The World Through Danny Boyle’s Eyes

I’ve been champing at the bit to see Danny Boyle’s latest film, Yesterday… but then you would too if you had the pleasure of spending some time with him.

He’s a master storyteller. And something he told me 15 years ago is reverberating in today’s increasingly time-poor world, inside and outside of work.

While at The Salt Lake Tribune… which is still he best newspaper job I ever had… I got to cover the Toronto International Film Festival three times.

On my final trip, in 2004, I had done quite a few interviews with various actors and directors. And I didn’t really fancy having to chase down more publicists as the festival drew to a close.

But one day in a lift, I engaged in some small talk with a total stranger.

Me: “So… you here for the festival?”

Stranger: “Yeah, I’ve got a film.”

Me: “Showing in the festival?”

Stranger: “Yeah. It’s called Millions.”

Before he had a chance to tell me more, I blurted out:


It was possibly my most embarrassing fanboy moment ever.

But thankfully Boyle chuckled while breaking out in a big smile… and didn’t call the cops.

I told him that I had been trying to line up an interview with him, but the publicist wouldn’t put me on the list.

Oftentimes, the smaller regional papers found it hard to get one-on-ones with “the talent”.

But now I had his ear. 

Me: “I’m from The Salt Lake Tribune, and, of course, you made A Life Less Ordinary in Utah. Is there any chance I can interview you?”

Boyle: “I’ve got the premiere this evening. But you come to ‘X’ hotel tomorrow at noon and I’ll sort you out.”

I went to the premiere of Millions that evening, and it’s a delightful film for all ages. Check it out if you haven’t seen it.

So the next day, when I went to the hotel, as I arrived at reception I saw Boyle with the older of the two child stars of Millions… and the publicist.

She was a little surprised to see me there, to say the least.

And Boyle knew it.  

It was a little awkward.

Me: “So, you still OK for it.”

Boyle: “Can you come back and meet me here at 5?”

The publicist twigged.  

And she wasn’t happy.  

She made sure to give me an earful as I left the hotel.

I bumped into her again at 5 that evening, as she glided through reception with her carry-on for the plane… and an icy glare for me.

But when we settled down for our chat, Boyle was charming company for around 40 minutes, which is a lot of time to get for a one-on-one.

But it was what he told me during our conversation that will really stick with me.

And it’s a good life lesson for storytellers in film… or the workplace and boardroom… to remember.

Millions is about two young boys coping with the recent death of their mother when their father moves them to a new town.  

Their life is turned upside down in another way too when they discover a bag full of money that must be spent in a matter of days before Britain switches to the euro. (Oh, the irony, 15 years later.)

The younger boy, seven-year-old Damien, is having a hard time adjusting to life without his mum but finds comfort in conversations with various saints.

Boyle, who was brought up Catholic by his Irish-born parents, told me: “He’s interested in the saints because it’s obvious his mum’s died, so you tend to, like you do, you’d think your mum’s a saint.”

He added: “The film’s about faith, but not in the religious sense of the word – it’s in the temporal, human sense of the word. It’s about having faith in other people and believing in people and trusting if you do that, that good will come out of them in some way, eventually. And I believe that, yeah.”

And the other week, in an interview for Yesterday, he told the Guardian:  “Well, I’m a positive person.  And I suppose that makes me a positive film-maker. I feel an obligation to lift people somewhere else with my films. And I believe in the inherent goodness of human beings. That’s naive – I recognise that. But it’s what keeps me going through the bad times.”

And that’s really what the best stories touch on, whether they’re told in viral videos, on the web in content marketing, or in speeches by CEOs.

I emphasize this point in my workshops.

Because we’re all in this together.

And we learn to survive by relying on each other.

That’s how successful businesses work.

And it’s how true leaders lead.

#yesterdaymovie #dannyboyle #storytelling #speechwriting #leadership #kindness #contentmarketing #copywriting #communications #thoughtleadership  

Danny Boyle on the set of Millions with his two child stars, Lewis McGibbon and Alex Etel

Danny Boyle on the set of Millions with his two child stars, Lewis McGibbon and Alex Etel


The Story Behind Big Ideas

It’s 2011 and I’m at the Dublin International Film Festival where I see Irish crime fiction writer John Connolly sitting two seats away from me.

Given the chance, I like to pick a creative person’s brain to find out what golden nuggets of wisdom I just might learn from them.

So I introduced myself as a fellow journalist (Connolly had worked at The Irish Times) and soon enough we got onto the subject of ideas and what makes a good one.

Journalists usually have a pretty sound idea of what makes a good story.

So I asked him: “But what if your idea’s just bad in the first place?”

And he said something I’ll never forget: “There are no bad ideas, just poor execution.”

Ten million copies later, he should know.

But his quote, I hope, also illustrates the symbiotic relationship between stories and ideas. That’s because they’ve both got to do with problem solving.

Stories are usually about people with problems. In the world of film, for example, Luke is trying to defeat the Evil Empire, ET is attempting to phone home… and the Muppets will do whatever it takes to save Christmas.

So the survival, or existence, of someone or something is always at stake. And these are problems all these people need to solve… by having a good idea of how to fix them.

Long, long ago, when the first of our forebears was eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger, you can be pretty certain the rest of the tribe immediately learned to avoid big cats.

But given their main problem was survival – as it is for all of us – then you can also bet that at least one of them had the brainwave to go hunting when their prey was resting.

Problem. Idea. Solution. It’s a pattern that endlessly repeats itself over time.

For instance, it’s commonly held that fish and chips were invented by the British. But in this case a ‘one and one’ does not, in fact, equal two.

Without fried fish, this combo just wouldn’t be the same. And it turns out this part of the epicurean equation was invented by Jews fleeing religious persecution in 15th century Portugal.

Many of those Sephardic Jews, who relocated to England, took with them culinary treasures, one of which was Peshkado frito, commonly known as cod or haddock fried in flour.

It had to be fried on the Friday night in preparation for the Sabbath as cooking was banned on Saturday under the Mosaic laws.

It’s thought the batter preserved the fish so that it could be eaten cold the next day without compromising the flavour. Problem. Idea. Solution.

In another context, 40 years ago, American management consultant Marilyn Loden was taking part in a panel discussion about women’s aspirations in the workplace.

She noticed that the female panelists focused on how women behaved in a self-deprecating way and allegedly carried a poor self-image.

She recalls that it was a struggle for her to sit quietly as these criticisms were being aired.

While she agreed that it was hard for women to progress beyond middle management level, she said there were invisible barriers to their advancement that had everything to do with culture, and nothing to do with personal issues.

So she coined a phrase for this on the spot, calling it an “invisible glass ceiling”. And she said this was the main reason there weren’t more female CEOs.

That idea, partly sparked from the story of her own experience on that panel, has proven to be one of the most talked about ever since.

And finally, going back to films, some can ignite ideas that literally make the world a better and safer place for all of us.

In Stanley Kubrick’s satire Dr Strangelove, a mad general sparks a path to nuclear holocaust that politicians and other generals must try to stop.

In a key scene, one character uses a payphone to call the Pentagon to provide them with access codes, but doesn’t have enough change. He fails to contact them… resulting in nuclear annihilation.

That scene was later screened for the US Congress who collectively thought it raised real worries about communication blocks during a crisis.

There and then they decided that access codes to nuclear weapons should not be limited to just one federal official.

So if you’re looking for that next big idea, find a problem to solve first.

(This post was my 2018 submission for entry to Congregation in Cong, Co. Mayo, a three-day festival designed to foster links between attendees from very diverse backgrounds and create deep discussion and dialogue.

Credit: Clever Visuals/Unsplash

Credit: Clever Visuals/Unsplash