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'Alex & Me': The Hidden World Of Animal Minds
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. How many times have you wished you could talk with your pet and find out what they're thinking. My guest, Irene Pepperberg, wanted to conduct research into animal thinking, so she bought a talking bird from a pet store, a gray parrot she named Alex. Her idea was to replicate the linguistic and cognitive breakthroughs demonstrated in research with chimps, but using an animal that could talk.
Alex became her good friend, as well as her long-time research subject. As a result of their work together, he probably became the most famous parrot in the world. When he died at the age of 31, he got an obit in the New York Times headlined "Brainy Parrot Dies, Emotive to the End."
Pepperberg has written a memoir called "Alex and Me." She's now an associate research professor at Brandeis University, and she teaches animal cognition at Harvard. Irene Pepperberg, welcome to Fresh Air. How many words was Alex capable of saying?
Dr. IRENE MAXINE PEPPERBERG (Department of Psychology, Brandeis University): It's hard to say because there were some that were just contextually applicable, something like I'm sorry. There was no contrition. It was just something to say when he had done something wrong, and everybody made sure he knew that was something wrong.
But there was good data on about 50 different object labels, seven colors, five shapes, quantities up to eight just before he died. And then he would combine these to identify, request, refuse, categorize, quantify more than 100 different things in the laboratory. So once he knew block, then he knew green and yellow and orange, and so he could identify the green block, the yellow block, the orange block, things like that.
GROSS: How much ability did he have as a parrot to pronounce the words that you wanted him to say?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: He got most of them right. There are some of them that were really tough, like imagine saying paper without lips, and he actually did that. But final Ss always seem to get him, so he would say things like Alec instead of Alex. If the S was in the middle of a sentence, like what's that, not a problem, or what's saying, not a problem. He would say six by saying sic, and we had to really push him to say sic, sic to get that final S type noise. So there were some things that were tough.
GROSS: We have lips, and that helps us pronounce. Parrots don't. They have beaks, so that must be an impediment for subtle variations of vowels and consonants?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Not so much the vowels. His vowels come out looking exactly like ours when we do what are called - fancy term - the sonographic analysis. There's a machine called the sonograph, and it plots our vocalizations on the - the energy of the vocalization versus time, and you get a pattern that's specific to each vowel for humans, and if you compare Alex's and ours, they're really quite similar.
The change comes on those consonants, those P and V and B sounds that we use our lips, and he uses esophageal speech to do that. So just like people who've had laryngectomies, he will kind of burp those sounds in some way. They don't look that different on the sonograph, but they come up with very different energies.
GROSS: What do you think your work with Alex and with your other parrots disproves about preconceptions of the abilities of animals to think and communicate?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Well, what Alex really did was lay waste to the term bird brain as something derogatory. He really did show that this creature with a brain the size of a shelled walnut could do the same types of tasks that the apes did and the dolphins did and in many cases, young children could do. It was a major breakthrough.
Before I started my work, which was in the '70s, most people were studying pigeons. They were studying through a procedure called operant conditioning, where you starve an animal down to about 80 percent of its normal body weight, put it in a box with nothing in the box other than a couple of buttons, and you do a lot of tasks using those buttons and trying to see what the animal can do. And obviously, we did things in very different ways. Instead we treated animals...
GROSS: I should just say, you're talking about starving the animal that - so it would be receptive to food as a reward stimulus.
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Correct, correct. I'm sorry I should have mentioned that. Yes. And you wouldn't - the rewards would have nothing to do with the task that you were giving the animals. So, if you were trying to do, say, you know, that the animal could do a match to sample, meaning you show it a red light, and then you give it a sample of red and green lights and see if he could learn to hit the red light appropriately. And then, if you change the sample to a green light, could it switch over to hitting the green light. And you give it a little piece of food as its reward. This was not the way to treat an animal if you wanted to get communication.
Another big difference in what we did was, we trained Alex to label objects that he initially wanted. So there was a real incentive for him to learn to say key because that was something he could use to scratch himself or wood because that was something he enjoined chewing. And these were his primary rewards, the close correlation of a label and the object to be learned.
GROSS: Did you feel that, in not going the route of behavioral science and the reward-stimulus model, that you were going against current academic practices in studying animal communications?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. This was a major, major issue. The first time I sent in a grant proposal, you know, asking to get funding to do this kind of work, the reviews came back essentially asking me what I was smoking. Not only did they think that a bird brain was incapable of doing anything like this, but, you know, just to talk to the bird, you had to be crazy.
This wasn't the way one should do research. It couldn't be scientific. And yet, you think about how we talk to our children, and that's how they develop their communication skills. There's a certain amount of wiring that predisposes them for it, but they have to interact with us and talk with us and learn from us. And that was my proposal for the birds.
GROSS: You know, as you mentioned before, you didn't use the behavioral science's model of conditioning with your parrots. Can you describe the training models that you used to teach your parrots how to communicate?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: We used something called the Model/Rival technique. This was developed initially by Dietmar Todt. We adapted it somewhat, and it is very, very simple. We started by finding objects the bird wanted, and we would decide to train him those labels.
So the bird would be on a perch. My student and I would have this object, say it was a piece of wood that the bird really wanted to chew. And I would show it to my student, who is the model for the bird's behavior and its rival for my attention, and I'd ask her, what's this? And she'd say, wood. And I'd say, that's right. It's wood. And I'd give it to her, and she'd go, wood, wood, wood. And she'd proceed to break it apart, and the parrot's, you know, practically falling off the perch. Alex really wanted this object, and he was really watching.
And then we exchanged roles of Model/Rival and trainer, so the bird saw that one person was not only the questioner and the other one the respondent, but it was in a directed process. And she'd show it to me, and I'd go quack, and she'd turn away and go, no, you're wrong. So the bird would see that not any weird new noise would transfer the object. And she'd give me another chance, and I'd say, wood, and I'd get it, and we'd play that game again.
And we did it several times, and then we'd show it to the bird. Now, at the beginning, Alex obviously wouldn't just say wood, but he might go something like, ood, a new noise, and we'd reward that. And then, over several weeks, we would shape it up into something that sounded like wood.
GROSS: And what about things like numbers. How would you get Alex to understand that three objects meant the number three?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: That was really interesting because for him, you know, wood was wood, so what's this business of all these numbers of woods, and we'd do it using the same modeling technique. I'd show, you know, this is wood, and then I would put a couple of more pieces on the train, and I'd say, this is three wood. And the student would go, three wood and get the reward, and then she could play with all three pieces of wood. And Alex, if he said three, could play with all the three pieces of wood.
GROSS: So, do you think he could count?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: He did. He really had - we really had data on counting. And when we did a study on addition with Alex, we would put numbers of things under cups, and there would be like, say, two nuts under one cup and three nuts under the other cup. And we'd lift the first cup and we'd say look and after a second, cover those nuts. Pick up the second cup, show it to him for a second and say look, put it down. And then with both cups on the tray covering the nuts, we'd say, how many?
And he'd say, five, and it was five, but he couldn't do five and zero. Five nuts under one cup and no nuts under the other. And we couldn't figure that out at first. Every time we did that, he'd say six. And then it finally dawned on me that maybe he's doing what humans do. We're not giving him time to actually count.
So we finished the second half of the trials, giving him now maybe five or six seconds, and lo and behold, he could do it. So this was our real evidence that he was literally counting because he needed time to perceive all those things under the cup.
GROSS: What do you consider some of the most advanced things linguistically and conceptually that Alex was able to achieve?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: When we were studying concepts of same and different, we taught the label none to refer to absence of similarity or difference. So we'd shown two objects and say, what's same or what's different, and he'd say color, shape, matter, or none if nothing were same or different. Without any prompting, he transferred this when we did concepts of bigger and smaller.
So the first time we showed him something that was the same size, and we said, what color bigger? He looked at me, and he said what same? And I said, will you tell me? And he said none. And then the really exciting part came when we were doing number comprehension. And we gave him trays of different sets of objects with different colors and numbers. So there would be, for example, a tray of three yellow blocks, four purple blocks, and six orange blocks. And the question would be, what color three?
So he'd have to understand the number three, what it meant, find the set of blocks that were three, which would be all mixed up - all the different colors would be mixed on the tray - and then tell me the color of the set that was three. And he did this for about 12 sessions perfectly well, and then, it's a bit (unintelligible), but he would get bored, and he would - what he would start doing would be to throw everything on the tray on the floor with his beak, just knock it off or give me colors that weren't on the tray or turn his back to me and say, want to go back and be very clear that he didn't want to work.
And so you start getting inventive, and you start using things like Jelly Bellies instead of wooden blocks, that he get one of those for his reward. And you're pushing the edge of the envelope a lot. And then one day, I come in, and I show him trays, and it was three, four, and six things on the tray. And I said, Alex, what color three? And he looks at me, and he says five. And I'm thinking, huh, there's no five things on the tray. And so I say, Alex, come on. What color three? Let's go.
And he looks at me again, and he says five. And this goes back and forth several times, and I'm thinking, what is going here. He's not throwing everything on the floor. He's not giving me wrong colors. He's saying a different number, and there isn't any of the stuff on the tray. So I finally said, OK, smarty. You know, what color five, not knowing what to expect. And he looks at me, and he says, none.
So not only did he transfer this information from that other task to this task, but he was responding to an absence of number, a kind of zero-like concept. Plus, he had figured out how to manipulate me into asking him the question that he wanted to answer, which I think was pretty, pretty sophisticated on his part.
GROSS: My guest is Irene Pepperberg. Her new memoir, "Alex and Me," is about the pioneering research she conducted into animal linguistics and cognition with her parrot, Alex. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Irene Pepperberg, and she has been studying the ability of parrots to conceptualize and communicate. And her new book is a memoir about her work with her late parrot, Alex. It's called "Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process."
You described a time when you were teaching at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and you were living outside the city. And you had brought Alex home with you, which you didn't typically do. And there were couple of owls outside the window, which terrified your parrot, Alex. And would you describe the communication that happened after he got really freaked out by the owls?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Yeah. I mean, normally, when I would bring him home, the first minute or two, you know, he was outside of his carrier and this new cage that I would have for him. He would say, I want to go back. And I'd say, oh, just calm down. You're fine. And then he would look around the cage, see there was food, there was water, there were toys, and OK, he's fine, and he would settle down.
Well, this time, he was just going on and on, I want to go back. I want to go back. I want to go back. And he's staring at the window, and I finally realized that there were these little screech owls - little, tiny screech owls that were nesting up there. And so my first response was to just close the shade and say, look, they're out there. You're in here. You're safe. But Alex had something called object permanence, and he knew those owls were still out there, and he just kept insisting want to go back, want to go back. So, I had to take him with the carrier and bring him back to the lab that night, and he never really came back to the house after that.
GROSS: It's just so interesting that he could so clearly communicate that he wanted to go back.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Yes, yes.
GROSS: I mean, you didn't have to guess that from the way he was pacing around the cage or just crying.
Dr. PEPPERBERG: No, no. I mean, this was how he communicated with us. I mean, if he asked for a banana, and you gave him grape, he would literally take the grape and throw it in your face. There was no question. I know what I want, and I want it. And I told you what I wanted, and excuse me, why aren't you responding?
GROSS: Did you ever end up giving him different rewards, so like, instead of just giving him wood when he said wood, that you'd give him his favorite food?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Yes, yes. After a while, we ended up training him to use want so that, when he would look at something, and he looked at that tray with all those boring old objects on it, he wouldn't just look at me and say nut, which, of course, would be the - if it was just the word nut, it would be the wrong answer. But if he could say want nut, then we could separate the response to the question from the desire for a particular object.
And then we could say OK, Alex. You know, tell me how many keys, and then you can have your nut. And he seemed to clue into this if-then proposition and started to work for either nuts or tickles or maybe a different toy. Sometimes he wanted to chew corks. That's sort of like an avian chewing gum or go back to his cage. Sometimes that was the reward. You know, yes, Alex. If you do this one trial, you can go back to your cage. So these are the types of things that we'd work with him on.
GROSS: Alex was hospitalized with a life-threatening infection. How did you try to communicate with him when you had to leave him at the hospital?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: That was so incredibly difficult. He knew phrases like, you know, I'll see you tomorrow. I'll be back because we would say that every night when we put him in the cage. And so here, we're not leaving him in his normal place. I mean, we're putting him in this little hospital cage in a strange place with all these people, many of whom he didn't know. He knew the vets themselves, but not the technicians.
And as I walked out the door, he looks at me, and he says in his pitiful voice, I'm sorry. Come here. Want to go back. And you sit there and look at him and go, oh, how am I going to explain this? And I just kept saying I'll be in tomorrow. I'll see you tomorrow. I promise. I'll see you tomorrow. And finally, he calmed down, and, of course, I made sure that I was there tomorrow.
GROSS: How do you think he knew to say I'm sorry?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: That was - again, it was something we called contextually applicable. When he did something bad, you know, if he bit somebody or if he threw things on the tray and we'd get angry at him, and, you know, we'd say bad boy, you know, don't do that, no. He learned over time that, you know, the phrase I'm sorry was very good. He would say it in this pathetic little voice. I'm sorry. And, of course, you're a little - you'll go oh, you know. Your heart melts even though you know there's no contrition.
So that was something that he had associated, and I guess something in his little bird brain said, oh, they put me in this horrible place because I've been a bad boy. Maybe if I say I'm sorry, you know, things will get better. I mean, I'm just guessing at that.
GROSS: You know, the story of Alex's death is just so sad. You learned about it through an email that you got in the morning at your home from one of the people working in the lab who delivered the sad news. Were you able to actually find out how Alex died?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: The autopsy did not show a lot. By sort of subtraction, my veterinarian assumed that it was heart arrhythmia because there was nothing obvious, and he did have a little bit of arteriosclerosis, which meant that, if there was a heart arrhythmia, things could have shut down and could have happened very quickly.
GROSS: Did you beat yourself up at all thinking, is there anything I've done that was responsible for this?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Everyone always beats oneself up in that situation, but my vet was - I mean, immediately was saying to me, no, Irene. Even if you were there, you know, there was nothing you could have done for him, absolutely. And certainly, you know, we gave him the best foods and healthy food, and he just had a check up a week before. I mean, it was just like the middle-aged guy who goes to his doctor, and the doctor does all the tests and says, hey, you're great. You'll live another 30 years. And the guy walks out the door and collapses. And that's sort of what happened.
GROSS: What do you believe now about the potential of animals to communicate that you weren't sure of when you started your research?
Dr. PEPPERBERG: That that potential is much greater. I think that, for many animals, we need to figure out the appropriate channels to use. Obviously, Alex could talk. People who work with apes use computers and sign language. People who work dolphins also use computers and sign language.
It's a matter of figuring out what medium. And I think that these animals have - I mean, to emphasize the communication with humans in some ways is unfair because they have their own communications systems that work wonderfully well in the niche in which they live. And in a sense, pushing them to communicate with us is unfair, but it's one way of our actually getting - as Don Griffin, my mentor, would say, getting a window into their minds to actually determine how they process information, how they think by giving them these tools.
GROSS: Irene Pepperberg, thank you so much for talking with us.
Dr. PEPPERBERG: Oh, you're so welcome. Pleased to be here.
GROSS: Irene Pepperberg's new memoir, "Alex and Me," is about her late parrot, Alex, and her research into animal linguistics and cognition. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
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From 'Trainspotting' to 'Slumdog'
TERRY GROSS, host:
British film director Danny Boyle is probably best known for "28 Days Later," a post apocalyptic tale about a virus that leaves infected survivors attacking the uninfected, and "Trainspotting," the story of heroin addicts in Edinburgh, Scottland. Boyle also directed "Millions," an endearing children's fable, and the films "Sunshine," "The Beach" and "Shallow Grave."
Boyle's new film, "Slumdog Millionaire," is set in India. It won the People's Choice Award at this year's Toronto Film Festival. It's the story of an orphan boy, Jamal, from a Mumbai slum who grows up and becomes a contestant on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." In this scene, Jamal, played by Dev Patel, has just correctly answered a question from the host, played by Bollywood star Anil Kapoor.
(Soundbite of movie clip from "Slumdog Millionaire")
Mr. ANIL KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) You're absolutely right!
(Soundbite of crowd applauding)
Mr. KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) It's getting hot in here.
Mr. DEV PATEL: (As Jamal Malik) Are you nervous?
Mr. KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) What?
(Soundbite of crowd laughing)
Mr. KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) Am I nervous? It's you who's in the hot seat, my friend.
Mr. PATEL: (As Jamal Malik) Yes. Sorry.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible) on the run.
Unidentified Woman: Finally.
Mr. KAPOOR: (As Prem Kumar) A few hours ago, you were given (unintelligible), and now, you're richer than they will ever be. (unintelligible). Ladies and gentlemen, (unintelligible).
GROSS: Because Jamal does so well on the show, he's arrested on suspicion of cheating. His interrogation by the police reveals his remarkable story of escaping Mumbai's slums and making his way in a rapidly changing India. Danny Boyle spoke to Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Danny Boyle, welcome to Fresh Air. You know, this film kind of just grabs you by the collar early on with this opening - I guess it's the opening scene or an early scene, in which you see some slum kids playing kind of a makeshift game of cricket on I guess what looks like an airport tarmac. And the security guards come and say, you know, private land, get out of here, and they chase them into this shanty town.
And there's this scene that I don't know how long it takes, but it is the most amazing look at this massive sprawling slum, and it includes aerial shots and chases through various places. I want to talk a little bit about - it just gets you into this city in a way that is just visceral. Talk a little bit about that scene.
Mr. DANNY BOYLE (Director, "Slumdog Millionaire"): That was the whole idea really because we thought, you know, as westerners going there, we only took like 10 crew. The rest of the crew are drawn from Bollywood. But I thought, as a westerner going there and trying to make a film about a kid growing up there, they're just going to have to film the film as subjectively as possible and just literally tip the audience off the edge of a cliff and just see how you get on.
And the way we did that was through this chase sequence at the beginning, where you literally - there's no like wide shots where you go, hello, everybody, this is India. Hello, everybody, this is Mumbai. You know, it's actually - so you don't settle people into the film. You just hurtle them into it full pull, and that's what it's like arriving there.
I remember the first time I arrived. You were just overwhelmed by the sensory experience of the film. And, you think, if I don't start moving very, very quickly, I'm just going to be swept away by this, you know. You have to catch up very, very quickly, and so the idea was to propel the audience into the environment and leave you no choice, really. You're either going to leave the theater with a migraine, or you're going to settle in and start to absorb this extraordinary city, you know.
DAVIES: You know, I don't want to get too technical, but when I looked at those chase scenes, and it's very tight quarters because people are crammed together in their makeshift habitats all very close. I couldn't imagine getting a sound boom and the lighting and all the stuff that goes with the movie set. How did you film it?
Mr. BOYLE: With a very small crew. There are very narrow lane ways, and obviously - I mean, as you probably know, in any community, a film crew is disruptive - disrupts the rhythm and access for a community. We were still very disruptive, but we took a small crew, and we filmed with very small digital cameras which allowed us to capture the dynamism of the place really, as well as actually not disrupt it too much ourselves.
And people were very generous and welcoming to us. We filmed in two slums - a small slum by the airport called Juhu and an extraordinary slum, which is a slum of at least 2 million people - some say it's the biggest slum on earth - called Dharavi. And that, you just - I mean, the chance to film there is obviously visually stunning because you're able to show a world to people that they often just see from a distance and often just with this - rather it's kind of like distancing title of a slum. And it's rather a pejorative word in the way we use it.
But in India, it's just a location word. It's a geographic word. It just means that's where they live because the places inside are full of energy, life, dynamism. There are very organized, cottage industries. They don't have enough resources. There isn't enough sanitation. There isn't running water or not sufficiently enough running water. The electricity is intermittent and slightly dangerous. But those things are not their fault. The things that they have responsibility for, they organize amazingly well. And the thing works. And it works so well that it can absorb a film crew no problem ,you know, and let us not only get on with the film but benefit from their help in making the movie, you know.
DAVIES: The characters in the film initially are presented to us as kids, like little kids, preschool-age kids.
Mr. BOYLE: Yeah.
DAVIES: And these are tremendous actors, if they are actors. How did you cast those roles, these slum kids?
Mr. BOYLE: Well, initially, the film was written in English - completely in English. And when we got there - I mean, that was how we raised the money. We raised the money from Pathe in Europe and from Warner Brothers in America. But when we got there, it was clear that the seven-year-olds because they're seven-years-old really - six and seven-years-old, the kids, they didn't really speak English that comfortably.
A lot of the people there speak English very well, as you see in the rest of the film, and it's quite easy to present the film in English because it's a natural part of life there to speak English. But the little ones hadn't picked it out fully yet, and so it felt a bit stilted and a bit awkward. And the casting director, Loveleen Tandan, she said, listen, if you want to make that work, you need to translate that into Hindi. She said, I know you can't because of your deal and, you know, the reception of the film in the west, but if you want the film to come alive, translate it into Hindi.
So, we took a deep breath, translated it into the native language, and it just came alive to kids. Suddenly, these kids from the slums who we could - you saw when you're going around, we could start auditioning them as well, and the electricity just jumped off the rehearsal room where we were auditioning.
DAVIES: Well, you mentioned that, you know, you took these digital cameras into these slums and shot these scenes, and you used these kids, you know, from those communities. Did people ever regard you as exploiting them, and did you ever feel that tension yourself?
Mr. BOYLE: It's an obvious thing that we're very conscious of going in there, and I had been very lucky. I had made another film with kids in the U.K. called "Millions," ironically, and I'd been introduced there to the rules and regulations of working with kids in the United Kingdom, and I believe they're very similar to the United States. They're very restrictive. We only can do a few hours with them. And what we did is, because we knew those regulations didn't exist there, we took our regulations with us, and we self-imposed them really to make sure that we didn't exploit the kids.
DAVIES: I kind of, I meant it more broadly - I mean more that you're, you know, westerners, you know, with money and resources coming into a community of incredible poverty and sort of capturing it for your own benefit. I mean, did it feel uncomfortable?
Mr. BOYLE: In theory, that's the case. I never - I kind of like went into it in an almost naive way, really. It felt - the first time I went there - the first time you go is, you go to check the script, that it's truthful and believable what your - and I'm very conscious of that, that it has to meet that question. It has to meet that test, really. And it felt it - it felt like it was born of true experiences. It felt like it didn't flatter to deceive, that it wasn't exploitative in terms of, you know, trying to use people for easy emotions. It felt like it was a truthful depiction of a city and of a character, really.
So, given that you're always exploiting people in every film you ever do, given that happens anyway per se just because you're making a film, it felt - no, it felt reasonable what we were asking people to do, and provided that we took back a picture of it that was really complex and multifaceted because the city is impossible to define by one person. You just cannot do the definitive picture about the place, but if you can capture a bit of it and you do it - you include enough of the experiences that you see there, you'll have a reasonable picture of - a reasonably truthful picture of a incredibly complex society, really.
DAVIES: You know, what's remarkable about the story here is that you see the characters as young kids in a slum when they're just in terrible poverty, literally living at a landfill and, you know, going through the trash for things of value. And as they grow up, you see the city change, and I think what's really remarkable about this, it's not a story just of Indian poverty, but incredible growth and change, and there are skyscrapers and hip nightlife and crowded freeways. And the character ends up, of all places, in a call center. I mean, just talk a little bit about kind of the breadth and scope of the India that's presented here.
Mr. BOYLE: The way you describe it, that's exactly what you get. You get this incredible extreme combinations, which is, you get the most abject poverty, people living on landfill sites, and then you get these extraordinary capitalism growing and building there. You know, you - we can see we've got a problem at the moment in the west with capitalism is that it hit a wall because, in order to operate at its best, it needs to constantly expand, so it's definitely got room to expand in India, and it is doing. And they'll hit a wall at some point, and it will be very interesting to see how they deal with it. But for the moment, it's actually got this expansion, throwing up this enormous contrast between the life that this kids live to begin with and then what they emerge into when they're 18.
One brother - because this is a story of two brothers - one brother, like you say, ends up in a call center where, again, although he's just a chai roller, you know, a guy who goes around serving the tea, he's actually picking up information which, ironically, again helps him when he gets on the show later. But his older brother, having gone through this terrible violent incident in his childhood, has turned to violence himself and has become part of this gangster regime which runs - a lot of Mumbai's run by gangsters, you know, and mobsters who are benefiting from this huge explosion of capitalism there at the moment and this huge building program that's going on.
So, it's an incredibly complex and rich society with, and you have to acknowledge it, a horrific side, and you can't exclude some of the cruelty that you see, you know, in one way. But then, there's this other side of it, which is life is being lived at this enormously vivid pace, and you've got to just try and include all that and bring it back to people really and show because the world is opening up more - there's more of the west heading into India, and there is more of India heading for the west, as well.
DAVIES: Were there particular challenges to shooting in India that were new to you?
Mr. BOYLE: I didn't think of them like that very deliberately because everybody says you're going to have problems. There's obstacles. There's challenges. There's difficulties, and I just thought, don't think like that really because I sensed the way to get the best out of it was to kind of like embrace everything there. So, we'd have these enormous setbacks, and you'd just think, you know, sometimes like your normal reaction...
DAVIES: Like what?
Mr. BOYLE: Well, just permissions and kind of impossibility of certain kinds of filming, and it's just endless, and the guys who run the production for us, who were this local company called India Take One Productions , they would run the whole permissions and the whole official site of the film on a kind of parallel track to the actual film making. It was like a parallel universe that never - you never really had to - you could visit if you wanted to, but you could make the whole film without seeing that. And it was usually dependent on large sackfuls of cash, to be absolutely honest, in this parallel universe. And that's the way the system seemed to operate.
And for instance, we asked - got permission - we applied for permission to shoot from the air in Mumbai, and it's very difficult because it's an island, which people don't realize, and there's lot of naval bases around it. The government is paranoid about national security, understandably, and so they won't let foreigners up in helicopters.
So, we nominated an Indian camera man to go up and do it for us, but it took over 14 months to get permission, and they gave us permission about 10 days before we opened at the Telluride and Toronto Film festivals this year, so that was no good to us at all, but the parallel universe company were delighted because they will now sell on that permission to some shady company who are making some film about Mumbai, and so the system moves on in its own inexorable, inexplicable, incredible way, you know.
DAVIES: Well, so how did you shoot? Without permission?
Mr. BOYLE: Exactly. I knew it.
DAVIES: I just see.
Mr. BOYLE: These things happen, though, you know, and...
DAVIES: We're speaking with Danny Boyle his latest film is "Slumdog Millionaire." We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with film director Danny Boyle. His latest film is "Slumdog Millionaire." You grew up in northern England, is that right, with middle-class parents?
Mr. BOYLE: No, kind of what you call working-class parents actually, but I grew up in just a small town outside Manchester. Yeah, my parents were Irish immigrants really, who settled in Manchester, as many, many, many people did, you know. Yeah, working-class parents, decent working-class parents.
DAVIES: And went to religious school and, at some point, considered the priesthood, but found your way into movies. How did it happen?
Mr. BOYLE: Into movies instead, yeah. There's a number of directors, actually, who nearly become priests, but they become directors instead, which is an interesting connection between those two. I was - my mom was, the dream of her life really was her eldest boy would become a priest. And I was destined for that.
But fortunately, I was saved from the priesthood by a guy who said, maybe don't do this. Maybe wait a bit and see what you think. And then, of course, girls, music, all those kind of things arrive in your teenage years, and so I made my way. I started in theater, actually, and then I moved into television and then film. In the U.K., it's a much easier transition, and a number of the directors you probably heard of started in theater, directors like the late Anthony Minghella, Stephen Daldry, Sam Mendes. They often start in theater and television in Britain and then moved across to films.
DAVIES: A real breakout film for you was "Trainspotting," which is based on the novel by Irvine Welsh. It got you a lot of attention and a lot of critical acclaim. And I thought we would just listen to a scene. This is kind of in the opening of the film, when it's central character, Mark Renton, is sort of describing choices that these kids are making in life.
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Mr. EWAN MCGREGOR: (as Mark Renton) Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suite on higher purchase in a range of fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, f-d up brats that you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life. But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?
DAVIES: And that's from the film "Trainspotting," directed by our guest, Danny Boyle. This, of course, is a story about five friends, five young guys in Edinburgh, Scotland. Some of them were in and out of heroin use, and there's a compelling scene early on that immediately immerses you in this world of heroin, the one early on where they're in the apartment. Will you just talk a little bit about creating that world?
Mr. BOYLE: It's based really on this extraordinary book by Irvine Welsh, who was himself plagued by a relationship with the drug. And he frankly says that you never ever, although you give it up, it never ever leaves you. It's always waiting there for you at your lowest moments for your return to it. And it was a book of enormous truthfulness and power and surprise really because he told the story completely from the inside of the people. So, you sensed very controversially their joy in their dependence on it, what they got from it. So, it's a disgusting but also an incredibly vivid and alive picture of these people, really.
DAVIES: You've done such an interesting mix of films. You've got "Trainspotting," which is this intense look at heroin users, and you've got "Millions" which is this beautifully touching kind of child fable, science fiction film "Sunshine," and then "28 Days Later," which is this film of flesh-eating zombies. What's next for you? Musical theater?
Mr. BOYLE: I'd love to do a musical. Seriously, I think the holy grail for virtually all directors is a musical, a modern-day musical with new music. I've directed a couple of musical sequences. There's one, obviously, like you were saying at the end of "Slumdog Millionaire." And I've done a couple in the theater. I did a little one in "Life Less Ordinary" here with Cameron Diaz and Ewan McGregor.
And when you're directing those sequences, it's such a (unintelligible). There's something about directing something with rhythm. It's so releasing, really. I'd love to do it. But it's the most - it is the holy grail, and I don't think, certainly in the modern day, it's very difficult to know how anyone would ever get there quite with that kind of pure experience of a brand new musical with brand new music. And it's interesting. The ones that have worked, like "Moulin Rouge" and "Mama Mia!" are using music that we're already familiar with.
And that's really interesting because, you know, that's how they sell movies in Bollywood, which does use music in every film, virtually. They put the soundtrack out a month beforehand. Everybody buys the soundtrack, learns the songs, then turns up for the new movie, so they can sing along, so they're familiar with the music. It's really interesting watching that in Bollywood, how they operate as a system.
No, but I was going to do an animated film actually, which would have completed a surprising selection of films for people, but, in fact, that all fell apart. So I would think I'll do a kind of thriller next, really. I feel the temptation to do an out-and-out thriller in some way, you know.
DAVIES: Well, Danny Boyle, I guess we're out of time. I wish we could talk some more, but thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. BOYLE: Thanks, Dave.
GROSS: Danny Boyle directed the new film, "Slumdog Millionaire." It opened in select cities today and opens wider next week. Boyle spoke with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies, who is a senior for the Philadelphia Daily News. Coming up, John Powers reviews two new Italian crime novels that reflect Italian culture's international comeback. This is Fresh Air.
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Italian Crime Novels Make An International Splash
TERRY GROSS, host:
While the American book industry might be shrinking, by all accounts, the world of international crime fiction seems to be expanding. Our critic at large, John Powers, just read two Italian crime novels and says they do what the genre does best - offer a way of viewing another culture.
JOHN POWERS: When Barack Obama was elected, surely the most startling reaction came from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who called the new president, quote, "handsome, young, and also suntanned." Now, this was a dumb thing to say, but what made it even dumber was that Berlusconi seemed to think his words charming. Mortified Italians flooded the New York Times with letters expressing their horror. You see, Italy has been busy fighting a sense of cultural irrelevance. From the '50s through the '70s, it was renowned for its artists, you know, Fellini, Antonioni, Calvino. But in the '80s and '90s, it seemed to vanish from the world stage.
One reason Berlusconi's remarks were so unwelcome is that Italian culture has been enjoying an international comeback. It's making terrific movies like the upcoming "Gomorrah," which may be the year's best film, and producing a blizzard of enjoyable novels, like the two I've just finished reading.
The first is called "Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio." It's by Amara Lakhous, an Algerian immigrant to Italy who's dazzled the locals by writing so brilliantly in Italian. Set in the center of Rome, it's a small book with a big meaning.
Its premise is simple. When a tenant is found murdered in an apartment building, the police begin questioning his neighbors. They all offer their private version of the truth about Italian life and about the prime suspect, an Arab immigrant named Amedeo, who has disappeared. This set of witnesses includes the Neapolitan concierge who hates immigrants, the Iranian refugee who hates pizza, the Milanese professor who thinks southern Italians are barbarians, the Peruvian domestic who keeps being sexually assaulted, and the lonely woman who's just obsessed with her missing dog.
As these witnesses talk, the book slowly offers us a portrait of a whole culture. Not only does Lakhous take us behind doors normally closed to tourists - so that's what people are like in those apartment buildings, we think - he offers a sly anatomy of what it means to be Italian.
The only character everyone praises is the murder suspect, Amedeo, on whom they project their fantasies. The Italians are convinced he's a fellow Italian because he speaks the language so well, and he's such a gentleman. His fellow immigrants think he's like an upgraded Italian - version 2.0, you might say - who knows Rome better than the locals but has a generosity born of hard experience abroad. Nobody believes he could be the killer.
I won't spoil things by revealing whether Amedeo is guilty. Besides, the mystery isn't really the point. What's memorable about Lakhous' novel is what he shows us of an often inward-looking nation confronting the teeming vibrancy of multicultural life.
You get a wilder take on the same subject in Ottavio Cappellani's "Sicilian Tragedee," comically spelled with two E's at the end - an exuberant crime novel with a plot as twisty, one might say, as a plate of linguini. The action centers on a production of Romeo and Juliet circled by a menagerie of characters, including a gay director, two rival Mafiosi, one with a beautiful, trampy daughter, a wizened old countess who enjoys watching people die, plus assorted bureaucrats, vain actors, and long-suffering wives. The result is a black comic explosion of plots and counterplots, murders and reprisals.
The Sicily Cappellani gives us is almost the opposite of the Scandinavia you find in the glum, gray-skied crime novels by the likes of Henning Mankell and Karin Fossum. Where their mysteries are all about a stolid, orderly society restoring itself after being violated by murder, Cappellani's sunny, gleefully farcical book offers us a land where there's no rational order to restore.
This isn't the old-world Sicily of Lampedusa's "The Leopard." These days, Mafia guys boast of their property in London. Hollywood turns up to shoot "Ocean's Twelve," and government officials woo tourists with talk of endogastronomy. Yet, this doesn't mean that the old world has been completely washed away by the flood of designer jeans and cell phones. The island, Cappellani suggests, still hasn't escaped the clutches of its aristocrats, Mafia chieftains, and millennial ideas of honor. Sicily's caught in a wrestling match between the ancient and the new.
In Lakhous' novel, one of the characters talks about Italian society being trapped in the logic of catennacio. That's the term used to define the locked-down, hyper-defensive strategy that long defined Italian soccer. Lakhous and Cappellani show that this cultural catennacio is loosening. Reading their novels, you can see Italy opening itself up and asserting itself as part of the wider world, even if its prime minister often seems trapped in his provincial past.
GROSS: John Powers is a film critic for Vogue. He reviewed the "Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio" and "Sicilian Tragedee." You can download podcast of our show on our website - freshair.npr.org.
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