Immediately on the heels of Slumdog Millionaire — for which they won Oscars as director and writer, respectively — Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy tackled the true-life story of mountaineer Aron Ralston, played by James Franco in 127 Hours.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did you deal with the fact that you had a real-life subject?
Danny Boyle: Aron is a control freak. He would give thousands of notes, the smallest details, and you’d negotiate that because it’s a real-life story. How you deal with his notes is not just about the screenplay; it’s also about his involvement in the film. Does he feel he’s being ignored? What values are we putting on what? Sometimes you had to ignore his notes — you have to have the freedom. I argued this with Aron in 2006, and he didn’t accept it, and I argued it when we met again in 2009. I argued we had to have the right to depart if necessary. All I did was promise him that it would be faithful to his story emotionally. We actually kept closer to the facts than I originally thought we would. But we did have the freedom, which Simon exploited superbly. Most of the messages Aron leaves in the film are verbatim, but there’s one where he imagines himself on a talk show, and that was Simon’s invention. When Aron read that, he said, “Well, that didn’t happen, but it’s truthful.”
Simon Beaufoy: For me, talking to Aron was essential because I didn’t want to write a superhero story. I needed Aron’s permission to tell the story of what Aron was really like, which was a flawed, selfish individual at that time in his life. Unless we could tell that story, we didn’t have a film because if you just have a superhero, nobody in the audience is going to relate to that. What I wanted, and what we eventually got because of Aron’s faith in us, was the story of a guy who is a superhero when he goes into the canyon, and he comes out a flawed, normal individual like the rest us. It’s kind of an anti-superhero story, if you like. He understood what we wanted to do and said, “OK, that’s fine.”
THR: The project looked as if it came together quickly after Slumdog Millionaire. Was that the case?
Boyle: I first heard about Aron’s story in 2003, I read his book in 2006, and I approached him then. But he wanted to make more of a documentary with interviews, on the Touching the Void-type model. I was adamant that I didn’t want to do it that way because I didn’t want to do it in a way that was interrupted by voice-over or interviews or indeed by cutaways to the rescue services — the traditional ingredients used to create tension. We agreed to part company. But after Slumdog, our approach started to seem feasible in many people’s eyes. Slumdog also helped us get it financed. So Christian Colson, the producer, and I then approached Simon. Initially, he said no. I think he knew I could do a draft of it to see whether it could work, so I did. I wrote the first draft, which was fascinating since I’d never really written a screenplay before.
THR: What was the collaborative process like for both of you, particularly because this is the first screenwriting credit for Danny?
Boyle: I love working with writers. I trained in a theater that is the writers theater in Britain, the Royal Court Theatre. The first draft I did I showed to Christian, and I then did a number of drafts, and then we sent it to Simon. His reaction was great because he could see what I was talking about. He could also see its deficiencies, its weaknesses. I was able then to get my day job back again, which is reading scripts and reacting to them. Simon went for personal details straight away; I had gone for more sweep.
Beaufoy: I’d say I did the first draft, but Danny did this great big document, without which there would be no first draft. This is very much his film; it was his inspiration. Then there was my draft that gave it layers of character. And then Aron showed up with the real video footage he’d shot — which he’d hardly shown anyone, except maybe his mother and one or two close friends — and that was another leap forward. It was a real guide for us about how to tell the story. The video messages were very dignified, very restrained, from someone looking back on their life, saying what they wished they’d done better, what they’d enjoyed. It was an extraordinary piece of footage from someone knowing they were going to die. That was a major leap forward in the development of the script, and then we were off. Eventually, we all got in the same room together, the two of us and Christian. The three of us together worked really, really well. We seemed to bring out the best in each other.