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Post-Apocalypse Now!

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pocalyptic zombie movies are rare terrain for established talents, unless you’re director Danny Boyle and writer Alex Garland. The premise of their new film, 28 Days Later, is campy yet effectively terrifying: when a group of animal- rights activists break into an research laboratory in Cambridge, England, they unintentionally unleash a virus that turns people into rage-filled beasts. Flash forward twenty-eight days. Jim (Cillian Murphy), a bicycle messenger who has been rendered comatose by a traffic accident, wakes and finds London completely deserted, except for a horde of man-eating zombies and a handful of humans. He cobbles together a crew of survivors (Brendan Gleason, Megan Burns and Naomie Harris) and after hearing a radio broadcast about a cure for the disease, they set out for Manchester in search of sanctuary.

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Days marks the second time Boyle has worked with Garland, whose debut cult novel was the basis for 2000’s The Beach. It’s a triumphant return to form for Boyle, his best work since Trainspotting in 1995. But although The Beach struggled to balance star-driven studio moviemaking with a dark, existential tone, 28 Days Later exploits its genre roots to perfection: it’s equal parts J.G. Ballard and George A. Romero. The film is an excellent of example of what can happen when filmmakers reject the creative restrictions and bloated budgets of Hollywood. Boyle and Garland spoke with Nerve at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival about B-movie heritage and the modern art of paranoia. — Matthew Ross

What was the inspiration behind this film?
Danny Boyle: The script. I read a lot of scripts, and a lot of good ones. But the idea of a psychological virus was such a fantastic twist on that idea. There’re lots of virus films, and the medical profession has criticized the movie, saying that there’s no such thing as a psychological virus, but you just know they’re gonna find it in ten years time. I thought it was a fantastic premise for a film about contemporary Britain. Social rage and social intolerance are things that I think are new. There has been lots of violence across history, but this is different really because it’s not based on race or gender. There are no barriers to it — everybody can exhibit it and it’s not just a city stress thing either. In Britain you hear all these stories about people falling out about a parking space in a little town and killing each other. Our monster is the infected person trapped inside that rage.

Alex, was this your idea originally, or did you and Danny develop it together?
Alex Garland: It was an idea I brought to Danny, but we worked together on it really closely, about once or twice a week. We had twenty different endings at one point.
Boyle: We changed the story as we went along. It was very organic, and that extended into the shoot. The idea of a quarantined Britain came about halfway through, and we incorporated it. Originally it was the whole world.
Garland: At the time we were writing, we had all these mad things happening, like BSE [mad cow disease] and foot-and-mouth disease, and it was just wild. There were these images on TV of animal corpses burning. There was this sense that the government was not to be trusted — people didn’t even know what they could eat. And, of course, Britain has a history of domestic terrorism and violence and complicated relationships with outsiders. Britain was a paranoid place at the time, and we’re even more paranoid now. This is a paranoid film.

Yet at the same time, you don’t beat people over the heads with the social criticism — it’s still a science fiction movie.
Garland: Exactly — there’s a helpless subtext. Danny and I both wanted to tell a story that’s just a story and not lecture anyone. Hopefully, you can just go to the theater and see it as a B movie and have it function in that way. There’re a lot of nods to other films and novels, and it’s a genre piece in many ways.

Why work in the B-movie genre?
Boyle: Well, we wanted to make the film emotional because that element doesn’t normally exist in the kinds of films We wanted the audience to really care about these characters. We wanted you to feel heartbroken when people die.

Is this a cautionary film?
Garland: Well, there is a subtext, an agenda.
Boyle: But it’s horrible beating that drum. It’s much better for people to read into that sort of thing. Plus, the context of the film changed, because of September 11. Of course it’s not about September 11, but that happened while we were making it, and people are different. The threat in this film is not an external one, not something that dealt with the military or politics. In this film, we’re our own biggest threat.

With this movie, and with the two digital films you’ve made for the BBC, you’ve taken a different path with your career than the one you were on several years ago with films like A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach. What have the past few years been like for you?
Boyle: After The Beach. I needed to change gears, so I did these BBC projects on DV and they were a lot of fun. I figured the best way to do this movie would be on digital. I have a great cameraman [Anthony Dod Mantle], who’s shot many of the Dogme 95 films. The great thing about digital is that you can operate yourself — it really opens it up. All the mystique about the camera is gone.

Are you worried that the film’s apocalyptic element — especially a sequence that shows flyers of missing people pasted on walls — might alienate American viewers, given everything that’s happened in the States?
Boyle: Well, the scene in which we see the notices of missing people on the huge billboard was shot before September 11, and we’ve always emphasized that. We didn’t want people to think of the film as a cheap take on what happened.
Garland: We would have never included that sequence after September 11. It would have been out of the question.

Alex, what was it like coming from fiction to screenwriting? How do you understand the difference between writing fiction and writing scripts?
Garland: Well, the big difference is that screen writing is collaborative. I’m not at all a sociable person. I think a lot of people get drawn towards writing books because they like to spend a lot of time on their own. I’d been doing that for a few years and got a bit stir crazy. The really big thing for me was working so incredibly closely with Danny and [producer] Andrew [MacDonald]. It was chatty, friendly. We got on. That part of it was really good fun, but it was also terrifying at times. When I see a script by James Schamus and the quality of writing in The Ice Storm, for example, I really think: “Jesus Christ, this is truly terrifying.”

There is one scene in the film that has horrible, horrible dialogue. From the writer’s point of view, that’s very difficult, because you’re thinking “I’m the guy who fucked this up.” It was by turns really frightening and also really good fun. But by working with Danny and Andrew, I knew that I was with people who really knew what they were doing.

Are you going to work together again?
Boyle: What Andrew and I do with writers is pay them and ourselves equal money, so we’re all on equal footing. Because of that, they’re not like regular writers for hire — they’re really part of it, so you squeeze months, years of dedication out of them. If you pick a writer who’s got five other things going on, you’re not going to get that kind of commitment.
Garland: Well Danny’s got four or five projects already lined up. I’m not writing anything at the moment. I hope to, but I can’t make any guarantees. I’m just getting to the stage where I’m sitting around in earnest, waiting for the idea to come. I had a great concept for a movie, but then I saw Solaris. It was the same idea.  

© 2003 Matthew Ross and Nerve.com.