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127 Hours - Danny Boyle interview

Danny Boyle directs 127 Hours

Interview by Rob Carnevale

DANNY Boyle talks about some of the challenges of making 127 Hours, including having to wait for several years before Aron Ralston agreed to turn his story into a feature film.

He also talks about how he would like audiences to feel afterwards and what he might do in the same situation if his arm were trapped.

Q. After Slumdog Millionaire, you must have had a lot of offers? Could you have picked anything?
Danny Boyle: You do get offered some stuff, yeah. But I always wanted to make this film or another film. I thought the worst thing you could do was to react to Slumdog’s success in some way. I thought it would be really foolish. So, what you do is take the power it gives you – which is very temporary and minor but significant – and use it. The danger is that you use it on a vanity project that no one wants to watch. But we always had the idea that this, although it looks unwatchable, was actually the reverse – it was an incredibly compelling story. So, we thought let’s use the power to make them finance something that they’d normally back away from and pass on. It’s a good way of using that power.

Q. Didn’t you try to do it first in 2006?
Danny Boyle: We did. We tried to make it then. I met Aron Ralston then. I’d read his book and I had this idea that you had to do it [the film] with an actor. And I told him that if you drama-documentary-ise it, or just do bits and then interview Aron, you’d understand it more and it would be absolutely accurate, but you wouldn’t feel it other than as a spectator. In order to make people witness what you went through, you’ve got to make people feel like they’re in the canyon and they’d do anything to get out of there with him. You can feel that’s what happens… you can feel people humming as it gets tough, or you can hear people cheering when it’s over. So, I thought that if we had a great actor we’d get that. But we couldn’t agree then [in 2006], but by the time 2009 came around he’d changed a lot. He’d met his wife…

Q. So, Aron was initially a stumbling block?
Danny Boyle: Well, you can’t call him a stumbling block. It’s his story. There’s a very fine line and you have to be careful of avoiding that arrogance of saying: “Who’s stopping me from making my film?” This is the guy who cut his arm off, after all. I mean, you are disappointed because you have this fevered vision of how you want it to be and then the guy says: “No, I want it to be a documentary.” So, you have to respect that.

Q. Didn’t you let go of a whole project because of something similar?
Danny Boyle: Yeah. It was called 3,000 Degrees and was about a fire in Worcester Massachusetts. The name reflected the temperature of the fire these men died in as they were tackling a blaze in this old Victorian cold storage facility. Six men died. It’s an amazing story. In fact, until 9/11 I think it was the biggest single loss of life for firemen in any one incident in northern America. We cast it, virtually, and were two weeks away from shooting only to find out that one of the widows didn’t want it made.

Somebody mysteriously rang me up and said: “You know she doesn’t want it made?” I said that I didn’t because the studio had said she was fine… that she just wanted more money. It’s a typical studio line, to say: “Oh, they just want paying off…” But this woman really didn’t want it made. She had six or seven sons by this fireman and two of them were still in psychotherapy for the trauma they were suffering from the loss of their father. Of course, the studio said: “It’s a stumbling block, get it out of the way! Money… pay it off.” But we backed off and they [the studio] threatened to sue me and everything because they’d spent a lot of money.

The other thing about Aron’s story is that he’s told the story many times himself. He has a book, he does a motivational speaking engagement both for charity and for his own wage… presenting the whole story in a 50 minute performance. It’s an extraordinary experience to see the real guy telling it. So, all of those things obviously made him think he wanted to keep control of the story. But my point was that you’d achieve so much more with an actor.

127 Hours

Q. There is no sense of pain in the film once he becomes trapped… or at least until the point he has to cut off his arm. Why is that?
Danny Boyle: Because he didn’t feel any. It’s in the book. Apart from the initial impact, supposedly it was pinched so tight that it saved him. It went poisonous, obviously, but it never travelled back. The hand died but it never travelled back up him… the pain. Nor did any blood get out. It was pinched so tightly that he didn’t feel anything at all. Some of the guys who were rock climbers on our crew actually said: “This is a bit funny, he hasn’t shown any pain!” But I said that’s what was in the book until he obviously breaks it and begins cutting.

Q. A lot of your movies seem to deal with the theme of survival, so how would you place this one among them?
Danny Boyle: Well, it’s interesting because you don’t really think like that until you meet critics, commentators and journalists and then you begin to think things through like that. Clearly, you can think back and see that a character has had enormous odds stacked against him and has to overcome them. It’s usually a guy, I’m afraid. But then you’re setting up a new movie you have amnesia about these meetings, when you’ve discussed it more analytically. But I think that’s important, otherwise you’d start to analyse stuff and say: “I shouldn’t do this movie because it’s not about survival.”

The best ones are when you’re obsessed, when you think you see it and you can’t understand why all these stupid people can’t see it as well because they’re reluctant or cautious. So, you have to sell it to them. But that’s important as well, because it makes you have to express the story more, or write it down, or expose it to the public gaze in a better way. So, I always think of it in terms of ‘the next one’ or ‘the last one’ and that’s the only way you can think of them, really, when you’re inside them. Otherwise, you’re trying to create an oeuvre. I remember I could see this one straight away. So, when we did come to tell the story, we asked only to borrow it. James and I literally said we’d hand it back to him [Aron] at the end of the movie, which is one of the reasons why when James pops out of the pool [at the end] and gives Aron that look as he’s sitting on the sofa, he is literally saying ‘thank you’ and giving it back to him.

Q. Did Aron ever ask you to change anything?
Danny Boyle: There was one moment. When he gets nervous at night and he thinks he hears something behind him and fires up his flash on his camera, then flash there’s Scooby-Doo, originally that was a 6ft raven right behind him, waiting to eat him. But he said he didn’t want us to do that. He said he knew that was true and that’s what would happen, but he didn’t want the raven portrayed in that way because that bird was the only living thing he’d had a relationship with [while trapped]. He was very clear. So, I said ‘absolutely’. I realised I could have been the stumbling block and had to get out of the way. But I think Scooby Doo worked out better.

Q. How do you remain grounded in Hollywood?
Danny Boyle: I’m not really [laughs]! I live here, so I think that helps. If I was American, I think I’d live in New York, like James does, because I like that East Coast mentality. There’s nothing wrong with Hollywood. If you want to be a big time filmmaker, you should go to Hollywood. I say to first time filmmakers that when they’re asked, they should go to America as you’re far more likely to get a chance. After that, it gets complicated. I’ve been fortunate to be able to stay here and any success I’ve had has been rooted here. We shoot on location but we make the films here – we edit them and do everything here. But your background – the people who bring you up and your values – give you absolute hell if you were any different.

127 Hours

Q. Was the decision to release 127 Hours in awards season deliberate?
Danny Boyle: Absolutely. The awards season gives a chance for independent films to have a bit of longevity in the press and the media. If you release it at any other time of the year, it’s gone in a weekend. So, you engineer tricky subjects like this, with a great performance in it, so that people will give it space and it can build an audience.

Q. How would you like people to feel after seeing the film?
Danny Boyle: Aron used the word ecstasy to describe the feeling, and I said, ooh, we probably won’t be able to use that in Britain, because it’ll be misleading. [laughs] Perhaps euphoria would be better! There is a very profound, deep sense of euphoria in him getting out there, which is life being given back again. I think James’s acting of that pain, that process that he goes through, not just the arm-cutting scene, is an extraordinary empathetic thing that takes you to a place that you do feel very vulnerable in.

The way we talked about it was about childbirth and obviously I’ve got three kids and I’ve witnessed all of those, and the extraordinary thing that I’ll never forget and I tried to talk to James about the way women go to a plateau of pain way beyond anything that guys will ever feel. So we tried to get into that territory really, which is disturbing, but worth so much more clearly than the suffering that’s involved. We always wanted the end of the journey to feel like a passageway to something that was much greater that was being left behind.

Q. Would you have been able to do cut off your arm?
Danny Boyle: I think one of our things going in was that we would all do it. One of the extraordinary things about this story, is that when it’s told in an artificial way, people always say I couldn’t do that. We’d all do it, and if you didn’t have a knife, you’d chew it off which is an extraordinary thing to say but animals do it all the time, and I think when everything is stripped away, yes you would. What’s incredible about his story is that it appears to occupy super human strength and courage to do this kind of thing. But it actually makes clear than when you strip things away, it’s very simple things that bind us together, that will bring us all back together in some way. The individual will to survive is often seen as just that, an individual thing. In fact, it’s sort of a gene we all carry and like a network of computers it all contributes in some way to when it’s individually needed. So yeah, I think we would all do it.

Q. You’re about to direct Frankenstein at the National. The swapping of the roles is a really interesting concept. What made you decide to do that?
Danny Boyle: It is, isn’t it? This is an adaptation of Frankenstein that we’re doing at the National Theatre with a couple of British actors. To play the creature, who is nameless of course, and the doctor who creates him – Dr Victor Frankenstein. It’s very faithful, actually, to the Mary Shelley novel. But one of the things in the Mary Shelley is that the creature tells his story, so this begins with the creature’s point of view. So, it literally starts with the creature opening his eyes and is born – but is obviously in his 30s. But because they’re the creator and the created we thought it would be really interesting if they could look at each other every other night and play each other’s roles.

It is very much a two-hander – that’s the engine of the piece. It also prevents… it’s nice because it puts the accent on performance and not on make-up or finding an 8ft actor to play the creature. In the original, he is 8ft tall with yellow eyes. So, it stops that thing which movies grabbed for so long and have possessed for so long. It’s a nice way to put the focus back on this simple act… if someone creates you. It’s an extraordinary story anyway and, interestingly, it was adapted for the West End stage as soon as she published it. You didn’t have to pay novelists then, of course… which was something that used to drive [Charles] Dickens mad! He went to America in the end [laughs]. But they put Shelley in the West End straight away and it’s obsessed us ever since. If anything, it becomes more and more pertinent really. It never seems to run out of fuel.

James Franco in 127 Hours

Q. How’s the Olympics project?
Danny Boyle: We’re trying to learn from Beijing, which could be very intimidating. We’ve learned to expect it’s power, it majesty and that it completes a cycle of certain types of shows… I don’t think any nation could do anything on that scale. We haven’t got that money, and I don’t think anybody would have the appetite for that kind of expenditure and that kind of control, so we’re going to try and do something a bit more intimate and try and start again… start a new cycle for these kind of ceremonies.

We also want to remember its proper function, which is to welcome the athletes to the city for their games. The most important thing about it, of course, is the games and not the opening ceremony. It’s weird the way it gets inverted sometimes. The stadium isn’t particularly striking aesthetically, but it is very finely done. It’s like a porcelain bowl. It’s the same size as Beijing’s capacity but it’s half the foot-print. It’s amazing actually. So, we’ll try and use that as an inspiration to make a more intimate event to open the games.

Q. And what about a third 28 Days Later film?
Danny Boyle: I’d love James [Franco] to direct that, and I’d love to direct it if he didn’t [laughs]. I watched the second one and I wasn’t very involved in it, apart from doing some second unit on it. So, I watched it more as a punter and it was really interesting to see. It’s weird directing, because you’re put in charge of a story and yet you’re the least qualified to tell it because you’ve seen it thousands of times… every detail of it and yet you’re showing it to people who are only going to watch it once. So, having made one of them, I watched the second one and thought it was quite good fun. So, I’d love to do another one. There is an idea for one. But it’s about whether we get the time to organise it.

Read our review of 127 Hours

Read our interview with James Franco