CIFF 2010: 127 Hours Q&A with Danny Boyle


Following the special screening of 127 Hours at the Chicago International Film Festival 2010, Danny Boyle held a very informative Q&A session. Because of the theater size and the lack of a microphone for those posing questions, a lot of what was said isn’t reproduced here verbatim. However, the controller made an attempt to paraphrase the questions as much as she could. The questions you see here are what the controller paraphrased.

Caution: If you haven’t seen 127 Hours yet and don’t want to spoil anything, you might want to hold off on reading this until you do. Otherwise, click on through for insight on what drove Boyle to direct this film, what it was like working with James Franco, and advice he gives to prospective directors.

Following the special screening of 127 Hours at the Chicago International Film Festival 2010, Danny Boyle held a very informative Q&A session. Because of the theater size and the lack of a microphone for those posing questions, a lot of what was said isn’t reproduced here verbatim. However, the controller made an attempt to paraphrase the questions as much as she could. The questions you see here are what the controller paraphrased.

Caution: If you haven't seen 127 Hours yet and don't want to spoil anything, you might want to hold off on reading this until you do. Otherwise, click on through for insight on what drove Boyle to direct this film, what it was like working with James Franco, and advice he gives to prospective directors.{{page_break}}

Question: So he [question asker] was talking about how, with Slumdog [Millionaire], there was difficulty with the financing and the distribution of it. And he said, obviously, he’s [Boyle] had considerable success since then. So, um, he wanted him to talk a little bit about that.

Boyle: We were very lucky with Slumdog [Millionaire], had a big hit with it. What we decided to do was to try and use that… it’s kind of a small and temporary window of opportunity to try to make this film because it was a very difficult film to persuade people to let us make because, I think, the prospect of it, the way we wanted to make it – one guy, alone, for the whole time and then, obviously what he has to do to get out of there made the studio very nervous. So, we cashed in our chips that we got from Slumdog [Millionaire], really, and made this film. So it’s a good way of taking advantage of the opportunity it gives you. So that’s what we tried to do. It only lasts as long as your last film, you know, whenever the next one comes out. That’s what they all judge you by.

Controller: Could you talk a little bit about working almost exclusively with James Franco and what that was like in such a claustrophobic situation?

Boyle: I read Aron’s book in 2006 and I met him and I asked him whether I could make it. I wanted to make it then. But I had a very clear idea— I wanted to make it sort of like this, i.e. that it would be what I call a first-person immersive experience. You wouldn’t be detached from it by cutting away to people looking for him or to a lot of back story or stuff like that. And at that time, Aron didn’t want to do that. He wanted to make a documentary a bit like Touching the Void with him as a narrator or certainly being interviewed so that, understandably, he could control the proceedings, if you like, in some way. So, he didn’t want to make it the way I wanted to make it. …The point I made to him, I said, “Nobody will be ever able to watch what happens to you unless, by the process, they’re invested in it. If you can make them attached to the actor, by going through the process with them, they might be able to tolerate what happens to you and what you have to do to yourself to get out of there.” So otherwise, it’s either a horror movie or you won’t be able to show it in a way, ‘cause it’s like… it’s so difficult, that. But he didn’t want to make it that way, so we parted company and we made Slumdog Millionaire and then he sort of came back again…

To be honest to Aron, he changed, actually, ‘cause what you see in the film is the compression of his journey, really. I think what happened when he came out of the canyon, he was a bit like these Chilean miners. He became the center of a media storm. And there was a book deal and a book tour and I think that attention delayed his full completion of the journey. And it was only when he met this woman, Jessica, his wife, and he finished the journey, you know, that he’d begun when he walked into that canyon. What he was prepared to do was to let us have control of the film ‘cause what you got to do if you want a film director to do it is you’ve got to hand over control. So we had him involved, you know, we took notes of him to the script and things like that. But basically, we said, “We want to borrow your story and tell our vision of it. And then we will hand it back to you at the end,” which is the idea of James [Franco] at the pool, sort of smiling back at him at the end. We sort of handed the story back to him then. So it meant finding the right actor to be able to do that, to take on that role of him.

We met James in New York first and he was kind of, I mean, he always looks stoned, like he’s falling asleep and you sort of wave and you say, “Does he know I’m here?” But, in fact, it’s a front, that. He’s actually kind of hyper-active, his brain. And he puts up this kind of slightly dozey front to kind of put people off the scent a bit, really. And it’s very interesting, an incredibly bright guy. And then we met him again in Los Angeles and he read some of the script for us and it was wonderful. As soon as he started reading it, we knew it was him, even though he’s not really sort of a look alike, Aron Ralston, but he was the right actor for it. And having done the film, it was extraordinary what he had to take on in order to do the part, really. And he became a true collaborator, really. So I’m very, very proud of his work in the film. I think it’s a wonderful performance.

Question: What’s the metaphor for all the people, like all the mass people at the stadium or mass people at the train? What’s the metaphor?

Boyle: The story is often, and especially in America I think, it’s often seen as a story of incredible individual courage, like a kind of almost superhuman courage. And I didn’t see it like that. I actually saw it as being he’s sort of like that when he goes into the canyon. He’s incredibly self-sufficient. He’s a brilliant athlete. He runs ultra marathons in the desert. He climbs all the peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet solo on his own. And I thought what happens is that nature, with this little pebble, just stops him, you know. It sort of asks him to change, really. And for me, it was always about… the beginning and the end is about people. And even in the loneliest places, it’s about people, really. It’s very simple, isn’t it? “No man is an island.” And it’s absolutely true. And he admits now, and this is what I meant earlier about his completion of his journey, he admits that he was, not arrogant, but you know, full of himself. And, trying to say he didn’t need anybody. And all these people were affectionate towards him. But he was like, not cruel, but careless with their affection, you know, because you are. I remember being 27. And there’s girls and you just don’t respond, you know, enough. So that’s the idea of the people.

And the second thing was that I am a big believer… of the commonality amongst us. This commonality, I don’t quite know the word is, about us. And even though there are lots of people there who don’t know Aron and he doesn’t know them, they help pull him back when he swims back to them at the end. There’s something magnetic that connects us all, I believe, and sort of helps us through really, really tough times and tough things. And I’m a big believer in that. That was the reason I wanted to make the film. I didn’t want to make the film about Aron Ralston, the hero, you know. I often think about Lance Armstrong who is also a guy who is portrayed as an extraordinary guy. But, cycling-wise, if you look at the Tour de France, which I do, anybody who wins the Tour de France, you know the reason you win it is ‘cause of those 8 guys who pull you up those mountains, you know, your teammates. And then they fire you through at the end to win it. That’s just a personal philosophy.

Controller: Also related to that, I thought it was interesting that he continued to connect to the rest of the world through the use of the video camera.

Boyle: That’s the weird thing. He’s a wilderness guy, I always thought that was amazing, he’s a wilderness guy and he goes off into this place that is the middle of nowhere where he went. But he takes a video camera, this is 2003, 3 years before YouTube ever kicked off, and he’s recording everything. And I always thought that was an umbilical cord back to society, somehow, that he couldn’t quite let go, really. So it’s extraordinary. And he did leave these messages and we saw, he showed James and I the messages that he actually left, 45 minutes of them. And they are extraordinary because they’re not… He’s very reluctant to anybody to see them, which made me think they were gonna be like, distressing and abject, you know, crying and self-pitying or whatever, you know. But they’re not, in fact, they’re incredible self-controlled as he tries to leave a dignified impression of himself for his Mom. He was very worried about his Mom seeing it. And in fact, he admitted that he erased a couple of them and re-recording them when he looked back at them and saw that he was crying or he was distressed. And that gave us the idea of the talk show host, you know, the performance bit where James does the appearing on the radio show. So that gives the idea of that performance thing, yeah.

Question: How much location shooting did you do and how much was on set?

Boyle: So we shot for a week in Blue John Canyon itself, which is very difficult to get to. There’s no roads, you can get there by horseback or by trekking. So the crew’s not very good at that kind of thing. So we had to helicopter in some stuff. We camped out there, actually, for six nights in the desert, which is weird for me ‘cause I’m from the city. I’m not very keen on camping. And in fact, I realized when I was camping, it’s 33 years since I’d last gone camping. And when we’d finished, I was quite a bit happy it’d be 33 years before we ever have to go camping again. It’s very good for the film ‘cause we wanted to, obviously, make sure that we honored the place that it happened. And we behaved very well, we behaved all of the wilderness rules and stuff like that. And it was nice for Aron, ‘cause he came. But then what we did, we rebuilt the canyon itself in a warehouse in Salt Lake City. But what we did that was unusual was we didn’t float [?] any of the walls— we made it solid. So it was literally just like the canyon. So the restrictions on James and on the camera and on all the crew were the same. They were frustrating, ‘cause it was very small and very narrow, and that helped it take the style of the film, I think, in the way we shot and the way that you see it. You know, that sense of restriction.

Controller: I was wondering, you know, it’s a story of one man alone for 127 hours, but the pacing is incredible. And, I mean, the camera work keeps it going, the editing… I was wondering how much of that happened in the editing room? How much was conceived before you started shooting?

Boyle: Well we always called it an action movie where the hero can’t move. And that was always the idea, that it was not gonna be like a meditative-wilderness movie; it was gonna be like an urban thriller, if you like, except that he can’t move. Because it always felt… I had always seen the film in that way, really. So what we did is that, because there was nobody to look up to, what we ended up doing was ended up doing these enormous long takes where, like when James is first trapped, he has to try to move the rock. I said to him, I knew the rock wouldn’t move because we bolted it in, and I said to him, “You’ve gotta try to move the rock.” And he said, “Do you want me to really move it?” and I said, “Yeah, I want you to really move it” knowing that he wouldn’t be able to move it. And he said, “Well okay, I’ll do it, but I’ll only be able to do it once ‘cause I’ll get a bit beat up.” And I said, “Okay.” So we ended up doing this 22 minute take of him, and it is extraordinary because what you do in the editing is you select like 15 seconds there and 15 there throughout the 22 minutes, you know. And you pool it together because you can’t cut in a conventional way. You just chop in around the screen. But what you do get is, I mean, James is really trying to move that rock. It’s not like acting, kind of like pretending to be something else. And it’s not a technical way of stopping and starting. He would just go, and then in the end, he’d just have to stop, exhausted. Which is, of course, exactly what Aron Ralston did, is he stopped, eventually, ‘cause he just put in all that might he went in there with, all that power and athleticism. It just didn’t do him any good at all. And that’s sort of how we did the whole film, really, in those long takes and we used sections of them. And that gives it an editing energy, we had a great editor on it called John Harris, and we put it together like that, yeah.

Question: If you could put a percentage on it, how much is fiction and how much is non-fiction?

Boyle: We deliberately said to Aron that we wanted to do our own version of it to allow us the right to fictionalize it, if we wanted to, and to make the experience James’s more than Aron’s, if you like. ‘Cause I sort of believe that, really, that you know, you’re gonna watch James do it, really, he’s playing like Aron. But you’re really watching James go through it. But everything was exact. He had the same equipment, it was the same place, as I said. We kind of literally reproduced it. The only thing that’s different is the talk show host. That’s the only message that we invented. And at the beginning with the girls, he did meet these girls, and they climbed, but they didn’t do a pool. And we did a pool because we wanted it to be sexy and water ‘cause he was gonna lose the water, and we wanted for him to record, and he did record them on camera, which was climbing, but we wanted him to be able to look back at these girls and everything he was missing: company, sex, water, everything was on that tape, you know, and he couldn’t touch it. So we kind of compressed those, we slightly changed that, that was all. But pretty much everything else is there. I mean, the hallucinations, who he sees like Blue John and Scooby Doo and things like that… Some of those are true and some of those are kind of made up, really. There’s a bit of invention in there, as well. But there were things going around in his head.

Question: The first was a comment in that he [question asker] said how much he liked that he [Ralston] brought you so close to his psychology and you [Boyle] got into that. But then he [question asker] was asking him [Boyle] about the water sequence and the flash food and the fantasy of that.

Boyle: So the flash flood, he was obsessed with the fact that there might be a flash flood because that’s how these canyons are formed and people are killed in them each year in these flash floods because they become a torrential flood of water in no time at all. And it can often happen when it’s not raining in the area. It can be raining twenty miles away and the [?] is bringing water down there. It didn’t obviously rain while he was there, but we have it in his mind in his sleep. And he kind of uses it to see this girl and to apologize this girl, but it’s too late ‘cause he’s still trapped there, yeah. I guess that’s sort of an invention, although it was pre-occupying his mind and he mentions it in the messages about the danger of the flash floods and he talks about the canyons that are up river or up land of him that would bring the rain down if it does rain and how he’ll get a drink, but he’ll die ‘cause he’ll drown. So then we imagine that he’d get released and be able to go and see this girl and, you know, before it’s re-affirmed that he couldn’t get out.

Question: She was asking about the relative advantages and disadvantages of working with just one person, one actor, as opposed to an ensemble cast, as in Slumdog Millionaire.

Boyle: Well it was interesting, when we were promoting Slumdog [Millionaire] a couple of years ago, I saw The Wrestler ‘cause I like Darren Aronofsky’s work and I remember watching it thinking, “I must do a film like that” where sometimes you should make a film where you just follow an actor. You literally park the camera on top of the actor and just follow him and then he sort of dictates the film. And it was sort of like that, this, really. It had to be… I normally work in groups of people and it gives the director a lot of control and I am quite controlling. And I remember approaching this thinking, “I should be less controlling” because the microscope that’s gonna be on James that it’ll be so intense that you’ll spot fakery or if he’s doing things that I told him to do that he doesn’t feel or whatever. It’s like spot makeup, you’ll just see it because it’s intense, the focus on it. It helped me, really, to let it a bit more looser than it had been. I mean, you get control back in the editing, you know, ‘cause when we’d do these long takes which James would dictate, in the shooting style of the film, he would kind of work with the cinematographers, you know, ‘cause they sort of stayed attached to him almost like an angle-poised lamp arm. He was like a third arm attached to him and they would move around him like that as these scenes went on. And I had a microphone off the set and a monitor, and I would shout things in occasionally, but I would kind of try and let it run. We’d talk before we began and stuff like that. So it’s kind of looser than I normally am and I sort of learned to do that, which I was very pleased to do that, because I knew for the film to work, it would depend on you and everybody investing in James, in the actor, in order to make it work.

Question: So he [question asker] was saying when he first heard of the story that happened to Aron, he was fascinated by it and stuck by him for several days. So that when he found out Danny Boyle was directing it, he was really excited about that because of his [Boyle’s] work in Shallow Grave with the psychology. So he [question asker] was wondering what drew him [Boyle], in particular, to this story. Was it the isolation? Was it the pain? So what in particular about this narrative interested you?

Boyle: I mean, there’s all those things in it, the ingredients in it. But it’s what I said to that lady in the back when she asked about the people. That actually is why I did it, is I thought it was a story, beyond the surface level when it appears a kind of superhuman effort, I always thought it was a story where I wanted to tell it and… I don’t know whether you feel this, but everybody, when you tell them about this story, virtually everybody says, “I couldn’t do that. If I was stuck there, I couldn’t do that.” But my belief was that we would all do it, that we’re all connected, basically we’re all the same. And that some of us would do it and we’d die, some of us would get lucky, like he did, and survive, some of us might not be able to complete it, but that we’d do it. Ironically, it was that that drew it to me, that he wasn’t an individual survival story. It was actually about something else, it was about the people that sustained him somehow. It is true that he did see this child, and the child was not Jesus, it wasn’t religious, and he knew straight away what it was. And he wasn’t interested in having a kid. He was 27, he wasn’t in a stable relationship, he was not interested in having a kid. But he saw it so vividly. And it was that lineage was his, you know, he had a part to play in, you know, amongst us. And it’s what they say when you do have a kid, they say you are part of a narrative, for the first time in your life, you’re part of a narrative that no longer ends with your death. You know, which is one of the things about it and for a guy like that, at 27, to be confronted with that, I thought that’s what the film’s really about, really after all, that he’s swimming back to people who are helping him pull him back somehow. So that was always my take on it, really. I mean, it is very inspiring, about “don’t give up” and all those kind of things, and it’s all those things in it. But those are the reasons I did it. It wasn’t for any ghoulish reasons towards cutting an arm off, you know.

Question: He’s [question asker] in film school right now and wanted directing advice.

Boyle: Oh, don’t. Don’t. There’s enough of us out there working already as it is. We don’t need any competitors. No, you’ve gotta kind of just… you’ll watch a lot of movies, good movies, bad movies, all sorts of movies. Watch Pixar. Animated films are some of the best directed films you’ll ever see. You know, I say that ‘cause I just watched Toy Story 3 and it was absolutely just brilliant, you know. And so, that’s the only thing you can do, really, and when you start, it always looks impossible to get into the business because it’s very kind of intimidating looking. But it’s nonsense, all that. You’ll get in if you’re any good, or if you’re a lunatic and you just keep going for long enough, you’ll get there. You know, because what happens is that those who are not lunatic enough kind of just get bored with how difficult it is, to get into it, and they go off and do something else and the lunatics are left, really, to… And that’s sort of what it’s like, really, if you’re fanatical enough about it, you’ll be fine, you know. But see loads of movies, just watch movies, you know, and watch all sorts of movies, you know. And you learn from bad ones, you know, Michael Bay ones, you learn… You know, just watch a lot of movies.