Danny Boyle On 'Yesterday,' A Magical Realism Mystery Tour Of Beatles Songs

Jun 28, 2019
Originally published on June 28, 2019 7:20 pm

In the story of Rip van Winkle, a man asleep for 20 years wakes up in a world where people know things that he doesn't. Flip that, and you'd have a story about someone who wakes up to discover he knows things that no one else knows. That is, you'd have the premise of the movie Yesterday.

Yesterday is a sort of fantasy/musical/romantic comedy/drama. It follows Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) as a struggling musician who discovers one morning that he is the only person on Earth who remembers The Beatles or their songs, launching a rock-star career that drives him further from his manager and best friend, Ellie (Lily James).

Danny Boyle is the director — and you would have to have been asleep for about 20 years not to know about some of his movies: Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later and so on. He spoke with NPR about making his newest movie.


Interview Highlights

On what struck him about Himesh Patel's voice

Although obviously, our fictional audience in the film have their memory erased of The Beatles, but of course, the real audience watching the film in the cinema doesn't. So you have to have someone who can represent the songs to both those audiences. And it was a struggle at first to find someone. ...

Most of the people came in, it felt a bit karaoke. And then he walked in and he did "Yesterday" — and yet it was almost like it was his. And I had this ... double take for a moment and I thought: That's what we need! But he was transformational with the songs, and I think I know why it is, really, now. Even in their most joyous songs, and they wrote some wonderful ones, there's a little sub-note of melancholy. And Himesh has that in him as well.

On the emotional performance of "Help" in the film

The truth is that it was written by John [Lennon] out of pain, really — it was a scream for help. ... The character Jack is [at] a terrible moment where realizes the lie he's living is not only a lie — it's also dragging him further and further away from his best friend and, actually, the love of his life, Ellie. We did it by making it a kind of punk-rock version of the song — exemplifying John's cry for help.

On having launched the careers of several actors with their first big roles

Himesh Patel and Danny Boyle on the set of Yesterday.
Jonathan Prime / Universal Pictures

I'm very attracted to an unknown, especially in a character that has got a huge journey to make. ... I love putting an unknown in there. Because if the film is successful and works, it does put a spotlight on that actor, and they have to deal with what we see Jack trying to deal with — which is a stratospheric world of absolute fame and success. And people deal with it in different ways. I've been very lucky that people I've been lucky enough to be involved with in their career seem to have dealt with it very well. ...

Am I the bad guy in offering this? It's one of the inevitable consequences of being involved in this business, I suppose, really. I think you can deal with it well, though. Obviously, in our story, Kate [McKinnon's character] is very funny in encouraging him toward the worst aspects of it — the worst selfishness of it. But I think there's a nobler way as well.

Listen: I don't give any lessons to anybody because I'm no saint myself. But what you see in people when they approach the work is you obviously sparked a reach in them, an ambition in them, which isn't just venal — it's expressive as well. You know, they want to exercise their talent. And obviously, that's what you identify, and if you're lucky and good at it, you can find people who can stretch the audience and enthrall them with the way that they will take you on that journey with them.

On if he would ever direct a "full-blown" musical

I would love to do it. It's such a razor's edge, I think, doing them, that you have to set out with enough confidence in yourself and in your material to be able to pull it off. Because you have to spread that confidence to everyone else, really, to carry the day when your characters burst into song. I'm still working on it, can we say? ... Watch this space, yeah.

Art Silverman and Sarah Handel produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the story of Rip Van Winkle, a man who sleeps for 20 years wakes up in a world where people know things, but he doesn't. Well, flip that and have a story about someone who knows things no one else knows, and that's the premise of the new movie "Yesterday."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YESTERDAY")

HIMESH PATEL: (As Jack Malik, singing) Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.

LILY JAMES: (As Ellie Appleton) When did you write that?

PATEL: (As Jack Malik) I didn't write it. Paul McCartney wrote it, the Beatles.

JAMES: (As Ellie Appleton) Who?

CORNISH: "Yesterday" is the story of a man who's the only person on Earth who knows about the Beatles, and Danny Boyle is the director. And you would've had to have been asleep for the last 20 years not to know what he's done - "Trainspotting," "Slumdog Millionaire," "28 Days Later" to name a few. And he's here to talk about "Yesterday," which opens today. Welcome to the program, Danny Boyle.

DANNY BOYLE: Thank you very much.

CORNISH: All right, so did I lay out the premise the right way?

BOYLE: Yeah, absolutely.

CORNISH: OK (laughter) so it's not a spoiler.

BOYLE: Oh, God no. And it's illustrated very dramatically when you see it as he tries to find them on the computer, as he tries to find evidence of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YESTERDAY")

CORNISH: Yeah, that's the world's most panicked Google search.

BOYLE: And there are no answers there. There are no Beatles.

CORNISH: Now, I have to admit, I'm not a boomer, so sometimes I am a little guilty of some anti-Beatles sentiment because I'm like, I get it, they're good. When you heard this premise, what did you think?

BOYLE: I thought it was a wonderful love story between Jack and Ellie, you know, Himesh Patel and Lily James in the film as we did it.

CORNISH: Jack is our Rip Van Winkle, so to speak, and Ellie is his lovelorn manager.

BOYLE: And his best friend to whom that should be his final destination, really, in life. But he moves further and further away from her as he scales the heights of fame. I thought that was a lovely love story, and it's - I also thought that the love letter to the Beatles intertwined with it was a beautiful way of looking at their music again.

CORNISH: And we should say the actor, Himesh Patel, what appealed to you about his voice? You're asking someone who may not be known internationally to sing some of the best-known music in the world that people have their own ideas about.

BOYLE: Very much so because although, obviously, our fictional audience in the film have their memory erased of the Beatles, but, of course, the real audience watching the film in the cinema doesn't. So you have to have someone who can represent the songs to both those audiences. And it was a struggle at first to find someone.

CORNISH: Like, what does that casting notice say - must love the Beatles?

BOYLE: You've got to be able to play a couple of Beatles songs.

CORNISH: What one did he do?

BOYLE: Well, most of the people came in, it felt a bit karaoke. And then he walked in, and he did "Yesterday." And yet, it was almost like it was his. And I had this, like, a double take for a moment. And I thought, that's what we need. But he was transformational with the songs. And I think I know why it is really now. Even in their most joyous songs, and they wrote some wonderful ones, there's a little subnote of melancholy. And Himesh has that in him as well.

CORNISH: At one point, he performs on a rooftop, and he does a performance of the song "Help."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YESTERDAY")

PATEL: (As Jack Malik, singing) Help me if you can, I'm feeling down. And I do appreciate you being 'round. Help me get my feet back on the ground. Won't you please, please help me? Help me. Help me.

CORNISH: It's an emotional part of the film...

BOYLE: Yes.

CORNISH: ...Because he is actually in a moment of turmoil and panic about what he believes at this point to be a lie.

BOYLE: Yes.

CORNISH: What I liked about the performance is it was so raw and so intense, and I had a moment thinking, oh, was this song always sad?

BOYLE: The truth is, it was written by John out of kind of pain, really. It was a scream for help. Like you said, the character Jack is at a terrible moment where he realizes the lie he's living is not only a lie. It's also dragging him further and further away from his best friend and actually the love of his life, Ellie. We did it by making it a kind of punk rock version of the song exemplifying John's cry for help.

CORNISH: That's an interesting thing to think about when I look back at your film catalogue because you've launched a lot of stars in a way - Ewan McGregor, "Trainspotting," Dev Patel, "Slumdog Millionaire," Cillian Murphy in "28 Days Later." You are familiar with watching someone have a meteoric rise.

BOYLE: I'm very attracted to an unknown, especially in a character that has got a huge journey to make. And obviously, Jack in this film does make - and the other actors you mentioned in those other films make huge journeys as well.

CORNISH: Yeah, those are all odysseys, those films.

BOYLE: Very much so, yeah. And I love putting an unknown in there because if the film is successful and works, it does put a spotlight on that actor. And they have to deal with what we see Jack trying to deal with, which is a stratospheric world of absolute fame and success. And people deal with it in different ways. I've been very lucky that people I've been lucky enough to be involved with in their career seemed to have dealt with it very well.

CORNISH: I ask because the antagonist is a character played by Kate McKinnon - we know her, of course, from "Saturday Night Live" - as kind of CD record industry agent. Here is how she welcomes him to the fold.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YESTERDAY")

KATE MCKINNON: (As Debra Hammer) We need you to come to LA. See, we pay. And then you come. And you write songs. And then we release them. And you make a ton of money. And then we take most of it.

CORNISH: Are you Kate McKinnon? Is this little speech one you have given, which is come and drink from the chalice of fame?

BOYLE: Yes, so it's very close to home. It's a portrayal of the worst excesses of the music industry. I'm sure there's decent people in the music industry.

CORNISH: But any industry, right? When I think about what you just said about fame...

BOYLE: Yes.

CORNISH: ...It can be a high price. And when someone offers it the way that they do, I don't know. It feels weighty in some way because you're in the power to do this for people, frankly. If someone is in a Danny Boyle film, like, your life could change.

BOYLE: Oh, I see what you mean.

CORNISH: Yeah, are you the bad guy is what I'm saying (laughter).

BOYLE: Am I the bad - am I the bad guy, yeah, in offering this? It's one of the inevitable consequences of being involved in this business, I suppose, really. I think you can deal with it well, though. Obviously, in our story, Kate is very funny in encouraging him towards the worst aspects of it, the worst selfishness of it. But I think there's a nobler away as well.

Listen; I don't give any lessons to anybody because I'm no saint myself, but what you see in people when they approach the work is you obviously spot a reach in them, an ambition in them, which isn't just venal, but it's expressive as well. You know, they want to exercise their talent. And obviously, that's what you identify. And if you're lucky and good at it, you can find people who can stretch the audience and enthrall them with the way that they will take you on that journey with them.

CORNISH: You know, thinking back to the film itself, I was reading a review from The Onion's A.V. Club, and they talk about how deftly you use music in your movies. And it says it's only a matter of time before you make a full-blown musical.

BOYLE: I would love to do it. It's such a razor's edge, I think, doing them that you have to set out with enough confidence in yourself and in your material to be able to pull it off because you have to spread that confidence to everyone else, really, to carry the day when your characters burst into song. I'm still working on it.

CORNISH: It's been a minute. Yeah, you've been...

BOYLE: Watch this space, yeah.

CORNISH: Well, Danny Boyle, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BOYLE: It's a pleasure. Thanks very much.

CORNISH: Danny Boyle directed "Yesterday," and it's out today. And we couldn't resist just one more clip. Name this pop star.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YESTERDAY")

ED SHEERAN: (As Self) About the song, the title "Hey Jude." Let me just give you this advice, right? "Hey Dude."

PATEL: (As Jack Malik, singing) Hey dude.

"Hey Dude," are you sure?

MCKINNON: (As Debra Hammer) He's right. That's so much better.

PATEL: (As Jack Malik) Is he? Is it?

SHEERAN: (As self) Yeah, yeah. (Singing) Hey dude... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.