AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH DANNY BOYLE,
DIRECTOR OF 127 HOURS
Landmark Theatres: First off, we’d really like to thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. It’s striking how 127 Hours sets off on such a great pace, with so many people, and all the humanity of the world, with all the conveniences of life and juxtapositions into such abandonment and aloneness.
Danny Boyle: Yes, the use of everything we take for granted at the beginning: People, cars, food, water, drink, Gatorade, girls, swimming, bicycle fun, accidents that don’t have any cost. He falls off his bike, but he’s fine. He laughs, he takes a picture of himself. I wanted to create this huge tumbling sense of enjoying life and he’s got everything going for him. He’s 27. And it’s James Franco—he’s pretty good looking. He’s an ultra athlete who climbs peaks in Colorado; he’s climbing peaks in the winter solo. And then, on a day when he would least expect it, he gets stopped. By nature. With the equivalent of a grain of sand of nature, just this little rock goes boom, right there. And he has to go on a different journey now. There’s already been a journey shown at the beginning—it’s exhilarating, it’s exciting, there’s pop music. But now, he needs to go onto a deeper journey really though himself. Initially it’s physical to try to get out of there—to use all his power, and use all his might he has as a young man. It’s no good. We did these long takes where Franco would try to move that rock. Boy, did he try to move that rock, but it won’t move. He tries so hard and gets so lost in that kind of aggression that he thinks will solve the problem for him that he then drinks a third of his remaining water before he realizes (gasp) “Don’t drink the water.”And then the water becomes a God from then on in. He has to figure out another route to getting out. Which is an appreciation, really, of people he’s taken for granted. Not people he’s been cruel to per se, but like the French girl who loves him and he’s just careless with her. He’s broken her heart and he learns now as his heart breaks how much more important that should have been to him. It doesn’t mean he had to love her, but he should have been more careful with her affections. And he’s on a journey to grace, really.
I think it’s as Cormac McCarthy says—it’s that thing that exists when everything has been lost, good will, everything, you can find grace. And if you can, you can survive, you can live. He finds his place and it’s to be the father of this child that appears to him. It isn’t Jesus, it isn’t religious, it’s not Buddha. It’s nothing spiritual like that. It’s real. It’s real and that’s what he’s here to do. He realizes he must become part of us, it’s all we do. We bring up a few kids or pass a bit of life on or help somebody. Do it decently. And that’s grace. It’s as simple as that. It’s no great superhuman feat. When he’s achieved that, that’s when he can do the superhuman thing and cut the arm off and get out of there and get life back again.
LT: Is that what appealed to you to make this into a film, Aron finding grace in the way he helped himself out of this situation? Or was it documenting that human need for survival? What was it that connected with you emotionally to make this story into a film?
DB: It’s obviously a survival story. Its ingredients tell you it’s a survival story and its reputation tells you it is. I thought that would make a great documentary, but I thought there’s a feature, a sort of emotional journey here that’s much more than just the facts of the extraordinary episode and I wanted to explore that. I also thought that his reputation is as someone who did something superhuman and I’m not so sure that’s true. I think we’d all do it in the end. We might die, but we’d all do it. If you didn’t have a knife, you’d chew it off. Because animals do it and we’re just the same really. But I love that idea that he had all the skills going in, as the superhuman going in. He’s the perfect specimen going into that camp. And with the entrapment, the emotional journey he has to prove himself to be a man. He’s far from being a perfect man, he’s a perfect specimen but not a perfect man and he has to make that journey himself. That’s always what attracted me to it. And, curiously, for such a lonely film about one guy, even in the loneliest places, it begins with people and it ends with people. It’s all about people in the end. John Donne, the old English poet, said “No Man is an Island” and it’s absolutely true. The old poets had it right. Aron thinks he is in the beginning. I remember having that feeling when I was 27. And then you learn. And he learns very quickly, much quicker than the rest of us.
LT: Speaking of survival, it does seem to be a recurring theme in your films, whether it be drugs, nature, zombies, poverty or even the sun. What is it about that idea of survival that seems to be so attractive to you?
DB: I think survival is a wonderful and so dynamic an experience for the cinema because you set the odds against your main character or characters and they have to overcome those odds. I think we love to see that done in cinema because it’s hard to do in your own life because you feel beat down so often by stuff. It’s lovely to see your heroes succeed. You put people up on these screens because we want them to live out stuff for us really. It’s nice not just to watch them but participate in that struggle with them and see them overcome it. Deep down I’m kind of an optimist really. I do believe that we can succeed whatever the circumstances that we’re in, that we can get through it. And as this film says, you need other people to help you do it. Even though he didn’t apparently have anyone to help him do it, he did. He was full of people by the end who were helping him do it. People he didn’t know. There’s a life force that connects us all I think and I love to see that reasserted against all odds. I think movies are particularly designed to help you do that. They are a momentum art, a collective momentum art—you watch them with a bunch of people in a cinema and the film usually, if it’s any good [laughs], accelerates you forward and takes you somewhere together. I love that feeling in movies.
LT: How did you bring that momentum to this film? How did you feel about the creative and physical challenges you faced of making a film basically about a guy stuck under a rock in the middle of the desert? What new aspects did it have to it?
DB: What we tried to do was not reduce. We didn’t try to change how reductive it was or how little there was. We didn’t try to expand it by introducing things that didn’t happen. We tried to embrace its limitations and expand and explore them, champion them really. We used very small cameras because Aron had one that he was recording his video messages on. That led us to use small cameras and we kept the space exactly the same as it was in the real canyon. We filmed for a week there. The rest of the time we were in a warehouse in Salt Lake City. We kept the canyon confined. We didn’t open it out so you could get the cameras in or anything. We thought the rhythm of the film, the vocabulary, the texture of the film would evolve out of James being stuck there with just a cameraman there with him the whole time, just working the space. It’s amazing what you get when you trust that. There’s an enormous amount of physicality in there even though he can’t move because of course he tries everything to get out of there. As an audience, you’ve got to see those avenues blocked off as well. Before you’ll consider cutting that off, you’ve got to see every possible avenue exhausted because then you will be in the position where you’ll be okay, do it. If he was doing it too soon, because he does attempt it a couple times, you think [Boyle groans and turns away] I don’t want to watch him do that. But by the time he does it, I think most people watch it. I mean it’s hard, but you do watch it.
LT: We’ll admit to a couple of moments where we looked away from the screen.
DB: Yeah? [Laughs]
LT: As far as being in the desert, and shooting in such a very enclosed space, how would you compare that to shooting in the expansive slums of India?
DB: [Laughs] Well, superficially, it looks very different because obviously one is teaming with people everywhere and the other one is just him on his own, the isolation and the tremendous solitude which he experiences is apparently very different. They are kind of different, and they are kind of the same thing really, in a way. They’re both about overcoming what are apparently insurmountable odds. They’re about the kind of fortitude that you have to summon up to get through it all. And there’s a life spirit there that is celebrated by both. People regard Slumdog Millionaire as having a feel-good ending because it’s got the big dance at the end and we only have a tiny bit of dancing in this—he does a little jig of happiness once he gets out, a rather kind of clumsy happiness. But the life force in this film, the euphoria you get from this is much deeper and much more profound than Slumdog’s because you’ve earned it here. Truly earned it. Not in a kaleidoscopic event but the intense personal examination of a human, that you’ve been through as well, and that he’s finally come out of. So, they’re more alike than you think when you really think about it, curiously. Even though they were meant to be completely opposite.
LT: As far as filming in the situation of being surrounded by humanity or being out alone in the wilderness—which do you prefer? Are you more of a nature buff or do you enjoy being around the hordes of humanity?
DB: I’m not a wilderness kind of guy. I never thought this story was a wilderness story. In fact, where he gets trapped could be anywhere really. He could be stuck in the corridor at work, with everyone gone home for the weekend. No one could hear him. He doesn’t have anything, not even a view. All he can see is the sky in the daytime. He can’t see anything else. There’s a bird that flies over once a day but that’s about it. I never saw it as a wilderness film; I always thought the film had an urban rhythm to it. Wilderness films often have a very slow rhythm, meditative almost and I never saw it like that. I saw it had an impatient rhythm, like a city rhythm. I’m a big lover of cities. They drive us mad, but that’s what we are. No cities are getting smaller, every city is growing in size as we all pile in and want to live with each other. Kill each other. Drive each other nuts. But we do it. When we went camping in the desert, we were there for a week. It was so remote and we camped there in these tents and it was unnervingly quiet at night. You’d wake up in the middle of the night and it was like you were dead. It was so quiet. I realized it had been 33 years since I’d last been camping. That tells you how much of a wilderness person I am.
LT: Going back to the rhythm of the film, most of your films do seem to have a bit of adrenaline running through them as well as a lot of activity. I’ve read that you’re looking at making another film with that sort of adrenaline, maybe something with a little more rage? Heart thumping?
DB: I’d love to do that. You’re speaking of 28 Months Later, or whatever we’d call it; I’d love to do the third part of that. The problem is that I’ve committed to doing a play next at the National Theatre in London. An adaptation of Frankenstein, the Mary Shelley book. And then I’ve got to do the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London in 2012. It’s a great honor. It’s about a mile from where I live in London, so it’s a local event in an area that’s not had much investment, so it will regenerate the area which has been long needed and long overdue. And I’m a sports fanatic. I couldn’t resist those jobs, so I’m not quite sure when I’d be available but I’d love to have a go at it.
LT: See? Olympics, Frankenstein, the adrenaline does run all the way through!
DB: Yes, I do hope Frankenstein will be very exciting, but we’ll see.