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Danny Boyle: Steve Jobs would have hated being portrayed as 'likable'

Talking about his new film, "Steve Jobs," Danny Boyle discusses returning to sharp dialogue as well as actual film, plus how biopics can be just as truthful, in a way, as documentaries.
Danny BoyleSteve Jobs

Danny Boyle had quite the challenge with his latest film, “Steve Jobs.” Not only was he making a biopic about one of the major tech gods, and not only was it structured in only three, very long, very chatty scenes. It was also written by Aaron Sorkin. A heavily visual director, the man behind “Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later” and “Slumdog Millionaire” had to make language primary. That’s a little easier when you have people like Michael Fassbender, as Jobs, and Kate Winslet, as his right-hand-woman, doing the talking.

In one sense, “Steve Jobs” is a return to your early days. It’s a film where language is one of the primary factors. So were “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting,” which were filled with hyper-articulate and quotable dialogue.

The guy who wrote those, John Hodge, he writes like Aaron, except very sparsely. But he writes like him. He just writes dialogue; he doesn’t give you any indication of how to do it. He gives you as few clues as possible, which is both intimidating and liberating. Because you realize [the dialogue is] inviting you, either by design or instinct — just inviting you to make a film of it. And that was what this was like. I’d never read anything like it: 185 pages of dialogue between six characters in three places. And that was it. It was so bold, the approach — so simple and bold. It’s very Jobsian, because it doesn’t do the usual conventional thing with the biopic. It makes you think different.

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It’s also bringing you back to the days when you shot on film. Each of the three sections in “Steve Jobs” is a different format: Super 16mm in 1984, 35mm in 1988 and digital in 1998. It must have been amazing using 16 again.

You can hear it going round in the camera. We did long takes, and if you’ve got a hair in the gate it’s really disruptive. Of course, now you don’t even have that. The key thing is Aaron had written so sparsely, the instruction, so we decided to make each act very, very separate. That would allow the actors to concentrate on one act at a time, because we shot in sequence. We’d shoot one act, then that was it. 1984 was done and we weren’t going back there. We wanted the actors to bring a different energy to each section.

What was the motivation behind each of the format changes?

We shot in 16 because it felt like it was homemade. It felt like it was made in a garage. It felt like a format appropriate to the early days. He’s a battler, he’s a rebel, he called himself a pirate; he was like a punk or a fighter. The second act is 35 because it’s about storytelling. It’s an illusion, act two. We always said it was a “subterranean river of intention.” We’re swirling through it and you couldn’t quite perceive what it was. It’s all about show and display and a slightly heightened sense of realism. And then you move to the Alexa, which is the digital camera that we now all use, which is brutally revealing about everything. All the detail is there and you can’t hide from anything. That felt like a wonderful way to make his dressing room feel like he’s inside one of his products. The clean lines and everything he aspired to were now possible. What you’re left with is, “You got what you wanted, Steve.”

There’s a feeling of a kind of controlled chaos here. The actors have said it felt very sane but watching it there’s a breakneck pace and actors running around.

We had this belief that because we had brilliant actors and the scenes were beautifully written, we shouldn’t break them up. I didn’t want to do it like you normally do with a film, which, as Oliver Stone says, is you make your film inch by motherf—ing inch. I thought that was wrong for this. There’s a rhythm if you let the actors go. I told them we were going to film each scene complete. So they would start a scene and would film the whole thing, even if it was nine minutes long — because you run out of film stock after 10 minutes. We’d shoot the whole scene; mistakes, they were left in. Then we would do it multiple times from different angles. They would get into a flow of performance with this language, with his dynamic dialogue. This would drive them made because sometimes we’d do 39 versions of the scene [laughs], so I would have enough angles on them so we could reinvestigate the rhythm in editing. If you thought they were fast on the day, then f— me, you can speed it up even more while editing. You can take out certain things without cutting dialogue. You can remove a breath, because humans need to breathe in order to say long things. That’s where the control comes from. I can understand it feeling chaotic and controlled at the same time, because you’re basically gathering material. You’re just doing it in long stretches rather than in incremental bits.

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Biopics don’t always stick to the facts, and even a more experimental biopic like this, which only looks at three specific parts of his life, winds up fudging some of the details for dramatic purposes.

I think [this film] has a case — which is disputable — for being just as accurate an analysis of him as a documentary would be. You speak to documentary filmmakers and the f—ing facts are very difficult to establish for them, because there are always contrary ones, and always people with opinions. The instincts of a writer like Aaron I trust, sometimes, more than facts. Kubrick said the truth is often not in the facts; it’s in the feel of the storytelling. I believe that. You arrive at what you hope is a truthful portrait of him that audiences will believe is truthful. I’m sure you could contradict it with certain facts. [Jobs, in the film] moves towards reconciliation with his daughter, Lisa, and we’re allowed to see that in a simple tale. In reality he had three other children, with his wife, and she was absorbed into that world to a degree. He did move towards Lisa, so that’s truthful. The actual-actual facts of it I’m sure weren’t necessarily true. But the feel is truthful.

It’s also not a hit piece, though Jobs does often come off as a charismatic jerk. Not that likeability is always a good thing, especially in this case.

We’re not chasing likability, because it would have been foolish to do that. The studios understandably still try to do that. They ask, “Can you make him a bit more likable in this scene?” and stuff like that. If [the real Jobs] heard you use the word “likability” he would have eviscerated you. Because he was about passion. We wanted the film to feel like that as well. You sense this man chasing, trying to erect this thing in front of people that doesn’t exist yet: the personal computer. It’s quite difficult to say to people how difficult it must have been to persuade people about the possibility of a warm, friendly computer. But of course, they’re completely personal now. They’re going to be inside us soon, literally fused with us.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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