After Slumdog Millionaire nearly swept the 2009 Oscars with eight wins, its director, Danny Boyle, became an event filmmaker. Some of his previous films, most notably Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, were cult classics, but Slumdog introduced the 54-year-old Scot to a worldwide audience. Suddenly, he was a marquee name in Hollywood. Now, Boyle has used that caché to bring to life one of the most harrowing tales of survival ever told. 127 Hours, starring James Franco, is the true story of Aron Ralston, a mountain climber who in 2003 (spoiler alert!) was forced to amputate his arm after being trapped under a boulder in Utah. And while Franco gives an unforgettable performance as Ralston, Boyle’s unmissable stamp is all over the movie, bringing electric momentum to a story about a guy trapped under a rock. We recently spoke to Boyle at the Crosby hotel in Soho about his new movie, his post-Oscar career, and that time James Franco cut his own arm off.
Naturally, the expectations for your next film after Slumdog were huge. Why was 127 Hours the right movie to follow it up with? It was a couple of things, really. I’ve been talking about the story since 2003, and I tried to make it in 2006. But it would be foolish to chase that kind of success, but it allowed us to exploit the Slumdog success, but in a good way rather than a cheap way, by trying to cash in. The film is not financeable without the sense of something in the bank that you can use, so that’s what we did, basically. That makes you feel good about yourself, because you’re like, Yeah, that’s the way to use that kind of success. It’s only temporary—you’ll only get one chance to use that kind of success. People will talk about it but it’s only meaningful once, so use it for a really good reason, and this story was it for us really. I’ve always thought it was a really important story to tell, so that’s what we tried to do.
Was it much easier to finance with those Oscars in your pocket? Yeah, but it was still tough because there is such a nervousness about a story like this. Even though it’s going quite well at the moment, reaction-wise, I still think people are quite nervous about it. I still wonder if Joe Public will see it. You can read about this stuff and go, Oh wow, but will you turn up to it on a Friday night, rather than a nice comedy?
Do you feel your films are being reevaluated now that you’re an Oscar winner? I don’t know.
127 Hours is very much a Danny Boyle film. Even though it’s about a man stuck under a rock, it pulsates with energy. Can you talk about your approach? We really wanted it to be pulsating because one of the ironies of the whole film is that you expect it to be absolutely static, but we all thought of it as an action movie even though it can’t move. So that’s doubly emphasized. Also, I thought there was a life spirit that’s built into the story that makes the pulsating approach more organic. There are two organic ways you can go about it: One is intolerable and slow, like watching paint dry. But there’s another way to go which is this life force that pulses through it and helps him get through it. And it’s not just his; it belongs to a lot of people and they communally help him through it in a direct way, because it’s the memory of friends and family, but also an indirect way, because it’s people who are featured in the film that he doesn’t know and will never meet.
What can you tell me about the amputation scene that people don’t know? Obviously there was a danger it would be controversial, which in this kind of film is not a good thing. It’s not a horror movie, where a bit of controversy is good for it. But we wanted to make it very accurate to his experience, so we followed the book very carefully. The other danger with it is that I refused studio pressure. Because when you read the book, it’s not easy to get through. In movies, you risk trivializing it as a cheap thrill, but it’s a very profound euphoria you feel when he’s released, because it’s a passage that takes him over 40 minutes. For a man, it’s a pain that most of us will never get near, and these are extraordinary machines we live in. They are amazing things and you can’t treat them like they’re a bit of trivia you can get rid of. They’re meant to be there and to lose part of it is a massive, massive stab. And the euphoria comes in by showing it is a stepping stone to something else greater. It’s the gift of life again.
What was Aron’s reaction like when he watched that scene? Well, we’ve had him in tears a few times. I don’t know what it’s like to watch that scene for him. He’s the only guy who’s been there so what it’s like to see it recreated as faithfully as we could, I don’t know.
What parts of the film did you try and remain as faithful to reality as possible? Yeah, we had some freedom and we compressed things, as you do in movies. We accentuated true images. Like for instance, he does meet the two girls at the beginning and he did go climbing with them, but we put water in it because we wanted to water everywhere before he loses all his water. We wanted to make it sensual and erotic, something he can watch on a screen later, his final contact with those girls, and what he would give for a woman’s voice and comfort.
Does the pool they swam in actually exist? It does, in a separate place. They’re in two separate places. If somebody drops in the pool like that, they’d be killed doing it because it’s really reckless. That is his reckless personality, but in the book you can see he’s been in scrapes before, where he’s been very close to—
Hurting himself? And killing friends. So, there’s that side of his personality as well, but in a delicious way, because you want to seduce people with the film. It’s not a moralistic film. You want it to be a journey for him as he discovers all these things in himself.
What makes James Franco different from any other actor you’ve worked with? I was delighted about discovering Pineapple Express. I mean, we weren’t making the film then so it was a delayed significance, but I knew when I saw it that he was the guy who I liked as an actor a lot. When you see him do broad comedy, you think, that’s a proper actor who can do anything. I remember thinking, and this is a long time ago and I’m not comparing, but I remember seeing De Niro do the early, intense Scorsese stuff, and then you see him do King of Comedy, and it’s just like, Wow, that is a major actor. There’s a goofball element to him that you want to capture. And it’s true that the human spirit faced with the greatest adversity will respond with wit.
Did Aron use the video camera in real life the way James uses it in the film? He didn’t do the talk show, but he did try to make jokes, he did try to cheer people up, tried to cheer himself up, so that is all based on that. Also, when you’ve been a couple of days without water you start to hallucinate quite quickly and you’re never quite sure of what’s going on at all. It’s very serious, water loss.
Was him doing a fake talk show with himself a technique used to get his thoughts out to the audience? Yeah, it’s also a way of trying to populate the canyon with little hidden messages. He’s trying different voices and literally manically populating the canyon because of course, the thing that matters to him the most is people he no longer has—people he hasn’t taken enough care with. It’s a wonderful way of changing the mood and surprising people, because the danger with a film like this is that you know what’s coming, so you want to keep it surprising.