Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures
127 Hours, says the film is more about a man's journey than a desperate act of survival.
Danny Boyle, shown on the set of
Danny Boyle, shown on the set of 127 Hours, says the film is more about a man's journey than a desperate act of survival. Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures
The new film 127 Hours is already getting a reputation for being grisly: It takes the well-known story of hiker Aron Ralston, who in 2003 got his arm caught under a boulder in an isolated canyon, and brings it to the big screen. After days trapped alone in the wilderness, Ralston cut off part of his arm with a dull pocketknife in order to free himself.
To director Danny Boyle, the man behind Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, the key was finding the right actor — one the audience could identify with.
"You know, an empathy would be created in which you would be participating somehow," Boyle tells host Michele Norris.
That's crucial: Most people, Boyle argues, hear Ralston's story and think, "I'd never have the nerve."
"Whereas in fact when [moviegoers] experience it, I think people begin to realize that you would do it," Boyle says. "And I think that's actually a very good thing, to inspire everyone to hopefully achieve what he achieved — which is, he basically got his life back again."
Balancing Realism And Exploitation
Of course dramatizing a story like Ralston's was tricky. When it came time to storyboard the amputation scene, Boyle followed Ralston's book carefully — "because I knew there would always be a danger with a scene like that, that you would either sensationalize it and turn it into a horror movie, which it's not."
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Boyle gives James Franco some pointers while filming in a narrow crevice of rock.
Boyle gives James Franco some pointers while filming in a narrow crevice of rock. Fox Searchlight Pictures
On the other hand, Boyle says, there's the risk that "you might trivialize it and make it look too easy — or that it doesn't amount to enough. That's the balancing act, really."
Add to that the difficulty of conveying excruciating pain to an audience — pain that's convincing but not unbearable — and Boyle had a daunting project on his hands.
"Well, we wanted people to feel it, almost," Boyle says. "That's why I wanted a great actor to do it. What happens in the scene itself is that he occupies these plateaus of pain so brilliantly ... that people imagine it's the sound effects that are [putting them] on edge — and they obviously contribute to it. But the real issue is that it's an extraordinary performance by Franco."
It's a performance that speaks to the way actors draw people to them.
"That's why we love actors," says Boyle. "They're not a very lovable lot in many ways, but we need them, and we always have. We want them to act out these psychodramas for ourselves, so we can see ourselves depicted. And then you put them in your shoes, or you're repelled by it, and you have this dialogue with" audiences getting so caught up in the push and pull of emotion that they'll call out to the characters on screen.
'This Is The Middle Of Nowhere'
Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Franco stars as Aron Ralston, an avid adventurer who sets off alone into a canyon that nearly kills him.
Franco stars as Aron Ralston, an avid adventurer who sets off alone into a canyon that nearly kills him. Chuck Zlotnick/Fox Searchlight Pictures
There are long silences in 127 Hours, at least in terms of the dialogue. But sound is all around: the noise of wind, subtle music from the soundtrack, the sound of Ralston hacking away at his arm. Still, where Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting used grand aural gestures, 127 Hours relies on a lower-key sonic palette to create its atmosphere. The inspiration, Boyle says, was the isolation of the setting.
"I remember the first time Aron took us to the Blue John Canyon, which is where he was trapped. And you think, 'This is the middle of nowhere,'" Boyle recalls. "If something went wrong here, you would have no chance at all. And sound is a constant. [It] re-identifies that central issue, which is that nobody is going to come."
And the idea that no one will come is central to what Boyle believes 127 Hours is about.
"This isn't like a survival special on TV, you know, which is about cutting off the arm," he says. Instead, it's about the journey undergone by Ralston, who starts out as "self-reliant, independent — arrogant, you could say — perfect athletic specimen."
"He climbs 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado in winter on his own," Boyle says. "He runs ultramarathons. Everything he does, he does against the clock to time himself, and you see him at the beginning moving away from people who he doesn't think he needs."
By the end, after he's cut himself free, Ralston finds himself making his way, perilously weakened, out of the canyon.
"And this brilliant, resourceful, amazing young man has to scream at the top of his voice, 'I need help,'" Boyle says. "And I think that's a wonderful thing. ... It's a journey toward humility, toward what Cormac McCarthy calls grace, which is ... that which heals man and brings them to safety long after all other resources are exhausted."
So no, not a horror story about a man who's forced to cut off his arm.
"This is a film about how precious life is," Boyle says. "And it's only precious because of other people. It's not precious in itself, which is what we sometimes think — we think the will to survive is an individualistic thing. ... But it's actually connected to other people. And that's what the life essence is really about — it's always about other people, even in the loneliest places."