"Sunshine" on my shoulders

Claire Faggioli July 18, 2007

In a recent New York Times article by Dennis Lim, Danny Boyle refers to force that binds his films as their “sheer physical pleasure.” The director of such varied films as “Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later,” and “Millions,” Boyle follows in a similar, sensory overloading fashion with his newest, “Sunshine.” Fifty years in the future the sun has died, sending all of Earth into a solar winter. “Sunshine” tells the suspenseful and spiritual story of the eight astronauts aboard the ominously named “Icarus II,” a vessel bound to kick-start the sputtering star and Earth’s last hope. As the bomb-strapped ship travels further and further toward its goal, the Sun grows ever brighter and more oppressive, a huge ball of swirling light.

In order to heighten the intensity of the orb, Boyle visually deprives the audience by creating a ship of shadows and cool colors; when the red, yellow, and orange sun does appear, it comes suddenly and with pupil-contracting force. While visuals certainly loom large in the film, the sound also becomes an important part of the experience, keeping the audience from feeling too sensory deprived, but without overcompensating. While simple, the sounds do not feel quite clean. A firestorm appears suddenly with loud, swooshing violence and the music’s lo-fi vibrations and electronic beats evoke a hum both technological and meditative in nature. With so much media and promotional attention paid to the audience’s eye, we wished to learn more about Boyle’s vision for “Sunshine’s” careful and visceral soundscape.

SF 360: Could you talk a bit about the sound and music in the film? There’s been a lot of talk about the light— but I find that the sound works in a very similar, isolating way.

Danny Boyle: There’s no sound in space — it’s a vacuum, so you’ve got a big problem. [Laughs]. It’s ironic that there is no sound in a vacuum because in space it’s everything, you know, ever since “2001,” you’ve got this massive agenda set for you to use sound imaginatively to compensate for the fact that you’re in a vacuum, an endless similar universe of nothingness — and music does it; the soundscape, partially, but music most especially. For this one, I always wanted Underworld to do the music. And then as I got closer to it I thought, ‘I can’t harness them,’ because the danger with giving them the music is they suddenly get professional, they have to be composers. So I said ‘Don’t be like that. Because, in fact, when you’ve done it, I’ll give it to my regular, conventional composer John Murphy. What I want you to do is just experiment — just let the film out in front of you and play.’ And they did some amazing stuff for us, and then it was taken by the more conventional composer John Murphy and shaped. He did, obviously, his own things as well, which are probably more classical than theirs. You get the soundscape then from it. We have this great guy that I always work with called Glenn [Freemantle] who does all the sound effects. Really, with British films, one of our problems is that we never spend enough money on sound; because they tend to be slightly under-budgeted they use up all the money and we always ring-fence money for the sound,. When I started, it was the biggest difference I could see between American films and British films — the sound was crap, it was just shite. Nobody could tell what anybody was saying. And it wasn’t the accents, it’s actually the way that the sound is recorded and cleaned up. It has nothing to do with accents. People deal with accents all the time. A couple of minutes into a film and you’re into an accent; you can tell what people are saying. It’s just the shitty way it’s presented. So we always try and spend a lot of money on sound. And 70 percent of the movie is sound. We all think it’s visuals. We always go on about the cinematographers [who] walk around like this [Boyle puffs up his chest and laughs] but actually it’s sound. If you turn the sound off it’s so dull. It doesn’t work really, especially with shock or surprise — it’s all sound.