'Slumdog' director goes into a very different place

Director Danny Boyle (left) and James Franco on the set of “127 Hours’’ in the Blue John Canyon in Utah. Director Danny Boyle (left) and James Franco on the set of “127 Hours’’ in the Blue John Canyon in Utah. (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / November 7, 2010

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After his film “Slumdog Millionaire’’ danced over the competition at the 2009 Oscars, walking away with eight statues including awards for best director and best picture, British director Danny Boyle saw that he had two possible choices for his next project.

“That kind of success gives you a certain level of freedom,’’ he said during a recent visit to Boston. “You can wave around your Oscar and take a big project where you know you’ll make a lot of money, or you can do something different. I decided to do something different.’’

Boyle leveraged his “Slumdog’’ success to make a movie that he says would otherwise never have gotten made. He began work on “127 Hours,’’ which opens this Friday. It is the true story of mountain climber Aron Ralston, the man who became trapped while hiking in a Utah canyon. Ralston’s story became national news in 2003 when the then 27-year-old was forced to amputate his own arm with a dull knife in order to free himself from a boulder pinning him in the narrow cavern.

“Even after all the success we had, they were still terrified to touch it,’’ Boyle says of studio executives. “They said, ‘How are we going to sell this? Nobody wants to watch this.’ So I put the old Oscar to good use and got it made.’’

Boyle, who has never shied away from the challenge of translating graphic and tense subject matter into entertaining cinema — think “Trainspotting’’ or “28 Days Later’’ — was convinced that audiences would be interested in Ralston’s story. He seems pleased that “127 Hours’’ couldn’t be more different from the colorful, cacophonous, ultimately feel-good “Slumdog.’’ Instead of a large cast navigating the vibrant streets of Mumbai, his “127 Hours’’ protagonist, portrayed by James Franco, spends much of the film trapped in the sun-bleached isolation of a sandstone crevasse with nothing but a few provisions and a head full of memories and regrets.

In fact, Boyle says, it’s the kind of movie he had been hoping to make for several years. The amiable and animated 54-year-old director with a broad face and expressive eyes explains that he first wanted to make a movie with the theme of a trapped man when he heard the story of Brian Keenan, an Irish man who was held captive in Beirut for five years. He was also interested in optioning the true story of New York Federal prosecutor Stanley Alpert, who was kidnapped the night before his birthday and who eventually wrote a book about the bizarre event.

But Boyle was particularly keen on re-creating Ralston’s hiking mishap for cinema.

“Although it’s reductive and you think a story like that is anti-cinema, it’s really not,’’ he says. “It’s an unbelievable, immersive experience that you can only get in cinema. You trap people in the movie theater watching it. They’re actually trapped in a box with the character.’’

Ralston, who wrote a book about the experience in 2004 called “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,’’ was originally approached by Boyle in 2006 to adapt his story into a drama. But Ralston wanted to see the story told in documentary form along the lines of 2003’s “Touching the Void,’’ the harrowing tale of two climbers who summited Siula Grande in Peru.

“He had this very fixed idea of how he wanted this to appear on screen,’’ Boyle recalls of the 2006 meeting. “But I had a completely different idea about the movie being told in the first person. I wanted that immersive experience.’’

Ralston began to realize as years went by that movie studios had little interest in a documentary based on his experience.

“I had three main concerns,’’ Ralston says. “That the film would get made, that it would be authentic, and that it would be seen by a lot of people. But I realized there wasn’t a market for the documentary, and at the same time I came to trust Danny much more.’’

After “Slumdog’’ became a hit, Boyle excavated his 2006 treatment of “127 Hours’’ and found Ralston to be much more receptive to the idea.

“I think that the success helped,’’ Boyle says. “But I think more importantly was that he met his wife, and he changed as a person. He went through a journey as a person, and that’s the journey we try to show in the film.’’

Boyle was clear with Ralston that he wanted to be faithful to his story, but he wanted to tell it in his own way, without the climber hovering over the set. Ralston said he read through the director’s treatment of the story, which was “98 percent accurate.’’

“There was a process of detachment,’’ Ralston says. “They wanted me to be involved in the process to maintain authenticity, which was reassuring, but I did have to let go. What I learned is that he maintained the authenticity of the story. I didn’t want it to be over dramatized or under dramatized, and I think he found the perfect balance.’’

Several names were bandied about to play Ralston, but the part eventually went to Franco, despite what Boyle describes as a rocky first meeting.

“He gives this impression of being stoned all the time,’’ Boyle says of Franco. “But he doesn’t take drugs at all. All he seems to do is read books. He gives this front of being relaxed and half-asleep, but he’s really hyperactive. I think it’s a cover so you can’t see how quickly his mind is working. The New York meeting wasn’t very good, so we met again.’’

Boyle was a fan of Franco’s work, and he wanted the actor because he felt he could handle the intensity of the material, along with the lighter moments. He didn’t have Franco audition for Ralston, but the pair met to make sure there was chemistry.

Ralston was impressed by Franco’s portrayal. He said the actor didn’t try to impersonate him, but friends and family members who have seen the film have commented that certain phrases and physical gestures remind them of Ralston.

Much of the 90-minute film is Franco, alone in the canyon, desperately trying to free himself. In order to make the experience into a full story, Boyle uses a series of flashbacks and hallucinations. He also re-creates several video messages that Ralston recorded for his family when he was convinced he would die in the canyon.

“Aron doesn’t show those messages to many people, but he showed us,’’ Boyle says. “I think it was interesting for all of us, especially James. Some of them we re-created verbatim in the movie.’’

Cast and crew camped out in the Blue John Canyon in Utah for nearly a week, the location where Ralston was trapped, but Boyle said the majority of the filming took place on a soundstage with an exact replica of the crag where Ralston was pinned by the boulder.

“We didn’t put in any trap doors or do anything special to make filming easier,’’ Boyle says of the re-created canyon. “We had to enter the space one at time, James always had to go in first. I wanted it to be just as claustrophobic as it would have been for Aron. It was important for James to have the same kind of experience so his performance would be authentic.’’

While the subject and scale of the film may seem like a departure for Boyle, fans of his work will recognize at least one thing that hasn’t changed. The director is not timid about showing blood. The amputation scene will easily blanch the faces of the toughest moviegoers. Ralston said he has attended seven screenings, and has seen at least eight people faint while watching the scene.

But both Boyle and Ralston stress that this is not a film about a tragedy. They view it as a story of an independent, smug individualist who learned to appreciate his need for others.

“I see it as one of the greatest blessings of my life,’’ Ralston says of the ordeal. “It deepened the relationships in my life. Life is not about achievements and accomplishments, it’s about our relationships.’’

Christopher Muther can be reached at

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