Total Film (UK) - March 2000
We liked the idea of an American going into southeast Asia and fucking it up
When in first came out in 1997, "The Beach" was hailed as a "Lord of the Flies" for Generation X. Its backbacking theme caught the imagination of thousands of sun-hungry youths and first-time author Alex Garland was suddenly the proud owner of a pop-culture sensation. Itīs the story of Richard, an aimless Londoner in Thailand whoīs given the map to a secret beach by suicidal Scot Daffy. Richard sets off with a young French couple and finds a post-hippy community of travellers sharing an island paradise with gun-toting Thai dope farmers. In the true tradition of paradise lost, "The Beach" then begins its descent from sunny idyll to dystopic nightmare.
Director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew MacDonald and screenwriter John Hodge, the trinity behind "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting", snatched up the rights to Garlandīs bestseller in 1997. Ewan MacGregor, the star of their three previous films, looked like a dead cert for Richard. But once Leonardo DiCaprio entered the frame, Obi-Wan didnīt stand a chance in hell.
Making Richard an American meant the "Trainspotting" trio risked the wrath of the bookīs fan base. But they werenīt too worried: after all, the biggest star in the world was following up "Titanic" with THEIR movie. So they cast Robert Carlyle in the pivotal role of Daffy, the man who haunts Richard violent, Nam-stoked fantasies, and headed off to spend four months in Thailand.
But paradise wasnīt all it was cracked up to be. The teamīs key location was the National marine park island of Phi Phi Le. The Thailand government gave the production permission to shift sand dunes and plant 100 coconut palms. The bulldozers moved in. And all hell broke loose, with the global media, desperate for any excuse to have Leo on their front pages, taking the bait. For the "Trainspotting" boys, it must have seemed a long way from their first sight of "The Beach"...
Alex Garland: I wrote "The Beach because I saw my friends having futures - and I didnīt seem to have one. But itīs one of those things which keeps getting thrown back at me, and itīs not the only reason. I was really thinking that I had to do a job that allowed me to keep travelling. A lot of the stuff in "The Beach" comes out of the Philippines, where I travelled a lot, but it was more appropriate to set the book in Thailand, which was and is a travel mecca. Within "The Beach" are things that either happened to me or happened to friends. But basically itīs fiction.
Danny Boyle: Way "The Beach" became popular, a friend of mine told me about it. I was mesmerised by his description of the island and its secrete community. So I got it and read it and then I gave it to Andrew and said: "We should make a film of this."
Andrew MacDonald: Danny gave me the book when we were cutting "A Life Less Ordinary". Late summer of 1997.
Garland: The idea had come into my head before they approached us that they would be the right people to sell it to. If you spoke to any young writer at that time when "Trainspotting" was exploding everywhere, of course youīd want to sell it to them. I mean, who else?
Boyle: We met Alex and we talked to him, not about what we wanted to do with the book, but about the way we worked: that we worked as a group. I think that convinced him that we were the people to go to.
Garland: What they were famous for was being a unit, and a unit that would protect them against the excesses that a certain kind of film production can create. Iīd had some contact with that excess because Iīd had some genuinely idiotic suggestions, like burying nuclear waste on the island to explain the strange behaviour of the people on it. And I just thought: "Fuck that." I said to my agent: "Donīt fuck this up, just make sure they get it!"
MacDonald: We had to pay more than we wanted to because there were other people interested. Fox wanted to buy it because they knew Danny wanted to direct it. And we made it very clear that if the studio bought it, weīd walk away from it. Not because thereīs anything wrong with Fox, but because of the way we like to work so that we owned it, and we could develop it under no pressure.
Boyle: When we first bought the book, John, Andrew and I went to Thailand on a research trip. One morning we were waiting on a boat on one of the islands and the guy who was showing us around, his mobile phone went and he said: "Your pricness has just died in Paris." It was middle of the night here, so we heard it first. And you spread the word among the travellers. Thatīs part of being a traveller: spreading the word.
Macdonald: One of the fascinating things was seeing how the Thais interact with Westerners and discovering why young people, backpackers, from all over the world want to go there. Youīve got some of the most fucked-up places in the world in southeast Asia, but thereīs real harmony in Thailand.
Boyle: We donīt pay ourselves for any of the work that we do in development. It means that we can get a script ready and take some of the studioīs clout away, because if youīre not ready theyīll say: "Why donīt you get such-a-body in to do a polish?" Or: Oh no, donīt get him to photograph it, get HIM to photograph it." We bypass all that.
MacDonald: We knew we wanted to use a British crew and an international cast, and those things meant that flights and hotels alone were going to cost as much as "Shallow Grave". So I knew that once we neede to start really spending money, we were going to have a deal with a studio.
From Page to Screen
John Hodge: My first draft was just everything in the book really: all the characters, all the incidents, all of everyoneīs favourite bits. But thatīs too long for the kind of film we wanted to make. So I had to start amalgamating characters and shifting incidents around to strengthen the remaining characters. The principal casualty was Jed, and heīs a lot of peopleīs favourite character in the book, this sort of cool, laid-back guy.
Boyle: When you get down to adapting it, you realise that not a lot actually happens in the book. Thatīs the brilliant thing about the way Alex has written it: heīs masking the fact that thereīs very little going on. We wanted to create a two-hour film that has a narrative drive, so we had to solve those problems ourself. The solution is not there in the book.
MacDonald: It took us much longer to get to grips with "The Beach" than "Trainspotting". There was almost a stage when I thought it would never work.
Hodge: I think there is only one scene in the film that was in the first draft, and thatīs when Etienne and Francoise play the shark-attack trick on Richard as theyīre swimming across to the island.
MacDonald: We felt it was Richardīs story, and that was the way we were gonna tell it. And to make it truly international, we couldnīt exclude 40 per cent of the world. We had to make Richard American instead of British.
Boyle: We liked the idea of an American going into southeast Asia and fucking it up for everybody else.
Garland: My feeling about the nationalities of the people in the beach community in the book was that it was really important that they werenīt all English or all American. But past that, they could come from anywhere and the important thing was that they had a spread of irrelevant nationalities. When I finished the book I had to make a note of who was what nationality and then bring it into line the whole way through. In fact, Iīve got a feeling that in the first edition someone still changes nationality halfway through.
Boyle: The kind of silent longing Richard has for Francoise is all very well in a novel, but in the mainstream movie marketplace you had to bring it to fruition, which we did. And Daffyīs a huge part of the book, but we just decided you could have too much of that in a film, that ghost hanging around all the time. Iīd much prefer people say: "Oh, I wish there was more Daffy," than "God, I wish thereīd been a bit less of him." We moved heaven and earth to make sure we got Bobby Carlyle as Daffy. He was wrapped up in the Bond movie at the same time.
Hodge: Thereīs a big set piece in the novel involving food poisoning, and that was in for the first few drafts but it ended up being chopped. There was also a problem with the ending in the book, because if you depict it literally as itīs described, then it would be unwatchable. Itīs grotesque.
Boyle: The end of the film was the biggest change that we made and is the one that weīre proudest of, where dare I say it, I think weīve improved the book.
MacDonald: We talked to Ewan MacGregor about playing Richard. But we always made it clear that we werenīt absolutely sure. He was upset about it, and thatīs natural.
Boyle: We met Leo in 1995 at the "Trainspotting" party in Cannes and he seemed like a guy whose taste was interesting, which isnīt the case for a lot of American actors. His taste is quite perverse. He seemed like someone we could work with one day. Once we decided to make Richard American, we were definite that it had to be him, principally because of "Gilbert Grape" and "Romeo and Juliet".
Macdonald: Weīd just worked with Leoīs manager, who manages Cameron Diaz. So we sent Leo the script and we flew over to New York to meet him and, of course, he hadnīt read it. Danny said: "Well, letīs read the script now." so we all read it aloud in his hotel room.
Leonardo DiCaprio: I wanted my next film after "Titanic" to be something I felt strongly about. "The Beach" and the character of Richard were the first things I felt some kind of connection with.
MacDonald: It was quite hard work convincing him. It ended up costing $50 million with Leo, but we should have made it for $25 million or whatever; we were going to start showing the script around other studios, to see if we could make a deal without a cast. It took him a month-and-a-half to decide. When we eventually got him, I decided that weīd make the whole film with Fox, we couldnīt try and split the rights, because I thought: "The chances of this film getting into trouble and running over... We might as well get the experts, the studio that made "Titanic".
Made in Thailand
Boyle: Before we started shooting, we did two weeks rehearsal because youīve got this community of people and you have to try and create that feeling that theyīve lived together for a number of years. You watch them just being flung together for two weeks and things develop: people have love affairs, arguments, power groups form. And then you try and use some of that material.
Guillaume Canet: A lot of people were a little bit tense at first. We were learning how to fish, how to play drums, how to cook from raw, how to survive on the island, exactly like the beach community. In just a week everybody knew each other, and it was so asy after that.
Boyle: The Thai crew said: "Setting out on something like this, you normally would receive a blessing." So we set up a Buddhist blessing on the first day. For us, as Westerners, itīs a slightly vicarious experience because, spiritually, it doesnīt mean anything to us. But for the Thai crew, itīs a key moment. In the rush of self-importance that making a film is, itīs easy to forget things like that are milestones for a different culture.
MacDonald: I never met anybody so famous. Everybody knows who Leonardo DiCaprio is. In every village in Thailand, theyīre wearing "Titanic" T-shirts. And of course the stories that travel around with him, all this stuff about his private life, theyīre just unbelievable. And if they are true, I wish I was him, with the number of strippers that are supposedly hanging out in his room.
Boyle: Thailand is extraordinary because the people are so polite. We would do these night shoots and there would be thousands of people lining the street trying to get a photograph of Leonardo. All the rehearsals are accompanied by these megawatt flashbulbs going TSH-TSH-TSH-TSH! But when you shout "Action!, itīs silent - nothing. Then as soon as you shout, "Cut!" - TSH-TSH-TSH-TSH! All the flashes go off again.
Canet: Before I met Leo, I said to myself: "Perhaps heīs a jerk." And I was surprised how great he was. We talked a lot about the scenes, and he was nice with everybody on the set. Heīs protecting himself but he has to do this because everybody wants to get close to him and be his friend.
Boyle: Leoīs actually very underrated. Itīs unevitable when you become that popular that people lose sight of how good an actor you are. Heīs a very nice guy, very shy. He likes video games, he liks girls, he likes partying and he liks acting. We were lucky because we got on very well with him, and provided that their hero starīs happy, then the studioīs happy.
Canet: Danny was always happy. If you watched him looking at the video when someone is acting, heīs miming all the emotions of the actor, and at the end heīs laughing and slapping his script.
Boyle: We tried to get Aley Garland to appear in the film as one of the beach community, but that wsnīt practical. So in the end he was our cartographer, he drew the map that Daffy passes on to Richard that eventually causes all the trouble.
Garland: I drew a fuck of a lot of maps. Iīm very pleased they actually turned up in the film, although I didnīt draw enough. I did about eight and they needed something like 30, so somebody else did those.
Trouble in Paradise
Boyle: We had our share of bad luck. We had a couple of terrible accidents which we were lucky to escape with nobody losing their lives. Thatīs the first time Iīve ever been involved in any thing like that.
MacDonald: We built this tank for a lot of the underwater work, and they were shooting the lovemaking scene between Leo and Virginie. And they had this enormous crane hanging over this tank with lights on it, and suddenly it starts going like this (tilts upright forearm slowly downward), ever so slowly, and it fell in the water.
Boyle: There were all these people in the water, including DoP, Darius Kondji, Leonardo and Virginie. I thought: "Thatīs it, theyīre dead." Fortunately the gaffer, the electricity guy who weīd brought from Britain, had put this safety trip on all the electricity, so it tripped out. He said afterwards: "I always do it but some people donīt." They ran round to the crane to find out if the driver was alive, and heīd fucked off. We never found out wether they ever found him.
MacDonald: It was terrifying. It looked some kind of joke, this crane lying in the water.
Boyle: About a week before, we were filming a scene at sea and we didnīt realise that we were above a reef, and as the tides changed from going in to going out, the reef suddenly threw up this swell, like eight, 10-feet tall waves. And weīre all in this boat and we all looked at each other and we all knew at the same moment: "This boat is going to sink!" And it fucking sank! Well, it didnīt quite sink, but we all jumped off anyway. And these motorboats came out to try and rescue us and they couldnīt get near us because there were like 20 people in the water and if they got swung round by the waves, the propellers would just chop somebody to pieces. And all the stuff thatīs on the boat, these solid metal boxes that hold make-up and reflectors and lights and cameras, theyīre all in the fucking water, and theyīre just being tossed over your head! We were all trying to swim to the shore, which was miles away, and this diver who was with us was SCREAMING at everybody to swim out to sea because he knew that weīd get exhausted swimming against the tide.
Once we were out in calmer water the boats picked us up. Afterwards, we all got dropped off at this beach, and these grown men, these grips and gaffers who are pretty tough guys, they were all crying.
Canet: Everybody told me the story when they came back at night. it sounded scary. And like "Titanic". Leonardo told me it was so weird to be in the middle of everybody in the water, screaming.
Boyle: In the typical irony of film-making, the scene we were filming, when Tilda Swinton and Leo sail back from Ko Pha-Ngan, has almost been entirely cut...
Tree Huggers Revolt!
Boyle: Any filmcrew going anywhere makes a mess. Iīm not going to sit here and say: "No, we did not have any impact of any kind on anything." But we were absolutely bent over backwards to make sure that nothing has harmed.
MacDonald: The island was covered in crap when we first arrived there, and we cleaned it up. Itīs something the Thais canīt handle, they donīt have the infrastructure, because although Phi Phi Le is in a national park, nobody ever looks after it. It was covered in garbage and diving boats and people anchoring on the coral. I kept doing these interviews with international press, and then they would never write it. And thatīs because the simple truth was very boring.
Canet: When we left, someone from the production told me that they had to cut down all the palm trees theyīd planted on the beach because the government told them to. After a while, the government decided to replant some of the trees because they thought they made the beach look better.
MacDonald: There is an irony about us making this film about paradise being ruined and the attention that it will bring to Thailand. Itīs a similar irony, I hope, to the criticism levelled at "Trainspotting" for glamorising drugs. We ARE glamorising Thailand, but we also show the otherside, what tourism and backpackers are inflicting upon the environment.
Boyle: An early cut ran to two hours and 40 minutes, which we needed to get down to two hours. We cut a lot of material early in the film in order to get to Daffy sooner. Weīd shot a lot of material which introduced you to Thailand, but in the end we went back to the way the book is because of Bobbyīs performance. You want that kind of intensity and power at the beginning of the film.
MacDonald: We tried for a long time to do it without a voiceover, because we thought: "We canīt do ANOTHER film with a voiceover", and to use Daffy as a sort of commenting character. But it just felt naff. I worked much better with the voiceover.
Boyle: Fox wanted Leo to be more sympathetic. Theyīre only interested in wether the audience turn up, and their feeling was that more of them would if Leo was more sympethetic. And we declined to do that.
Hodge: We wanted to stick to the spirit of the book, which is about a flawed hero whoīs done bad things. That was one of the things that Leo attracted to making the film, se we were never going to stray from that too much.
MacDonald: Fox was keen to cut scenes where Leo is particularly unpleasant, and I could see their point. But nobody can force Danny to change something if he doesnīt want to.
Boyle: At the end of the day, all weīre trying to do is bring difficult films to a mainstream audience.
MacDonald: The biggest danger for us three is if we donīt make films that are successful, then you think: "Well. maybe I shouldnīt be working with those other two." That could happen; but I donīt think it will.....