Q&A: Danny Boyle on the art of amputation

The '127 Hours' director gives all the grisly details

When Danny Boyle snuck his new film "127 Hours" into the Telluride Film Festival last week it was as a heartfelt thank you to the festival for the early support it gave "Slumdog Milionaire" two years before. Audiences turned out to be just as grateful. The survival drama stars James Franco as mountaineer Aron Ralston, who managed to free himself after being trapped by a boulder in a Utah canyon for five days by severing his own arm. The experience is not just another kinetic work from Boyle, it's an especially intense one: A viewer in the very first screening required medical attention before the film was over.

The Hollywood Reporter: Why do you like bringing your films here? Because it sounds like the fest organizers didn't even expect '127 Hours' to be ready.

Danny Boyle: Because everybody can talk to each other in the street, it's honestly delightful for punters, it's good for us because you're not ferried around in cars or any of that. It feels intimate and, yet, they're obviously attracting good movies because it's a valuable positioning ground for movies now. But we felt very strongly that we had to get this movie ready for here. For me, it was an obligation. You've got to. Because you can f--k off to Venice. They didn't have any interest in 'Slumdog.' It's only right and proper that you should come to a place -- the help this fucking place gave us on 'Slumdog' you can't forget because everything else took off [after that]. It was pivotal. So we really wanted to. Also, Aron comes from Colorado, he set out on that fateful weekend from Aspen, and he still lives in Colorado.

THR: You mentioned that the movie is not quite done. What else do you plan to do with it?

Boyle: Oh, there's a little bit of grading and music mixing. We rushed a little bit to get here. I don't think that anybody would really notice. And you can never stop as a filmmaker -- you have to be dragged away, because you're always fiddling.

THR: The Free Blood song 'Never Hear Surf Music Again' that you use in the opening sequence, how did you come across that?

Boyle: Great story. The distances involved in recce-ing in this country -- it's such a vast country, it's not like when you recce in Britain.

THR: Wait -- 'recce?'

Location hunting. Reconnoitre. We call it recce. We would spend five f--king hours driving to some sand flats and then five hours driving back. So we'd just take our iPods along. [The production designer] Suttirat was playing her iPod, and this song came on. I remember it very vividly. I said, 'Who's that?' She said, 'Oh, that's some friends of mine called Free Blood, do you like it?' I said, 'Like it!' I had that a couple times before, once especially on 'Shallow Grave,' when you hear a song in a taxi or something and you think, 'Hang on a minute! That's the movie!' You get odd gifts like that. It's a great song. It's a really nice intro into the film.

THR: In terms of the amputation scene, what were the discussions like about how graphically to render it? Did you feel concerns about it possibly pushing away audiences?

Boyle: I do, yeah. It was a big issue for [producer] Christian [Colson] and I and the folks in the studio. Nobody's going to give you any money with something like that happening in it that's not in a horror context. Our argument was always that the whole point of the film is that you live through the experience like a first-person experience. Therefore, you both have to live through that, and you will live through it. By the time you get to it, your instincts will be partially revulsion, obviously, but it will also be the need to complete your move to freedom and to escape -- to what Aron calls his 'completion.' So that was always our argument. The other element was that it took him 44 minutes to cut it off, which I find extraordinary. And of course, we don't realize these things we live in, these machines we live in [our bodies], are amazing things, and you can't just go, chick [cut through it]. I always felt that was something that was essential to the film. It won't be everybody's favorite scene, but you would appreciate why it has to be there at the end of such a story. And what it takes to do it. And my own personal take on it is that we are all capable of it. It's not some abstract thing that you watch, like a monster killing someone or something. This is something we are all capable of in the same circumstance.

THR: I would love to believe that. The magic thing about the movie is you sit there wondering if you could do it. I think I would have been dead already.

Boyle: No, you'd do it.

THR: Did you cut different versions of the sequence? Ugh, there's no way to talk about this without talking about 'cutting' ... Were you guys careful about the humor around Aron?

Boyle: It's very interesting, when he watched it I can't imagine what's going through his head at moments like that scene. He cries a lot when he sees it, so it obviously is very difficult for him. But at other points in the movie he must think, Oh, it didn't happen quite like that, because it's not a documentary. A lot of the bits are very truthful to him, like the boy [he imagines in his delirium] is very truthful to him. He absolutely did see that child with such clarity. It was clearly a lineage thing, it was a future. Like we're all part of a group, and we carry on by creating other ones of our group, and you're part of a pattern. It wasn't Jesus or a religious thing. The big thing we had to do with him was tell him that we wanted to tell the story not as a documentary but as our version of it. And we literally said to him, 'We want to borrow your story and we promise we will hand it back to you at the end, and the other promise we will make is that it will be truthful.' I didn't say it would be factual -- although it's very factual, a lot of it -- but I didn't promise it would be factual, I said it would be truthful. I swore blind it would be, and if anything he felt was untruthful we would change it.

THR: Did he come back with anything?

Lots of little notes. More to do with the script actually than the finished film. Bits and pieces of notes. [laughs] His big note was when he parks his bike -- this is so Aron -- when he chains up his bike after riding it, the bike wasn't very dirty. [laughs] It's so frozen in his mind, the exact details of everything. And he's right, of course. It was something I missed. It should have been filthy, because he's ridden 20 miles. But it's pristine.

THR: Tell me about the sound design in that amputation sequence. There's the visual and emotional impact, but then he gets to that nerve.

It's described in the book, it's very clear. The description in the book is phenomenal. I remember reading it. Between the two bones, the two bones protect this nerve. There are clearly lots of nerves in the arm, which a lot of them had decayed or he didn't feel it or he was in such a state, but the main nerve was there. And he describes it as being that he couldn't cut it, he couldn't get through it, and he had to pull it like a guitar string. And I was like, 'Oh my fucking God!' And you think, Are people going to be able to take that? I don't know. But it's true. And if you ever get there, that's what you'll find. It's interesting, there was a guy a few weeks ago, I think in Montana, that got his arm trapped in farm machinery, and he tried to cut it off and he stopped, he couldn't get through the nerve. And he was found -- he didn't think he was going to be found, which is why he took the action -- but he was found a day later, and he lived, I think, but he couldn't get through the nerve, supposedly.

THR: And then you have to think: Wow, if he had seen '127 Hours' would he have been able to do it?

Boyle: [laughs] Oh, don't go there. Don't go there.

THR: So did you find out whether the person requiring paramedics at the end of the Telluride screening was directly related to the intensity of that scene?

Boyle: He walked out supposedly, eventually. I guess.

THR: Has Fox Searchlight had any comment to you since then?

Boyle: No. It's interesting. We did this test screening in New Jersey. And they cheered. Seriously, they cheered. The whole audience went 'Yeah!' when he cut it off.

THR: Was it the "Jersey Shore" kids that you showed it to?

Boyle: [laughs] It was in a fairly affluent bit of New Jersey. Who knows what goes on.

THR: I guess when people experience something that's so outside their sense of normality -- even Aron at times during his ordeal -- there is no reaction that's "proper."

Boyle: We didn't want to make a documentary, but that's what's wonderful about a true story is there are things in it that you could not do in fiction. Like, he takes a picture of his hand that he leaves behind. If you did that in a fiction everybody would just put a line through it and say, 'Wise up. Your work's gotta improve or we're gonna throw you off this film if you suggest things like that.' But he did. And you know when the audience sees it that it must be true because otherwise it wouldn't be in the movie.

THR: Plus you've lived with this guy for an hour and a half and you know that this character would do that.

Boyle: He did, and we do it. And people obviously recognize it completely when they see it, and they understand that moment. Whereas if you had written it as a fiction it would not work.

Where did you film the plunges down into the underground pool, and did you use stunt doubles?

Boyle: [smiles] Stunts. It's a pretty big fall. He went climbing with those two girls, they didn't go to a pool. This is where I say this is a truthful film, not a factual one. The facts are they went dry climbing, they climbed up a couple of bits and pieces. But we wanted to obsess the beginning of the film with water. So there are these bookmarks of water, because his obsession in there [the canyon] is that he has no water. All he wants is water. You can do without [food] for 60 days, unbelievably, but you can live about two days without any [water]. So we thought, we'll give him the pool and it becomes a great scene with the girls and you can slightly eroticize it in the video footage he looks at. It's not just company and voices, it's sex and beauty. Just a woman's body, and he's so lonely. It's like, Aaahhhh... [laughs]

THR: So was that part of it factual, when he masturbates? Because I was thinking as I watched that I would have done that by now if I thought I was going to die...

Boyle: And then there it was! [laughs] He always declined to answer that question. I kept going on and on with him about sex. Because I remember being 27, and you used to get a hard-on every 20 minutes. It's just part of life, you can't avoid it! Every girl you look at is like ... And he declined to answer that. [laughs]

THR: To me, it spoke to something really human and elemental in that you could still think of that in a terrible situation like that.

Boyle: I think so, as well. It's not very PC, but it's really human. Because your desire for comfort, as well, the comfort it would give you.

Where did you film the plunges?

Boyle: We filmed the slot in Canyonlands, where they climb and then they drop. But the actual pool is outside Salt Lake City, a place called Heber City. These amazing warm, volcanic pools. There are quite a few of them, and they've been there for millennia. And we just knitted the two together to make it joyous. You want it to be as joyous -- and slightly reckless, because that's a hint of the reckless side of his character, that he takes these two girls in, and that could end horribly. 'Everything's moving all the time,' he says. It could easily end horribly, even when it's great fun. But they were stunts doing the drop.

THR: You're in a fortunate position with Fox Searchlight, with whom you've made many films. I wonder if you have any sense of what it's like outside of a relationship like that in the business right now, in terms of whether you'd be able to make a movie like this.

Yeah. You'd never get this film made, I don't think. The things that allowed us to make this film are the combination of that relationship and, obviously, the success of 'Slumdog.' And even so, it's a tough film for them to do. The indie world is so difficult, even within the security of a big parent company like Fox. It's still very tough to get the films out. And although this one has an in-built -- not notoriety -- but there's a fame involved in it, there's a knowledge of the people in the story and an admiration of Aron built into it, the prospect of it is a very difficult sell.

THR: You don't know where the line is, but you know there's a limit built in just because of the graphic nature of where the movie goes.

Boyle: Absolutely. We're very lucky. I do realize, actually -- I don't realize it as much as people who are trying to make films outside Fox Searchlight, and a couple other companies -- but I think I understand a bit of it, how difficult it is at the moment.

THR: What are you looking at next?

I'm doing a stage play at the National Theater in London. That's my next job. I haven't directed in the theater in about 15 years, so I'm a bit rusty, to be honest.

THR: What's drawing you back?

Boyle: Well, I did a play with a friend of mine, we did the original Don Juan play. That was the last time I did theater. It's a wonderful play by a Spanish monk called Tirso de Molina, and it was the first manifestation of the Don Juan myth in literature. So we did an adaptation of that before 'Shallow Grave.' It was the last thing I did, about 16 years ago, at the RFC. After that, we started working on this adaptation of 'Frankenstein,' the Mary Shelley book. But with a very interesting idea in it. Because it's been adapted hundreds of times, but it's never been adapted from the point of view of the Creature, the one with no name that everybody thinks is called Frankenstein. So it begins with the birth, this thing awakening, this man opening his eyes, and he's being born but he's 30 years old. So we're doing that. It's really exciting.

Did you write it?

Boyle: No, this guy I work with, Nick Dear, he's written the script, he's a theater writer. So we start rehearsing that in December and it opens in February in London.

THR: So you'll tour with this for a while and see what happens.

Yes. Lots of obligations to do with this. You have to get this out -- for the reasons you were saying about the ceiling there is on this movie, you've gotta make sure you reach that ceiling. So we'll get out and sell it to as many people as possible, try to get people to come and see it. We're very proud of it. And Aron seems very happy with it. And I'm really proud of James' performance. After we did 'Slumdog,' I watched 'The Wrestler' -- because I was on the circuit with Darren -- and I thought it was really interesting watching a director who is, like me, interested in imagining the screen and using it expressively as a director. But he chose to do a film that just followed an actor. Literally, over his shoulder. Nothing fancy, just followed the actor. And I thought, I've never done that, and I want to do that -- work with an actor where it's just you and that actor.

THR: How long did you shoot?

Boyle: Eight weeks.

What was the split between the stage and out in the wild?

Boyle: We dry camped for six days, just next to Blue John Canyon. [laughs] That was interesting, living in tents. I mean, it was lovely and everything, but ... [laughs] So we did six days there for the trip into the canyon, a bit of the entrapment and the escape, and then we did lots of other filming around Moab, like the girls and all the different bits and pieces, the bike ride. And the rest of the time we were in Salt Lake. We built this complete replica set, you can't tell the difference.

THR: What are they doing with it now?

Boyle: They've just taken it down, actually. We kept it in case we needed to do reshoots. But one of the things that was weird on this film was you couldn't reshoot anything. James' performance is really interesting. There's six days, right? So in the editing, at one point we tried to move some material from day two to day four -- just voice, not picture. And you couldn't move it. Because he sounds different. He measured it. I didn't realize he was doing it, because we shot consecutively. But that's his work. You couldn't move these bloody lines, because they were completely different. And then I met him a few weeks after we stopped filming and he looked completely different. We couldn't shoot anything, because he went through a process in the film, getting himself into it -- not an obvious one, like losing weight and all that -- he went through a mental process to get ready for it, which we benefited from.