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Danny Boyle talks directing challenges

127 Hours
27 December 2010

After Slumdog Millionaire virtually swept the board at the 2008 Oscars, winning no less than eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, Danny Boyle was inundated with tempting offers for his next project.

He turned them all down and returned, instead, to a project that he had been trying to make for years – 127 Hours, the true story of hiker Aron Ralston’s amazing escape from Blue John Canyon in Utah, where he was trapped for almost six days and had to cut off his own arm in order to save himself from certain death.

127 HOURS is the true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston’s remarkable adventure to save himself after a falling boulder crashes on his arm and traps him in an isolated canyon in Utah. Over the next five days Ralston examines his life and survives the elements to finally discover he has the courage and the wherewithal to extricate himself by any means necessary, abseil a 65 foot rock face and hike over eight miles before he is finally rescued. A visceral thrilling story that will take an audience on a never before experienced journey and prove what we can do when we choose life.



How is it having two directors of photography on one film?

The plan was that they would bring something different to it, each one would have a different style, and that would be one of the variations that we would compensate for the lack of characters, because there is just basically one character in ninety percent of the film. Anthony Dod Mantle is European and we thought he would bring a cool diffidence to it and then Enrique Chediak, who is from Ecuador, would bring a kind of Latin America passion to it. So that was the idea – we thought we would manoeuvre the narrative to suit their passions.

I thought, wow, there’s a fairly good chance James will prefer one of them to the other because it’s going to be very intimate. I knew that and I thought, ‘it may even be that he dislikes one of them and really likes the other’ and then I could exploit that and on a really difficult scene, ‘I’ll send in the one he doesn’t like, there’ll be tension and I can exploit the good cop, bad cop.’ (laughs).


Did it work?

None of that worked of course, none of it! (laughs) Because in fact what happened is something much better and it just shows you that you should abandon plans if you find something better. What happened is that they developed the style of the film with James. We had these cameras that we used in Mumbai (on Slumdog Millionaire) and they are very flexible and we can get into very intimate spaces with them. And yet they are proper cameras and digital. And they were the key, because there was no room in there, there was just James and the cameras.

So we did everything in these long, long takes and they would develop the movement during it. It wasn’t like ‘stop, let’s do a close up..’ or ‘let’s go wide..’ But they developed this style and it dictated the whole film and we did virtually every scene like that. So really, something much better than we had planned came out of it and I love that, I celebrate that because you should always have a plan A but if you find plan B and it’s better, then you should be prepared to go with it.


I would imagine after Slumdog Millionaire you must have had a lot of offers and presumably you could have picked virtually anything you wanted to do. Is that the way it works?

(laughs) You do get offered a lot stuff, yeah. But I always wanted to make this film because I thought the worst thing to do would be to react to Slumdog’s success in that way, in some way I thought that would be really foolish.  What you do is you take the power it gives you – and it’s temporary and minor but it is significant – and use it to make a film that you believe in. The danger is that you use it on a vanity project that nobody wants to watch. But we always believed that 127 Hours, although at first it seems un-watchable, is actually the reverse. It’s an incredibly compelling story. So we thought ‘well, let’s use the power to finance something that the powers that be might normally say ‘no, thanks, we’ll pass on that one.’ (laughs). I mean, it’s the story of a guy who is trapped in a canyon for nearly six days and then he cuts his arm of. So for a lot of executives at the studios it’s like ‘I think I’m going to pass on that one, thank you very much..’ So we used the Oscar success as a way to get it made.


When did you first try to make it?

We tried in 2006. I met Aron and I’d read his book and I had this idea, I thought ‘you’ve got to do it with an actor..’ I told Aron, ‘the problem is that if you turned it into a drama documentary you’ll be able to control it and it will be absolutely accurate but the audience won’t feel it other than as a spectator.’

I said, in order to witness what you went through, you’ve got to make people feel like they are in the canyon. And they’ll do anything to get out of there with him – and actually, if you watch the film with an audience you can feel that happen. They go ‘ahhh!’ and cheer and shout out and that’s what we wanted. With a great actor you’ll get that. But we couldn’t agree on an approach with Aron, he wanted it to be a docu-drama. And then 2009 came along and he changed a lot as a person, I think, and we got it going again.


So the initial stumbling block was that Aron wanted it to be a documentary?

You can’t call him a stumbling block because it’s his story (laughs). You have to be very careful because it would be arrogant to say ‘who is stopping me making my film? Oh, you’re the stumbling block!’ Because this is Aron’s story, he is the guy who cut his own arm off. Of course you are disappointed because you have this fevered vision of how you want it to be and then the guy says ‘no, I want it to be a documentary..’ And when that happens you have to respect his decision and say ‘fair enough.’ Fortunately, things changed and we were able to make the movie.


Why a drama and not a documentary?

Aron has told the story himself many, many times – in his book and he also does motivational speaking, presenting the whole story in a 50-minute performance.  And it’s obviously an extraordinary experience to see and hear the real guy telling this incredible story. And all those things obviously made him think, ‘I want to keep control of this story..’

But my point was that you’d achieve so much more with an actor. It’s one of the weird things about our world, in the performing arts, that we expect actors to tell our stories. That’s their job, to tell our stories and when you see people who are not proper actors do it, it’s very annoying. It’s a very important part of our make up to see a story acted out. And I said to Aron ‘Aron if you act it, if we employ you as the actor to play yourself, it will be terrible because nobody will believe It.’ (laughs). I said, ‘they’ll say ‘oh this must be fake. He’s not very good, is he?’ And yet he actually lived through it. It’s incomprehensible and you can’t explain that puzzle but it’s true, believe me. I’ve spent my life working with actors and I believe it. The power you get from telling stories with skilled actors is phenomenal and it’s transformational and cathartic, as well.


Let’s talk about the amputation scene. Firstly, why doesn’t he appear to be feeling any great pain as he’s trying to cut his own arm off?

Because Aron didn’t feel any pain. It’s in his book. Apart from the initial impact of the fall, he was pinned so tightly that he didn’t feel it. His hand and arm were infected but it never travelled back through his body because the hand died. It was pinched so tightly and he didn’t feel anything after the initial ‘bang..’ Some of the guys on are crew who are rock climbers said ‘this is a bit funny, he hasn’t shown any pain..’ But that’s what it said in the book – he didn’t feel anything until he broke his arm and began to cut it.


How did you approach the amputation scene and were you concerned not to make it too graphic?

We did it like the book, because we knew that it would be potentially very controversial, if we either pushed it too much into horror but just as dangerous was to trivialize it by making it too easy, too quick. So we followed the book probably closer than any other moment in the film. And so we tried to show it very, very accurately, because it’s the most extraordinary piece of writing, it genuinely is. I read that and I was breathless reading it. And I thought, ‘I want that quality..’ I knew that it was crucial to get the right actor. And I knew I wanted that same quality that’s in the book where an audience would feel like it was un-watchable but at the same time, they are compelled to watch it. It’s not an easy thing to watch and it shouldn’t be. Of course it shouldn’t be otherwise it’s a trick.  You want to feel it, and it gets very intense for some people, but for most people, it’s an extraordinary thing that leads to catharsis and euphoria and, as Aron calls it, ecstasy.  It’s an absolute ecstatic moment of life being given back again when you thought it was all finished. And everybody can relate to that.


It must have been a very intimate filmmaking experience with just James and the cameramen in that small space. Did they drive each other crazy?

I was outside watching on a monitor when they were doing that stuff and what’s great is that it goes back to what I was saying about the power of a great actor. It’s fake and you are watching it on a monitor eight feet away but you believe it and you start to feel anxious (laughs). It’s so weird what it does to you, it fills your brain somehow and you lose rationality even though you know it’s James in there and he has to go at six to get on a plane to go to New York and do a day in class before he comes back. I think the relationship between James and the cameramen was incredible and they sustained that. Maybe it helped with him switching in and out.


A lot of movies deal with the theme of surviving in nature. How does 127 Hours fit into that genre?

It’s interesting because I didn’t really think of it like that. What you do is you just chase a story and the best ones are when you are obsessed and you think you can see it and you can’t understand why all these stupid people can’t see it as well because they are reluctant or cautious and you have to sell it to them more (laughs). But that’s important too, because it makes you work out ways to express the story and to expose it to the public gaze in a minor way and that’s a very important part of the process.



And did you become obsessed with this one?

It’s weird the way it happened because I could see it straight away. I just knew what I wanted to do with it. And then I had the frustration of meeting Aron and saying ‘OK, make this as a documentary, I accept that..’ Because it’s his story. And then it came back to me again and when I got to tell it, really I’ve only borrowed his story. James and I literally said that to him – that at the end we would give it back to him. In fact, there’s the scene at the end where James pops out of the pool and he gives (the real) Aron a look as he’s sitting on the sofa. He’s literally saying ‘thank you’ and giving it back to him.

We will have moved on in a year and we’ll be doing something else and Aron will still have this story to tell to his son at some point and there will be many more people who want to hear the story directly from him, they will ask him if the movie got it right and ask what was different in the movie. It’s an endless cycle for Aron, really. And you have to respect that and you have to say ‘thanks for letting us borrow it, we know we haven’t disfigured it and we hope you agree..’ Really, that’s all you can do.


Do you think Aron was nervous about handing the story over because of a general impression that Hollywood doesn’t always do story like this justice?

Well, he was clearly nervous in 2006 and I can understand that. You have to understand the culture he comes from – those people regard Hollywood as being bullshit. And that basically what would happen in Hollywood is that there would be a new ending where a surgeon turns up, he happens to be out hiking, and saves the hand!  (laughs) That’s what they think would happen, and you laugh, but whoa, we’ve been there before with a lot worse things than, and that’s quite imaginative actually now that I come to think of it (laughs).


Did Slumdog Millionaire convince him that he was in good hands?

I think Slumdog showed him that we make decent films and I think he saw in Slumdog that we were serious. There’s a dance scene at the end of Slumdog and everyone thinks it’s a feel good film but there’s a lot of brutality in the film as well. I think he felt that he could trust us and that if we could find the right actor he was prepared to let us have a go at it. He’s always been nervous and of course he would be because we could have done anything to his story. But you know, I think he was also reassured by James playing the role. He knew James’s work and knew how good he is. He got on very well with James and I think he knew he was in safe hands.


Aron Ralston was obviously closely involved. What sort of input did he have?

He was very gracious and he let us explore areas of it that he didn’t want to acknowledge, or he thought weren’t correct and he still didn’t say ‘you must cut that..’ But he did say one thing that we had to change, which is when he’s trapped in the canyon and he gets nervous at night and he’s hallucinating, he thinks he hears something behind him, he gets frightened of the dark, and his lamp isn’t working and he fires up his flash on his camera, and boom, there’s Scooby-Doo. Originally that was a six foot Raven, right behind him, waiting to eat him, and he said, ‘I don’t want you to do that.’

And he was very clear, he said, ‘I know that’s true, that’s what would happen but I don’t want that Raven portrayed like that because it was the only living thing that I had a relationship with. And I don’t want it to be portrayed in that way.’ He was very clear. And I said, ‘yeah, absolutely.’ And that’s the point where you think ‘am I the stumbling block here?’ And actually, we came up with a much better idea – Scooby Doo was great.

I’m sure he was nervous but he very graciously allowed us into his life and he revealed a lot more material to us than is in the book. Simon (Beaufoy, screenwriter) went to meet him and he explored a lot with Simon. They talked about his fallibility as a man when he went into that place. As opposed to his physical well-being because I don’t think he had any fallibility as a specimen – he’s a perfect athlete really, full of courage, almost reckless courage.


You’ve enjoyed phenomenal success recently. How do you remain grounded?

(laughs) I go out of this room and it’s hell! I say ‘where’s my cappuccino? Where is it?’ Seriously, I live here and I think that helps. James doesn’t live in Hollywood either, he lives in New York and I think if I was an American I’d live in New York because I like that East Coast mentality personally. There’s nothing wrong with living in Hollywood and if you want to be a big time filmmaker you should go to Hollywood.

And I say to young film makers here when they ask, ‘should I stay here or should I go to America?’ I say go to America because you are far more likely to get a chance because it is true, they do give people a chance. After that, it gets complicated, and I’ve been very fortunate to be able to stay here in the UK and any success I’ve had has been rooted here really – we shoot on location but we do everything else here. And your background is important, I think – the people that bring you up and the values, they give you, are important. My family would give me absolute hell if I was any different.


From filming to release this film has had a quick turnaround. What’s the reason for that?

We did turn it around very quickly because we wanted it to be out in time for the awards season. A film like this is potentially very challenging and at this time it’s a chance for independent films to have a bit of longevity in the media. If you release it at another time of year it’s gone. I think that this film has a great performance in it by James and I wanted to have some space so that it can build an audience.


Can you talk about your stage production of Frankenstein?

Well, this is an adaptation of Frankenstein that we are doing at the National Theatre, and with a couple of British actors (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller) who will both play the creature and Dr. Victor Frankenstein, who creates him, on alternative nights. Because they are the creator and the created we thought it would be really interesting if they could look at each other every night and play each other’s roles. It’s very much a two hander – that’s the engine of the piece.

And it’s nice because it puts the accent on performance, and not on makeup. It’s an extraordinary story and interestingly it was adapted for the stage as soon as it was published. It never seems to run out of fuel as a story and we’re doing it in February.

You’ve got another big production coming up as well, the London Olympics, how’s that going?

Yes, we’re trying to learn from Beijing, which could be very intimidating. But we’ve learnt to accept it’s power, its majesty and that Beijing completed a cycle of a certain type of show that introduced the games. I don’t think any nation in the world, with the possible exception of India in a few years time, could try and do something on that scale. We haven’t got that kind of money and I don’t think anybody would have the appetite for that kind of expenditure and that kind of control.

So we are going to try and do something a bit more intimate really, and try and start again and start a new cycle for these kinds of ceremonies. And also we want to remember it’s proper function, which is to welcome the athletes to the city for their games.

The most important thing is the games and not the opening ceremony. The stadium is useful, it’s not particularly striking aesthetically but it’s very finely done – it’s like a porcelain bulb and it has the same capacity as Beijing with half the footprint. It’s amazing so we’ll try and use that as an inspiration to make it more intimate.



127 Hours Film Page

127 HOURS is out in UK cinemas 5 January 2011