Danny Boyle! You’ve just won the Academy Award for Best Director and Best Picture for Slumdog Millionaire! Now, what are you going to do?
Um…make a movie about a guy stuck in a cave.
You got to, er, hand it to Danny Boyle. The British filmmaker is unpredictable, to say the least.
His follow-up to 2007’s busy, multi-lingual worldwide sleeper hit Slumdog Millionaire is 127 Hours, an intense and, at times, excruciating true story about adventure enthusiast Aron Ralston, whose sanity is threatened and life appears to be over when his arm is locked into the side of a Utah canyon for days.
The story of Ralston’s survival has been pretty well documented, as has Boyle’s decision to make the movie. So, it’s should come as no surprise how far Ralston, as played by James Franco, goes to survive. If readers do not know, let’s just say 127 Hours shows you how handy a pocket knife can be.
MovieFanFare caught up with the ever-enthusiastic 54-year-old British director of Trainspotting, …28 Days Later, Millions and Sunshine during a recent stop on Philadelphia, where 127 Hours unspooled at the Philadelphia Film Festival.
MFF: In the film, Aron Ralston is incredibly reckless which, of course, leads to his horrible predicament. He’s also a risk taker. Do you see yourself as a director who takes big risks?
DB: I guess this (film) really is risky in the sense people are expecting a lot after Slumdog and things like that. The only reason it got financed is because of the success of Slumdog, because it’s a very difficult prospect of a movie. Now, because of Franco’s performance, people think, “Oh, it’s pretty watchable.” You know, people will go see it, but back then (before it was shown) they thought nobody in their right mind apart from a bunch of critics will show up. And the critics only go because it’s free and they have to. I guess that is the risk. You risk everything, really, by doing it.
MFF: During the film, Aron Ralston chronicles his situation by using a video camera, and even hosts a mock talk show. We understand the real Ralston did this, but he was reticent about letting others see it.
DB: Few people have seen it, but he did eventually let me and James see it. A lot of what is in the movie about the videotape is verbatim. We have the transcripts of everything he said, and a lot of it is his book. He didn’t like showing the tape to me. Where James does the multiple characters– that isn’t on the tape. But when he says, “Mom, Dad…,” it is verbatim. We (he and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who also scripted Slumdog Milionaire) put the talk show host in, because Aron is very controlled on the tapes and composed. He wanted to leave a dignified picture of himself because he thought he was going to die. He thought, “I don’t want them (his parents) to see me (crying) ‘Please, help me somebody.’” He wanted to look noble and dignified like he was trying his best and he loved them and stuff like that. And he said that if he ever did crack and felt sorry for himself, he went back over to the messages and erased them in those places, and re-recorded a dignified message. And that gave us the idea of him performing in order to cheer himself up, in order to persuade himself and others who may watch that he was coping with this.
MFF: Having a guy stuck in a canyon, no matter how charismatic he is, must have presented a problem for a filmmaker. How did you deal with that visually?
DB: I’m visually driven. I like trying different things and experimenting visually. I like using digital cameras because you can put them in places differently than a film camera. I like trying to look at stuff that you haven’t done before. I hate the feeling of “done that already” or “seen that.” You know, try to refresh it and renew it. That’s particularly important with this film because it’s mostly about this one guy through the center of it. So I thought it was of interest that you had to be really stimulating in the camerawork and the way it was photographed. I had this premise that it was an action movie about a guy who can’t move. And I was always adamant it was an action movie about a guy who can’t move. That’s one of the things that kept him alive is that he is full of constant attempts to do something about it. Get up, get up! Never give up! Do it! Try! And that gives energy to the thing. We tried to make it in that way, and part of that is visual stimulation, different surprises—a huge closeup of an ant—a mega closeup of an ant—I could never get close enough to the ant. I wanted it to look like a JCB Digger (a British backhoe). I wanted it to look like a JCB —we had a picture of a JCB Digger in the photo file.
MFF: Your choice of James Franco as Aron Ralston is interesting, to say the least. What went into that decision?
DB: We did know we needed the actor to not just occupy the space as a lead actor often does with charisma, but we needed a character actor who has to be able to change and satisfy the palate of the audience and has to be honest. It’s not just a performance thing. It’s his obligation to keep you interested, really. James is unusual in terms of most actors here—he does do things like the straight moody stuff, you know what you sort of expect, like City by the Sea and Spider-Man. But then he does Milk and Pineapple Express. That’s quite a range.
MFF: How did the initial meeting with Franco go?
DB: We met him in New York. He often looks stoned, looks at you like you are not even there and you go “Hello, James.” It’s a front. He’s as sharp as anything. He’s taking in every bit of information. His memory is phenomenal. Then we met him in L.A. We asked him to do some of the messages (his character does in the film). And when he did them, we knew. If we didn’t cast him, we would have been dead in the water.
MFF: How did the people who financed 127 Hours feel? After all, here’s a movie with tough subject matter, and James Franco isn’t exactly a box-office draw.
DB: When we suggested him, they were delighted. They saw him being saleable. They saw the audition and they were thrilled. He was really cool. He does multiple things, you know. He writes books and does art exhibitions and directs these short films. He’s a multi-tasker or polymath. He’s into all that kind of stuff. He’s also fascinated by the process. He’s sort of abstract himself. He would ask me: “What do you want him to do?” Like James is here and we’d be talking about him. Then, he’d say “I can get him to do that, so you want him to do that?” Ostensibly, he’d be talking about Aron Ralston, but he wasn’t. He’s talking “What do you want me to do with James Franco and I will do it for you.” And that was interesting, because he was interested in the process of how we arrived at telling the story of how this one person was trapped the whole time.
MFF: Can you compare him to anyone else you’ve worked with?
DB: He is very handsome in a Clark Gable/Cary Grant kind of way. He has that thing —like Leo, he hated it as well. (Note: Leonardo DiCaprio starred in Boyle’s The Beach in 2000). Leo hated being the pretty boy. They’re actors, proper actors. They want to be taken seriously for their ability. It’s always a problem in Hollywood. You want the looker. It’s like part of our thing, when we see ourselves 40 feet high. Yeah, yeah, it’s Angelina Jolie, fine, I’ll watch her. It’s fine. You have very, very fine actors like that. That’s one of the ways Franco balances it—he doesn’t do “I’ll do this, I’ll do that.” He does these art projects instead, which are quite controversial and would not attract the average Hollywood casting director. It’s just my theory. I’m not sure.
MFF: Do you see the difference between American and European audiences in terms of how they respond to your films–or other films?
DB: We talk about that stuff because we’re in the media. In Europe, they bang on about bloody Hollywood dominating the world. But the reason people go to Hollywood movies is because they enjoy them. They don’t go because they’ve been hypnotized into liking American rubbish. They go because they just enjoy them more than anything else. Sometimes they’re all s**t, sometimes they are wonderful. And you work in a garage all week and on a Friday night, you don’t want to go to a movie and be lectured. You want to see a piece of shit. And that’s fine. You want to have a pizza afterwards. And sometimes you go and it’s amazing, like Toy Story 3. I don’t want to do American films because I don’t feel qualified. I want to know—if it has a character, I want to know how they grew up, I don’t want other people answering the question. If it’s a British character, I know what sort of car that character would drive. This project is different because it’s not about those issues. It’s not about society– it’s actually about a human trapped. It’s existential in a way. And that made it easier for me to take on board.
MFF: So with the success of Slumdog Millionaire, do studios offer you projects that are more geared to American audiences?
DB: You get sent things. They sent me Jersey Boys, and said “It’s a musical, and we understand you’re interested in doing a musical.” Well, I love the music. I saw the show in the West End in London, but I wouldn’t know how to direct it. I wouldn’t know what it’s like to grow up in Jersey—I’d be asking the American assistant, “What did they do? Is that right?”
MFF: Has having the international success of Slumdog Millionaire changed you or how people treat you?
DB: Everyone calls you “Mr. Boyle” now. And that’s a problem. There’s a serious side as well. You often can’t get the truth out of people. You worry about everybody’s giving you the “yes.” You deal with it by working with people you’ve worked with before. But that’s all temporary, as sure as anything.