Sunday, October 17, 2010

Danny Boyle Gets Serious With Survival For 127 Hours

Filmmaker Danny Boyle in San Francisco last Friday.  His new film "127 Hours", based on the true story of Aron Ralston, opens on November 5 and 12 in the U.S. and Canada.  
Omar P.L. Moore/

by Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
Sunday, October 17, 2010


FILM DIRECTOR DANNY BOYLE agreed: there was only one way to address the incredible and triumphant true story of Aron Ralston. 

"The way I originally approached him about it in 2006, he wanted to make a documentary, or a drama documentary or something like that, like a biopic," said Mr. Boyle, in his typically lively, enthusiastic way.

"I thought, 'no, you've got to' -- my theory was that the only way you'd ever be able to tolerate watching a man cutting his arm off -- other than in a horror movie, was if you were so much part of the process that you were able to live through it, almost in a way that like, he did.  If you became one with the actor, if you were trapped as well, you would know you'd have to cut it off to get out of there."

In 2003, 27-year-old Aron Ralston knew he'd have to do exactly that.  The canyon-scaling, mountaineer adventurer was climbing Blue John Canyon in Canyonlands National Park in Utah.  All alone, he hadn't told a soul he'd be going there.  An 800-pound boulder must have known, though.  It fell into the crevice canyon in which Mr. Ralston was located, crushing his right hand and trapping his right arm.  With little food or water and six days of imprisonment in one of nature's most beautiful wonders, death was a certainty.

Mr. Ralston, marathoner and honor student, decided that death wasn't coming his way on May 1, 2003. 

On that day he deliberately broke two bones in his right arm.  Then, after applying a tourniquet, Mr. Ralston used a dull-knife blade of a pocket knife and amputated his right arm to free himself. 

The amputation took one hour to complete. 

Mr. Ralston then rappelled 65 feet out of Blue John Canyon and walked for eight miles, bleeding profusely before he finally happened upon people who became his secondary lifesavers.

Only parts of the above descriptions are shown in Mr. Boyle's new film "127 Hours" (James Franco plays Mr. Ralston), but they are shown -- approximately two-plus minutes of the most graphic material, which will be uncomfortable viewing for audiences.  When "127 Hours" was shown last month at the Toronto and Telluride International Film Festivals respectively, one or two people were nauseous or fainted. 

The director with the actor James Franco as Aron Ralston, on the set of "127 Hours" in Canyonlands National Park in Utah.   Fox Searchlight Pictures

Mr. Boyle was present in Toronto when an audience member reportedly had to be stretchered out of the theater.  The adverse effects of the toughest moments of "127 Hours" however, are the extreme exception among audience members, and the Oscar-winning director of "Slumdog Millionaire" testified to that.

"It's funny.  People applaud it and at that moment -- and you can hear people going, 'yeah!'  And it's hard to watch it, obviously, because it's disturbing and upsetting and all those kind of things.  But it's worth it in the end.  Because it does -- what you get from it then is much greater than what you're robbed of in seeing it.  You know, what you get -- a sense of freedom, a sense of life again -- is euphoric, really."

"127 Hours" is based on Mr. Ralston's aptly-titled 2004 book Between A Rock And A Hard Place, in which he details the ordeal and the decision that both saved and changed his life forever.  Mr. Ralston, now married with a child (born earlier this year), clearly had a spiritual moment and epiphany during those six days in late April and early May 2003. 

Edited by Jon Harris and shot by cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak, "127 Hours" features Mr. Franco in his element in a highly physical performance as Mr. Ralston, a free-spirit who thrives on accomplishing the near-impossible.  He became the first person to solo-climb all of Colorado's 14,000-plus foot high mountain peaks, a feat he started in the late 1990s and completed in 2005. 

There's much more going on in the film than its intensely painful moments.  Plenty of levity is on display with Mr. Franco's energetic performance, which is likely to gain him his first Oscar nomination come January.  ("127 Hours", a Fox Searchlight Pictures release, will open in New York and Los Angeles on November 5, and debut in San Francisco and many other U.S. cities on November 12.)

The film also stars Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Kate Burton, Treat Williams and Clémence Poésy.

The director revealed that Fox Searchlight Pictures executives wanted Mr. Boyle to tone down and shorten the arm-cutting sequence. 

"I thought very carefully about it, and I believe it's the right level," said the director, citing the amount of graphic violence he felt was necessary to show.  Mr. Boyle also alluded to his major success last year with "Slumdog Millionaire", also distributed by the same studio, as giving him the cache to be resolute about standing firm in maintaining his vision for the content of "127 Hours".

"127 Hours" was filmed entirely in Utah, in and around Canyonlands National Park in Moab, and in Salt Lake City.  A set was built for the close-up footage of Mr. Franco trapped by the boulder as he takes the audience through a harrowing journey and some revelations. 

                                   *                                  *                               *

Several of Mr. Boyle's seven prior feature films are about survival ("28 Days Later", "Sunshine", "Slumdog Millionaire").  So is "127 Hours".  There's a visceral atmosphere in nearly all of his films, including "Shallow Grave" and "Trainspotting".  In each film a character has a moment where he or she has to delve deeply into the muck, messiness or core of something that will test them.  It's as if the test is a type of rite of passage. 

Audiences will see that "127 Hours" is no exception to this theme.

Aron Ralston on the cover of his 2005 book, the basis for Mr. Boyle's film "127 Hours".   Amazon

Danny Boyle was born in Radcliffe in Greater Manchester, England in 1956.  From a sports point of view Manchester United dominates the English football landscape in Lancashire, but the director is a supporter of Bury, a town very near his birthplace.  (Bury are a lower echelon league team to their Premier League big brother United.)

Fairly recently Mr. Boyle had been involved in attempting to bring "My Fair Lady" back to the big screen in an updated fashion, but the finished product didn't materialize.  In December however, Mr. Boyle will revive a famed story, but to the theatre stage.  He will be directing "Frankenstein" at the National Theatre in London.  Rehearsals will start in December, Mr. Boyle said, with the play opening at the beginning of February.

Of "Frankenstein" Mr. Boyle commented: "Everybody thinks they know [the story], and they sort of do -- except they don't, as well.  So it's nice to be able to do it not on film as well, because film has distorted it and stolen it so many times.  It's quite nice.  Whereas its first manifestation, other than in the novel, was on stage.  It was -- when [Mary Shelley] wrote it, and when it was published it immediately went on the West End stage in London, 1817.  So there you go.  It's been on stage before."

Mr. Ralston's story had been chronicled previously not on stage, but in a 2004 Dateline NBC two-hour documentary entitled "Desperate Days In Blue John Canyon".  For Mr. Boyle's feature film "127 Hours", the director described his cinematic approach to the story and keeping the seemingly static figure of Mr. Franco moving during the 90-minute film.

"We just moved him around the screen.  So when you cut, rather than cut to [another person] or cut to something else, you would cut to just another view of James." 

Continued Mr. Boyle: "[James Franco] had a hand trapped.  [The left] hand becomes dexterous as he works.  But there was a third arm, which was attached to him -- it wasn't, but it was almost like it was attached to him -- and it was like an angle-poised camera arm.  And on it was the camera.  So the cameraman could sort of move it around.  So it was solid, it wasn't like jerky hand-held the whole time.  But it was constantly moving around him.  That was the idea of it.  That was the way we did it."

Shot in part with the Canon EOS 50D and Canon 7D Digital SLR cameras, "127 Hours" also employs digital video, used for some significant scenes.

Before production Mr. Boyle, who also co-wrote the "127 Hours" screenplay, Mr. Franco and co-writer Simon Beaufoy ("The Full Monty") joined Mr. Ralston on a hike of parts of the Canyonlands National Park as part of the preparation for the film.  The filmmakers gained a strong understanding and appreciation of the dangerous terrain that Mr. Ralston had to climb, and continues to climb to this day.

"James did do that rappel on his own with one arm, which is pretty scary.  I did it with two arms.  I've never rappelled before.  It's a bloody long way down," said Mr. Boyle, smiling.

Mr. Franco had a safety rope, but Mr. Boyle said that it never needed to be used.

"The safety rope was only if he passed out on the way down."

Actors James Franco, Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn in a scene from "127 Hours".   Fox Searchlight Pictures

Audio excerpts: Danny Boyle on his new film "127 Hours"

Part One: The director talks about the physicality of James Franco's performance (1:07)

Part Two: Danny Boyle on the violence shown in his new film "127 Hours" (3:09)

"127 Hours" opens on November 5 in New York and Los Angeles.  The film opens in numerous cities including San Francisco on November 12.

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