Danny Boyle likes to say that after he won the Oscar for directing Slumdog Millionaire, he knew he’d get one shot to make any sort of follow-up movie he wanted, no matter how unlikely the pick. Certainly, they don’t come much more unlikely than the story of climber Aron Ralston: How do you dramatize his five-day ordeal trapped in a deep canyon when he never goes anywhere? More to the point, how do you visualize that when you’re a filmmaker as hyperkinetic as Boyle? Somehow, he managed, transforming a limited setting into a free-associative kaleidoscope of a film in 127 Hours, and now Boyle has once again found himself a player in the awards derby (as has his star James Franco, who plays Ralston). The 54-year-old filmmaker sat down with Vulture recently to wax ecstatic about Franco and discuss the moment that may be harder to sit through than the film’s famous arm-cutting scene.
This movie wasn’t even announced until several months ago, and now here it is, completed and ready for awards season. That was fast!
We did that deliberately — we worked very hard to get it ready in time for the season, really. We figured that it was going to be so potentially difficult to sell it that what we needed to do was get it into the season where the attention could be focused on a performance. It’s not just going to disappear over a weekend or get crushed by a juggernaut, and that’s what’s great about this season: Films are taken seriously and given a bit of time, and the critical evaluation and the public evaluation is a bit of a dialogue. Sometimes it’s quite cruel in comparing people, but it all helps the films! Especially with a film like this where people might not be inclined to see it — it might not be their kind of movie — in terms of the performance. You cannot go through this season and miss Franco in that role. It’s a serious bit of acting.
When you booked him for this movie, he was coming off a very interesting run in the public eye, a very meta performance on General Hospital. Were you familiar with any of that?
Not so much, because I live in London and most of it didn’t transfer. I’m certainly not the sort of person who follows the entertainment industry onto the web; I’m more of a news person, really. I did like him as an actor, and I remember seeing him in Pineapple Express, which was a key moment for me. Although we weren’t planning this film when I saw it, I remember thinking, “That’s a proper actor.” He could do the serious stuff, the charismatic stuff, he could inhabit a mood, and then he can confound it with this comic turn. I remember I grew up with De Niro in the early Scorsese films and he was my hero, and then he did Rupert Pupkin [a more comic turn in the 1983 film The King of Comedy] and it was like, fucking hell! You’re not just talking about a mood guy, but someone who could inhabit a whole tonal range of acting, and you need someone like that if you’re going to look at him for 90 minutes. That’s the supreme challenge: Can you occupy the tonal range you need for that with complete authority and believability and empathy?
It feels like a good role for James, because Aron Ralston is sort of similarly restless and constantly challenging himself, maybe even to an absurd degree. You look at all the extracurricular things James has going on, all the different schools he’s enrolled in and projects he has going … what’s your take on that?
I think actors have a great time when they’ve got a bit of power and reputation. They get offered stuff and taken seriously, and with a role like this they can spend three or four months just occupying it completely, and then they can spend a couple frivolous weeks making an appearance in another movie — that’s a refresher for the next time they want to take something seriously. So James is just exploiting that, I think. He’s got a fascination for performance and the different ways it manifests itself in culture, and he’s exploring that. I liked him very much as a person, and I think that restlessness protects him from the obsession of becoming a “lead actor.” It can be a very obsessively interior, relentlessly self-reflective world for lead actors, and that gives him some distance from that.
I can tell that you’re very impressed by him.
It’s stimulating working with him, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be, because he looks sleepy! You think that you’re going to have to wake him up, but he’s actually not sleepy, he’s highly alert. He’s a very bright guy, and a bit of a sponge, actually. Anything you throw at him, he can absorb it and use it in the performance. He’s got a lot to offer … how much he’s prepared to channel it into avenues that people find acceptable, I don’t know.
He’s been making his own films over the past year or two. Does that affect how you direct him as an actor?
Yeah, he was very interested in the process. He was fascinated by how we were going to make the film we wanted it to be, which was this first-person, exciting, exhilarating experience of such small origins. How could we make it grow from this potentially small acorn, with these limitations? I could see that he was really interested in that, and he was watching stuff in a way that actors sometimes don’t. They tend to be oblivious to that.
It helped develop the film, without a doubt, because his co-stars are the cameramen and technicians, so he was delighted to develop a relationship with them. It was the language of the film, to be completely honest — it’s obvious, isn’t it? When you have nowhere else to go and nothing else to do, it’s just him and the cameraman. We do a lot in the writing and developing, but it’s really him and his relationship with that camera. Sometimes it’s third-person and sometimes it’s first-person, and I think that keeps it crossing the line and giving it brightness and momentum — it stops it from being inert, and it could easily become inert because in one sense, that’s the essence of the story, that stillness. And when he is still, like in those video messages, he’s mesmerizing.
You incorporate some flashbacks to Aron’s past, but they’re all very brief and elliptical, whereas another director shooting this very limited, confined story might have spent most of his time on those.
And he’s not in them. That’s very important.
You’re talking about how you mainly see them from his point of view instead of seeing James himself?
It was very, very important, because I thought, If we shoot those with James, we’ll shoot them differently. If we don’t shoot them with James — if we shoot them with someone who looks like James — it means that you can never look at James, because it isn’t him. I thought the pressure that would put on James to reimagine those scenes in the canyon would be much greater, and the benefit of keeping him there the whole time and not having these “day outings” would be really cool. He said to me, “What? You mean I’m not going to lie naked with that hot girl in the van [in one of the flashbacks]?” I said, “No, you’re not.” [Laughs.]
So you used a stand-in for most of those?
If you didn’t, you would shoot James, because he’s a fantastic actor. How could you not?
Or his agent would say, “Um, you’re keeping James on set all day just to shoot him from over the shoulder?”
[Laughs.] And you know what, then when he had to imagine those scenes, I really made him work. I loved it, it was fantastic. I would tell him what the [flashback] scene was like — I wouldn’t show him the scene, but I’d tell him about it and tell him to reach for it — and he would do this amazing stuff where he started repeating bits of dialogue in the canyon, and then we intercut that with the [flashback]. It was like, “Whoa.” And you know what? That’s reductive! That’s magnifying the problems with the potential of the film! And actually, you realize that you can be that reductive and get great drama out of it, partly because James is a great actor, and he has that thing where he pulls you in. There’s no saying how you get it, this charm. It’s a bit of a mystery, but that’s what makes movie stars. Some great actors are not movie stars and never will be because they don’t have that ease, and I think it is ease. The camera loves them, and it isn’t just good looks, though that’s part of it! He has that in spades, and he’s lucky.
The movie has a lot of sound, music, and whiz-bang technique. How do you know what level to pitch all that at without overwhelming the total isolation of the situation Aron was in?
You live it as intensely as possible and then hope that the choices you make — organically, instinctively — are correct. I don’t think you can ever step back from it and go, “Is it too much?” You immerse yourself in it, then you emerge out of it and let other people judge it. That’s the only way I can work. I can’t be Über-objective and realize, “Whoa, that’s too much.” You feel it instinctively, I guess.
When you’re that immersed in your project, does the eventual audience reaction to it surprise you?
Oh sure, sure.
For example, I was surprised by how viscerally people reacted to the scene where Aron is dealing with his contact lenses.
I know! But I recognize that because I started wearing contact lenses about ten years ago, and I remember trying to put the fucking things in the first time. I was grossing myself out! Bleghh! Sick! In fact, when we wrote the script, we were told that there would be people who’d find that worse than the arm getting cut off.
You’re not kidding!
Poking fingers in the eyes, whoa! It’s like, “NO NO NO! NO NO NO NO!” It’s weird, isn’t it?