Since his impressive mid-1990s one-two breakthrough of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, Boyle has tried his hand at a number of genres, the sign of an adventurous filmmaker eager to take on new challenges — from a musical (A Life Less Ordinary) and a big-budget action adventure (The Beach), both of which were creative misfires, to a zombie movie (28 Days Later) and a sci-fi drama (Sunshine), both of which were satisfying, uncommonly humanist explorations. Then there's 2008's Slumdog Millionaire, an unexpected box-office smash that won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
That brings us back to 127 Hours, the tension-laced, viscerally affecting true story of mountain climber/adventurist/loner Aron Ralston (played by an inspired James Franco), who severed his own arm with a pocketknife after lodging it between a boulder and a Utah canyon wall for five days. Boyle tackles the story's seemingly grim subject matter with his trademark kinetic glee, employing a number of immersive technical flourishes in an effort to put the viewer in Ralston's unique headspace.
CityBeat recently spoke to Boyle about 127 Hours' versatile leading man, its oddly urban nature and its “jangly” rather than “meditative” qualities.
CityBeat: I saw the film at the its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September. At the post-screening Q&A you mentioned that Ralston initially wanted to do his story as a Touching the Void-style documentary. How did you change his mind?
Danny Boyle: I wasn’t delighted about it because, obviously, I wanted to make it. But I did understand it because he’d just written the book in which he’s in complete control of the narrative. He could see how stories could get out into the public eye, and he could also see how they could change by that journey slightly — and significantly sometimes — by Hollywood.
The thing I said to him, and I still believe it’s true, as far as I could see it as a filmmaker, the only way you would ever be able to watch a truthful depiction of the amputation is if you involve the audience via an actor, so that they have a relationship with that actor which is meaningful. Their relationship is no longer just with the story; it’s also with this actor.
I said, “If you can let me put him through an experience like the one you went through, they will root for him. And those people who can’t watch it won’t walk out because they’ll want to stick with it.” Those people who were carried out, which has happened, will walk back in again for the ending, and that’s also true. You get invested in his performance and the empathy you feel for him and his situation and you want to help him.
CB: Why did pick James Franco to embody this guy?
DB: It’s been kind of a joke that it was Pineapple Express that was sort of key to it.
Which it was in a weird way, because I knew James as an actor before then, and I like him very much as an actor. But it was when I saw Pineapple Express that I had the same reaction when I saw (Robert) De Niro do King of Comedy. When they can do the dramatic stuff, and then when you see them do the comedy, that’s a complete actor; that’s a full, complete actor.
It’s not just a mood thing, it’s not just a method thing — it’s a guy who can do method and also do performance.
CB: Why did you want to tell this particular story, especially coming off of the success of Slumdog? You probably could have done whatever you wanted.
DB: We wanted to take it on because the success gives you a brief window of opportunity to kind of push something through against the forces of caution. This was our opportunity. You can’t make it for a lot of money; if you want that kind of thing then you’ve got to do a big action movie or a sequel or something like that. We wanted to use the freedom that Slumdog had given us to make it. It’s not a vanity project. It was actually something surprisingly public. It is a film for everyone, considering it’s a film about one guy. Weirdly enough, for me, it’s about everyone.
CB: It seems like it came together pretty quickly.
DB: When we began it, we wanted to make sure the film was out this time of year, because the awards season gives your film a chance to last a bit longer than just disappearing over a weekend, which can easily happen with something like this. That awards season is crucial for this kind of work. Particularly with the way James’ performance was measuring up, we thought we must get his work recognized in some way, and that will help the film’s longevity and help it expand in places where it may not normally get.
We also made it quickly because we wanted some of the energy of that filmmaking progress or speed to actually come through in the film. I wanted the film to feel impatient, oddly enough. I felt the enemy of this film is if it becomes inert or static, because obviously he can’t move. It’s got to be moving forward all the time, which is fruitlessly in some respects — like his attempts to get out.
On a deeper, more profound level, it's moving because his heart is changing. He’s learning about himself. I thought, "We have to emphasize that the whole time. We’ve got to be pressing that so the film feels jangly rather than meditative." In that sense it’s an urban film, weirdly. I remember explaining that to people and they thought I’d lost my mind because he’s in the middle of the wilderness in Utah.
CB: It's also urban and modern in the sense that his video camera (which Ralston used to document his predicament) can be used as a handy narrative device, a way to get into his headspace.
DB: His camera is an almost direct satellite link back to that city he apparently despises at the beginning of the film. It’s a way for him to sort of reach back. It becomes that for him psychologically. He clings onto these people (his parents and close friends). If he doesn’t benefit from the love they have for him, which he’s taken so much for granted, he will die. And he doesn’t die because he benefits from it; he builds on it, you know, in his journey. I think that’s what happens, anyway.
It also allowed us to add a variety of different looks in the film, which again helps sustain change in the film when so little appears to be changing. You’ve got this visual change as well. That helps to refresh the palate. It also makes it modern as well. It is a modern story. It starts in 2003, the same year, ironically, that social networking is beginning over on the East Coast. Aron was an Intel engineer, and he turned his back on it as a career to spend more time outdoors.
CB: It's interesting because most people in that situation would be going through some sort of metaphysical crisis, whereas he sees it as just another physical and scientific challenge.
DB: Certainly his life is made up of achievements and challenges and timing himself against the clock and all these things that make him a very successful 27-year-old specimen, a perfect athlete. But he’s got quite a lot to learn, which usually takes many years to learn, which is the things that are precious are not the achievements — they don’t get you out of there.
There is this scene at the beginning of him trying to move the rock and he uses all his testosterone, all his might, all his machismo, and it doesn’t make a bit of difference. In fact, it makes it worse because it leads him to drink more of what little water he has. And then he says, “Think, think, you’ve got to do it a different way.” And he begins his journey, which is back us, back to a kind of humility. You accept your place.
We’re nothing really. All you do, after all the vainglorious stuff, is pass on a bit of life, if you’re lucky, and hope you do it well whether you pass it on directly or not. That’s about it, and that’s no bad thing; I love celebrating that.
Read our review of 127 HOURS, find theaters and showtimes and see the trailer here.