"I like extremes," the director Danny Boyle says. "I'll do anything. I'll risk anything to get that extremity."
That extremity has often paid off for the 50-year-old British filmmaker. A sequence in his 1996 film "Trainspotting," in which Ewan McGregor dives down a grisly back-room toilet, may have had audiences gagging the first time around, but they certainly never forgot it. Of course, Mr. Boyle also admits defeat from time to time, as he does when recalling an animated sequence in 1999's "The Beach."
"But I always do those things anyway," he said. "I think people don't go to the cinema to see timidity. You've got to see boldness. The risk-taking is everything, even if you fall in the process."
Mr. Boyle has an aversion to genre films, and nearly every work in his oeuvre defies categorization. Still, his most successful work to date is "28 Days Later" — a zombie movie. His new movie, "Sunshine," a science fiction space adventure that opens next week, revolves around a crew's mission to reignite the dying sun in the not-too-distant future.
If it sounds like a typical Hollywood space story, Mr. Boyle went to great lengths to make sure it is not. But he found that trying something new isn't always as easy as it seems. At first he was adamant about not including star fields in the film because they were unrealistic — before realizing that without them it would be impossible to suggest motion on a black screen. He was also bothered by how films often use slow motion to portray the absence of gravity in space—but if he showed weightlessness realistically, it would look wrong on film.
"It's full of pitfalls like that, this genre," he said. "You have to do it a certain way. It's actually like foot-binding. It's really kind of crippling."
Comedy and romance don't work in space either, he said. "It's because it's such a hostile place. Everything out there is poised to kill us. We're just protected by these little steel tubes. So everything is very fragile. Everything is right on the edge. You've got to take it very, very seriously."
It's also impossible to speed up the film's pace. "It's one of the disciplines of this kind of film," he said. "If you run it quicker, you do not believe they're in space. You do not believe the journey. I remember Ridley Scott saying he didn't think ‘Alien' would work now if you release it, because the first 45 minutes is so slow before anything really, really happens. But I don't think the film would work unless you're running it at that pace, because you have to take that risk really. It's the eternity, endlessness, isolation, all the ways you represent that."
Mr. Boyle also cites Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Solaris" — both Stanislaw Lem's novel and Andrei Tarkovsky's film adaptation — as inspirations.
"The relationship you have with these films is constant. You try to forget about them as a director when you actually get up to shoot the film, but they are always there hovering around. Every direction you turn, they've been there already. They've tried that. That's really frustrating on the one hand. Having said that, they're huge inspirations. You remember the first time you saw them and the spell of them."
Despite the genre restrictions, Mr. Boyle used the universal element of space to his advantage where he could, as he did with the casting process. Included in the cast are the Irishman Cillian Murphy, American Chris Evans, Malaysian Michelle Yeoh, Japanese Hiroyuki Sanada, Australian Rose Byrne, and New Zealander Cliff Curtis, among others. "Nationality, race — nothing is important in space," Mr. Boyle said. "Fortunately, it's the only place where we've managed to make everything on behalf of all mankind. So you can cast anybody you want, and it's not an issue. You just kill them off in any order you want."
By contrast, Mr. Boyle's next film, "Slumdog Millionaire," is a comedy about an illiterate boy who tries to become a contestant on the Hindi version of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire" in order to re-establish contact with the girl he loves.
"I always thought of what [Bernardo] Bertolucci said about how you should always have a door open on your film set for real life to walk in. But on a space movie that door needs to be closed, because otherwise the ship would be crashing and all life would be lost. You don't get any of that free accident you get from your life at all," he said. "But I am going to make a film in Mumbai, and that is the opposite. You cannot stop life. It's just coming at you all the time. I long for that."
It seems after years of black comedies, zombie flicks, and space adventures, Mr. Boyle is now "choosing life," to take a line from "Trainspotting."
"I am a bit worried by the fact that I seem to make quite frightening films. I don't really feel comfortable with that, but that's just the way it seems," he said. "But I am a bit of a sucker for a Hollywood ending. I cry a lot in the cinema when I get to the bitter end of the movie. I am not a cynic, even though the work itself becomes cynical sometimes."