dome – or rather the precedent it had set. The coalition knew how the Dome fiasco had damaged New Labour and feared a repeat – "They didn't want their thumbprints on something that didn't work," Boyle grins – so let him have his head.
Nor did it hurt that a Tory had appointed Boyle. He can't be certain, but he strongly suspects he was Sebastian Coe's personal choice. The Games' chief organiser had written "a lovely, lovely letter" to Boyle after he'd seen Slumdog Millionaire, the 2008 film that bagged best picture and best director Oscars, and sealed Boyle's reputation. Coe wrote of his sadness that his Indian mother, who had just died, would never see the film and how he hoped his children would learn of India through it. A year later he offered Boyle the job.
He was pushing at an open door. The day after London won the bid in 2005, Boyle was reading an article suggesting possible candidates to direct the opening show. "I remember thinking, aww, they should ask me. They should ask me! I live nearby!" (He lives in the East End.) He says he didn't think any more about it – and certainly didn't lobby for the job.
Once he had it, everything seemed to go his way. Or almost everything. Elvis Costello refused to have any association with the Olympics, thwarting Boyle's plan to use the song Shipbuilding in the sequence on industrialisation. David Bowie, having decided he would do no more live appearances, also said no – even after Boyle had flown to New York to lobby the singer, a longtime hero, in person. ("He sounds just like Ricky Gervais. It's bizarre. Close your eyes and it's him.")
And Boyle had plenty of gripes against the Olympic behemoth. He brings up the Rapier missiles stationed on London rooftops before and during the Games – "For fuck's sake" – and the plastic wrap made by Dow Chemical, whose presence outraged survivors of the Bhopal disaster.
Mostly, though, his memories are glowing. Take the sequence that proved the night's biggest surprise: Bond and Her Majesty. What we saw that night was not in Boyle's original plan. He wrote to Buckingham Palace setting out his idea, seeking royal assent to one of two options. Either he would use a double, an extremely close lookalike of the Queen, or he would get a world-class actor to play her, most likely Helen Mirren. He'd already sent a location scout to look for houses that could double for the palace. All he was seeking was royal permission for the joke. "And then the word came back that all that was fine – and she wanted to be in it."
Boyle assumed it was a "wind-up", but the palace confirmed that the Queen really was very keen to take part. The director reckons a crucial factor was the diamond jubilee a month or two earlier, which she knew would cast her in an overwhelmingly formal role. "Like any person in public office, who makes public appearances, she has a natural sense of rhythm." The Queen sensed, Boyle says, that "people are going to be sick of me, they're going to have had enough of that". So she was ready to do something different.
It took time to find a date. The schedule that was trickiest to navigate was not the Queen's but Daniel Craig's: he had to be released from the set of Skyfall. The Queen was patient because, the director realised, she did not feel she was doing them the favour, but rather the other way around. "She clearly wanted her staff to have a day out with Daniel Craig – it was a buzz for them."
And how was she as an actor to direct? "She said, 'I've been to the dentist this morning, so I'm not in a very good mood.'" But she was no diva. Boyle had to give her his instructions only once and she nailed it. "She's very sharp."
Discreet, too. "She didn't want anybody to know. She wanted this to be a surprise for the rest of her family." The first Charles and Camilla or William and Kate knew of the Queen's grand entrance was when they saw it on the big screens in the stadium.
The element of surprise was one of the great success stories of the ceremony, thanks to volunteers who kept their lips sealed. Luck played a part, too. The Sun spotted a Craig double entering Buckingham Palace on the day of filming. But, apparently not knowing what they had, they ran a "Bond at the Palace" story on 1 April: people assumed it was a joke and no one followed it up.
Yet Boyle's happy royal experience has not diluted a core conviction he has not spoken about until now. He's a republican, even believing Britain will become a republic in his lifetime. "I think we will evolve naturally towards that." That's his view even after the Queen did him such a wonderful favour? "She was fantastic. But I think the pressure on them is utterly impossible, as recent events show. It's a ludicrous spotlight they're under. You can still have a royal family if you like, and the historical significance of that, but actually have an elected head of state. The American model seems to be healthy – and inevitable, actually."
That might not come as much of a shock, given Boyle's widely publicised refusal of a knighthood at the end of last year. Why did he say no? "Not my cup of tea, never has been. I believe in being an equal citizen rather than a preferred subject. When people say we're all in it together, it's a lovely catchphrase for politicians to use, but I actually do believe it."
Perhaps it's his youthful manner, the way Boyle seems to fizz with energy when he speaks, dressing like a thirtysomething – and sufficiently trim to get away with it – but the word that comes to mind when meeting him is one rarely applied to a man in middle age. The impression is confirmed when I ask if he is a socialist and he pauses, avoiding giving a direct answer. That's because the right word is different. Danny Boyle is an idealist.
Which is why, despite the excesses of the IOC and the 2012 corporate sponsors, he retained his faith in the Olympic ideal, still believing that it's "a healing and good thing for our kind, our species, for all of us. It brings people together." He later dismisses pessimistic talk of white elephants, predicting that the Olympic Park will be a cherished part of east London in 20 years' time, describing a place where friends and families will "come to spend the day", shopping, going to the cinema, "cycling, picnicking, seeing a show in the stadium in the evening. It will work."
That same vein of optimism runs through his films. The subject matter might seem bleak – drug addicts on sink estates, impoverished and abused children in the slums of Mumbai, a mountain climber forced to sacrifice a limb – but Boyle's films are never hopeless. Indeed, he jokes that he is making the same film over and over again, each one the story of one character's triumph against "insurmountable odds". The twist in Trance – a psychological thriller full of twists – is that you don't know until the very end who that person is.
It was, perhaps, this lack of cynicism that people responded to in Isles Of Wonder. So used to British irony and detachment, it felt refreshing to witness an unembarrassed, positive case for this country. Boyle says this was the most important thing he took away from the Olympic experience: "How important it is to believe in something. You might make a fool of yourself and people will go, 'How can you believe in that, you stupid idiot?' But if you believe in something, you carry people with you."
We're not used to idealism and unbridled optimism in those who are not young, so where does Boyle's come from? "I've been very lucky," he says, explaining that he does a job he loves, with tremendous freedom – thanks to a finance deal under which he makes films costing less than $20m in return for near-total artistic control – and he's made some decent money into the bargain. When people read that he is now dating the star of Trance – the stunning American actor Rosario Dawson – plenty will agree that Boyle is indeed a very lucky man. (The relationship started after the film was done, he says, adding that it would have been "very awkward" if it had been otherwise – then politely declaring that he will say no more about it.)
If Boyle feels blessed, that has translated into both a sense that he ought to give something back – he feels he should do more teaching, like his twin sister in Rochdale – and that life and the world are usually all right. The day we meet is the morning after the Oscars ceremony. He'd had no interest in going, just as he has no desire to live in Los Angeles. (There can be few A-list directors who are less Hollywood than Boyle. He reveals he can't watch live football, though he loves it, because he has only a few channels on his TV. Not because he's boycotting Rupert Murdoch – whose Fox Searchlight company distributes Boyle's films – but because "I believe in our national broadcaster", the BBC, and in terrestrial TV.) He'd quite like to live in New York for a while, where his daughter is studying, but fears he might get flak from a Britain that could feel spurned.
Londoners at least should know his love for the capital is undimmed. "It's given me everything, this city, this incredible city." He looks out of the window at the passing street. "We gather together in these urban nightmares, all these people gather, and the warmth it generates, the ideas, the entertainment, the culture – I've benefited from that. And I feel hugely positive about it."
• Trance opens on 27 March.