“We called it an oil tanker,” he says, looking back. “The Beach was weighed down with impossible wealth, goodness and riches, but trying to turn it around would have taken forever. You just couldn’t do it.” (The Beach disappointed critics and made less than $40 million in the U.S.) Boyle acknowledges that his inexperience and temperament were partially to blame, and that he’s probably better suited to working within tighter constraints. “Some people are great with more, and the more you give them, the better their films become,” he says, citing James Cameron and Ridley Scott as examples. “For me it was more the other way.”
Boyle streamlined for Slumdog Millionaire, taking a nimble team of 10 with him to the chaotic slums of Mumbai, India, though he was abetted by a local crew. A major snag occurred even before shooting began, when a pair of young Indian boys cast in key roles couldn’t act in English. Although Boyle had raised money on the basis of an English-language script, he told his producers—Pathé in Europe and Warner Independent, Stateside—that he wanted to film the children’s scenes in Hindi. Boyle admits the idea must have struck them as crazy, but because only $13 million was at stake, he had just enough personal leverage to squeak the major changes past the moneymen. “I’ve had a couple of hits,” Boyle says with the good cheer of a director looking at his next. “They gritted their teeth and went, ‘Okay.’”
Then in May, Warner Bros. threw the fate of Slumdog into doubt when it axed its two specialty divisions, Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse, home to 2007’s Oscar winner La Vie en Rose. “I’m a card-carrying adult, and I love these movies, but it’s never been a high-margin business,” Warner chief Alan Horn told Variety at the time, drawing a hard line between prestige and the profits earned from Warner’s “high-margin” Harry Potter and Batman franchises. Insiders glumly wondered whether other studios would also close their boutique operations to focus on “tent pole” blockbusters as Warner had done. Such an eventuality would hurt independent filmmakers because the studios’ smaller specialty divisions finance projects under their own labels, as Focus Features (a division of Universal Pictures) did with Brokeback Mountain (2005), or buy the distribution rights for films financed outside the studio, as Focus did with Milk when it agreed to pay 50 percent of the film’s financing but only after it was completed. (However they are produced, most indie films rely on the studios for distribution.) That Slumdog was sloughed off by Warner only to re-emerge as a hot property appears to be almost karmic retribution meted out by a puckish film god.