By Mary Anne Potts; Photographs by Chuck Zlotnick, Fox Searchlight
For his new film, 127 Hours, British director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) takes on the story of Aron Ralston, the then-27-year-old hiker who, in 2003, was canyoneering in Utah’s remote Blue John Canyon when his hand became pinned under an 800-pound boulder. He had told no one where he was going. After five days with just his own urine left for hydration, Ralston had one last option—to cut off his hand. He did it with a cheap multitool. And he survived.
To make the movie, which is based on Ralston’s best-selling autobiography and stars actor James Franco, the film team trekked into Canyonlands National Park and even camped out at Blue John Canyon. The three-foot wide slot canyon was far too hard to access for the majority of filming, so they built a replica on a soundstage, carefully mapping out each contour of the stone.
Here, Boyle talks about camping out in canyon country, the transforming power of life-or-death decisions, and what he believes we’d all do when caught between a rock and a hard place.
What was it like to work on a film that requires so much hiking, climbing, and rappelling in such a remote part of the country?
Danny Boyle: It was shocking. We camped for a week in the actual location in Utah. As I lay in my single-man tent at night, it was so quiet, it woke me up. It was unnervingly quiet, with no sirens going off, no people arguing. I realized then that it had been 33 years since I last went camping. My take on this film was not so much that it was a wilderness film. In some curious way, even though it’s about one guy in the wilderness, it’s actually a film about people. And the film has an urban rhythm more than a meditative wilderness rhythm.
That explains the building momentum of the film. Even after Aron Ralston (James Franco) is trapped under the 800-pound boulder, the film’s energy continues to build with flashbacks, hallucinations, and dream sequences.
Danny Boyle: I felt that it was an action movie, which we associate with urban spaces. Even though the guy can’t move, I always thought of it as an action movie. The movement is partly his physical struggle to release, his ceaseless attempts to get out of there. He was on an emotional and spiritual journey that was actually about connecting with people.
What was it like to hike with Ralston in Blue John Canyon, the slot canyon where he became trapped in 2003?
Danny Boyle: It was very beautiful. The first time we went was in high summer. We had to go by helicopter because you can’t hike there in summer. It can be very dangerous because of the high temperatures. But we did go back a number of times with him. The single most extraordinary thing I got from it was just how remote it was. When Aron says in the book and film, “I was destined to be here with this rock.” You sort of think, “Yeah, you were, mate, because you could not find a more remote place, a place with no chance of being found. No chance.”
So is Ralston’s character a superhero? Or is he a foolish hiker who broke a fundamental rule—telling someone where you are going and when you’ll be back—and paid the ultimate price?
Danny Boyle: This story is often seen as a superhero story. And often, great survival stories are seen as that. My take on it was that Aron was a superhero before he went into that canyon—he climbed 14,000-foot Colorado peaks, solo; he was independent, self-sufficient. He was completely impregnable. Invulnerable. Omnipotent. And Nature, with effectively a grain of sand, says, “No. None of that is any use to you now.” Aron shows it in the first scene, when he gets trapped. He tries everything to move that boulder—and nothing will move it. The boulder won’t move until he has made his journey.
How do you see his transformation?
Danny Boyle: This is why it’s a feature film and an interpretation of Aron’s story. It’s not just a factual study of a survival story. It’s that Aron needs to make a personal pilgrimage. It’s about him realizing how he longs to see the people who have loved and sustained him, to speak to them once more. So he speaks to the camera as though he is speaking to them one last time. He has not appreciated those people in his heart as deeply as he could have done. And particularly his former girlfriend, who clearly loved him, and who he wasn’t cruel with, but he was not careful enough with her affection. And he has learned to regret that.
Those passages eventually lead to where he sees this child. He’s not a guy who was thinking about being a parent. He’s 27 and a typical young man. But the child gives him a reason to live. And it gives him literally the direct way out of the canyon because, as he reaches to look at the child more, he can feel his bone bend. And he realizes he can break it. And if he can break it, he can somehow get out. And then he makes changes in his life.
Did you study the classic American Western film genre to make this movie?
Danny Boyle: The canyon itself was named after Butch Cassidy and Sundance’s chef, old Blue John. He makes a brief appearance in the film. The other connection was that music. We went with A.R. Rahman [composer for Slumdog Millionaire] on the music, and we began with solo guitar, kind of bluegrass. Deep in the American psyche is the blues guitar. All the music in the film, even if it wasn’t played on a guitar, was all developed from guitar, mostly solo guitar. So that very much inhabits the film.
Would you have made the same choice as Ralston, if your hand were caught under an 800-pound boulder?
Danny Boyle: Me? I believe we would all do what he did—probably with a lot less success sometimes. But we would all do exactly what he did. We all think we are incapable of doing it. But we’d all do it. I absolutely know that’s true. Because animals do it, when they are caught in a trap. And if you didn’t have a knife, you’d do it with your teeth. And you think that’s unthinkable at the moment, in your present comfortable self, but you would. That survival instinct, that will to live, that need to get back to life again, is more powerful than any consideration of taste, decency, politeness, manners, civility. Anything. It’s such a powerful force.