After "Slumdog Millionaire" and "127 Hours," Danny Boyle was ready for a little fun, and darned if he didn't find it in "Trance," which seems to be an art-heist thriller until it's not.
The man who wrangled a cast of 15,000 (including the queen and Daniel Craig) for the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London wanted to step outside the awards-season bubble and style of storytelling and "play with our other hand, if you like," he said in a recent phone call.
"Having said that, there is something that links all the films together, which is memory. We didn't really realize this until we'd finished the film, which sounds like an odd thing, but obviously 'Slumdog Millionaire' is built on the idea of the karmic good fortune that memory can bring, because that's how he succeeds on the show. ...
" '127 Hours,' the memories are his redemption. They're the only things that save him, actually," he said of hiker Aron Ralston (James Franco on screen), who had to amputate part of an arm to free himself from an 800-pound boulder.
"This is obviously using memories and the havoc that can be wreaked when they are either interfered with or unleashed. And it is very fragile," pointing to what the "Trance" hypnotherapist played by Rosario Dawson says in the $15 million film.
"What she says in the film is true, I think we are basically a series of memories strung together. We know this, because of Alzheimer's, of course, that sad, terrible tragedy when someone just disappears and everyone says, they're there, it's exactly the same person but they're not there anymore. And the memory chain gets broken or destroyed."
In "Trance," James McAvoy is a fine-art auctioneer who suffers a blow to the head during the theft of a $27 million Goya painting and cannot remember where he hid the canvas, much to the dismay of a gangster played by Vincent Cassel. That is how Mr. McAvoy ends up in Ms. Dawson's office.
"There are a lot of actresses out there, really good ones, who deserve to play lead roles, and they often don't get them because they're playing girlfriends," and other supporting roles.
He met the native New Yorker a few years ago on a project that didn't happen although he had planned to cast the woman who broke out in "Kids" and later starred in such movies as "Sin City," "Seven Pounds" and "Unstoppable."
"She had an amazing combination of very dynamic, powerful leadership. She's very bright, self-taught ... obviously she's very beautiful, but if you look at her work, she always brings a bit of the character to it. She changes, so it's not always the same thing," which is not a bad thing when it comes to stars who essentially play themselves.
"I didn't want a classic icy blond femme fatale," he said, particularly since he did not want "Trance" to feel like an homage to Alfred Hitchcock.
He wanted to touch on the noir genre, but "the story, actually in the end, has more damage and emotion in it than you would normally get in a chilly noir, classic noir, which are cold-hearted basically, deliberately."
Asked if, like the McAvoy character in the movie, he underwent hypnotherapy, the Oscar-winning director who seems to project cheer and energy over the phone gives a robust laugh and then admits no.
"Obviously, you think about it and you think that would make a great story. But then you think, no, hang on a minute, I don't want to do this, suppose I say something, suppose I'm one of the 5 to 10 percent who are extremely suggestible and I get lost in a trance and I start saying who else I was considering for casting.
"No. Directors are control freaks, the actors had a go. James and Vincent, they did it and that was lovely," although nothing out of the ordinary seemed to happen.
"Rosario went off on her own, and I think went quite deeply into it. She did a lot of private research with hypnotherapists on Harley Street in London and in California, as well. She really saturated herself in it, but again, she reported it back, we didn't witness any of it."
The filmmaker, however, got a primer on what happens when priceless pieces of art are the targets of capers that never fail to fascinate the public, even as they might infuriate curators or collectors.
"It is a myth that they end up in an evil tycoon's cellar. Oh yeah, that's just nonsense. They're used as collateral and they're moved around criminal gangs as collateral, instead of money and instead of gold. Nobody, unless you're an art expert, can tell a painting is worth money, but they know it is, because it's stolen."
The BBC recently reported that a Rembrandt painting had been recovered by police in Serbia seven years after it disappeared. Serbia has earned an unenviable reputation for the theft of artworks, the BBC added, which is exactly what Mr. Boyle learned in doing his research.
What often happens is a deal may be struck, with the insurance company a party to it, to return the artwork for a small amount of money -- $2 million, let's say, to get a $20 million painting back, he speculates.
"Having been stolen gives it a cachet, which adds at least 15 percent to the price of the painting. Presumably, the premiums go up but nobody loses," except maybe for the public that missed staring at a Manet or Cezanne, assuming nothing is damaged in transit.
Like the rest of us, Mr. Boyle has wondered what it might be like to wake up every day and look at the sort of artwork that hangs in the world's toniest museums.
"We have a fictional auction house called Delancy's, but it's based on Sotheby's in London, and they helped us to make the film although we can't use their name. ... We went to an auction they had where they were selling some serious paintings, and there was a Chagall there and I had that feeling, exactly that feeling you're describing. You think, what would that be like?
"You know those romantic paintings he does where people are floating in the air? And to see it in front of you, and you can touch it. They let people touch them. Like the guy said, if you're going to spend $15 million on a painting, by gum you're going to touch it before you decide to bid $15 million on it."
Lest there be any confusion, Mr. Boyle said this happens at a strictly invitation-only event for potential bidders. "It's not like an open house, you can't just stroll in there and start touching Chagalls, you gotta be invited. It's very important in the bidding process to let people be tactile."