Angie Smith: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Angie Smith, Theatre and Dance producer at the Barbican, and I'm here to introduce our new series Inspired where we ask an artist to invite someone who's influenced their creative lives to share the stories behind their connection.
In our first episode, Michael 'Mikey J' Asante, co founder of Boy Blue, the Olivier Award winning hip hop dance company, and Barbican Artistic Associate, talks to the Oscar winning director, Danny Boyle.
Since the hugely successful transfer of Pied Piper from Theatre Royal Stratford East to the Barbican in 2009, Mikey working with his co-artistic director Kenrick 'H2O' Sandy has created works including The Five and the Prophecy of Prana, REDD, and the internationally acclaimed Black Whyte Gray. East London born Mikey's 20 year career is firmly etched in the UK black music industry. His work with MOBO award winner Kano, put him on the map in 2005. And he's worked with numerous recording artists and created music for film, theatre and TV, most recently collaborating with Brian Eno on Netflix's Top Boy.
Outside the studio, Mikey mentors and delivers choreography composition masterclasses, and he's also a Professor of Electronic Music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Director and screenwriter Danny Boyle began his career at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, but he's best known for his work on films, including Trainspotting, ranked in the top 10 greatest British films of the 20th century, and Slumdog Millionaire, which won him eight Academy Awards. Danny directed a film of Boy Blue's 'Emancipation of Expressionism' on the Barbican stage, a groundbreaking moment where for the first time in UK mainstream education, hip hop was a set work on the GCSE dance syllabus. In 2011, Danny returned to his theatre roots with an adaptation of Frankenstein at the National Theatre starring Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. And then in 2012, he was taken firmly to the heart of the British people, as the artistic director behind the incredible Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.
This is also how Danny came to meet Mikey.
Michael 'Mikey J' Asante: This is great, I think I've managed to back you into a corner because generally, when we're having the conversations that we're having it's usually related to some kind of work or some plan or something that we have to do. How we met I know people are going to be wondering that. Me and you, we've known each other for quite a while now and done some I mean, what is your side. I've never heard your side of our meeting?
Danny Boyle: So we were setting up this enormous project, which was the Opening Ceremony at the 2012 Olympic Games. We spent about a year devising ideas for it, you know what, because it's such as on such a scale, there's so many resources involved. And we'd come up with these sections. And the sections were an industrial revolution section. And it was, that was where the choreographer Toby Sedgwick who I'd worked with before, and we were looking, I kind of knew what we were doing there in a way. And we were working with music on Underworld on it, because I'd asked Underworld who I'd worked with on Frankenstein at the National Theatre. So they were going to they were going to work on that. And then we have this NHS section that was fundamental to it. And I didn't have a choreographer for that. And we had other choreographers involved like Akram Khan was involved, but we wanted him to do his own piece. And but we have this third section, which was about music. And it was about how important British music is. I was looking for a choreographer and all the people who were suggested, because when you’re making big shows like that you're surrounded by the people who want you to do it with someone who's done it before. Because it's safety, they know them. They have established relationships and lots of people mentioned, and I didn't find any of them, right, for... I just felt in my bones. They're not right. But someone said to me, 'You should go and see this group, out in the East End called Boy Blue'. And I go, who are they?
And they gave me this address, down this side street in Stratford, I went into this house, it was like a house. And there were these guys, young guys, they were about 15, 16 and they're doing a battle in the lobby of this house. And I had the most extraordinary experience, Mikey, of watching your guys work in that room. And there were a bunch of people, about 50 people, there must have been, or they felt like, 50 maybe it was less, who were there for a class and I remember Ken being absolutely brutal with them, tolerating nothing. I mean, these were amateurs, these were not these are not professionals. These were people off the street who fancied a bit of dance, you know, but they were - the commitment to the process of the way the man was speaking to them. And the way the music was speaking to them, was total for an hour. And I'd never spent an hour like that. And I knew, at the end of the hour, I thought this is, I'll get these guys to do it. Because there's a very important part of the story. So the section was the history of British music, pop music, and how important it was to us. One of the sections was actually to get a bit of the Sex Pistols' 'God Save the Queen', because that's a very, very important part - punk - of British music. And, but that single was banned by the BBC. And obviously because of the insults to the Queen, and the Queen was going to be in the stadium. So there was all this, you won't be able to use that... And I saying we've got to have 'God Save the Queen' in it. And eventually, I had to go and see John Lydon - Johnny Rotten, to get their permission because he thought it was a stitch up, we were gonna use it and cut the lyrics, we were just going to use the tune and not hear the, the words that he'd written. When he was 19, he wrote those. And so we played him the section it was going to appear in the section that you guys were doing by then, you know, building this music and choreographing the sequence to him.
And My Boy Lollipop was part of it. And he went, that's Millie Smalls, you've got Millie Smalls in it? This is Johnny Rotten. And I said, Yeah, of course. He said, she was the first black artist in the charts that there ever was like, and he just went like that. He said, I've just written a song about a called Lollipop Opera, which is on one of his albums. And he said, you can have the song. And it's just, it was it we built, we built it out of the proper material. And we'd given it to the proper people, and I just left you guys to it then and you bring me stuff, you'd cut all the stuff together. And Ken would do it and then it was like you interacting with all the other departments you give out your work and all the costume come in and, you know, all the lighting and all that kind of these massive scale things, but the mobilisation of people around the central idea that this no matter who they were, now, this was their music because they'd grown out of this. The music scene in Britain is something that we've always been good at, out punch our weight.
MA: For a small island. Yeah, it made me feel proud. Like, it was so interesting. Because, you know, first off, the first thing you said to me was Michael, it's got sound like a party. I don't know how we make the 50s 60s music sound like a party. And I said, Danny, don't worry. I've got this.
DB: I know. But that was the thing about what you guys brought to it is that you transformed it into being like an academic exercise, which anybody can come up with that idea, to it feeling thrilling and vibrant and part of modern life. And, you know, it was the now.
MA: It's awesome, kind of to sit down and talk with you and to really kind of talk about process because I think about it more. So surrounding what I do as well, right. So when I think about what I've done musically, it's so very varied, even though my application is hip hop, you know, the main kind of way I've treated all of my music tasks has totally varied in terms of style. And I feel the same with your films. So even though you're kind of the fulcrum, the centre point of all of your films, I feel like there's an identity that's different to each film that you have. So I was so interested in how the process kind of works in terms of building, you know, the project up to a space where you come to record, knowing that there's not like a specific style. Or maybe there is maybe there is a specific style of Danny's films? But I've always felt like yeah, there's so very varied, so I really wanted to kind of unearth some of that somewhat.
DB: It's really interesting, a lot of it comes from writers and I had a very special training. You can't really train directors, you have to learn it. I mean, I guess music. I mean, you can't really train musicians, you can go to school and learn certain parts of it. But even that, I mean, you can learn how to read music and write music in music. But, but in film, there's no particular skill you have to learn. But what I mean by train is I went to this theatre, the Royal Court Theatre, I got a job there. Its philosophy is that the writer is the ultimate authority. It's the writer decides because it's the writers voice that the theatre is dedicated to. And that's no matter who you are as a director or as an actor, or as, you know, one of the contributors to music or lighting. It's a writer's theatre, and I realised how much I've carried that with me. And that's helped me create variety in the work. Definitely, you know, by having a kind of respect for writers because obviously, I don't just work with one writer, I work with a number of different writers and we all we each have our own different ambitions and, and we kind of lock together to work together, I've managed to work with a small bunch of writers who keep my work, I hope, keep my work varied. But I don't know what, I don't know what the equivalent is for you? Is it your likes? You know where you like something that isn't one definition, like hip hop, you reach some... Because I know you use people's work in your work.
MA: I think more than anything else was obviously hip hop is built on the idea of sampling. And sampling is something that is a tool, you know, I see it as a tool. So to be able to kind of take something and interpolate it into something fresh and something novel, even though it's from an older kind of record, or some part, you know, that's definitely it. But when I think about creating something more than anything else, it starts out as a vision in my head, a vision of a feeling or an emotion or a space. And generally, what then happens is, is once you've created that, you then think about who and so from an artist point of view, I would have a session with a particular artist, and I would kind of DJ in some kind of way, like play them a playlist that I think that they will go for, you know, or you can make something for them whilst you're there. And you know, that's generally a cool way because more than anything else, the artist will feel a bit more connected to that. But then say something like with Ken, from a Boy Blue perspective, sometimes I come with the full vision, and the idea of what the movements do and even some, probably some dance motifs as well. And I see that all in my head, and might make some milestones throughout the sections of each piece. And then say, you can do anything else you wanted to in between, but these are the points I want us to hit. And so I create that musical structure for it to kind of sit in that way.
DB: Like when you say you 'see' - because often when we talk together and we're working together, you talk about an energy. Do you see the energy literally in visual pictures? Or do you, is it just one of the senses that you're using to describe the experience?
MA: Yeah, more than anything else it's - that's why kind of talking to you is dope in this way. Because I see in moving pictures literally, like, it is me watching one of your films that will give me an inspiration or someone else's films that will give me an energy and inspiration. So what ends up popping into becomes like a hodgepodge of reference points for me to kind of put together as one sequence. So it was kind of doing like visual editing in my head. But yeah, sometimes I do feel like a powerful energy to go, this is the move that has to happen. And this is how it has to feel. And then I'll manifest it musically as well. Because like, say, Black Whyte Gray, when the intro of Black happens, I saw that vividly, I saw that exactly, exactly how it started in terms of how Dixon was lying on the floor, the undulations with his back, but where we went from there, you know, then I left that for the interpretation of Ken to kind of do. So sometimes it can be that potent and that powerful. And I mean, is it that way with you? When you say with the writing, you have to write it down before you start seeing it in your head to direct it.
DB: No, although I've written a couple of bits I work, I've noticed, with the exception of Alex Garland, actually, who has himself turned into a director with a keen visual sense. But generally I work with writers who don't really have that, they write certain images, but they don't really write like that. So I tend to bring that. And I literally, because the way I work is I often bring photographs, as you know, because we've often shared them, I bring in photographs, not because it has to look like that. In exactly the way you're talking about being inspired by something that makes you I want it to, it's almost like you bring in your playlist to inspire other artists wants to kind of like show people stuff. And language is so difficult to use, I find it so inaccurate. We don't listen to half the things we say to each other because you're listening to yourself too much. But if you got a picture, it's a picture. And it's blue and black and grey and you know, that's the picture, you can share that and nobody can contest that we've all looked at the same image. But it's the springboard what it does to some of them I would literally want to literally recreate like you just said about the start of Black, Whyte, Gray. But some of them is just to let other people riff on like it's a springboard. That's what's in his mind. One of the assumptions is that you can understand what's in other people's minds, which we know, you can't, you can try to. And when you have a good relationship, which like you and Ken obviously do, you obviously make a lot of strides towards being able to see inside each other's minds. But we never do completely do it.
MA: Yeah, I mean, I think about when you said all of that, just then it just made me think about how do you create, I guess the opportunity to know these pictures are going to work. Like for me is, it's like, probably a process of osmosis, so to speak, where you kind of are reading stuff, you're watching stuff, you're kind of experiencing stuff. And then it all kind of sits in your head and then settles into a space where it comes out in some way, shape, or form. Sometimes that happens to me with music, especially from a sampling point of view. You know, is your process kind of the same in that regard?
DB: Yeah, you kind of like, it's osmosis, isn't it to begin with. And then there's a process, which is humiliation, which is putting it in front of people, clearly, it tells you, they don't need to say they're usually polite, and say, oh, but you realise 'oh f*ck, I shouldn't show them that, that's terrible!'. Because that process is very important part of the process, isn't it, when you display to people what you're working on, or what you're thinking, and you've got to, that's one of the things I learned. There's a particular stage of it in films, which is the test screening, which is the most neurotic pressure that you come under, as a young filmmaker, to think that you're going to put something up unfinished, that the public are going to judge and then the studio are going to crucify you by using people's opinions to make you remake the film and all those kind of stuff. But actually, when you get over that barrier, it's one of the most liberating and wonderful feelings when you can share it with people, and it isn't finished. Because you learn things about I could so improve that I can make that so much better. They don't know where he is! I can tell they just lost him! They don't know where he's going to or they don't know who she is. He's just mentioned there, and they don't, you know, stuff like that...
MA: Yeah, I mean, I think what's been powerful for me in in my current, I guess, creative world, is giving the ownership to other departments, so to speak. So allowing, so for argument's sake, in terms of dance, Ken giving him the licence to kind of run away and consider his own energy on it. And then the same with lightning, and the same would costume, you know, feeling like you've created enough, I guess generative material for them to then have their own journey and that way, I mean, you think of it the notion of a director - does it have to be your vision? Or is it allowed to be kind of modified by, you know, other character, you know, the, some of the cast, or some of the film people, you know, the people working on your production?
DB: You read a lot about this stuff. And, you know, about certain people being insistent on it being a certain way and things like that. And people are certainly like that, to a greater or lesser degree. The truth is that all things are changed by participation. Whether you, whether you think you're a control freak or not. They're gonna change. Because, certainly in I don't know what it's like in dance, this is a really interesting thing to talk about. But in terms of film, or theatre, the actor changes everything. Absolutely. And he can't he or she can't help it, they just change it. Because the chances that that is the person you were thinking about when you wrote it, are zero, obviously, you know. You had a one particular image in mind, if you did, and it ain't that person. And then suddenly, Joe Bloggs comes along, you know, Benedict Cumberbatch comes along, or Johnny Lee Miller, they're completely different, and they bring all that baggage with themselves not just in terms of how they look and sound, but also all their emotional baggage that they bring. And that you discovered during rehearsals that they bring on. We did this show Frankenstein, and Johnny had just had a baby and subsequently, Benedict, but after the show has two, I think. And Johnny's performance was very influenced by his son. Whereas Benedict's wasn't because he didn't know what it was to be a father yet. So their performances were slightly different. And they brought that, you know, that's a very obvious example of it, which I noticed straight away in, in rehearsals. So people change everything but in dance, do they do that? Where they are more, they feel more anonymized in terms of individuality, but then you do. I remember you've talked about this, you do that the pattern of your work is to create a pattern and then to liberate individuals.
MA: That you see, you got it spot on, you know that we're doing all these things, like probably our well known piece called EoE (Emancipation of Expressionism), which obviously you did the recording of for the one we did at the Barbican, that's a good example of having fixed points, but then giving people this is your vibe. That's your eights, do what you have to do in them, you know, and hip hop always has to have that sense of spontaneity. I think for me, it's kind of, you know, I've been I've been reading a lot around jazz and looking at hip hop, and it you know, it's close, I guess, relationship. And seeing that improvisation is probably the biggest and most important element to all of those falls and hip hop dance is no, you know, no stranger to that same thing. It has to be some point of not knowing what's about to happen, that's going to kind of take it to the next space. And I guess with my limited knowledge, it feels like do you allow that to your, you know, I feel like sometimes because you see, like the, the outtakes you see stuff like, you know, director's cuts, where there's things that they would have wanted to keep in or moments and energies, I think my mind goes back to what happened in Django [Unchained], where Leonardo got so into the scene, he's when he smashed his hand on the table, he actually smashed his hand. And is it about you creating the atmosphere, giving the energy? And then letting the moment happen? Or is it you know, what, once they act, they're doing exactly what they've done from rehearsals.
DB: I mean, you mentioned Leonardo, he, I've worked with him, he is an amazing actor. And he has grown as an actor, his improvisation, his contribution to films is enormous now. And I was very lucky to do, I did a Q&A with Quentin Tarantino when he was promoting, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, saying in the Q&A that actually that amazing scene where Leo's character comes in into the caravan, full of neurotic self doubt, it's completely improvised. But it wasn't even in the script, I believe, completely improvised by Leo. And that's a good example of an actor and a director, both of whom are A-listers, respecting each other, and building material through that respect for each other's skills. So he covered it in just a couple of cameras, so that he could jump in and out of it, which is, but you're not, you're not directing an actor in that space, the actor is saying, 'Let me do this. Let me just let me just run with this'. And you've got to think all you got to do is just figure out a way that will give you editorially the way to exhibit it best. And sometimes that's like in one take, where there's no flexibility, you're just going to just going to see a oner for a particular effect you want to create. But other times, it's just to give yourself enough in, in camera where you think, yeah, I'll have to reduce that a bit. And just, and you give yourself enough control to be able to get in and out of it elegantly, really. That's a very good example of them improvising, though, I, as a whole I I'm very script based going back to what we said at the beginning about my training in a writer's theatre, I tend to be very loyal to a script. And I'm happy to improvise, but I cover the script first, I have that kind of like old fashioned thing about, get the see, we've got the scene as it was written. And now we can play. And it's interesting comedians, especially when you work with them on film, they want that freedom, they'll do the script that's written, and then they want to improvise 10 different lines to get the end more and more outrageous as they go on. You know, because they know, in doing comedy, that comedy is something that, you know, you film something, and it's two years before it comes out. And it might feel flat and stale by then. And you might want to pep it up. So that kind of improvising is always a good thing. But I'm very script. I'm very script based.
MA: Thinking about casting to a degree…
MA: We know that that's a process and a moment in the idea of creating a film. So just for the sake of the conversation, and for me more than anything else, what is the process? Okay, let's pick 28 Days Later. Really, really unique and quite a, I think, interesting take at the zombie, you know, genre, so to speak. And obviously London, you know, we hadn't seen London in that way. And like the big scenes like that you had, especially the ones where the whole of the country had shut down. What is the process from, I guess from writing to getting into, you know, what is the names of each process for you specifically, do they have means is that or is it different every time?
DB: That's a very good example of a combative chemistry. Alex had written the book that The Beach is based on, but he wasn't involved in the making of the film. Although he came over to Thailand, where he had spent many years touring. And we began to develop a friendship. And then he gave this little script. And then we began to talk about it. And the first thing that came out and it led to what was a very constructive but combative relationship, was that he was a zombie addict, he absolutely adored zombie movies. George Romero was, you know, the Archangel Gabriel. I mean, he was just, he was just like... And I couldn't bear them. I just, I always thought they were ridiculous. Now, I'd said that in a provocative and facetious way to get a reaction, but it got a good reaction out of the two was because... because I thought, I did that thing. It's an obvious thing, which is they're not scary, you just have to trot away from them, really, you don't even have to break into a run to get away from them. They're so slow, and all that kind of stuff, which is not appreciating the point. I've grown to appreciate them much more actually, since making one. Anyway, but it meant that we came up with, we wanted to come up with a different way of doing the the zombies although we didn't call them that we call them 'the infected'. And we had this idea that the infection was based on something that was very prevalent then, and comes and goes, and it was social rage. It was road rage, which was there were a couple examples of it of people pulling up in motor cars running somebody off the road because they feel they've been cut up. Actually, there was one case of a guy stabbing, this famous criminal stabbed this student, ran him off the road and stabbed him and killed him. And they've been trying to imprison this guy called Kenneth Noye, I think, and they've been trying to put him in jail for years because he was a gold bullion robber. He lost all his freedom because a guy in a Mini had cut him up in a Range Rover. And I remember thinking, if you can bottle that moment, that's frightening, because there's no reason. It's just insane. Based on the fact that there's another human being there, and you hate them. The big breakthrough was Gail Stevens, the casting director said you should go to this agency in Leytonstone, it was for retired athletes and gymnasts. So those people who we saw in the Olympic Opening Ceremony, the ones we did Mikey, then they'll all have retired now, they're over their careers are over! Some of them when they're in their mid 20s. So what these people do, is they set up an agency where you can hire retired athletes who are still super fit. This is a whole new world to me, because it's smart, because huge pool of talent, which because of age is excluded from the prizes anymore. And yet, there's all this ability. So what I did is I went to the agency, and they gave us a space in their office. And I got a bunch of them, these athletes to attack me as violently as possible. But in order to protect myself, and also because I knew they'd be attacking Cillian Murphy, or Naomi Harris, I said, you can't hurt me. But you've got to do everything but that last moment of impact. And of course, they have incredible discipline, because they're athletes and gymnasts. And it was one of the most frightening things because I don't know about you, but athletes bodies are on a different planet to regular people. I mean, it's like dancers, I guess...
MA: I'm a regular person as well, Danny!
DB: I know. Absolutely. So we made the zombies run very fast. And also, there was no way you could escape them. There's no way you could fight them. They became a true threat. Really incomprehensible. We wanted them to be a terrifying threat for a modern audience. So that's great. And then you put Cillian and Naomi in the middle of it, and you say survive. There you go. You've got to survive.
MA: That sounds so... because I think wasn't that truly genre bending film because essentially, every zombie film from that point on everyone run, even down to like The Walking Dead.
DB: We should have made a television series... If we know what we know now we should have made a television show!
MA: Yeah, it was literally because when I think about it, it was the first time I'd seen zombie films done in that way. I'm a weirdo, I'll watch one film every night, the same film over and over and over. It just becomes a pattern of being able to sleep.
DB: And what are you watching?
MA: Currently, I'm watching Total Recall, the latest version, I want to watch something that doesn't provoke my brain and allows it to kind of relax and go to sleep because sometimes just my mind could just be buzzing with so many different thoughts, feelings and ideas.
DB: And when you look at them, do you get what you get often apart from pleasure of movie and storytelling? Obviously something we all get from movies of all sorts and persuasions. But do you get music ideas from them or movement ideas from them?
MA: Sadly, my hobby has now turned into... because that's what films were, it was truly a hobby. It was always films were the thing that I used to relax, but now doing stuff with theatre, now doing stuff for film, you know, and even doing the latest Netflix Top Boy, you know, that is just become the process. I listen to the show. And so now I'm working all the time.
DB: That's the problem, isn't it, I have a good thing where I kind of, if it's good, I'm not working. If it's good, I'm able to... Because I cry in front of films and laugh and, and you know, I lose myself, I literally lose, I suspend disbelief and properly enter into it. If it's not great, then I'm working all the time - criticising it, thinking, you know, hunting for how you do it better and all that. Effectively samples like you.
MA: Yeah, that's me from the jump, I have to always, if I want to enjoy something, I have to watch it twice. Like even watching watching Barbershop Chronicles, one of my friends Inua [Ellams] show. And even though I wanted to celebrate him, it was a massive thing that he had done. It was awesome was at the National. I just sat there thinking, Oh, how did they do that? Oh, that was really nice. I like that, you know, and then I had to come back and watch it again, just to be able to absorb the full experience.
DB: I saw that that was a fantastic show.
MA: I always find myself in that space now sadly. And yeah, I will be watching. Funny enough, you know, obviously, not to kind of give away a few things... You know, I watch something recently, that's related to something we're doing. And the composer of that I realised his chord sequences and stuff are really similar to mine. So that really was not so now I'm now researching him a little bit more. And yeah, anytime I watch any kind of show now, I'm always listening to what the music's doing.
DB: That it's true, isn't it? In all, certainly anyone I've ever met, Mikey, who's any good, they're mad at researching. What I think what you're talking about is research effectively.
MA: Always, yeah.
DB: You hear this word research, and it sounds kind of like special. And but it's not. It's in our cases, it's watching really good stuff. And it's looking at how it's done. And you and you gradually begin to realise, I could do that. And I see now when I read a scene, I know how to, how it should feel. And how to make that feeling appear after all the technicalities it has to go through to get there. Like who do you, of composers that you listen to? Who do you like? Who are the who the great composers do you think?
MA: It's crazy, because I don't, I've never ever looked at it in that way. In terms of film, because I've never had anyone that does do the sound I do, in that realm. Only people like Riza has been used a little bit, you know when I'm talking about hip hop heads that kind of started to move to that. But more than anything else, I'm always looking to people who are creating tapestries in their music in general. So Kanye West, definitely the older Kanye West, you know, he's someone that I'm listening to. So it would always be artists and musicians and producers like a J Dilla. Or it's just more contemporary music from a from a hip hop standpoint. But it's only recently that I'm starting to look at composers directly, you know, because obviously, Hans Zimmer, he's everywhere, but Pharrell, he did what he did with Hans Zimmer for Minions. So like say, that was an interesting pairing, we're seeing that world kind of be unearthed now where people from the hip hop world, where people from the Black music world are finding themselves in that space. And it's really new to me, if anything, so that's why the research even becomes a little bit more fun. Because now all the composers who probably would be well known and, and have been the backdrops to so many different films that I've watched, are now all fresh and new to me. So I would say I'm at the beginning of my journey.
DB: No, I think the point you make is very, is right. It's extraordinary how slow Hollywood and I'm pretty much all the film industry has been to absorb hip hop, other than as needle drops, what we call needle drops, which is obviously when you insert - because I've done this a lot - I insert into films, a pop song, and it's a recognisable one, you just go 'Oh, it's David Bowie. He's not part of this world is he?' But the song fits or whatever it is that you drop it now, but there's a much bigger part of the process, that presumably will arrive, and at an accelerated pace now, which is hip hop composers, scoring films, emotionally scoring films, and that's when I look at your work for Boy Blue, you can see that because you use many many different textures. So obviously your palette has very particular definition, but it can go anywhere as well.
MA: And hip hop as a style and as an element, it wants to taste, it wants to enjoy, it wants to be a part of all. It requires you essentially requires your energy so that's why Brazilian elements from like, say a capoeira point of view, or, you know, from a dance styles point of view, everything has entered into hip hop in some way, shape or form. Like I always show people that the juxtaposition between what is Krump and ballet. And interestingly enough, the guys who made it was a guy called Mijo and another guy called Tight Eyez, and then made Krump. Tight Eyez specifically studied ballet. So he you see in the early realms of Krump specifically, he used to do the positions - first, second, and third were stomps that he would use. So if you go back and look at the old version, you can see how he kind of had that experience with ballet and then entered into, you know, the work of well, his style, so to speak. And that's yeah, that's hip hop. It always wants that. And I think, for me, it always comes from a space of studying orchestral music and being a because I was Grade 8 singer. And I did that for GCSE, and I did it for A-Level. I'd studied, you know, Stravinsky, and, you know, Bach, and Mozart, all the classics, you know, I mean, but then, at the same time, I was really into harmony. So that kind of seeped in, in a major way into what my work is as a hip hop practitioner. Now, I would say.
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DB: Just listening to you talk, I was thinking, you know, we think how far behind we are in terms of film, composers, we were just talking about it - out of date. Really, it will update soon, but it's out of date. And most art forms are out of date. The one that isn't out of date is music is what John Lennon said. The thing about music is that you can, especially these days, of course, is that you can write it in the morning, and you can put it and it could be out on the streets in the afternoon. And it's got more progress in it than any other art form, I think. And I particularly benefited for that because I copied the energy of MTV, when it arrived, into my films. And at the time, it was regarded as being 'Oh, that's a bit cheap. That's not classic'. And I was going. I'm sorry, this is f*cking awesome. And that came from MTV. I mean, it was completely imported from MTV, which is that you made films like pop videos were beginning to appear, you know, as they were on MTV. So it was a huge influence on that.
MA: You made me think about Trainspotting in a totally different way. I mean, for you was that like a defining moment for your career. And I think the idea of, of what you did really does feel like you know, was like a punk record. You know, that's what it felt like. Now, when you said everything you said, I'm like, yeah, it was like a music video. I didn't realise, the way it moved the fast paced the scenes, you know, what was that like a big moment for you? And also at the same time? Was it a defining moment in terms of the skill set? And did it live in that, that MTV world that you described?
DB: Yeah, I mean, it was, it was we made this first film, Shallow Grave, which was a kind of update of of a classic thriller, you know, with it with a kind of slightly more modern sensibility. And Ewan was in that as well, but he had really thick gorgeous hair. And at the time, he was known on television, it appeared in a in a period thing where that long hair was a great thing. We sent him the book, and he said, I want to play Renton. And our jaws dropped and we went well, you're not really Renton. Because in the book, Renton is a ginger haired skinhead really. And Ewan went away and six weeks later, he came back and he shaved his hair off completely. To the horror of his agent. He given up alcohol and dairy products, and it just gone down - and he was skin and bones. He was barely recognisable.
DB: And it's that bravery than artists going 'That's mine'. It doesn't matter what you think, as a director as a writer... it doesn't matter what any of you think - this is mine. And you get that sometimes with actors where they just go, 'That's mine'. I get that. I understand that. And that's mine. And you kind of don't get in the way of that you let that... That's that wonderful adrenaline flush of creativity coming from someone else.
MA: Watching that film as a young man, I hadn't seen nothing like that. Literally. I've never seen anything like that and also was talking about a culture which made no sense to me, per se. I was kind of liking it to when I first heard Eminem's first album, and he was talking all, you know, using I guess very Western names, you know, in records. Usually I'm listening to hip hop or these, you know, more Ebonic sounding names. And all of a sudden, he kind of opened me to this world that I hadn't considered before, which was a white, you know, hip hop mentality, but at the same time steeped in a culture that was totally unique to mine. And I felt that's what Trainspotting did in the way that I had never expected, you know. And I didn't know I was going to like it if I'm honest.
DB: It comes out of, just to go back to writers, where I kinda started. It comes out of an extraordinary book - Irvine's never quite wrote anything like it. Irvine Welsh who wrote it. And it's way better than the film, the book, if you can read it. It's written in the vernacular, so there's a barrier to begin with, which is trying to decipher what they're saying. Your brain kind of unlocks it after about 10 pages. You think you're going to need a lexicon all the time to look up words and stuff like that but you don't. Your brain unscrambles it, weirdly, after about 10 pages. And it's a complete masterpiece. It's written out of pain, witnessing extraordinary suffering and dependency and danger. And it's also written with that humour we were talking about. Pitch black sense of humour - in the worst possible circumstances, the humour is at its fiercest.
MA: There seems to be regular collaborators in your work so far. Would you agree?
DB: Because we were very lucky and our second film was a big hit, Trainspotting made a big impact. You kind of want to, your instinct is to do something different, because you don't just want to repeat stuff. But having said that, I've also really cherished trying to build relationships with people who can, who know you better than you know yourself in a way. So that's the best place to be in. Because you build stuff together then and it's not about people's reputations or previous work or anything like that. You're just building something new, afresh really. And it's a lovely way to do it with people you've been around the course with. Yeah I really enjoy that. And I try to do that.
MA: I've always enjoyed the idea of regular collaborators. Because yeah, you're growing together, you're kind of building together.
DB: Yeah. And the danger, if you've had a success and someone new comes in, the danger is the relationship is with the success rather than with you. They're reacting to the image of the success you've had previously rather than reacting to you and what you're talking about together.
MA: For us in the music world, making that first album is easy. Because you're using every year of your life up until that moment. And when you make the second one, it's your life past that moment. So it's the next three years of your life, or your next two years of your life, you’re making that album. That’s always tough. Because it changes the tone, it changes how people perceive what you’re doing. And it puts a bit more pressure, I would say, on you as an artist. Definitely, because I’ve always come at it from a musical angle. But watching my friends who are artists, delve back into themselves. I wanted to ask about one more film – because it felt like a turning point in your career. That’s crazy that I’m saying that to you…! Slumdog Millionaire – from a writing perspective, I really do see what you’re talking about in terms of the story. I never had a moment where I was figuring out what was going on and how to be a millionaire mattered. And then right at the end, there was a big dance piece! And it was kind of blending, I don’t know in terms of the style, because the end felt like a Bollywood film – so I got that connection. But at the same time, your work has been so varied from doing [Steve] Jobs, to doing Slumdog, to Trainspotting to 127 Hours, all of that stuff makes it so interesting to think about what brought you to doing Slumdog Millionaire? And how did that process come about.
DB: So I got a script, I didn’t know Simon Beaufoy, who I’ve got to know very well, and we’re working on something together at the moment. But I knew of him. He’d written Full Monty. Which was a creeper film, it wasn’t an instant success when it first came out. It slowly built through audience reactions – the audience built it into, in terms of an indie film, a monster hit. Anyway, this script arrived from my agent and it was called Slumdog Millionaire. But I didn’t really read that, they said it’s based on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? And I remember thinking, I don’t want to make a film about Who Wants to be a Millionaire, that’s like Chris Tarrant! But then I saw it was written by Simon Beaufoy, whose name I recognised, so I thought, out of respect of Simon, I should read some of this. So at least I can reply to him, courteously, and give him the impression of the whole thing. After 10 pages, I just knew – we should make this. And so going to India was discovering this whole new world. And as soon as you get there, in Mumbai, my Dad was there in the war, and he used to tell me what an amazing place and people it was. He loved Indian people which where I grew up in Manchester it was very unusual, there was a lot of racism against Indians and Pakistanis then. But he was virulently, because of his experiences in Mumbai, his love of the people and what they made of their lives with so little, that really made a mark on me. And I found his arguments, in retrospect, fifty years later, I found them completely persuasive. I mean a lot of people react against it and can’t take it – I mean it is an overwhelming sensory experience. But for a filmmaker, if you get a great script, like you get from Simon Beaufoy, and you get Mumbai – you’ve just got to go with it. And see if you can exercise any kind of control over it, because it’s a beast. The city is a beast that offers you wonders and dangers so you’ve just got to roll with it. So I learnt so much on that film.
MA: It was another of those kind of Beach moments. You always manage to go, OK, It’s a Danny Boyle film, so it’s going to be good… Then you rock up and I don’t know how he took me on this journey but I like it. It’s like a theatre production – that’s the best way to kind of describe it. Because you only have one space in a theatre production. But when I think of 127 [Hours], when I think of Slumdog, there are moments in one area and from that moment we get transported to somewhere else. That might be a scene change, but we’re always brought back to that original space. To kind of perpetuate the tension. Is that something you’re drawn to? Or something you kind of create?
DB: I think it is, there’s a kind of theatricality that you… When I was working in the theatre, when I was a kid I never went to the theatre. First time I ever went in a theatre was when I was 16 and I got a job at the Bolton Octagon as an usher, you know just to make some money after school. Whereas film, like anyone, I was mad about films. I always wanted to make films. But they always said in theatre, you can never go into films because you think about things too theatrically. But actually, one of the things we’ve been quite good at as a country is developing theatre directors into film directors. Because I think the biggest difference is actually television. There is a connection between theatre and film which is if you want to be a filmmaker you have to have a certain flair. A theatricality in a way of announcing yourself. The vision. It’s big and bold and demanding. In the way that theatre can be wonderful because it’s saying, you are looking – there’s just one space, everybody – this is the whole world, right there! But television is different. Television is that. That’s what it works best on, actors and faces. And that’s what it’s built on. Now that’s very reductive of television – it’s an amazing artform. But then it felt like there was more of a connection between theatre and film and the big film about film is that you have to learn some of the technicalities but somebody, I think Orson Welles said, everything technical you need to know as a film director you can learn in an afternoon. The rest is up to you, what you want to do with it. Have you got anything to say? Have you got the right people around you to help you say it? That’s all the skills around it, rather than technical as such.
MA: I mean, generally all the films I’ve watched where there are kind of one situated space, everything that happens has that kind of energy. It’s always been written flawlessly because you’ve kind of created – and I’ve done this musically too sometimes – you kind of create boundaries to kind of sit in. You have to ring dry, every idea. And that’s what theatre does for me too.
DB: I think you’re right. Boundaries are really important. Restrictions – you would think ultimate freedom is helpful, I’m not sure it is sometimes. Having the restriction of a smaller budget or certain parameters makes you really inventive within those parameters. Rather than just saying you can have everything you want. And you kind of can’t make your mind up then. Whereas if your plan is slightly made up for you, then you push at those boundaries and kind of flex.
MA: Well yeah man, I feel like I’ve extrapolated a lot from you. I’ve learnt a lot and hopefully it was a nice conversation.
DB: Yeah it was. It was good.
AS: That was Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante and Danny Boyle, our first guests on this new series, Inspired on the Barbican podcast, Nothing Concrete. Next week, curator, writer, actor, director and expert in disability, health and social care policy, Jamie Hale talks to Australian comedian, Hannah Gadsby, who rose to international fame with her Netflix shows, Nanette and Douglas….
But until then, subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you enjoyed this episode, please consider supporting the Barbican by texting BARBICAN followed by the amount you’d like to donate, to 70085. Thanks for joining us – and goodbye for now.