Danny Boyle has been wanting to tell the story of Aron Ralston on celluloid for four years now. He met with the mountain climber in 2006 seeking permission, but at the time, Ralston was looking to convey the story in documentary form.
“He didn’t want to make it as a feature with a major actor,” Boyle says, sitting with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy discussing their latest collaboration. “He wanted to narrate it a la ‘Touching the Void.’ Any climber is very much conscious of Joe Simpson and that kind of world. And also he’s not from our world in the media. He and his peer group particularly think Hollywood is bullshit, and you can imagine what they think Hollywood might do to a true story like this.”
Flash forward a few years and Boyle is coming off a high after his film, “Slumdog Millionaire,” swept the Oscars and provided plenty of cachet (and confidence) for him to tackle anything he wanted. But this story of a 27-year-old undergoing physical trauma and mental enlightenment in a tiny Utah canyon was still sticking with him.
Ralston, meanwhile, had been unable to get his version of the project off the ground. He had also changed somewhat as a person, Boyle says, having met his wife, Jessica.
“He was able to entrust it in someone else,” Boyle says. “And you have to pay tribute to him, letting it go, because it must be so hard.”
Now “127 Hours” is a day from limited release after lighting up the domestic festival circuit the past two months. And Ralston, says Boyle, is quite proud of how the defining moment of his life was handled on screen.
Boyle is frequently classified as an energetic artist. It’s an easy label to toss out there, but more than what the description conjures, he is incredibly focused amid that excitement. Get him riled up on the particulars of his work (like, say, the idea that hallucinations are an incredibly personal thing that would say something specific about a character) and he’s off. And he speaks in informative conversational bursts, almost as if he were still directing his film. But it’s not a runaway train of sound bytes. Moreover, you get the sense that he’s always in that director’s chair, spelling out his vision.
Beaufoy, meanwhile, makes an intriguing foil for Boyle. Quieter, though no less thoughtful and of a certain shared artistic mind, he has made a dynamic collaborator for the director these last two efforts. And in Ralston’s story, he found room to stretch and experiment, given the unconventional nature of the narrative.
“The story is the architecture of the screenplay, really,” Beaufoy says. “You can’t depart from the fact that he was in there for 127 hours. But we also wanted to make it more than the sum of its parts. If it was going to connect with audiences it couldn’t just be the tale of a man who chops his arm off and does this superhero thing.”
And a “superhero” was just how the duo saw Ralston in the early stages of the tale, rather than during his unflinchingly brave act. He was at the peak of his fitness, a loner who was self-contained and could do without anyone but himself. But for Beaufoy, and certainly for Boyle, the story wan’t one of superhumanization, but rather, one of humanization.
“It’s often depicted as a superhuman story, what he does,” Boyle says. “And people confirm that by going, ‘I couldn’t do that.’ When I read the book I thought, ‘No, that’s not right. He’s like that when he goes in there.’ So if you’re going to make a movie there’s got to be a journey, even though he’s not going to move physically. It’s hinted at in the book but he’s come to confirm it more and more. What he was realizing was that even in the loneliest places it’s not about the superhero solo surviving.”
Indeed, the film is bookended with stock footage-like scenes of society in full swing. The hustle and bustle of community is depicted in commuters boarding trains, pedestrians crossing streets en masse, etc. At the beginning, that imagery serves to depict the world Ralston wants to escape. But by the end, it has taken on a whole new meaning, the sense that human connectivity is very much what the loner needs.
On his video camera, Ralston “spent all these messages talking about people,” Boyle says. “‘Rob, in Aspen, I borrowed your bike and should have given it back.’ This is proper loneliness where he’s trying to reach out. He’s had the opportunity before and he’s ignored it. And he achieves a bit of a state of grace. Some of the messages, like the one to his mom and dad, that is grace to me. ‘Mom, Dad, I’m sorry, I haven’t appreciated you in my heart in the way that I know that I could.’ He says it with great dignity, with no self-pity, and that is grace, to arrive at that place.”
Beaufoy says the goal was “telling the universal story of a yearning to right wrongs, that sense of wishing you’d done things differently in your life and there are people you could have treated in a different way. You can put some wrongs to right again. You can get a second chance in life, which is what he got. And that we should pay attention to the little things that people do for us. That’s the way to make a story connect.”
Says Boyle, “For us it’s quite personal. I was like that when I was 27. I’ve learned it through age. I’ve treated girls like that, not being careful enough with people’s emotions. You have to treat people with decency and care and not just think of your own achievements.”
Regarding Boyle’s energy, it’s something that consistently makes its way into his work via frenetic editing, vibrant cinematography and just an overall sense of motion. But he was more determined than ever on a film like this to make it an experience.
“We were trying to tell a story about approaching death,” he says, “but with enormous vitality, which in one sense doesn’t make sense, but in another sense, if you didn’t do it that way it would be unbearable.”
Beaufoy says the director told him “bold is the way forward. If you’re going to do something, do it with great panache and certainty and you’re more likely to get away with it. I’ve sort of learned that, really. I’ve learned to push into areas of melodrama and the surreal and places I’d never have gone a few years ago. That’s the wonderful thing about ‘Slumdog.’ It just made me more daring, I guess. And that’s the exciting place to be, when you’re daring yourself and an audience to go on that journey.”
That thought process led the writer to one key sequence, an abstract depiction of Ralston talking into his camera with a “wake up, America” sort of talk show host banter meant to, ultimately, criticize himself for leaving without notifying anyone where he was going.
The sequence “spun out of talking to Aron,” Beaufoy says. “He said he was hallucinating and he’d be looking at his watch all the time. He was very aware of how long it was going to take for anyone to call out a rescue service for him, so there was a lot of clock-watching going on. He’d split his day up into little chunks, so he’d do 10 minutes chipping at the rock, have a sit-down on his harness for two minutes, have a sip of water.
“One of the things was every morning he’d think, ‘They’re all waking up without me. All my family, the ex-girlfriend, all these people. The whole of America is waking up without me.’ And that just suddenly led me off on this tangent. I thought the way to be most coruscatingly self-critical is through humor, because it’s kind of surreal and it’s kind of self-challenging.”
When Boyle read the sequence, he says he thought it was exactly the kind of audacity he wanted in the film.
“Sometimes when it’s that outrageous, there will always be people who go, ‘That’s not going to work, is it,'” he says. “You push through that. Because that’s one of the things where cinema is an exciting, innovative culture, which it’s not often accused of. But it does do that if you can push the boundaries. The reason you go and see that big screen is not to see the absolute replication of life. You want to see somebody push the envelope a bit. ‘Go on, then.’ And they’ll take it in cinema. They’ll let you do something out-fucking-rageous.”
Ralston calls the incident the defining moment in his life and, in fact, a blessing. But Boyle says his subject takes it a step further.
“He says he would not want to change it if it came to happen again,” the director says, “because he feels what it gave him was so much greater than what he left behind. That’s an extraordinary thing to say. You think, well, that’s very noble, but the only guy who can judge that is himself, because he’s been through it.
“It is possible when you meet your own boulder — and it will be less dramatic, hopefully — that you can get through it. And the way you will get through it, even if your alone, is other people. Other people will pull you through it somehow. The life-affirming nature of the film isn’t necessarily to do with Aron’s interpretation of the event as a blessing but it’s actually an example for everyone that you can overcome.”
And ultimately, both writer and director couldn’t shake that central point within the tale that kept tugging at them, the sense of being a part of the world rather than apart from it. While Boyle, who considers himself a solitary, not all that social figure, responded to the story of a loner, he also embraces that philosophy of connectivity.
“I do believe in the end of the film,” he says, “and the idea — something I believe very deeply about us all — that we’re all magnetically connected, in some weird way, and that these forces will pull you through. And the will to survive, which the advertising campaign for this film celebrates, is often seen as being an incredibly individual thing. I don’t think it is at all. I think the will to survive is this gene that we all have, and when it erupts in an individual who does something to survive, we’re all connected to it, we all benefit from it and we all contribute to it in some way.
“It sounds a bit ‘hippie,’ but it’s not at all. You do see certain examples of it sometimes. Wartime is the most obvious example. It’s easily manifested, the spirit that people get together. And the bullshit you hear from other people who say, ‘No, it’s about the individual and self-seeking,’ I don’t go for that at all. I think there is a collective power about us, most readily expressed in cities because we gather in these cities and we somehow pull together in these places.”
“And that’s the cinema experience as well, isn’t it,” Beaufoy offers. “I think that’s why the film works in a cinema. It’s very self-reflective. Everyone gathers together to get a collective emotion. And what you’re seeing on the screen is a sort of celebration of the collective emotion.”
“127 Hours” opens in limited release tomorrow.
[Photos: Life, Fox Searchlight Pictures]