During a phone interview with me, Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) explained why his new film “127 Hours” is more than a story of survival – it’s a journey toward self-discovery he hopes audiences can help resolve. The film, based on Aron Ralston’s book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” takes audiences back to 2003 when Ralston became trapped inside a Utah canyon when his arm was pinned between a boulder and the canyon wall. Ralston survived the ordeal when he managed to amputate his own arm five days after the accident and rappel to safety.
What resonated with you when you read Aron Ralston’s autobiography?
I found it exhilarating and intense. It really showed the importance of the life’s spirit. It was complicated, as well, because here was a guy who was sort of regarded as a superhero. What I found in the book was a bit more complicated than that. He goes into that canyon as an incredible athlete – this independent, self-sufficient superhero. When nature stops him with that rock, he sort of has to look at himself and the other people in his life. Not just the people that he knows, but the spirit that connects us all. It’s that, I think, that helps him get out of there as much as it is his individual courage. It’s a story about all of us, not just a story about a superhero. We’re all capable of it. We all do it. And even more important than that, we help everyone else survive the bad times by the spirit that is with us all. He achieves a kind of grace, really, that he learns by recognizing his faults, which allows him to finally get out of there with this extraordinary act that he does.
Do you consider Aron a hero? Some people could argue he’s simply a reckless adventurer.
I think he’s both. This is a journey, not just a survival story. Some people would call him deeply reckless on his way in the canyon. He’s dangerous but he usually gets away with it like some of us do so often in life. He doesn’t think of it as reckless. I mean, it is fun for him. We all lead boring lives, you know. But there is something more important and deeper that he ends up having to understand. In order to be our hero he has to make a big change in his heart and mind. I hope, because it is such a great performance, that that builds with him so that when he does cut his arm off you are involved in it in a way. It’s not something horrific that you are watching, although it is horrific on some level, it’s watching something that you are helping and willing him on to do. When he gets released there is a sense of euphoria but it’s a deeper and more profound feeling of the life spirit.
Entertainment Weekly has dubbed it the “Franco limb syndrome” already.
(Laughs) Listen, it’s tough for everyone. What has surprised me is that there haven’t been any walkouts. There have been people that have felt queasy at the time. We had one guy that fainted and when he came around he said, “By the way, great film guys.” What I think is that it’s an extreme empathetic reaction rather that it being something out of a horror movie. You are so intensely involved in him that you feel vulnerable. It’s an extraordinary experience. It’s like that in the book. With a scene like that, the studio is very nervous. They’re wondering which way we’re going to go. You can sensationalize it by pushing the horror and making it really gross or you can trivialize it by not showing enough of it. It took him 40 minutes [to cut his arm off] and it involved pain that most men will never ever get near in our lives thank god. I wanted to follow the book exactly. The studio asked if we could take it back a bit. I said no because I wanted it to be as close to Aron’s experience as we could possibly make it. Although there is a small number of people who feel that reaction, most people get a deep sense of catharticism from it as if it is being purged. He said he left that canyon more complete of a person that he went in there, even with having to leave part of his arm behind.
It wasn’t hard for me to watch it as much as it was to listen to the way you incorporate sound into this painful ordeal he is going through.
It’s all in the book. There is one specific part where he breaks the bone in his arm and describes it as this incredible gunshot going off in the canyon. He also said when he approached a nerve – and we had to find an equivalent for it – he describes it as plunging your hand into red hot volcanic lava and just leaving it there. Many women who have gone through childbirth have sensed this pain threshold, but men rarely do unless you’re very unlucky. Not only did he feel that pain, but he pushed through it in order to get to the other side. That’s the journey. He has to go through that pain. I don’t think any of that would matter if we didn’t have an actor like James [Franco] who took you through that journey. You have sound and all that, but it wouldn’t have mattered if you didn’t have this guy taking you through it on a journey. It’s an astonishing performance of endurance and courage for the greater goal beyond that pain.