127 Hours - James Franco interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
JAMES Franco talks about playing real-life adventurer Aron Ralston in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, going method at times and what he would do in the same real life situation.
He also discusses some of his interests away from acting.
Q. How `method’ could you be in a film like this?
James Franco: Well, I didn’t cut my own arm off… But Danny does like to push the boundaries a bit, push his actors, and so that meant getting a little methody I guess in our approach and in some of the physical aspects. In an early scene Aron has just been trapped by the boulder. He is a great athlete so he tries to pull his arm out with his physical strength. We shot everything in order, apart from the scenes with the young women.
So, this was a very early scene, and in the spirit of Danny’s exploration, and I don’t think Danny planned to film this way, but he said to me on the day “so try and pull your arm out, do anything that you can, bash yourself against the rock, knee it, kick it, yank, pull, do anything you can, and don’t stop until I say cut”. I said “Okay, I’ll probably be pretty bruised, and exhausted, I’ll probably get hurt a little bit” and I know this is exactly what was said because a friend of mine shot a video. I said “Alright, I’m up for it, just make sure you get it on the first take”.
So, we did it, and by the time he said cut, I think it had been 22 minutes and I was completely exhausted, the next day my arm was literally purple, but we figured it out, how to do those scene. As an actor it was incredibly liberating, because I had the freedom to really experience that like if I was in that situation and if I’d try to pull my arm out that’s what it would have been, like I’m not acting exhausted, I really am exhausted, and the pain in my arm, it’s real. So, in that sense it was very method. Then there are other things like the amputation, we had a very good prosthetic so I didn’t have to cut my own arm off!
But what we figured out with that early scene was that we could do these long extended takes on digital cameras that can film for 20 minutes, and they’re mobile, so it’s a very different process to a typical film where you do one set up and then another, you could get all the set-ups in these long takes, and adjust. It just gave the performance more authenticity because I was experiencing it to a certain extent.
Q. How did you go about capturing Aron’s mental strength?
James Franco: Well, I talked to Aron extensively before we started filming and tried to get into his head space. We all did, when Simon was writing, to communicate what he was thinking. As helpful as all that was, Aron gave us another thing that was incredibly valuable – he showed us the actual videos he made while he was trapped there. As an actor, those were incredibly valuable because it wasn’t even necessarily what he was saying in those messages, it was the pure behaviour in those tapes. We were sitting there watching a guy who had pretty much accepted his own death, and didn’t know that there was a happy ending.
So, now when Aron tells those stories, he is looking back on it, but at that moment, he was in the middle of the situation. When I was watching it, I tried to absorb… however we read each other and behaviour and how our mindset is manifested on the surface, as an actor you train yourself to pick up little signals almost subconsciously. So when I watched that, in the most basic terms, I’m watching a guy that thinks he’s going to die, but the other very interesting thing is that he wasn’t wallowing in self pity, he was delivering these very simple, personal and dignified messages to his family, and to me that says loads.
There’s great strength there and also a great connection to his family. Great love that he wanted to make what he thought were going to be the last things his family would ever see of him, something they could watch, basically for his mother, that she could watch. To do that thinking that you’re going to die is incredible and said a lot to me when I went to do the performance. The other thing is the strength that he found to get through it came from those messages. When Aron asked me why I wanted to play him, and I didn’t say I wanted to work with Danny Boyle [laughs], I said, because it’s an amazing story and I really admire the strength you had to get through it on your own. You’re an incredible example of human will. He corrected me a little bit, and said: “No, actually it was the connection to my family that allowed me to get through the five days and get myself out of there.”
Those messages weren’t just goodbye messages, he said he felt a connection while he was making them, and that he felt his family were there, and that gave him the strength to pull through. I think one of the points of the movie is we all have that in us. Aron may have been an accomplished climber and athlete, but when he gets down in that canyon, he’s humbled and also gets in touch with whatever it is inside us that helps us survive, and for Aron it was the love for his family.
Q. The tapes he recorded when he was alone in the canyon… did you expand on it? Or are they verbatim?
James Franco: Some of the recordings are verbatim. Aron showed us the real tapes. He doesn’t show them to many people other than family and friends who are mentioned on the real tapes. The first time I met Aron he brought them. It was a very intense way to meet somebody. So, yeah, some of the early messages especially are things that Aron said. He brought in this old VHS tape, which was deteriorating, and some of the things he’d recorded over were bleeding through the image… Danny even took some of that. We went out and shot some things such as me skiing. In fact, we even shot it twice because Danny didn’t like how I skied the first time [laughs]! But he didn’t tell me he was going to actually film it.
I thought it would be still photography, but he needed me to look like I was cross country skiing. I mean, I’m an OK skier but I’m not the best at cross country. But we then did some downhill stuff, which was better. But then once [screenwriter] Simon [Beaufoy] came on, that’s when we really developed the talk show scene, which is not something that Aron did. Some of the lines such as ‘this is no slurpy’, when he talks about drinking the urine, come straight from Aron, but I think Simon and Danny expanded on a goofy sense of humour that Aron really does have and built it into this mad scene that actually, I think, is brilliant because it works on so many levels.
Q. Such as?
James Franco: Well, it’s a comic relief because it comes right after the scene where the character breaks down emotionally and he’s been dreaming about his past girlfriend. It’s after the moment where he loses it emotionally. Actually, I always thought when we did it that the wackier it got, the more poignant it would be because it’s doing so many things. The character is trying to run away from himself by using comedy, but he also kind of comes around by the end. It’s a way for him to confront himself and to challenge himself for his choices that led him there. It’s also him kind of starting to lose his mind in a way. So, to be able to play that scene was great. And I think we only did it four times or so.
Q. Did you guys ever drive each other crazy given the intimacy of the shoot?
James Franco: I had a great relationship with the two directors of photography [Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak]. They were in the canyon with me the whole time and, for the most part, it was just me and them when we were filming. But Danny and I also had a really great relationship. My friend from NYU also came out and was hired to shoot behind the scenes, and we’ve just seen what she edited together, and it shows how unusual and, I think, great our relationship was. The only times I can think it was anything other than harmonious… it was almost as if I was acting with the DoPs and Danny because there were no other actors, so those were my other performers and we all had to share this character in a way.
So, there were sometimes when you’d do these long takes where Danny would have me do the real activities. I can remember one specifically where I had to make that pulley system. It’s probably about three or four minutes in the movie but we did it for something like 10 or 15 minutes and Danny would have me really try and do it. What Aron did is hard, especially if your hand is pinned, so I would get really frustrated doing that. But that’s perfect material for the character because he should get frustrated and upset. But in some of those situations, Danny would speak to me on the monitor and I was in character and I’d really give him an earful.
Q. Was it nice to get some co-stars at some points, such as Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn?
James Franco: Most of the scenes with the young women were shot at the end! Everything else was shot in order but we saved those for the end because there was snow at the very beginning of the shoot. There’s a scene that’s not in the film, after the pool, where we’re drying out on Looking Glass Rock… it’s amazing, such beautiful country. But it was weird because we were suddenly doing scenes with other actors and it was different. We had to develop these scenes with other people and it felt completely different.
So, that scene was also weird in itself because he’s kind of attracted to the girls but also in his own world. I don’t know if I was trying to play it too cold but when I watched what we did he said it was ‘terrible’ and that it was ‘shit’ [laughs]. I was like [looks aghast]: “I’m doing what you’re telling me here!” But that was the one time that we ever had anything like any tension. But Danny said afterwards that it was too static as a scene, especially at the beginning when we wanted to set the pace of the film. But other than that, I look back on this experience and think it was completely unique.
Q. As a director as well as an actor, what did you pick up from Danny Boyle?
James Franco: I learned a lot actually. There are two major things about Danny, the larger things – as there are many aspects to his directing – that seem to me to guide his career, and the way all his movies are shaped is he really looks to challenge himself by approaching different kinds of material, subject matter he is not used to, or movies that have technical requirements that force him into new discoveries to pull him out of his comfort zone and his abilities that he’s competent with. What that does is enable him to make a different kind of movie every time. If you look at his resume, the list of movies that he’s done (thanks for the explanation of what a resume is!) they’re all very different and not just because of the different genres but the way that they’re made. That I find to be very inspiring.
The other thing is that he unashamedly likes to entertain and make exciting movies. So in this film he has the challenge of using a man in a single area, it’s not even like Tom Hanks’ Castaway where he had that whole island to move around in and a volleyball to talk to. We’re in a single place, which to some directors, like Béla Tarr, this would be great – really slow and contemplative. But Danny will take that challenge and think: “How can I make this exciting and entertaining?” And he did it. A lot of comments I hear is that people say it’s unlike any other movie experience they’ve had, and they’re really taken on a ride. I really take those two ideas to heart, and Danny gets the best of both worlds – making original films that are also very entertaining.
Q. You live in New York, so how are you with the great outdoors as a rule? Did you have to make adaptations personally, or do you have a sense of adventure anyway?
James Franco: Yeah, I miss my nature walks [laughs]. I grew up in northern California and when I was young my father took me and my brother on a lot of camping trips and we’d go to Yosemite. But I think that pretty much worked it out of me [laughs]. I love cities and I need people around. I think about maybe moving back to LA in a couple of years and consider Venice Beach because it’s so beautiful there. But then I think that it’s so quiet at night and even that’s too quiet for me! I just need people around me, even if I’m not acting with them. I just like people being outside.
Q. When you’re in Hollywood, though, how do you stay grounded?
James Franco: Well, I’m not there now but when I was, I did find grounding by going back to UCLA. That really opened up a whole world. There is so much more to LA than the movie business. At first, it doesn’t seem like it but there’s a thriving contemporary art scene there. But it’s so spread out. In New York, you walk out your door and there’s 10 million things right in front of you. But LA is the same, just all spread out. So, I found a lot of things that really interest me there – it just takes a lot more time to find it.
Q. And what about your book?
James Franco: That’s something I’ve been working on for something like five years. I started that at UCLA as well under the direction of Mona Simpson, a great novelist and the sister of Steve Jobs. She’s a great writer. So, I just started that in the writing programme there, and continued to work on it in New York. It takes a while for a book to come out. I sold it about a year ago and we’ve done all the various galleries and covers, so it just came out [at the end of last year].
Q. Do you like to diversify as an artist?
James Franco: I don’t have many hobbies. If I think of hobbies, maybe ping pong. But I don’t have a desire to get a ping pong medal. But I figure that I am driven to do these things. For eight years, I only acted professionally but I was always reading and writing and pursuing other interests. I just did it in isolation and I’d never show anyone my stuff. But by going to school with these other people, it got me to take my work more seriously, to look at it with a more critical eye… like working with a great director, it’s a similar relationship. I got to work with some great writers and you become a better performer or writer just by learning from them.
Q. Would you have been able to do cut off your arm?
James Franco: Well, his hand was dead, it was crushed and dead anyway, there was no blood going to it so essentially it was already gone.
- Read our review
- James Franco interview
- Danny Boyle interview
- 127 Hours Photo Gallery
- 127 Hours UK Premiere Gallery
- Watch the trailer