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127 Hours – Director Danny Boyle on bringing the audience into the canyon

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127 Hours - Director Danny Boyle
Director Danny Boyle © 2010 Fox Searchlight Pictures

Danny Boyle’s second movie, Trainspotting, is one of the highest grossing British films of all time. In 2002 he made the smash hit horror movie 28 Days Later, and last year won the Academy Award for Best Director for Slumdog Millionaire.

His new movie 127 Hours tells the true story of Aron Ralston (James Franco), who got trapped by a falling boulder during a hiking trip in an isolated canyon in Utah in 2003, and found the courage to cut off his own arm in order to free himself.

At the press conference for the film, Boyle spoke of the difficulties of bringing such a graphic story to the screen.

Did you know immediately how you wanted to shoot this movie?

127 Hours - Director Danny Boyle and James Franco
Director Danny Boyle and James Franco © 2010 Fox Searchlight Pictures

I knew I wanted to bring the audience into the canyon with Aron and to not let them go until he himself is released. Of course, I saw this as an extraordinary story of outdoor survival, but I also think there is a whole other layer to this story that will be surprising for people. It’s not simply about how Aron survived, incredible as that is.

There is a life force that Aron tapped into that goes way beyond his remarkable courage as an individual, and that’s what we hoped to capture on screen. It’s something that binds us all together and when Aron, who seems all alone in this canyon, is pulled back to the idea of community, there is something very powerful that happens.

What was it about James Franco that made him right for the movie?

James has this extraordinary technical facility and that’s what was needed because 127 Hours is nearly a one-man film. But James went beyond that, stepping up to every single challenge, physical and emotional, that was thrown at him. He was so wonderful for this role. He got so into it, it became, in a way, as much about James Franco as it was about Aron Ralston.

What were you meetings like with Aron on this?

127 Hours - Director Danny Boyle, James Franco and crew
Director Danny Boyle, James Franco and crew © 2010 Fox Searchlight Pictures

We were lucky on this that he allowed us that freedom and trust. But he didn’t when I first met him. He wanted to make it as a documentary, where he would keep very strict control of it by narrating the film and by being a producer on the film. I told him the vision I had of it at the time was as an actor, I didn’t know it was going to be James then, but I remember describing the way James performs it.

I remember describing it to Aron in 2006, that the only way you’ll be able to tolerate what happens in this film is if you truly depict it. The only way an audience will be able to watch it, is if you can find a actor great enough to let you empathize on the whole journey and exclusively in the canyon, so that the release when it comes is a release for everyone.

We agreed to meet another day, which was 2009, when he agreed to do it. So in a way it feels like it wouldn’t let go, and it feels like we’d been moving towards James Franco our entire lives.

Do you see any similarities between James and Aron?

127 Hours - Director Danny Boyle and James Franco
Director Danny Boyle and James Franco © 2010 Fox Searchlight Pictures

I have one which he probably won’t recognize. They’re both completely restless in different ways, I think. James’ is expressed in his books and his studying and his constant moving around different idioms of performance and expression, and Aron’s is obviously expressed in wilderness advocacy and in telling his story, but they are both very different, which is why it’s a great performance, I think. That is something that does link them, there’s a restlessness about them.

Was there a discussion about how uncomfortable you could make the audience watching this?

Obviously in the big scene itself where he amputates his arm we stuck very closely to the book because we were aware it could be a very controversial scene, and we wanted to map it as truly as we could. So probably more than any other element in the whole film, that’s very carefully based on Aron’s book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. It’s neither pushed too far, sensationalized, nor is it trivialized, made too easy. I did want to push it as far as possible.

Did you want to go from a cast of thousands with Slumdog Millionaire to a cast of one?

127 Hours - Director Danny Boyle
Director Danny Boyle © 2010 Fox Searchlight Pictures

Definitely, it was extraordinary to go from the crowds of Mumbai, where you’re surrounded by a billion people, to the opposite extreme of a man completely on his own. It was a wonderful contrast and a terrific challenge. The films couldn’t be any more different – and yet, in a way, they are both about beating impossible odds.

I found out a lot about proper screen acting from this. I’d only ever worked with British actors really, and it is a different thing. I think (Americans) have a relationship with a camera that’s different, there’s a comfort with the camera. There’s a comfort with the technicalities of it, which British actors tend to find annoying.

You have this tension constantly about the measurements and about where the camera is and the light, but James was able to take that as part of the pleasure of it in a way. It doesn’t interrupt the emotions, it’s really interesting.

Do you feel you could do what Aron did?

People often say about the story, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I could do that.’ But I think we all would do anything we could for this life that is so beautiful and keeps us going. What I think Aron experienced in that canyon over those six days was a sudden realization of the full value of life.

One of the ideas of the film is that he was never really alone in the canyon. Physically, he very much was, but he was surrounded spiritually by everyone he’d ever known or loved or dreamed about. That made the difference and we wanted to get that feeling into the story.