'In retrospect, I realise that I kind of broke her heart' – Director Danny Boyle reveals his Irish mother wanted him to become a priest

The premise of Danny Boyle’s new film is, shall we say, problematic. In Yesterday, which was written by Richard Curtis, we are required to believe that after a solar flare hits the planet and knocks out the global power grid, a young man called Jack Malik wakes up in hospital to discover that he’s the only person in the world who can remember The Beatles.

When he Googles them, all that comes up is pictures of insects; when he sings ‘Yesterday’ for his friends, they stare at him in awe assuming he’s just come up with it. Jack (Himesh Patel), a failed singer/songwriter, now faces an ethical dilemma: should he perform all those great songs as though they were his own so the world gets to hear them, or tell everyone the true story they’re unlikely to believe anyway?

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It’s a charming conceit, but when I first heard the idea for this film I thought it was never going to work. “Well I’m glad I didn’t talk to you about it then,” laughs Boyle, who concedes that making Yesterday work wasn’t always easy.

“I did believe in it straight away,” he says, “which is really important for a director. That’s your role: you create a kind of belief around a project and then other people attach themselves even if they are, like you, doubtful.

“Where I faltered was when we started auditioning the guys for Jack. It was a limited list, because they had to be able to play the songs you know, and in retrospect, I can see that there were better singers than him, and better technical guitarists, but it felt very karaoke, it felt very – I thought f**k, if you are going to listen to 17 songs done like that, I don’t think you’ll take it.

“And then Himesh walked in and you know he’s the reason that it works, if it does work. Because the songs are respectfully done, they’re not wild mad versions, but when he sings them, it still feels like he owns them, even though they’re not his, and that’s the duality that’s at the core of the idea I think.”

Himesh Patel, who’s best known as an EastEnders regular, is a revelation in this film. In one simple but very powerful scene, Jack sings ‘Yesterday’ for his close friends and his manager Ellie (Lily James), and Patel sings it so rawly and sincerely that you almost feel like you’re hearing it for the first time, too.

“Oh, I protected that,” Boyle explains. “Because my job was not to improve him, it was to stop the technicians improving him. They’d say, you have to pre-record, and he can mime. And I’m going, ‘why would you do that? You wouldn’t pre-record dialogue and then get the actors to mime to it, so why with songs?’ They want it perfectly recorded so it can be played in a classical hall, and I’m like, ‘no, the guy sings the songs like he owns them, and that’s what we want’. So everything you hear in the film is him, live.”

Boyle knows a thing or two about how to use music effectively in film. This, after all, is the man who had the vision to film a thieving Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner charging down an Edinburgh high street to the thumping strains of Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’. But in Yesterday, the biggest problem with the music was the cost.

Apparently a cool £10m was shelled out for the right to use The Beatles’ songs in the film.

“It was Sony who set the prices, and they know the value of these songs. I joke that the music clearances on Yesterday are the second most expensive thing I’ve ever had in a film – the first was obviously Leonardo DiCaprio’s fee on The Beach!”

John and Paul are not the only songwriters on display in Yesterday, however, because Ed Sheeran makes a charming appearance as himself, befriending Jack and becoming increasingly astonished by his talent. He is, he decides glumly at one point, Salieri to Jack’s Mozart. “He’s very funny isn’t he?” says Boyle, “he’s got a great kind of self-deprecating wit within him, and how he protects that I don’t know. He said to us ‘you asked Chris Martin first, didn’t you’, and we said yeah. And he said, ‘I bet you asked Harry Styles too before you got to me’, which we didn’t but he’s very funny. He really has a good sense of humour.

“Great performer, too. I saw him first in Cork, oh God, it was amazing, I mean the audience was full of redheads, and it’s like he was this symbol for them, their patron saint or something. It was absolutely beautiful.”

Though it might have been tempting to coax the two living Beatles into making cameos, none materialise. “I believe Richard considered it while writing. I think his initial thought was to have Jack go off to seek out all four of them, but he decided it wouldn’t work, and then we thought at one point about having the real Paul appear as an old man somewhere at the end. But I don’t think it needed it.”

The end result is a bit of a triumph, it has to be said, a feel-good comedy with a dash of Richard Curtis’s trademark awkward romance, all held together by Danny Boyle’s sure and stylish touch. His record as a director speaks for itself: since moving from TV and theatre to movies in the mid-1990s, the Manchester-born film-maker has made hit after hit across the genres.

Trainspotting, The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Steve Jobs and Slumdog Millionaire have all displayed cinematic storytelling of the highest order, and Boyle traces his fascination with film to seeing Apocalypse Now. “Yes, 1979 that would have been – and it did have an enormous, visceral effect on me. And in a way I’ve tried ever since to make visceral films, films you feel that aren’t frightened of emotion and impact and violence and love and sentiment.”

Boyle has a strong connection with Ireland. “My dad’s family are from Mayo, and my mum’s were from Ballinasloe. When we were children, we’d come and spend the summer here on the farm. It was pretty basic where we lived, but it was lovely.”

Film-making, though, was not exactly what Danny’s mother had in mind for him: her dream was that he would become a priest.

“I realise in retrospect that I kind of broke her heart by not doing that, but at the time, I didn’t really notice. It would have meant a great deal to her, it would have made her very proud. I was taught by Salesians, and it was a priest who said to me, ‘I don’t think you should do that, you know, I think you should wait – and you’ll see, there’s other things’. And there was, there was girls and music, and culture, yeah.”

Last year, Boyle hit the headlines when he walked away from Bond 25 citing creative differences: the project’s subsequent travails suggest Boyle knew what he was at, but he’s clearly tired of talking about it and we’ve been given strict instructions not to mention the war. He has several other possible projects in the works, including an intriguing idea based around David Bowie’s time in Berlin in the late 1970s. But his first feature, the 1994 thriller Shallow Grave, has a special place in his heart.

“I’m very fond of that film because it was my dad’s favourite. It was very funny, because he would come to see all the films, and he would give the same verdict after each one. So there’s me desperate to impress him, like you are, and all he would say is, he would come out of Trainspotting or Slumdog Millionaire and he’d say, well, it was good, but it wasn’t as good as Shallow Grave.”

‘Yesterday’ goes on general release on June 28

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