'127 Hours' Director Danny Boyle Used Two DPs to Capture Harrowing Drama
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.”