Toronto Q&A: 127 Hours' Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle and James Franco

Danny Boyle and James Franco

"I look forward to hearing all your jokes regarding the film's title," Danny Boyle said, prompting a wave of laughter through the beyond-capacity screening room. It's not unheard of to have something go wrong at the last minute during a huge film festival, even one as well organized as Toronto's annual shindig. It is rare, however, to have the director himself show up before a frustrated press corp—one who'd been stuck in line for almost two hours to see his latest movie—and apologize for the delay. Plus, when you've unintentionally kept the surly, snarling, hydra-headed monstrosity known collectively as film journalists from viewing a much-anticipated movie named 127 Hours, well...the jokes practically write themselves.

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Toronto Film Festival

Still, Boyle's self-deprecating remark immediately soothed the savage beasts. (A colleague mentioned that right after the director dropped that wisecrack, she saw a dozen pundits crossing out similar bons mots in their notebooks.) And once this first audience was through experiencing what the filmmaker had concocted, any frustrations or "off with his head!" thoughts had been permanently banished. An adaptation of Aron Ralston's autobiography, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, Boyle's drama recounts how the author (played by James Franco), a mountain climber, found himself trapped in a canyon when his arm was pinned by a large dislodged rock. To free himself, he eventually cuts off his own appendage (!) with small pocketknife (!!!).

Intense does not begin to describe the film, which mixes Boyle's trademark kinetic style with claustrophobic, you-are-there sequences. TONY finally caught up with the filmmaker several days after the film played at the fest.

Time Out New York: When did you first hear about Aron's story? Danny Boyle:
I'd heard about it in 2003, right after the incident happened.... I remember when Aron did the press conference after he got out of the hospital. Then Francois Ivernel at Path sent me the book; he's also a climber, so he's part of that fraternity. I became obsessed with this man alone, trapped and what he was going to do to get out of there.

So naturally, you thought: Guy has his arm pinned down by a rock, this is the perfect idea for a movie?
[Laughs] Right? My original synopsis had us staying with him for the whole 127 hours...and that's it. Aron didn't really want to tell the story like that; he actually wanted to do a documentary. I told him, no one will watch it—you wouldn't be able to show the arm being cut off because no one would be able to cope with it! But if you trap everybody in there with you, and they are seeing things through your perspective...they will help you cut it off. It's amazing, for every person who's said that the scene where he frees himself has jangled their nerves, I've had someone tell me that they experienced this incredible sense of euphoria as well.

Is it true that medics had to be summoned during the films premiere at the Telluride Film Festival?
They were some people who were "overcome," shall we say.... I mean, it's a remarkably intense experience to watch James do that. But at one screening, there was this massive cheering that started up once he cut his arm off. It's such a cathartic moment; I've been at a few screenings where audiences have just spontaneously burst into applause.

I'd think clapping might be the single most ironic response you could have during that scene.
[Laughs] I hadn't thought of that!

Even before you get to that sequence, you manage to keep the intensity brewing for quite a long time...and you do it with one person onscreen for most of the running time.
When we promoting Slumdog Millionaire, I was on the publicity circuit with Darren Aronofsky. And he showed me The Wrestler; he was interested to hear my opinion on it. I remember thinking, This is incredible, both he and Mickey Rourke get you to follow this one character so completely. That's really what we were aiming for here, and it's to James Franco's credit that he pulls it off. Even though he's working with a prosthetic arm, James really had to cut through that. We basically let the camera roll and had James work through that prop arm in real time.

I'd heard a rumor that in one instance, you had James improvise a battle between him and the rock, and simply let the camera roll for a half hour?
It was actually 22 minutes, and the fight was fixed: We knew the rock would win [Laughs]. So I told him, just try and get out of it, and we'll see what we get. After 22 minutes of that, he just gave up; when he stops in the scene, that's James really stopping.

Can you give him that footage for his next art installation?
[Laughs] How great would that be? James Franco versus a rock, nonstop, for 22 minutes. You could loop it so it plays over and over again. Very Sisyphean, that.

People are going to view him very different as an actor after this.
He's got an amazing range...people tend to write James off as a movie star, because of how he looks and how he charming is. But the man knows his craft. [Pause] He always appears to be very stoned, doesn't he?

[Laughs] I'm glad you said it, and not me!
The thing is, it's totally a front! I'd suggest a dozen different things to him before a scene, and then wonder: Did that go in his head? Is he actually registering what I'm telling him? [Laughs] But then I'd call action, and he'd work every single thing I'd told him into the scene, and do it in a way that was so believable and organic and spot-on. He taught me a lot about acting; I'm normally very controlling of actors. If you look at the past films I've done, they almost always center around large groups, so I'm used to coordinating the dynamic between ensembles. I knew from the start that I wouldn't be able to do that here, and that I had to place a lot of faith in James to do this. And he rewarded me a hundredfold.

You'd said that, were it not for Slumdog Millionaire winning the Oscar. you'd have never been able to make this film. Can you clarify that? I realize that you're only as good as you're last movie in Hollywood, but you have a track record...
Somebody like Steven Spielberg could have probably convinced a studio to make this without having to point to past achievements, but I'm not Steven Spielberg. The only reason I could ask for the chance to make a movie about one guy who's stuck in one place was because Slumdog earned a lot of kudos and made a lot of money. I mean, people can look at it now and talk about how amazing James is in the role. But going into it, the idea wasn't exactly an easy sell to a studio. "Wait a minute, there's a guy stuck in a canyon, and you want to stay there for the whole film? Are you mad? And then what happens, he cuts his arm off?!?"

"Where are the Bollywood dance numbers at the end? How can he dance with one arm?"
[Laughs] Exactly! "I don't suppose there's any dancing in here, is there? That sure would lighten the mood!" I had a moment where I was "hot," so to speak, and when you get those moments, you take advantage of them as best you can. It's hard for these middle-sized films in the current climate, but we really wanted to make it. And it felt like the right movie to make after something like Slumdog; to go from using half of the population of Mumbai to relying on one actor felt like a good way to stretch the skills sets of everybody involved. You never want to rely on old tricks. You always want to feel like you're right back at square one. It keeps you humble and hungry.

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