Director Danny Boyle turns his unique vision onto a real-life tale of an extraordinary, everyman hero in his latest movie, 127 Hours. Spending a few minutes with his lead actor, James Franco, the two men share their approach to cinema, story-telling, and survival. It's a world of grit and determination, of mutual respect for life's journey, and a common-ground of humor which, when faced with a gruesome truth, is sometimes considered the best vehicle of delivery and escape.
Izumi Hasegawa: It's either feces or urine with you...
Danny Boyle: Toilet humor. British films--you look at them--they're all full of toilet scenes. Everybody else in the world is fine about toilets. It's like no big thing. But British movies--every movie you see has a scene in a toilet, I guarantee it. I don't know why, but there are always scenes in toilets, always. You've got to have toilet humor. [This character] manages to generate quite a lot of humor about it, kind of gentle humor. He says like, "No number twos, which will disappoint my insect friends because they'll have to wait." Then he says the other great line when he drinks his urine: "Well, it's not Slurpee," or something like that. It's very funny, and that kind of thing is crucial in these circumstances--in hell really--to have that spark of humor shows you life is still pulsing alive.
IH: What does it say about me--I wondered about going to the bathroom, not whether he could sleep...
James Franco: In a lot of ways, it is necessary to address those kinds of things because people are curious, but if you do it with humor, it makes it a little more palatable.
IH: Did you improvise that, or was it in the script?
JF: I think the Slurpee line was in the script, but there were things I added a little bit.
DB: We're currently suing and countersuing each other in copyright issues. No, not really. I just watched Social Network.
JF: I think it was my line, I said, "It tastes like a bag of piss," so if you like that line...
DB: That was very funny.
JF: Maybe you can't hear that line.
DB: No, you can. Aron [Ralston, who the character is based on] said that his friends said that's typical of him because he tells a joke and then he tells it again in a different way. Aron's friends said to me, "Wow, that was so accurate," about the way you are.
IH: What was your way into this character, James?
JF: We did a bunch of things. I met with Danny I think in October or November of last year, and then soon after that, he told me I should go on a diet because, first of all, Aron was in great shape, but also he lost 40 pounds while he was there, from water deprivation mostly. So of course we couldn't do that over the course of filming, but one thing we could do was I could get down to a very thin state, and then for the early scenes we could do various things with makeup. We actually even built this prosthetic that we ended up unfortunately calling the plum puss. It's just like this mouth piece that would put my cheeks out for the early parts of the film. Then, as he started deteriorating, we could use smaller and smaller versions until we didn't use any and I would look more gaunt than I did at the beginning. Then we met with Aron extensively. When Danny was writing the original script, I think he met with him a bunch. I guess you had to make some deals with him and he insisted there were certain things in the movie or certain lines because I remember certain scenes were verbatim. Some of the video messages are verbatim what he actually said. But our whole approach, not just for the video messages but in general, was that we would honor Aron's story and we would do everything he did, but also we wanted to have our own approach to it or have the latitude to just find things on our own. We did the chipping and everything as he did, but not matching exactly what his hand movement was like. It was really just doing it on our own and figuring that out. So with the voice messages, they were scripted, but I felt like maybe he didn't believe this, but I think he gave me the freedom to be a little loose with the words. The most important thing was that it would feel natural. Actually, when we watched the real videos, one of the more powerful things about them is how simple it was and how direct and connected it was. To capture that, Danny, I think, allowed me some looseness, but every once in a while there'd be a line in there and I'd say to myself, "I don't know. I just won't say that because it's kind of stupid. Who talks like that?" Not even stupid--it's just completely unnecessary. Like, "Give this video camera to my parents, be sure of that."
DB: Little repetitions he would do.
JF: I would try and not say a couple of those things, and then Danny would come to me and say, "Well, actually, for whatever reason, Aron's insistent that you say those two words."
DB: That was one--it was funny.
JF: But I think you actually cut some of them out.
DB: Yes, I did because you've got to take control of it. You can't honor his story if you're in a three-legged race, if me and him are tied together and hopping along because we're keeping an eye on Aron the whole time. You've got to brief yourself completely, immerse yourself in it, have this idea that you will respect his story ultimately, and then make your own version of it. I'm a big believer in that; otherwise it's a TV survival story. You want to go on a journey with an actor. Even before I knew James, I said to him in 2006, "I want to go on a journey with an actor. I believe in actors, I believe in them telling us their stories. That's the power of cinema. It's an incredible thing." And it's not just cinema, which is like 100 years old. It goes way back in our collective history. We want to see drama told in a cathartic way with power, with emotion, where you empathize and then you're frightened. All those feelings charge up in you and you feel for the story. If you tell it well, you have a point suddenly where it just focuses into a scene, which I guess in this one is the amputation, where people can put all sorts of their feelings in it. Some people are exhilarated in it, shouting, "Yes!" like that, and other people can't look. Other people are almost faint. People are breathless. I sat behind a couple of guys who were humming all the way through it. That's what drama is about. It's that power you can get through it; it's a wonderful opportunity, but you have to take your own control of it.
IH: Did you expect people to really focus on that scene as they have at festivals and early screenings?
DB: It's sort of inevitable. It worries us, in a way, because actually it's a passageway, really, to something else that's much more important than it, which is what Aron says about the scene. He did leave something behind, obviously, but what he gained was so much more than what was left behind, so it's a doorway really to something else, for something much more important. But inevitably, people concentrate on it, and we knew that going in that it would have that tendency to it. Whether the film was successful or not, or well told or not, inevitably, there'd be incredible focus on that scene. So we told it as truthfully as we could. It is the section of the movie more than any other where we keep very closely to the book. It took over 40 minutes. The plateaus of pain he went through as he kept going and, as I said, the most important thing is that there is a story in there about where he's going. It's not about a brutal act. It is brutal, but it is about where he's going, not about the moment itself, and that helped him get through it. It helped us get through it, I think, and it certainly did for Aron. You mustn't sensationalize that by adding gore or making it too Hammer house of horror, nor must you trivialize it by making it look too easy or too simple or not painful enough really. So that's what we tried to do.
IH: How did you create the first portion of the movie leading up to getting trapped?
DB: The first bit--his opinion of his life... It's a point-of-view film really. It actually happens to be our point of view of him, but we're down in the canyon with him so it's a first-person immersive experience. So we thought, okay, what's his life like? What does he think of his life? He thinks it's just awesome. So we wanted to make the film at the beginning awesome, just pleasure. And irresponsible pleasure. It doesn't look irresponsible, but it is. What he does with those girls is reckless. One of them could easily have been killed. You don't feel it like that because, when you are 27, when you get away with things like that, it's like, "Awesome! And these old fogeys are telling us be careful. Ha! Who cares about that?" You just have a great time, and we wanted it to be full of adrenaline and his love of the wilderness, and music and movement, constant movement. He crashes on his bike, a mighty crash, what does he do? He laughs and takes a picture of it. This is three years before Facebook and YouTube became where you post stuff like this on it, but he's recording it all. Then he gets stopped. We thought that's the way in for the audience as well--we're trying to put people on an adrenaline ride, so the film is going to feel deeply pleasurable and then it stops, and you have to rethink. You can't keep going on that adrenaline. There's a reprocessing that's going to have to go on now. Initially he thinks, "I'll move this rock. I'll just move it because it's just a f***ing rock and I am Aron Ralston. I climb mountains. I am an ultra marathene. I am a testosterone-based male." We did this incredible scene where he tried to move it. It's insane acting, isn't it, because you knew it wouldn't move because I told you there's a steel bar through it, but he was like, "I'm gonna move..." By the time he finished, he just couldn't do anymore. That's what Aron went through as well, so he drinks a third of his drinking water without even thinking. Then he realizes it's not about brawn and muscle. The next thing he says is, "Think, think." Because he's just wasted 1/3 of his life. 1/3 of his future life is gone in just one gulp and he has to restrategize. He keeps going physically, but it's an emotional journey he has to go on. That was the idea of the film.
IH: James, how difficult and challenging was it working with an arm tied behind your back?
JF: Was it difficult? Sure. There were a lot of things that were unusual. You don't usually spend most movies with an arm pinned behind a boulder, but you also don't spend most movies alone or without other actors for most of the movie. So all of that took adjusting, not just for me--it was everybody. Danny as a director, I'm sure, is used to directing scenes where he has multiple people, and that takes certain skills. If you have a fight scene, you work with the various actors in that way, or a love scene, you're directing them to come together, but it's always about how are these characters interacting? So when you take one away, it's taking away something that is so essential to the way we're used to working that everybody has to readjust. I'd say it's certainly unusual, but I wouldn't say it was difficult. There was never the moment where it was like, "Danny, we're making an impossible... This is just ridiculous. This just can't be done." It felt very natural, but we just had to adjust. For Danny, when he's talking about this long scene, it was like 20 minutes, I guess, when he finally said, "Cut." We figured out that that was a way to proceed with a lot of the movie. I imagine, as a director, it must have taken a lot of trust because we would discuss in detail everything beforehand, but then every once in a while, he'd let me go. So it's not like he's directing it in the sense like, "Okay, then at a minute :03, you have to be here." It's just letting me go and experiencing it, and then also trusting his DPs that they will capture it in the right way. The shots were set up to a certain extent, but they were very mobile cameras, and within that range, they could do anything, react to what I was doing. I guess what I'm saying is we all learned how to do that and found the best way to make this performance feel organic.
IH: Was Rise of the Apes a chance to do a full-on action hero role?
JF: I play a nerdy scientist in that, so I'm not an action hero at all. I saw 127 Hours as an opportunity to have an unusual acting experience, and I honestly felt the same way about Planet of the Apes where, when I first heard about it, I thought, "I don't know. Those masks have cult value, but..." And then I found out that's not how they're doing it, it's actually all of Peter Jackson's Weta people doing CG and I'll be working with Andy Serkis who played Gollum, and it was the DP from The Lord of the Rings, Andrew Lesnie. I was such a big fan of those movies, and I am interested in new ways of performing and new ways of filmmaking so I thought why not? I had this opportunity to try it out. When I got to do the scenes with Andy Serkis, it was actually really interesting because he plays a real chimpanzee. There's no way we would ever get scenes that we did with a real chimpanzee acting opposite because Andy is so good at that behavior, so it's like acting opposite a real chimpanzee with great acting instincts. It was cool. It was new for me.
IH: Are you in a "why not" phase, with General Hospital, to test different things?
JF: It's not "why not," but it's more like, "Oh, that's new." I'm interested, but not, "Hey James, why don't you shoot yourself in the foot or something?" Yeah, why not? Not quite Jackass yet.
IH: Do you still read books between takes?
DB: I can confirm that.
JF: On this one, it actually helped me keep my sanity a bit, because everybody, I think, felt how relentless the requirements of that film were. We were all just in this really tight space for months, and it was hard. So having a book to escape in was, I think, actually helpful to my sanity.
IH: What can we look for in the Olympics?
DB: A seat, first of all. Get a seat. No, we're just starting work on it really, but it won't be like Beijing because what could be like Beijing? Nothing could anymore, so it will be very different--a bit more intimate hopefully.
IH: Are you excited?
DB: Oh yeah. I was very proud to be asked because I live very close to the stadium. There have been a lot of developments in a very run down area of London. I'm a sports fanatic as well, so yeah, it's great.
'127 Hours' is in theaters now. Prepare to wince.