Here’s a not very promising idea for a movie: A young man goes hiking alone, gets his arm stuck under a boulder in a crack in the ground and after five days, during which nothing much happens except a few hallucinations, extricates himself by performing a self-amputation.
Unlikely as it sounds — think of a gorier, more claustrophobic version of “Castaway,” but without even the volleyball — this is the plot of Danny Boyle’s new movie, “127 Hours,” starring James Franco (pictured), which opened Nov. 3. The picture has already been a big hit at both the Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals, though at Telluride at least one viewer had to be ferried out on a gurney, probably a victim of amputation-scene anxiety.
“127 Hours” is based on the real-life experience of Aron Ralston, who in 2003 was trapped in Blue John Canyon in Utah, and on his 2004 book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” Mr. Boyle read it and was immediately captivated, though, as he said recently, he found himself hopscotching over the chapters that talked about Mr. Ralston’s earlier life and about rescue missions he later learned about.
“I’m not an idiot,” Mr. Boyle said, laughing. “I was aware of all the drawbacks, but the part of the story I found so compelling was what it was like to be trapped in there, and I thought, ‘You’ve got to tell it like that.’ I thought: ‘The only way you will be able to show the amputation is by virtually egging him on to do it. You have to trap the viewer in there with him.”
Mr. Boyle, who has since become famous for the Oscar-reaping “Slumdog Millionaire,” approached Mr. Ralston in 2006 and was initially turned down. “I think he imagined a semi-documentary, something more like ‘Touching the Void,’ ” Mr. Boyle said, referring to Kevin Macdonald’s 2003 docudrama about two imperiled mountaineers. He added: “Probably just as well. That was before ‘Slumdog,’ and nobody would have let me make the film I wanted anyway. Sometimes you have a little bit of success, and it makes a big difference.”
His track record notwithstanding, “127 Hours” was hardly an easy film to make, in part because Mr. Boyle insisted on the moviemaking equivalent of cutting one arm off, or at least of tying it behind his back. “I knew you should make this film not in a comfortable way,” he said. “I wanted to make it in a hectic, compressed, burdensome way. That’s the only way we would be able to do it justice.”
He eliminated Mr. Ralston’s back story, except in snatches, which means that there are hardly any other characters and the camera is focused on Mr. Franco, in close-up, virtually all the time. And though the Canyonlands National Park, where the story takes place, is starkly beautiful, the film dwells very little on scenery. There is less picturesqueness than there was in “Slumdog,” a film set in a teeming city.
“I wanted to prevent it from being a leisurely wilderness film,” Mr. Boyle said. “I thought of it as an urban film. There are no views. This guy can’t see anything. He might as well be in a mine.” He went on: “They call film escapist, but we very rarely go to movies that aren’t set in the city. We live in the cities and we go to movies about the city. We do not tolerate country films, not really.”
Mr. Boyle’s first impulse, nevertheless, was to shoot “127 Hours” entirely on location. That proved impractical, both because of the weather and because the site of Mr. Ralston’s accident was so remote, far from roads, let alone places to house a crew. He filmed on the spot for a week or so, but he also had two exact replicas of the site built on a Salt Lake City soundstage. Unlike most movie sets, which have doors or foldaway walls for easy access, these were deliberately built to be hard to squeeze in and out of.
Suttirat Anne Larlab, the production and costume designer, recalled that Mr. Franco, who was also enrolled in graduate school in New York, was stuck in there for hours at a time, visited only by the makeup artist and the person whose job it was to sweep away footprints. “He always had his reading propped up on the rock. He had one arm stuck underneath and on top there was his Proust, or whatever he was reading,” she said. “Every setup, every take, was incredibly tedious, and I think a lot of the frustration you see on the film is actually real frustration.”
This was deliberate, or mostly deliberate, on Mr. Boyle’s part. “I wanted to put James through some of the same experience Aron had, and then everyone else too,” he said. “We put ourselves under pressure.” The film was shot very quickly, with almost everyone working seven days a week. “I wanted a sense of doing it in real time,” Mr. Boyle said, “and I didn’t want to be able to take a day off and reflect on the experience.”
But at least one of Mr. Boyle’s tactics backfired. To make up for everything that was missing in the script — a villain, a love interest, an element of comic relief — he determined to introduce conflict by hiring not one director of photography, as is customary, but two: Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak. “I thought maybe there will be one James likes and one he doesn’t, sort of like good cop, bad cop,” Mr. Boyle said. “And I imagined that they would shoot in two contrasting styles.” In the end their styles proved almost indistinguishable — when he was editing the film, Mr. Boyle had trouble telling one from the other — and both cinematographers bonded with Mr. Franco.
“It was as if James directed the cinematography,” Mr. Boyle said. Mr. Franco said: “I was kind of wary at first, but the two D.P.’s almost filled the role of other actors. I was very isolated in there, and they were the two people I had the most interaction with. We were the acting team in a way.”
And though no one had planned it beforehand, much of the movie was filmed in very long takes, sometimes lasting 20 minutes or more at a time. “Normally I am very, very controlling,” Mr. Boyle said. “But on this film I kept telling myself, ‘I must loosen up,’ and that led to these long, long takes in which James would just go mad.”
Recalling the making of “127 Hours” Ms. Larlab said: “It was probably the best film experience I’ve ever had. It was also the most arduous. It was difficult for everyone. The actor, the director, the producer — we all felt some of the same physical torture.” She continued: “Danny likes to operate under the radar of status-quo filmmaking. His first, knee-jerk response when you ask him something has nothing to do with traditional, rational thought. Everything is an experiment until it’s shot.”
Mr. Boyle’s next project is a stage version of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” told from the monster’s point of view, and then he has the unenviable task of overseeing the opening ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics in London, which will invariably be compared to the spectacular Beijing opener.
“I love the unexpected in cinema,” he said. “And I believe you have an obligation to refresh and renew it. I guess you can hit a barrier, but you never find out until afterward. I love the feeling of setting something up with no easy answers, so people are just bombarding you with questions.”
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Director Danny Boyle explains the tricky job of creating a film about Aron Ralston's isolated self-amputation
The NY Times:
Posted by BA Haller at 6:33 PM