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James Franco talks about becoming Aron Ralston

127 Hours
28 December 2010

When James Franco first watched 127 Hours he sat one row behind Aron Ralston – the man he portrays on screen – and started to fret that he hadn’t done a good job. Indeed, Franco convinced that the young adventurer was disappointed with his performance.

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.



What made you take this role?

I was certainly attracted by the very unusual structure of the film. I mean there’s the incredible story certainly, but also the fact that it would be a film making experience unlike any that I’ve had. I don’t think I would have done this movie with just any director and for me, it was important that Danny was involved. After working with him I realise how much pushing himself and making films that will pull him out of his own comfort zone drive him. He thrives on experimentation and tackling the unfamiliar. And I really liked that idea. And you know, I enjoy slower paced movies as well as fast paced movies. But Danny does fast paced movies and I’m very happy with the way it came out. But really I would have been satisfied with just having the experience – all you can control, as an actor is who you decide to work with and how hard you work at the role and that’s about it. So I thought it would be cool to do this kind of unusual movie with somebody like Danny Boyle and tell this great story.


Were you surprised by how fast the film is? It’s about a man trapped by a boulder in a canyon and the audience might expect a very confined experience. And yet it’s not that at all.

Danny is so good at incorporating all the elements that make a great film. Once he’s edited and the music is in there and everything, he delivers a full experience. But, I think another reason the movie feels so intense is not necessarily because of this amputation scene that a lot of people are focusing on, it’s because of the overall effect of the movie – the way that it’s shot. And I thought about this before we did it and it’s a story told primarily through physical actions and all these little victories and failures and if done right it brings an audience close to a character. He’s not telling you how he’s feeling, he’s showing you, he’s doing it and so the audience really gets on board with the character. And when the character does speak, it’s a very unconventional device where he’s talking directly to his video camera. And that gives the character a justification to talk directly to the audience. Yes, he’s talking to his family and friends but he’s looking right into the lens as if he’s talking right to the audience. So it creates a very intense experience. The first time I watched the film with an audience I felt it was like something I’d never experienced before, watching a movie, in a movie I was in with an audience, where I felt like something really intimate with them, because the camera is so close and the nature of the material and everything. I had to do a Q and A after and for a minute I felt like,’ oh I’m not even going to be able to speak’ it was that weird.


Did you watch the real tapes that Aron Ralston made when he was trapped in the canyon? That must be very valuable for an actor to have that kind of material to draw upon…

Yeah, and I never really had that before. Aron showed us the real videos and even on their own, they are incredibly moving and very powerful, because it’s a guy that has accepted his own death, but also is not wallowing in self-pity. He’s very composed, because he thought these were the last things his mother would ever see, and so, since he’s making them for her, and there were points where he was starting to get emotional, he turned the video camera off, because he didn’t want her to see that.  So they were very powerful in themselves, but as an actor, it’s material unlike anything I’ve ever had. When I played James Dean and Allen Ginsburg there’s film of them and it was very helpful to get their mannerisms and gestures down but it wasn’t film of them in the most intense moments of their lives. It wasn’t James Dean right before he crashed the car or confronting his father.  As an actor, you never find material like this. So obviously, it wasn’t necessary to have that material to play this role, but the fact that I had it, it was just like it was a gift.


Is it quite similar to what you use in the film?

Yeah. Some of the messages that we have in the film are verbatim, things that Aron said in some of the videos, but in addition to that, it was very useful to see his behaviour. Aron doesn’t show the tapes to many people, other than family and friends that are mentioned on the real tapes. The first time I met him he brought them along so it was a very intense way to meet somebody (laughs).  Some of the messages we use in the film are verbatim, things that Aron said.


Was the humour part of them too?

Well, Simon, the writer, and Danny developed a talk show scene and that’s not something that Aron did. But there are some lines, like when he’s drinks the urine and says ‘that’s no slurpee..’ that’s straight from Aron. So I think what Danny and Simon did is expand on that goofy sense of humour that Aron really does have and built it into this mad kind of scene that I actually think is a brilliant because it’s working on so many levels. And it’s comic relief because it comes right after the scene where he breaks down emotionally – he has been dreaming about his past girlfriend and he wakes up and realises that it’s just a dream and he loses it and cries. So you have this sequence that is wacky and crazy but actually, I always thought that the wackier it got the more poignant it would be because it’s doing so many things.

It’s the character trying to run away from himself by using comedy, but he also kind of comes around by the end, and it’s a way for him to confront himself, and to challenge himself for his choices that led him there. And it’s also kind of him starting to lose his mind in a bit, so it was almost like, the wackier it got actually, in some ways, more serious it was. And to be able to play that scene was just great.  And we did it really simply, I think we only did it like four times or so and I just did both voices back and forth, and they just filmed it from different angles, and then cut it together that way.


And did the tapes show his physical deterioration?

Oh yeah because he made them over the course of the five days and so we could see his physical deterioration in the videos. But in addition to that, it made me realize the power of the simplicity of his delivery. He’s not a giving Shakespearian death soliloquy, it’s not about what he’s saying, it’s the contrast of the knowledge of his own imminent death and just talking very intimately to his family – and that is what is so powerful. And also, the other valuable thing was that I spent days with Aron and Danny must have spent weeks with him writing the script, and he would tell me the story and all of that. But the difference between talking to him in person and watching the videos is that on the videos Aron doesn’t know that he’s going to survive – so it’s pure behaviour because Aron doesn’t know there’s a happy ending. We now know that he made it out but when he made those videos, right there, he doesn’t know and as an actor I would call it gold, actor gold because it’s pure behaviour.


Did playing someone so close to dying change anything for you, your view on life?

I guess so. I guess that’s one of the things that Danny hopes that the film does. But, knock on wood, I don’t think any of us will ever be in that kind of situation – unless you are plugging your refrigerator in and get stuck behind it somehow. But I don’t think any of us will have to contemplate cutting our arms off. If you think about it, like Aron says himself, it’s insane. And you know, the boulder could have landed on his head, not on his arm, and he’d have been dead. So it’s a very unusual situation. But the movie allows us to experience it with the character, and then maybe question our own lives.  And yeah, I guess the working on the movie reinforced my appreciation for having my family and my loved ones.


Did it make you re-appraise your life?

I don’t know, I like to think that I have been able to design my life so that I am engaged in things that I love, and I’m just working on things that I love. And I’m very fortunate in that way. And you I guess I do try to think about these things. About four or five years ago I got my pilot’s licence and I remember when I was taking lessons for it and going up in these little planes just asking myself ‘what if the plane goes down today? Am I OK? Do I have any loose ends?’ And I don’t like loose ends and when I asked myself that in the plane, I had done a lot of work and I couldn’t think of any outstanding things that I hadn’t at least tried, or people who I owed apologies to.  So I try to live that way. I could be overlooking something, (laughs) but I am engaged with life – I’m in school and all that, because it’s just stuff I’m interested in.  So I think doing everything that I want to be doing. 


Did you feel connected to these man versus nature stories before? And did you talk to Sean Penn about this film?

I’d talked to Sean about his movie before I worked with Danny on this. And you know, I liked this movie but to me, it’s not so much about nature really, it’s about a guy who has everything in his life stripped away from him and then he has to question himself.

So it’s really almost like a Beckett piece or something – it’s just man down to the essentials. Although it’s much more hopeful than Beckett. But Danny will tell you, he’s not a nature guy so he really didn’t want to make a nature movie and he didn’t really shoot it like one. There’s not a ton of shots that are appreciating the beauty of nature in this. It’s really about a man alone, and that I think was more attractive to me too more than just plain nature.


A different director would obviously have approached the story in a different way. Danny uses a lot of music and it’s very fast paced. Another filmmaker could have stripped it down. Would that have appealed to you?

Well, that would be a different movie. There are so many things that are unusual in this movie. When you look at it and say ‘well, there’s one actor alone for most of the movie..’ and people ask me ‘how did you adjust to that, not acting opposite another person?’ But it wasn’t just me that had to adjust to that, everybody has to adjust to that.  So the screenwriter has to create a narrative arc just with one character. We are so used to dramas being built on multiple character scenes, with dialogue, talking to each other, so Simon had to adjust to that. The cinematographers are used to being able to shoot coverage of different characters and two shots and the editors are used to that kind of material, that he can cut and reference, and Danny is used to developing scenes between actors and the dynamic between actors, so everybody is adjusting to that. And the fact that Danny has created this immersive experience, using the way that it’s cut and the music, I would never say that it’s taking away from my performance. I like the idea of slower movies, and yeah sure, I could appreciate a movie that took away the music, and fewer cuts and you just sit with a character, I can appreciate that, but that’s not a Danny Boyle movie, Danny does not like those kind of movies.  So I’m certainly happy with the way he’s created his own very unique experience.


You are playing a real person, who you have met. How does that affect your performance?

It’s a very delicate thing to tell Aron’s story and tell it in a way that you think would be an experience and so that required using a lot from Aron’s real life but also, the way we proceeded, was not that I would slavishly mimic Aron, but instead borrow his story and tell it as truthfully as we could from the inside out, kind of.



You are a writer, a director, an actor, where does modelling for Gucci fit into all of this?

I love working with Gucci, and they actually have been incredibly supportive of a lot of my artistic projects.


Which ones?

Well, I’m working on a project now with Gus Van Sant, where we are using material from one of his early films, My Own Private Idaho, and it’s going to result in a show at the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, and projects like that need support, and Gucci was the place that helped us.


I read somewhere that when you were a young man, you stole cologne, is that true and what cologne was it?

That’s true. All kinds.


You stole a lot of them?

Oh yeah, every kind (laughs).


Why cologne?

Let’s just be clear, I was about eleven, (laughs) maybe twelve or thirteen, and it was easy, that’s why, because they would have samples out at the cologne counter. We’d go to the mall and there’s a bunch of department stores and one friend would distract the cologne seller, and the other would just take the sample and then we would take it to school and sell it out of our lockers in the gym. But we were caught, and punished (laughs).


There was a New Yorker piece about you recently which seemed to suggest that you are designing your life as a piece of art – you write, you act, you direct..

Well, I didn’t write the New York Magazine piece. I’m really just pursuing stuff that I’m interested in, and I know that when I do these other things, it’s impossible to extract that fact that it’s me that’s done them from the projects.  So, in some ways, I just embrace that, and it does become a little bit a part of these pieces, but, on the other hand, I take writing and art very seriously, and I’ve put the last five years into going to school for these things, so I wouldn’t say that I’m turning my life into a performance, it’s just that I know when I do other things, that people review it, at least right now, they have to say, ‘oh, the actor has written a book’, or ‘the actor is doing an art show.’ But I think hopefully, as time goes on, that people will move beyond that.


How do you react to criticism?

When people do criticise people mention that I’m an actor and that’s fine, I understand that, but I’m very appreciative that with the projects that I’ve done they have looked at them as art pieces, not just a side project, and they’ve looked at the book and considered me a writer. And really, that’s all I can ask for. I’m very happy with the criticism and as anybody that’s talked about criticism knows, it’s just like, on a lot of levels it’s just people talking and all that, and so I don’t mind people talking.


What got you interested in Rise of the Apes?

I’ll tell you the main thing that got me interested is the fact that Peter Jackson’s effects people from Weta and his DP, Andrew Leslie, and Andy Serkis were involved, and I’m unabashedly a huge fan of Lord of the Rings, and so I thought, ‘oh, if they are going to be involved in this, it’s actually going to be a different kind of acting experience..’ I’ve never acted off of somebody doing performance capture and Andy Serkis is the best at that so it could be interesting.


Do you worry that the stories in the press about the amputation scene in 127 Hours will put people off from going to see the movie?

Well, some people have trouble with that scene, and the unfortunate thing is, the more we talk about it, the more people talk about it, it builds it up in a certain way, so some people are now going to be disappointed when they get to that scene and it’s like, ‘oh that’s all it was?’ Because if you look at it, once it’s out on DVD, and you slow down that scene, it’s like,’ oh they are actually not showing that much.’  I truly believe that the reason that scene feels so intense is actually the context and everything that’s come before, and audience’s relationship to this character. There are tons of things that are worse in Saw III or other horror films.  People get decapitated, disembowelled, and all of this. But it’s because you know it’s a horror film, you know these characters are expendable.  And so you don’t form the same kind of attachment to these characters. With this movie, you go through so much with this character that by the time you get to that scene, I think people want him to go through with it, and so are actually experiencing that scene in a different way – in a much closer kind of way. And I think maybe even people that normally wouldn’t want to watch that kind of scene are actually trying to watch it or will him through it in a way.  And so that’s why I think some people are having those reactions, and then of course Danny is very aware of the sensitive nature of this kind of scene, but first and foremost, we have to be loyal to what Aron went through, we have to respect what he went through, it took him over 40 minutes to cut his own arm off an our scene is like three minutes. To cut back on it any more would really short change what Aron went through. And you have to make the experience a little difficult, because it is a portal, not just for the character, but also for the audience to get through. And you want to give them that experience of getting through this difficulty so that they can come out on the other side and have that relief on the other side. 


Have you watched it with Aron?

Oh yeah.


Did you end up watching him watching the movie?

Yeah, the first time I watched it with an audience I sat behind Aron. And he was sitting with his wife, and all throughout the movie, he kept leaning over and whispering to her, and I thought, ‘oh god, I guess he hates it! (laughs) It was like ‘what’s he saying?’ because I couldn’t see his face. I started to think maybe he’s thinking I didn’t do the part right. Then when the movie was over, I went up Aron said ‘come on, man, tell me what you think? Was it OK?’ And he said that from a quarter of the way through to the end, he had been crying the whole time. And I guess he had leaned over to his wife and he was just telling her about the real experience, getting her support. So yeah, thankfully he likes it (laughs).


it must have been incredible, and very harrowing, for his wife and family to watch too..

Yeah, Aron says that it’s, for him an even more powerful experience when his family and friends are there. Obviously he’s told them about what he went through but this movie is actually a way for them to experience something of what happened to him. So it mean a lot to him and I guess we got something right..


Do you like the outdoors, going hiking and that sort of thing?

I grew up in Northern California, and when I was young my father took me and my brother on a lot of camping trips and we would go to Yosemite and long hikes as a boy and I think that pretty much worked it out of me (laughs). So I actually love cities and I need people around. Like in a couple of years I think about moving back to LA and I think ‘where would I live? Maybe Venice Beach…’ That would be so great, it’s beautiful there and then I think even that’s too quiet – it’s too quiet for me. I just need people around, even if I’m not interacting with them because I do a lot of homework on my own, but I just like people outside the house walking around.



127 Hours Film Page | James Franco Photos

127 HOURS is out in UK cinemas 5 January 2011