I interviewed 127 Hours producer Christian Colson and writer Simon Beaufoy, the same team who worked with Danny Boyle on Slumdog Millionaire, just before my flipcam chat with Boyle and James Franco (below).
Originally, climber Aron Ralston wanted to make a documentary about his grueling survivor experience trapped under a boulder for 127 hours, unable to get out until he hacked away at his own arm with a dull knife. But Boyle wanted to make a feature movie, and it took Ralston time to come around to that idea. “In 2006 it was too close to the real incidents,” says Colson.
Only after Slumdog Millionaire‘s 2009 Oscar win did Pathe and Colson try revive the project. When Boyle first sent Ralston’s book to Colson, he thought it was “impossible” until he read Boyle’s six-page treatment showing how Ralston’s mind roams to thoughts of friends and family while he is stuck in a Utah canyon. “He elaborated that subjective approach of how to tell the story with one guy and no other characters to speak of,” says Colson, “with the technique of using the camera as a character and different camera angles, and tiny incidents turning into significant dramatic events, like the dropping of the knife. His outline made the story feel tellable as a movie. There’s a sense of the life force, the thing that’s driven him, not just a story about a guy who cuts his arm off. It’s about this socially-isolated guy’s journey back to reconnection with the world. He is all of us in a sense, he’s put in an extreme position, watching how pressures help him to evolve. He is close to death. Many of us don’t get a second chance. The combination of Danny’s dynamism and energy and Simon’s nuanced texture and humor,” says Colson, made it possible.
For Beaufoy, who collected an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours offered yet another chance to fool around with risky unconventional narrative structures. This time, Boyle took two weeks to pen a 40-page document. “The biggest challenge for me is that it was about a superhero, he’s unstoppable, he can cut his own arm off,” says Beaufoy. “I needed to know why, instead of it being an odd mountaineering story.”
When they met, Ralston told Beaufoy, “I’m a totally flawed individual.” Only when he was willing to go beyond what was in his book and dig down into his personality, psychological flaws, what drove him to be solitary and pursue ultra-marathons, did Beaufoy know he had something. “It was brave of him. He gave me intimate stuff about his past relationships. That allowed us to tell more than just a survival story for 90 minutes and go up the nostrils of this character. He’s not Mr. Wonderful.”
The movie does take some liberties with the book. While Ralston met two girl climbers and obsessed about them later, the scene where he lures them to jump into a deep cave pool is new. “It’s a sensual sexy moment,” says Beaufoy. “It’s a man having the best day of his life that suddenly turns into the worst day of his life.” When Ralston tells the girls that the Utah rocks are his second home, he doesn’t know “that it’s about to turn into his dungeon, his prison. It was all about freedom, the one thing that was about to be taken away from him.” The flood is also invented–but it was the thing Ralston was most afraid of, and he was hallucinating part of the time. In a situation where everyone knows what happens at the end, adds Colson, “It’s not what’s going to happen, but how is he going to do this? We try to stay a step ahead of the audience and make people forget what they know.”
Finally, the self-confidence that led Ralston to take off into a remote wilderness without telling a soul where he was, says Beaufoy, also got him to move beyond shock, hunger, pain and thirst to do what he had to do to survive. “I need help,” he says when he stumbles out of the canyon and sees the people who call for a helicopter.
The onstage TIFF Q & A, including Aron Ralston:
And Franco’s indieWIRE Q & A at Filmmaker Lounge.