The 46th Annual Chicago Film Festival Centerpiece film was “127 Hours” from Director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “Shallow Grave,” “Trainspotting”), with the Irish director present in person to comment on the film in a Q&A following the film.
“127 Hours” is based on the book written by Aron Raston about his amputation of his own arm under the direst of circumstances when trapped in an isolated canyon in Utah in April of 2003. Raston’s book was entitled, appropriately, “Between A Rock and a Hard Place.” In this film that focuses on a solitary player (James Franco as Raston), we first see adrenaline junkie Aron on his bike, heading towards Blue John Canyon, so named after the legendary “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s” cook, Blue John.
Director Boyle, in the Q&A following the film, was asked if it was difficult to get financing for this film. It does seem that the film’s commercial prospects might not be as bright as those of “Slumdog Millionaire,” which was a “Rocky-“esque feel-good film in many (but not all) respects. There were problems getting “Slumdog” to the screen, and Director Boyle admitted that, “We cashed in our chips from (the successful Oscar-winning) ‘˜Slumdog Millionaire’ and made this film.” He said, “Oh, we were very lucky with ‘˜Slumdog Millionaire’ and we decided to use that window of opportunity. It was hard to get made. It’s about one guy. It made the studio executives very nervous. You’re only as good as your last film in Hollywood.”
Boyle described how he had read Raston’s book in 2006 and approached Aron about making a film based on his true story. Boyle wanted it to be a “first person immersive experience. There wouldn’t be a lot of backstory.”
The problem was that, at that point in time time, Aron wanted the film to be a documentary. Aron wanted to control the proceedings.” Boyle described how Raston changed his mind on the approach to the film over the years between 2006 and his agreement to let Boyle helm the mostly factual, but partly fictional approach he had in mind.
As Boyle explained, “Nobody would ever be able to watch this unless they were attached to the protagonist. Either that, or it would become a horror documentary.” As Boyle explained the progress towards this now-completed film, “To be fair to Aron, he changed. When he came out (of the canyon), he was like these Chilean miners coming out of the mine now. There was a media frenzy. It was only when he met Jessica, his wife, that he changed — We wanted to borrow his story and then hand it back to him.”
Boyle describes casting the film: “We met James (Franco) in New York City. He always looked stoned. He is actually quite bright with a mind that is hyperactive. He puts on this dozey front. As soon as he started reading, we knew it was him; he was the right actor for the part. He became a true collaborator.” (Franco is scheduled to play Allan Ginsberg in “Howl,” next, and his casting in that role seems as weak as his casting as a stoner in “Pineapple Express.” He was James Dean when he started out, and, when you’ve got the good looks of James Franco, why waste him on someone as schlubby-looking as Allan Ginsberg was…and, yes, I saw Allan Ginsberg IRL.)
Question: What was the metaphor (in the film) of all the people at the train and elsewhere?
Answer from Boyle: “The story is often seen as a story of superhuman courage. Going in, Aron had incredible self-sufficiency, but it is about what happens to his nature over the course of his ordeal.”
Boyle went on to say, “The beginning and end is about people. It really is true, as John Donne said, that ‘˜no man is an island.’ Aron admits that he was arrogant or full of himself going into the canyon. I remember being 27. There are girls. Distractions. You don’t respond enough. I’m a big believer in the commonality of all of us, connectively, that helps us through. I’m a big believe in that. Lance Armstrong is an example: he really needed his 8 teammates to help him up that hill. Those 8 guys help you up that mountain. Aron’s a wilderness guy, but he takes along a video camera. That was extraordinary. This was years before YouTube. He left 45 minutes of messages. You expect that he would be frantic, crying, but they’re not. In fact, he is incredibly self-composed. He wanted to leave a message for his Mom. He was a bit reluctant to even let others see these personal messages and he went back and re-recorded a few, but it was the video that gave us the idea for the talk radio approach in the film.
Question: How much location shooting was there on the film?
Answer: “We shot one week in Blue John Canyon. There is no way to get there, really, by road much. You pretty much had to hike in. The crews are not very good at that. We had to helicopter equipment in. I spent 6 nights in the desert. I’m a city boy. I’m not very keen on camping. It had been 33 years since I had been camping, and I’d be quite happy if it were another 33 years before I go camping again.” (Laughter)
Question: What about sets?
Answer: “We rebuilt the canyon in a warehouse in Salt Lake City. That helped recreate that sense of restriction. We always called it an action thriller where the hero cannot move. It is a bit of an urban thriller. When you only have one main character, you have no one else to cut to. So, we really anchored that boulder on the set we built, and we told James to really try to move it.”
“James said, ‘˜Well, Okay, I’ll do it, but I’ll only be able to do it once because I’ll get beat up.’ It’s a 22-minute scene and James really is trying to move that rock. The movie shows that all that might and power and athleticism didn’t do him any good at all. And John Harris, my editing guy, did a terrific job.”
Question: What % of the film is fact and what % of the film is fiction?
Answer: “It’s pretty much the way Aron described it, factually. Everything was exact. The only thing that was different was that we invented the talk show approach as a framing device. Aron really did meet the girls shown in the film, and he really did record them and his experiences, but the scene with the pool was fictional. We kind of compressed that. We wanted to show all the things that Aron was missing: water, sex,fun. As for the hallucinations, some were true and some were made up. (One hallucination that was true to the event was the image of a young boy, whom the audience assumes is Aron’s unborn child, if he survives.)
Question: What about the flash flood sequence?
Answer: Aron was obsessed with the idea that there might be a flash flood. People die every year in the canyons when there is a flash flood. It didn’t rain while he was there, so it was sort of an invention, but the idea of a flash flood that might drown him while he was trapped was preoccupying his mind.
Question: This is a one character film. Do you prefer doing films that focus on one person or doing films that are more ensemble pieces?
Answer: “Honestly, I had seen Darren Aronofsky’s film ‘˜The Wrestler’ and I really admire his work and I said, ‘˜I must do a film like that where you park on an actor and follow him.’ I’m kind of a controlling sort and if there is fakery, you’ll just see it. The focus on Aron (Franco) in this film would be so intense. So, Franco would kind of work with the cinematographers. This was looser than I normally am. I knew that, for the film to work, it would depend on the audience investing in James (Franco).”
Question: What originally drew you to this story?
Answer: “There’s all those things in it: isolation, pain, the people. Beyond the surface level, I always thought it was a great story. But my belief is that we would all do it because we’re all connected. It’s not an individual story; it’s a survival story. Some of us would do it and die. Some of us would do it and survive, like Aron did.”
Question: What about the hallucinations Aron sees while trapped?
Answer: “Aron did see this child (on the couch) so vividly. That lineage, that he had a part to play, was a realization to him.” [In the film, the dialogue went like this: “It’s me. I chose this. I chose all of this. This rock has been waiting for me its entire life. The minute I was born, every breath, every action, was leading me towards this crack.”] Aron realized for the first time in his life that he was part of a narrative that no longer ends with your death. He was swimming back to people.”
Question: (from a film school student) What advice do you have for me? I’m a film school student.
Answer: “Don’t. There’s enough of us out there working already. We don’t need any more competition. When you start, it always looks impossible, but you’ll get in if you’re lunatic enough. My advice would be, ‘˜See lots of movies.’ See bad ones, like the Michael Bay’s.” (Laughter and apologies tendered immediately, in a joking fashion.)
This film is going to be a hard sell for normal audiences. It is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. Watching someone amputate their arm under primitive conditions is not most people’s cup of tea, even though Franco actually seemed happy when he (finally) was able to break the bone in his arm. (It was a very loud snapping noise.) Watching Aron, covered in his own blood, trying to cut his own arm off: upsetting. Pounding, driving music: very effective, but added to the tension. Dazed look. The poor guy still has to climb out of a deep hole in the canyon using just one arm (his left). (Before Aron left, he took a picture of his severed hand pinned beneath the boulder.)
When he stumbles out into the canyon, the formerly independent, seemingly in-command climber says, to the three hikers he encounters, “I need help.” The Aron Raston who went into Utah’s Blue John Canyon would probably not have uttered those words. The Aron Raston who climbed out of the canyon, is now married to Jessica, has a son, and always tells others when he is off climbing alone.