Danny Boyle’s latest film is getting a lot of buzz, but not for the heartwarming triumph over adversity. It’s got that, but what people are focusing on is a dude cutting his arm off. 127 Hours is the Aron Ralston story. James Franco plays Ralston, an outdoorsman who gets trapped with his arm pinned under a rock. His escape by self-amputation was documented before, but Boyle’s film makes it visceral.
The stylist of Trainspotting is in full effect capturing Ralston’s epic journey through Blue John Canyon, his survival for five days and his deteriorating state of mind. Boyle gets inside Ralston’s water bottle and camcorder, and plays with his perspective on the scene around him. We’ll see what tricks Boyle has in store when he directs the Winter Olympics.
We got time alone with Boyle at the press junket for 127 Hours. He shared a chocolate bar from the minibar as he revealed his bag of tricks and addressed the reaction of early audiences.
Screen Junkies: People are talking about the arm cutting. Isn’t that a spoiler?
Danny Boyle: Well, obviously in one sense. Although realistically, you’re never going to be able to, because it isn’t a fiction. You’re never going to be able to prevent spoilers on this one. Nor can you in any circumstance these days. There’re too many avenues in which material leaks out. I think people worry too much about spoilers. I think when you go in a cinema, if the acting’s good, I think you anesthetize memory of the real circumstances. So we do it deliberately. They call it suspending disbelief, isn’t it? Clearly, the experience of the film is so intense for people that it doesn’t matter what you know going in. You’re going to go through the journey with James Franco. You’re going to feel it like he feels it and he does feel like he’s going to die and you kind of sympathize with him and emote with him and have empathy with him.
SJ: Are you always looking for ways to push and experiment with the medium of film?
DB: Yeah, I think so. I like to be faithful to a story and organic to it but I also want to try and tell it in a way that’s different, that’s surprising and fresh for people because I think people can both keep a handle on the story and also see it celebrated in the way it’s expressed, that you make the screen dance a bit. So I like to experiment, yeah. I think we go to the cinema and we expect the people who work in the cinema for us to take risks, because we have another medium through which we can see things, the television, that can be a bit safer because it’s so constant, it’s such a part of everyday life. Where cinema is a special trip. I think within that people expect if they made an effort, they expect you to have made an effort for them to go there. So if people ask advice about it, I always say, “Be bold. If you’re going to make a film, if you get a chance to make a film, be bold. It’s better to apologize afterwards than to have had to ask permission beforehand.” I always feel that.
SJ: A lot of your films are very intense, whether it’s 127 Hours or Trainspotting. Do you care if people can’t take it?
DB: I’m not reckless about people. I do care about people in the sense that I don’t want to [hurt people] but I do want to push it. I do think we go to the cinema to see an extreme experience. I want to give James the tools in the way that we made the film that he can really express himself because he has enormous power as an actor and great grace as well. So I don’t want to gross people out. I kind of want to gross people in. I want them to join in. It’ll be a safe place we’ll bring them to in the end but it’ll be an amazing journey on the way there with this actor so that’s what I try and do.
SJ: How did you get the camera to follow James through the canyons so smoothly?
DB: We used a camera called the Silicon Imaging 2K which is a very small flexible camera which is not in a housing. i.e. it’s not in a container which gives it size. All its component parts are separate. So it has a head, which is about the size of my fist, and you can put anything on it you want lens-wise. You can put these huge lenses on it like that which make it that big or you can put small ones on it that makes it double its size. We then had a gyro underneath which smooths out the human movement. So it makes it a mixture of handheld and steadicam, somewhere between the two. The key thing it’s got that’s way better than handheld or steadicam is it’s no bulkier than a human.
SJ: For shots inside the video camera or the water bottle, did you use a computer?
DB: No, no, no, absolutely not. I’m shocked to hear you suggest that. The head of the camera, the lens would be there like that. It’s old fashioned skills. The prop guys build a water bottle, cut the bottom off the real bottle, seal on a glass lens or a plastic lens which is perfectly see through and then you can just look. So when he tips it up towards his head, he’s actually tipping the whole camera towards his head for a drink. Because it’s so light, he can do that. He can just sip it. You can see the water slip into him and it’s really important because the water is a god of course. It becomes God basically because it’s life. It’s all life. Once it runs out, he knows he’s about to die more than anything else really in a way.
SJ: I’m glad there are old school techniques to do it for real. What about the camera servos inside the video camera?
DB: [Laughs] I’ll give you away a secret here. What we did is we filmed inside an old VHS machine which of course is basically the same technology but it’s on a bigger scale. So we’d film inside that because you have no reference point. You have no idea what the scale is. We opened up the Canon Elura but it’s so miniscule inside. We looked at then the old VHS machines. We bought some old ones on eBay and of course they’re exactly the same technology except they’re much, much bigger. So we filmed inside those.
SJ: Was boredom something Aron faced in five days? But you can’t let a film be boring.
DB: We tried to deal with it in the tempo of the video messages because the tempo drops in those messages. They’re very slow, quite still and we thought we’ll cover it in them because the opportunity was that James is such a charismatic actor that even when he slows it right down in there, because he’s speaking to you directly, you’ll never get discouraged as an audience but you’ll sense the endless time he had as well.
SJ: Are The Olympics another way you can push and experiment with your craft?
DB: I don’t know. I’ll tell you when I’ve done it. I was very proud to be asked and said yes immediately, didn’t think about it which is always the best way. Because it’s happening about a mile from my own home and I’m a sports fanatic as well, and I like the idea of the Olympics connecting the whole world together. It’s one of those rare things that the whole world can celebrate and get together and celebrate as one. That’s a wonderful thing I think because the might of the Chinese authorities and the resources they were able to use for that were way beyond really any western economy at the moment, certainly Britain’s economy. But notwithstanding that, we’ll try as we did with this film to embrace the limitations and actually make something of them hopefully. So it will be slightly different, yeah.
SJ: Would it push you to find a way to present a live event?
DB: Yes, that’s interesting. I’ve done theater before. I grew up doing theater so I have done but yeah, it’s obviously tremendously scary in one sense because it is live and it’s a one off event. That’s something I’ve never done because usually theater has a run for a month, two months, three months or whatever. This is a one off performance and it happens to be seen by an awful lot of people one off but that’s cool. That’s the same pressure that the athletes are under. They get one chance to run. They can’t ask for a rerun. It happens once for them. They train for it for years and it happens in 10 seconds or whatever it is. So I’m scared and delighted at the same time.