Interview - Director Danny Boyle - In '127 Hours,' An Extraordinary Man Learns His Limits The director of 127 Hours tells NPR's Michele Norris that the film -- about a trapped hiker who cuts off his own arm to free himself --  is at its core about a man's journey toward humility.

Danny Boyle: In 'Hours,' A Godling Learns His Limits

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

The Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle has a way of taking rather grisly subjects and injecting those stories with manic energy and a bit of whimsy. Whether chronicling the lives of street urchins in "Slumdog Millionaire" or heroin addicts in "Trainspotting," his films are laced with threads so bright they're almost fluorescent. So I was curious to see how he would approach the story of Aron Ralston.

Ralston is the solo hiker who famously cut off his own forearm to free himself after he was trapped for days by a boulder in a narrow canyon in Utah. In Boyle's new film "127 Hours," the actor James Franco plays the hiker, pragmatic in the face of death.

(Soundbite of movie, "127 Hours")

Mr. JAMES FRANCO (Actor): (as Aron Ralston) I'm low on food.

That's about 300, 400 mil, and that's it for water. I'm in pretty deep doo-doo here.

NORRIS: Deep trouble indeed. Well, Danny Boyle stopped by our studios this week to talk about the challenges of making a film that includes a grisly amputation - a scene that has caused some people to faint at early screenings. He said the key was making sure the film was much more than just a story about a hiker who hacks off his own arm.

Mr. DANNY BOYLE (Director, "127 Hours"): In terms of that scene, which, the amputation of his arm, we followed the book. We followed Aron's book very 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, but - and equally dangerous was the danger that you might trivialize it and make it look too easy - all the details in the moment went off. And that's the balancing act, really.

NORRIS: Pain is a difficult thing to portray on screen because if you're trying to be expository in the way that you do it, you want someone to actually feel the pain that the actor is going through.

Mr. BOYLE: Yeah.

NORRIS: You have to take him to a place that really is almost impossible, I mean, for people to bear. How did you - how do you - did you help James Franco do that in this film, to show that he's in excruciating pain but not to the degree that the person watching it would feel it as well?

Mr. BOYLE: Well, we wanted people to feel it, almost in a way. I mean, that's why I wanted a great actor to do it. And what happens in the scene itself is that he occupies these plateaus of pain so brilliantly, James, that people imagine it's the sound effects that are making you put on edge, and they, obviously, contribute to it. But the real issue is that it's an extraordinary performance by Franco.

And that's why we love actors. You know, they're not a very lovable lot in many ways, but we need them, and we always have in history. We want them to act out these psychodramas for ourselves, so that we can see ourselves depicted. And then you put themselves in your shoes, or you're repelled by it. You think I could never do that. And you have this dialogue with - and you can hear it. In America, especially, you do get crowds that absolutely speak dialogue with the actor. You know, what they're saying? Go on. No, no, don't. And that kind of thing. And I love that in the cinema - that activity.

(Soundbite of movie, "127 Hours")

NORRIS: Sound is very important in this film. There are long silences in terms of dialogue, but the sound is all around you - the natural sounds, the sound from the soundtrack, the sound that you hear when he's hacking away at his arm. What were you trying to create aurally here through the natural sounds in the canyon and, in this case, where the music is almost at a whisper level? It's not sort of big and loud and grand as it was in "Slumdog Millionaire" or "Trainspotting."

Mr. BOYLE: I mean, some of it is very loud, obviously, for that. Most of it, you're right. It's that it occupies the lower range, I think. And it's because of the isolation of the place, really. I remember the first time Aron took us to the Blue John Canyon, where he was trapped. And you think: This is the middle of nowhere. If something went wrong here, you would have no chance at all. And sound is a constant - re-identifies that central issue, which is that nobody is going to come.

(Soundbite of movie, "127 Hours")

Mr. BOYLE: And it's such a contrast to the way we live our lives normally in cities, where there's a constant menagerie of sound - this flux of sound that goes around our lives, moving around the whole time. There's none of that there or virtually just whispers of wind and insects and like these ants that you hear in such a reducted situation where he's a man on his own and he had, like, 10 possessions in his rucksack, each of those things becomes magnified. And that's the wonder of cinema, I think, is it can show us vast, huge armies, of blowing up planets and all that kind of stuff.

But the other thing it does that's extraordinary is it can magnify the tiny things. And in as story like this, when you have only one character in the film and he is alone, really, for 90 percent of the 90 minutes, you have to make all the other elements of film become characters in themselves. And so sound becomes a character in the film, and it creates this landscape which is more varied than his circumstances are. And that's how you make the film experienceable. You know, that you can actually sit through something that in a blunt presentation of it, you'd think, well, I can't - I'm not going to be able to sit through 90 minutes of that. It's quite the contrary, I'd say. I think you can - it's extraordinary what cinema can do when it magnifies, rather than just explodes.

NORRIS: Now, you know, I have to be honest with you. The reaction of some to this film, including some of the people in my own office, they say why would I want to go see a film about a guy who gets his arm stuck under a boulder and then has to cut it off? I mean, that's entertainment? What do you say to them?

Mr. BOYLE: I think what's important to say to people like that is that it's not - this isn't like a survival special on TV, you know, which is about cutting off the arm, which is how everybody refers to it now. It's actually about a guy who - he's 27 and he is self-reliant, independent, arrogant - you could say -certainly, physically perfect, the perfect athletic specimen. He climbs 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado in winter on his own. 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 of the film - and what I call the climactic scene of the film - is that after he's left the canyon, he stumbles across three Dutch people who were a family and they're - a man and his wife and their child, and this brilliant, resourceful, amazing young man has to scream at the top of his voice: I need help. And I think that's a wonderful thing to get someone like that to go on a journey where they are able to admit that. It's a journey that returns them to us all because we all need help. It's a journey towards humility, towards what Cormac McCarthy calls grace, which is that which heals men and brings them to safety long after all other resources are exhausted. And that's a wonderful journey to see in a movie. And in this performance by James Franco, you should see that, I think. And the other stuff is tough to get through, but you will get through it because if you were there...

NORRIS: Because he did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOYLE: would get through it as well. Yeah.

NORRIS: You know, if people walk into the film saying this is a film about a guy who cuts off his arm, what do you want them saying when they walk out?

Mr. BOYLE: This is a film about how precious life is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BOYLE: You know? We'll hang on to it. 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. It is, but it's expressed individually, 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.

NORRIS: Danny Boyle, what a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Mr. BOYLE: Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: That's Danny Boyle. He's the director of "127 Hours."

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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