Danny Boyle’s Trance is a frenzied psychological thriller about the mind and its mysteries. Story goes: Franck’s (Vincent Cassel) a crook who plans to steal Goya’s Witches In The Air from a London auction house, but his inside man Simon (James McAvoy) suffers from fatal head injuries and forgets where he’s hidden the painting. Next, sexed-up hypnotherapist Dr Elizabeth Lam (Rosario Dawson), is brought in to extract critical memories from Simon’s unconscious mind while he is in a trance. Thereafter unfolds a disorienting, non-linear narrative that questions reality and illusion, truths and untruths.
Why did you want to make Trance? It was a couple of things, really. One, I had never really made a film with a woman in the engine room. And of course it doesn’t look like that at the beginning of the film because Elizabeth [Rosario Dawson] enters the film late and she appears to be a kind of innocent, professional bystander. The other reason was to be able to make a film that was a series of trances. Once Elizabeth enters the film, that’s what it is. I love that in cinema because there’s something utterly bewitching about it if it’s done well – everything passes for present time. It doesn’t matter whether it is past time, future, time imagined, time illusionary. You believe it as being now. Film is a unique art form like that.
Were there any other films that influenced you? A huge influence on Trance was Nick Roeg whose work seems to have stylistically informed films like Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Inception, which all have the idea that present time is an illusion. So to be able to make a film that was like that, based on a series of trances, was one of the main reasons for wanting to make Trance. Art stuff is great. It’s fun to do that, but that’s all incidental to this other idea.
Did you get your actors into a state of hypnosis at any point? We had a psychologist who was a bigwig Professor of Psychology at Bristol and a hypnotist, I think. He went through the procedure with James [McAvoy] and Vincent [Cassel] separately. But it was in a circumstance like this with a bunch of people and I think if it’s to work, it has to be more private. Rosario, on the other hand, went off with him in private and researched it with a hypnotherapist so I think she went through it. Whether you are one of the highly suggestible ones is actually the interesting part. That’s what people would feel nervous about. Maybe the actors think, ‘Oh, if I am highly suggestible, he can make me do anything in front of all these people I am going to make a film with. I’m not sure that’s a good idea!’
Did you try it yourself? No. Directors are control freaks I’m afraid. You are never going to let yourself go on a thing like that, especially when you are preparing a piece of work.
Why did you choose the Goya painting Witches In The Air? The Goya is obviously the first and only choice really. We tried to say in the film that he is the first great painter of the human mind. He is the great originator of the psychological painting. Prior to Goya, there were portraits and they may have been psychologically incisive or informative, but Goya went inside the bullring. He went inside the mind and painted what’s inside the mind, so for a film like this that was a wonderful place to begin. Also that particular painting Witches In The Air subtly introduces a slightly surreal element into the film. You don’t realise it because you just think it’s a painting that has been auctioned and has been stolen, but what you’re actually seeing is that Simon is like that guy in the painting underneath, who is hidden and can’t quite see what is above him and around him. And another reason for choosing the Goya work was because he was a great depicter of the nude female form.
Does the nudity in the film have a function? It does for Rosario’s character, Elizabeth Lamb, because it’s a plot device. It’s a completely integral plot device, so it was non-negotiable, which is great because nudity is always difficult with actors. They will always sign on and then try to negotiate their way out of it, understandably, but it was obviously absolutely integral to the plot and the film. So we had to reassure Rosario a bit about the way it was going to be shot. Then I just had to try and persuade the men to get their kit off as well because it would only be fair in a film like this. They were all good for it.
It’s quite full-on nudity for a mainstream film… It’s interesting. When I was a kid growing up in the ’70s, nudity was everywhere and now it’s gone. They all have these theories in Hollywood about why it’s like this now and they say that because porn has become so ubiquitous and so available that Hollywood has tried to separate itself from the porn industry by going the other way. So there are fewer adult scenes in films. But films from the ’70s were full of sex. Sex was a big part of our lives and a big part of our cinema and it was dealt with in many, many different ways. Some was controversial and casual. Things are much more coy now. Maybe coy is the wrong word, but there’s certainly a lot less of it so that’s what we’re trying to do.
Was directing the opening ceremony of London’s 2012 Olympic Games in the middle of post-production helpful when making Trance? It was certainly helpful in a way that surprised me because normally when you shoot a film you are saturated with knowledge of all that you have shot. So when I came back to the film after doing the Olympics I assumed I would remember it all, but I didn’t. Your brain is filled up with other stuff and it was weird watching it all again. It was like reading the script for the first time and you don’t normally get a chance to revisit that innocence when you aren’t quite sure what’s coming next and it’s actually very helpful. But even more important was realising that when you’re making films like this, you shouldn’t give too many clues. It was a real boon being able to come back to it with fresh eyes.
Could you say that there is a typical Danny Boyle film? There is something that virtually all my films conform to – the quest movie. There’s usually a character who faces insurmountable odds and overcomes them. This also applies to Trance. But the difference with Trance is that you don’t know who that character is, and even people who finish it may not be sure who that character is. But if you saw it in chronological order: a guy meets a woman, they have an affair, the guy is incredibly violent and possessive of the woman and therefore she erases him. He returns, as the woman knows he will, but this time he returns with four other violent men. This woman versus five violent men and in fact she over comes them. So there are the insurmountable odds for you. It’s always the same story.
Trance is released on digitalHD on August 28, and Blu-ray and DVD on September 4.