1 Jan 2011: Danny Boyle’s true tale of Aron Ralston, the trapped hiker who cut off his own arm with a penknife, is a world away from Slumdog Millionaire
It’s a gloriously sunny spring day in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. Step inside the old furniture warehouse and the bright light gives way to a dark, dusty space. Past a small, windowless room where a man is carefully painting freckles on to a prosthetic arm with a tiny brush. Past piles of orange-red soil, hand-made boulders and a vast vertical canyon so realistic it looks as though it’s been airlifted from the deserts of Utah.
- 127 Hours
- Production year: 2010
- Countries: Rest of the world, USA
- Cert (UK): 15
- Runtime: 94 mins
- Directors: Danny Boyle
- Cast: Amber Tamblyn, Clemence Poesy, James Franco, Kate Burton, Kate Mara, Lizzy Caplan, Treat Williams
Right at the far end, black cloth curtains hang loosely around a rectangular space. A machine pumps dust out relentlessly. A gap in the curtains allows a glimpse of red rock. A disembodied Lancastrian voice booms out: “Right, James, let’s go! Action!” The set is utterly silent. A row of empty directors’ chairs face a monitor. James Franco is on the screen, his arm trapped by a boulder, a shaft of light at his feet. His face – usually handsome and relaxed – is contorted with pain.
Danny Boyle is in Salt Lake City to shoot 127 Hours, the true story of an experienced hiker whose right arm was pinned to the wall of a canyon by a dislodged boulder. Aron Ralston told no one he was going to Blue John Canyon and, after five days during which he was forced to contemplate and then accept death, he had an epiphany and cut his arm off with a blunt penknife. Ralston survived to write about his ordeal in Between A Rock And A Hard Place and now his story is being retold by Boyle.
“I’m fascinated by the idea of a man being trapped; I once tried to make a film about Brian Keenan, the Northern Irish guy who was kidnapped and held hostage in Beirut, but I could never get it going,” explains Boyle, laughing. “Keenan was chained to a radiator for nearly five years and Ralston was trapped by a boulder for five days. The challenge is to see if the language of cinema can describe the experience of being trapped.”
‘Success helps you to have courage with a film like 127 Hours. Without the Oscars, it would have been very hard to push through’
At this stage, just two weeks into the shoot, it appears the director is taking some kind of crazy risk. Boyle first told me about the idea back in May 2009, when we started working on a book about his films. He knew that if he was ever going to make a film as daring as 127 Hours, it had to be on the back of Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscar haul. “Slumdog’s success has definitely given me the confidence to take some risks. Although I’m a very bold person, I never had that much confidence about what I was doing. Success helps you to have courage with a film like 127 Hours. Without the Oscars, it would have been very hard to push through. My inner confidence would have been exposed in the process. I’m a bit more protected now.”
There’s only one more respected, powerful British director around just now and that is, of course, Inception’s Christopher Nolan. Nolan works with budgets of around $200m and is one of the highest-grossing directors in America who isn’t James Cameron. Boyle, however, would prefer to make 10 films for $20m; 127 Hours is coming in at under $25m. He knows that he works best on a tight budget. “We absolutely wouldn’t want 127 to become an inflated film just because of the success of Slumdog.”
So how the hell will Boyle make an action movie about a trapped man for a relatively small budget? There will be virtually no CGI and no reflective voiceover; instead James Franco will have to carry the film while being unable to move. Rewind to July 2009, and Boyle shows me his treatment for 127 Hours. It refers to Ralston’s adventure as “the triumph of the human spirit, of survival against Sisyphean odds, of rebirth”. It aims to tell the story “compulsively”, to remain steadfastly “macro in scale” yet “epic in intensity”. It sounds impossible.
But Boyle likes impossible. Slumdog shouldn’t have worked, but this 54-year-old from Radcliffe ended up making a kind of Bollywood Romeo And Juliet. In autumn 2009, Simon Beaufoy, who won an Oscar for the Slumdog screenplay, started working with Boyle on the script. “I’m trying to turn it from an action film into Samuel Beckett’s Endgame,” Beaufoy told me then, laughing. “There’s something very Beckettian about this guy who can’t physically move for the entire film, standing there shaking hands with a boulder.”
‘Wow, I’m watching a guy who thinks he’s going to die and has accepted his own death’
I ask James Franco what it was like to watch the video footage Ralston shot of himself while trapped in the canyon. He sits up straight and pulls his puffa jacket tight around his lean frame. “Aron, Danny, Christian, Simon and I were in a hotel room in LA watching this rough footage with a weird static line through it. Aron didn’t say anything profound, but I was like, ‘Wow, I’m watching a guy who thinks he’s going to die and has accepted his own death.’ It was incredibly powerful watching someone confront his own death.”
He looks so sad that I change the subject and ask what it’s like to work with Boyle. “He’s fun. Innovative. Fearless. Most of the time it feels like I’m just acting with Danny … and a rock.”
Franco is called back to the set, so I wander around the warehouse. In the windowless room I count 15 prosthetic arms made from moulds of Ralston’s left arm. I can’t quite be as enthusiastic as the prosthetics guy about Ziploc bags of spare muscles that look horribly real or a small box filled with bones set in synovial fluid. Yet the room is strangely compelling, like a Victorian medical museum.
I bump into Suttirat Anne Larlarb, production and costume designer on 127 Hours, who has created a vertical and horizonal canyon – the former to film Ralston’s fall, the latter for his entrapment – because shooting in the Blue John Canyon is dangerous and therefore limited to around two weeks. She walks me through the vertical canyon, telling me it’s 98% accurate and that the transition from set to location will appear seamless on film.
It’s tall, narrow and terrifyingly claustrophobic. I knock on the walls and am almost surprised they sound hollow. I have to contort my body to get under a human-sized chockstone trapped in mid-air and begin to understand, in the vaguest way, how Aron Ralston might have felt. I scramble out of the canyon and feel instant relief.
As Larlarb is showing me the costume department piled high with a dozen pairs of identical walking boots and rack upon rack of climbing gear, Ralston shows up. His right arm, which ends just below the elbow, is tucked into the pocket of his fleece. Bright and articulate but also just a little cocksure, Ralston says that by the time he was airlifted to hospital, he had lost 40lbs and had just 15 minutes left to live. He says that he was smiling as he cut off his arm because he was about to be free; he even paused to take a photo of his abandoned forearm before getting the hell out of the canyon. This is his first set visit; what does he think? “It’s awesome!” And then he talks at length about the boulders in our lives being our blessings.
The next day, I put it to Boyle that not everyone wants to watch a gory arm amputation on screen, even if it is beautifully shot. “I realise plenty of people might think, ‘Euuuuugh!’ But you have to be honest about the story and not approach it thinking you mustn’t horrify people too much. The truth is that it took Aron 44 minutes to cut his arm off. He didn’t hack at it like a madman; he did it with precision. You’ve got to show an element of that, but not in real time. I want the audience to be wondering if, put in similar situations, they would try to cut their own arm off or give up and die.”
After visiting the set I was left in no doubt that the director was pushing himself to make something unique and outrageously bold. Now, having seen it three times, I think 127 Hours might even be his best film. It’s tough to watch – but rewarding. It’s profound but uplifting. It’s ultimately, of course, about the pull of the crowd; Ralston set off to the Blue John Canyon to be alone but, in the end, cut off his arm to rejoin humanity. From a billion people in Mumbai to one man in a canyon in Utah, Danny Boyle has done the impossible again.