'127 Hours' Director Danny Boyle Used Two DPs to Capture Harrowing Drama
Story of a man alone in the wilderness a challenge for screenwriters: Even though the main character is stuck, the narrative could not stand still.
For a few months in late 2010, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, the true-life survival story of hiker Aron Ralston, was in the news for all the wrong reasons. Stories of audience members becoming physically ill during early screenings of the critically acclaimed film have been well documented — how the scene of Ralston (James Franco) freeing himself from the five-day grip of an 800-pound boulder by amputating his own arm was a little too real, causing some to faint and others to vomit — and it could be argued that the $16 million film, which has earned $11.3 million at the box office to date, has suffered because of it.
But on Jan. 25 at least, none of that seemed to matter as Hours picked up six Oscar nominations: best picture, adapted screenplay, lead actor, film editing, original song and original score. (Curiously, the Oscar-winning Boyle, who won the director’s prize last year for Slumdog Millionaire, was denied a nom this time.) Counting on the film’s Oscar nominations to sway more potentially squeamish viewers, distributor Fox Searchlight now plans to rerelease the film Jan. 28 onto 600 screens.
The film’s realism, punctuated in that fateful scene by gunshot and electronic-vibration sound effects coinciding with breaking bone and the cutting of nerve, is, of course, just the way Boyle envisioned it when he first approached Ralston in 2006 about turning his memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, into a film. To do the story justice, it couldn’t be told any other way. Ralston disagreed.
“He wanted a documentary,” Boyle recalls. “He wanted it to be extremely accurate, factually. But I didn’t want to make that film.”
Ralston had sold book rights in 2004 to producer John Smithson, the man behind Touching the Void, a documentary about two climbers who endure a near-death experience in the mountains of Peru. But five years went by without Ralston and Smithson making progress in putting financing together for their film. An additional concern emerged: Documentaries tend to have very limited distribution.
“The 800-pound elephant in the room was, what good is it if the movie is never seen?” says Ralston, who decided to reconsider Boyle’s pitch. He met with Boyle, along with Smithson and producer Christian Colson, for lunch in London. “We agreed we had a common vision,” Ralston says.
It then fell to the director to come up with a viable screenplay.
“I had this idea of an immersive first-person experience,” Boyle says. “The way an audience in a movie theater would tolerate what he did is if they’ve been imprisoned as well. And so they’d get released as well.”
“Drama, at its roots, is about conflict between people,” says Simon Beaufoy, Boyle’s co-screenwriter. “This was one guy on his own. It was an impossible story to tell.”
Indeed, how do you tell the story of a guy alone — and not just alone, but stuck in one place, in Utah’s Blue John Canyon, his arm under a boulder, unable to move?
“The challenge was to find a cinematic grammar to keep the story doing what the character couldn’t do: move,” says Colson, who also produced Slumdog. “Even though the guy is stuck, the movie will never keep still.”
Embedded in the treatment were uses of the camera, temporal jump cuts, memories, visions and triptych visuals that allowed Colson to see what kind of movie Boyle wanted to make. But it still wasn’t a screenplay, and Colson still wasn’t convinced. So the two asked Beaufoy, who also worked with Boyle on Slumdog, to give it a pass.
“Simon said, ‘You’ve got it locked in your head,’ ” Boyle recalls. “ ‘You have to write it.’ ” That was “a nightmare,” he adds. “I hate writing.”
But in March 2009, Boyle set out to spend “the worst two weeks of his life,” Colson says. He expanded the six-page treatment into a 40-page one that Colson then helped format into a 70-page screenplay. But it still needed work, so they returned to Beaufoy, was finally game.
“Danny did it more visually,” Beaufoy says. “I did it more thematically and emotionally.”
He compares their writing to a relay race, in which he and Boyle would hand scenes back and forth. Beaufoy, for example, placed an intimate breakup between Ralston and a girlfriend in a bedroom; Boyle shifted it to the bleachers of a crowded basketball game, adding to what Boyle saw as a central theme: “There is this massive life force that connects us as people. And that’s what I think got Aron out of that canyon.”
By September 2009, with the screenplay shaping up, financing was coming together as well. Boyle had a production deal with Searchlight, and Colson was at the start of a five-year pact with Pathe, which allowed for a partnership between the two companies along with equity backer Everest Entertainment. A budget was set at just north of $16 million, with Searchlight securing North American distribution rights and Pathe holding key European territories.
Now Boyle needed a lead — and he knew just the guy he didn’t want.
“It was a terrible meeting,” Boyle says of his first sit-down with Franco. “He looked stoned. I knew his work was so good, but I needed an actor who could not just mumble.”
Today, Franco is taken aback by Boyle’s assessment.
“I didn’t think it was a horrible meeting. I was just really tired,” says the actor, who was in the thick of multiple graduate courses in film and fiction writing at NYU. “I told Danny: ‘Sorry, I’ve been so busy with school. I haven’t had a chance to study the script.’ I guess that didn’t go over so well.”
Eventually the two cleared up the misunderstanding and had a second meeting, this time in an office on the Fox lot in Los Angeles, where Franco would have to read a particularly difficult scene in which Ralston mimics being a cheerful TV morning-show host then spirals into despair.
Franco got the job.
As a March production start approached, Franco met with Ralston at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. Boyle, Colson and Beaufoy were also on hand as Ralston played back the last will and testament video footage he had shot of himself in the canyon.
“You rarely see in someone’s eyes that they know they are dying,” Boyle recalls. “It helped us a lot.”
Adds Franco: “I was sitting next to Aron and watching him onscreen, in the middle of not knowing whether he was going to get out alive. He didn’t know the ending at that point. For me, that was an invaluable gift.”
For Ralston, it was a “surreal” moment, as lattes were poured from silver trays while he demonstrated how he was able to bend his arm and eventually break it.
“It was almost hilarious,” he remembers. “I’m watching Franco watch me. And he looked horrified, like he was about to vomit or his eyes were about to lurch off his forehead.”
Production began March 15 and lasted until May 8. The beginning of the shoot brought Boyle’s crew to the location where Ralston was imprisoned in Blue John Canyon. The area is so remote, they needed to bring in toilets and other supplies by helicopter for the six days of filming. Although snow in the desert created scheduling problems, most of the beginning and end of the film was shot during that week.
The production then returned to Salt Lake City, where Boyle had two set replicas of the canyon created in a former used furniture store. Boyle was so adamant about re-creating Ralston’s isolating, cramped experience that he did something he himself calls “ridiculous.”
“We built the canyon for real, so that when that rock or wall was in place, it could not be moved,” he says.
For lighting and camera angles, it would have been so much easier to poke through sections of the wall, but Boyle insists, “If we started moving walls, you’d sense it in the audience.”
On the first day of shooting there, Boyle gave Franco a simple directive: “Do anything you can to move that rock.”
Franco replied: “OK, but make sure you get it on the first take.” The cameras started rolling, and Franco went at it — yanking, pulling, punching and sweating for 22 minutes. “F---, did he try to move that rock,” Boyle says. “We helped him by creating these live experiences.”
Recalls Franco of those moments: “I was really getting exhausted. Usually, you pull the emotions out of yourself, but we were doing it from the outside in. And that became the model for how we would do things.”
To capture Franco’s performance, Boyle made a radical decision to hire two directors of photography. “I was desperate for contrast,” he says. “There are so few characters, I needed to create variety.”
Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog) and Enrique Chediak (28 Weeks Later, which Boyle produced) worked with an overlapping schedule so Boyle could keep going days and nights with each separately, essentially creating a 10-day production week for himself.
“I wanted to do it in a relentless way,” Boyle says. “Because that energy would prevent what’s happening on the screen from becoming inert.”
Neither director of photography was considered second unit; both worked with Franco equally. Boyle found himself reaping a surprising reward from the setup: Intense relationships developed between Franco and each DP. “We were on top of each other, face to face,” Chediak says. “We were breathing very closely.”
Adds Franco: “Danny didn’t want to cheat on the claustrophobia. My character doesn’t even get a volleyball to talk to. Tom Hanks at least had that.”
-- Stacey Wilson contributed to this report.
AARON RALSTON ON FACT AND FICTION
“It was very real to the facts. I broke the bone exactly the way that they show, bending the body over the boulder and pushing down from underneath the boulder. And then taking the knife to the arm and cutting and going through the tendon with the pliers and using the short blade, cutting that nerve.
I was really happy that they showed [Ralston’s character] laughing and smiling, kind of like a maniac — but that was me in my worst pain. I was smiling when I was doing it. I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths to keep myself from passing out. And as I got through it, my smile kept getting bigger. And then I collapsed against the wall. That was me. It was a very euphoric moment.
[Regarding the scene where he dives into an underground pool with two women: not true] “I’ve done big jumps and pool plunges, but in places where it’s safe to do that. In canyon country, it’s almost never safe. Those pools are formed by flash floods, so you never know what’s in that murky water.
The original treatment had a factual inaccuracy: They wanted to have a cell phone with the bars going down — it was there to explain that this is a remote area and no one can get there. The truth is, I didn’t even own a cell phone at the time.
I first saw the film in Newark, N.J., in a mall with a test audience. It was very emotional for me; I cried at length. When I watch it, I go through it again. I think to myself, it’s as close to a documentary as a drama film could be.”