In April, 2003, 26 year-old Aron Ralston drove to Utah to spend the weekend hiking in the remote Canyonlands National Park. Six days later, he would emerge to recount his remarkable story of survival. With is arm pinned by an immovable fallen boulder, Ralston found the courage to cut his own arm off and free himself, to live another day.
James Franco has played several real people, James Dean in a TNT biopic, Scott Smith Harvey Milk’s lover in Milk, but no one who has gone through what Aron Ralston did, as he recounts.
What was it about Aron’s story that interested you?
One of the reasons I wanted to do this role is because it is made up of so many little personal moments, those moments we all have when you’re completely alone. I felt like that was a side of me I could really understand and tap into.
The story is basically about a man confronted with his own death and figuring how to get back to life – it’s a human situation I don’t think has been explored very much in films before. I also thought it was a tremendous opportunity to tell a story through minute physical actions and these kinds of private soliloquies Aron has when he talks to his video camera. It was very different from most roles.
It was also very unique because I really don’t interact with other actors for most of the movie. I love working with other actors, but this was something unusual and challenging. The focus of attention was completely different. It was like I had to learn to act with the space around me, with the rocks, with the canyon, with the camera.
What was it like talking directly into a video camera in place of the usual dialogue?
It was almost like doing an old-fashioned Shakespearean soliloquy, where you’re talking right at the audience. It was very unusual for a film.
What I loved is that Danny took a completely different approach than any other filmmaker to making a movie set in nature. Instead of using nature’s slow pace, he gives it a wonderful urban pulse and feel.
What was it like for you to recreate being stuck in the canyon?
It was a physically taxing shoot for me. But it was such an interesting situation to portray and Danny is an amazing director. He’s very energetic and passionate but he always gets what he wants.
How important was it to meet Aron, as you weren’t doing a documentary and you weren’t going to imitate him?
I’ve played four or five of characters that are based on real people, and however close you get to the actual behavior of the person always depends on a variety of things, what the movie’s like, who the person was in real life.
James Dean, everybody knows the slouch and the cigarette, you just have to get that if you’re going to play him.
In Milk, that character had a whole life to him, he had addiction problems. One thing people said, ‘I knew the real Scott Smith and after Harvey left him he got heavy into alcohol, and you guys didn’t portray that.’ Well, yeah, but the movie is called Milk, not Smith. So that’s a requirement of the story and so all those things dictate how much of the character you put in.
On this film I think we decided, the most important thing was the experience Aron went through, the unusual experience and the emotional journey he went on. It was our job to make that experience feel authentic, and the best way to achieve that was not to slavishly mimic or imitate Aron’s every gesture, like you do with the James Dean character.
Did you meet with Aron?
(Yes), we talked to Aron as much as we could beforehand, but after that we put ourselves in our own canyon and figured it out for ourselves. (We did) everything that Aron did, so that dictated a lot of the way that we made it and shot it, and the duration of takes and all that. It was like an inside out approach.
Funnily enough, Aron’s friends saw the movie and they say things like, ‘You got Aron so well in that moment,’ and I think that’s partly because we were trying to be loyal to the spirit of everything.
Do you think you could have done what Aron did to survive?
I thought about how drastic his circumstances were – that it was life and death. I’m pretty squeamish about blood, even in the doctor’s office, but you know, in that situation I’d get over it. I’d like to think that I’d try something and that I couldn’t just sit there.
This character really goes up against death and, to a certain extent Aron had to accept that he might die in order to take the risk to get free. And for me, that’s a lot of what this was about, looking at how a person copes with being alone, being afraid, being in pain, and how that gets him right down to the essentials of existence.