TORONTO — Whether or not movies like the melodramatic "Trainspotting" and the zombie yarn "28 Days Later..." are to your liking, you have to admit filmmaker Danny Boyle is full of surprises.
Now he's pulled off his biggest one to date. "Millions," his new picture, is a comedy aimed at family audiences.
It's also a project he was determined to make, because it expresses sides of his personality that most of his films - full of darkness and intrigue - have left beneath the surface. He's an optimist at heart, and decided it was time to create something that reflects this spirit.
Set in the near future, the story centers on two young brothers who stumble on a bag of money - it's crammed with pounds just before Britain switches to the euro. If they don't spend the cash fast, it'll be worthless.
But how should they use it? One boy believes it's literally a gift from God, while the other - a less imaginative, more feet-on-the-ground lad - sees it as a tool for winning friends and influencing people.
Mr. Boyle is delighted to have spun their exploits into a PG picture. But the differences between this and his earlier fare poses "a big problem" in marketing terms, as he told me over lunch at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "Millions" debuted last fall.
"I have a reputation, such as it is, for quite dark films," he said candidly.
So how should he advertise his new lighter-and-brighter movie?
"Do we use my name to try [to] sell it to the people who would come because of that?" he mused. "Or do we look at what its core audience really is: families? In marketing terms, those two audiences can alienate each other."
Boyle told the distributor not to sell the movie as if it were a typical dark Danny Boyle film.
"The whole point was to make something different," said Boyle. " 'Millions' is really about goodness, and how important goodness is - which, of course, is death in terms of marketing!"
The challenge of promoting "Millions" comes partly from the movie's offbeat emphasis on hope and faith in the future, and partly from the way Hollywood has neglected the family market over the years.
"Families are the most difficult audience to reach," said Boyle in his light English accent. "They don't have a niche of their own. Everybody sees young males as driving the film market.
"But remember," he continued, "every young male has a Mum! And your relationship with your mum, the most important person in your life, is one of the things the film's definitely about. I know today's young people may not see the film as cynical enough for them. But it's told from the heart, and it's genuine."
Nor is it entirely different from such jolting Boyle films as "Trainspotting," about drug-dazed Scottish ne'er-do-wells, and his early hit "Shallow Grave," which also had a story propelled by unexpectedly found cash. Even in those dark tales, he says, he tried to create a "life affirming" sense of energy reminiscent of the winds that blow through Manchester, his home city in England's chilly north. Those winds kept him from feeling "suffocated" even when urban stress was at its worst, he recalled. "I want you to feel exhilarated when you leave one of my films," he added.
Although he's had chances to make big studio pictures, Boyle has stuck with modestly produced movies typical of the British film industry - not because he lacks confidence, but because he insists on complete creative control.
He's been tempted by Hollywood-style production, though. "There's no experience quite like watching a really great, big movie," he said. "Films like that unite the world.... When cinema was first invented, it was working-class people who came out to [experience] it. Since then, the middle classes have hijacked it, and tried to turn it into a different thing - sometimes into opera, with 'art movies' and such. But its pulse is a wide and generous one that includes everybody."
By aiming "Millions" at families, Boyle is banking on the ability of a good-spirited movie to reach a wide, generous audience. "There's a sequence in the film where somebody says you've got to have faith in people," he noted. "I believe that very much.... You should treat people well, and your faith in them will be returned with interest."
This is a main theme of "Millions," he added. In addition, the movie "is about imagination and about naiveté - in a mature sense, not an easy sense."
Asked to explain this, he offers a pair of quotations from two of his heroes. "There's a great comedian in Britain called Spike Milligan," he said, "and he once remarked, 'I just want to get the chance to prove that money won't make me happy!' That sums up the older boy in the film."
Boyle's other quote is attributed to Albert Einstein, who said, "There are two ways you can live your life: to behave as if nothing is a miracle, or to behave as though everything is. And that's the younger boy. He's about to take a step into the adult world - he's being pushed there by circumstances - but he won't leave his imaginative world behind."
Boyle certainly hasn't abandoned his own imaginative world. And he hopes the rest of us won't abandon ours, either.