Boyle & Franco: How We Made ‘127 Hours’ Tolerable

The film’s director and star talk the rhythm method, acting in a chasm and failing to help Leonardo DiCaprio

Two years ago, Danny Boyle went into the Toronto Film Festival with an unheralded film called “Slumdog Millionaire,” and came out with momentum that would carry him all the way to a Best Picture win at the Oscars. He returned to Toronto two months ago with “127 Hours,” which has prompted rave reviews (plus scattered reports of audience members fainting) along the way to a limited opening on Friday.

Boyle’s film about Aron Ralston, the hiker who was trapped by a boulder in a remote Utah canyon for five days, is clearly a major player in the Oscar race, with James Franco’s performance as Ralston installing him as one of the Best Actor favorites.Danny Boyle and James Franco

Do you take a perverse pride in making a movie where you have such obstacles going in?
BOYLE: It feels like a challenge, yeah. And it’s always good to challenge yourself. When I was in Toronto with “Slumdog” I saw “The Wrestler,” and I remember thinking, I really must make a film like that. ‘Cause all my films are collective films, they’re group films. I really should just follow an actor. That’s an amazing thing to do in a film.

FRANCO: Can I ask Danny something? I’ve been taking directing at NYU, and Danny said to me, “One thing you should think about as a director is always challenging yourself – do something that will push you in a different direction, or ask you to figure out different kinds of problems.” I’m curious: Do you do that with all your films?

BOYLE: Yeah. It’s best when you don’t know what you’re doing. It sounds a bit wanky, but it’s true. On one level, obviously you know what you’re doing because you’re an experienced professional. But on another level it’s a wonderful feeling if you don’t quite know. If you knew how to do it, it would be just terrible to turn up to work every dayDanny Boyle and James Franco

James, what drew you to a role where you were stuck in one spot for much of the film?
FRANCO: I looked at the role and thought, there are hardly any movies that really ask an actor to do something like this, or give them an opportunity to try this.  So that was very attractive.

And soon after meeting Danny, I realized that kind of challenge was exactly what was driving him on the creative side. You can really feel that energy in the film, that feeling of discovery and figuring things out while we were filming.

You been quoted, Danny, saying that you wanted to film the movie in a way that was hot, not cool. What did you mean by that?
BOYLE: I wanted to make it an immersive experience for everyone. I thought the only way you’ll ever get through it is if you’re living it as well. The key factor in that is the actor, but I also didn’t want it to be a wilderness film and have the wilderness rhythm, which is generally a meditative, slower rhythm. I wanted it to have an urban rhythm, which is this hot thing I talk about.

We always called it an action movie where the hero can’t move. But he is  moving all the time – he just keeps working to get out of there, and never gives up even when he has every reason to give up. That is momentum. It’s not cold and dead, it’s hot and alive.

But you have to get inventive to sustain those urban rhythms once the character gets stuck.
BOYLE: Yeah, and obviously you have to vary the pattern. In a conventional movie, you can bring in contrast and you don’t even know it’s happening. A comic character comes in, or a villain comes in, or something arbitrary happens which is explained later. There’s nothing arbitrary in this. He’s got all his gear, and that’s all he’s got. The days’ patterns establish themselves and repeat themselves. So the variations have to come with the rhythm of editing, the music, but principally from James. It’s a tribute to him, really, that the whole thing’s tolerable.

Years ago, I spent a lot of time on the set of the Rob Reiner film “Misery,” with James Caan, who spends most of that movie in a bed. He went absolutely stir crazy on the set – and every time they cut, he’d run outside and play basketball.
FRANCO: (laughs) Did he?

On this movie, did you ever feel like you just had to get out and move around?
FRANCO: A bit. Although I always had books. I always read on set when I can, and on this stage Danny had a little space for me. He described it as a Bollywood lounge, I guess that’s how they do it there.

But the nature of the set, and I didn’t really even think about this when we were doing it, but it didn’t come apart like a regular set. One of the reasons people shoot on a stage is that you can pull it apart to bring the camera in. But this set didn’t do that. And so there wasn’t really space for many people in that canyon other than me and the DP, and maybe the gaffer. And so once I was in there, especially toward the end when there was extensive makeup and all this gear they would have to put on, a lot of times it was just easier to stay right there. So the books really were huge.

BOYLE: It’s a strange thing as a director to say, this is not about you as a director, it’s about this actor. And it involves a certain amount of giving over control to the actor, which I’d never really done before. I learned a lot about acting, and relaxation.

You know, if I was directing “The Beach” now, I would do a much better job of it. Because now I understand much more the American approach to screen acting. It’s so relaxed. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, it could be a very tense scene, the way in is through relaxation. Whereas in Britain screen acting is very tense, and very slightly tight. And I loved learning that.

You encountered that style of acting with Leonardo DiCaprio on “The Beach,” but didn’t know how to work with it?
BOYLE: Yeah. He’s a wonderful actor, Leo, and I didn’t direct him very well. I’m aware of that. I mean, “The Beach” is fine, but I didn’t really get the best out of him. He tried his very best, but he needed a director to help him, and I didn’t really do it.

I saw a review of the film recently from Sasha Stone at Awards Daily, and I just have to read a line to you.
BOYLE: Oh my God, do I want to hear this?

Sure you do. She loved the movie, and wrote, “Danny Boyle must be a great person, an incredible lover, and someone with such an expansive view of the world that it gives him balls-out confidence.”
BOYLE: (laughs) Thank you for that. I wish it was true. Listen, the Oscar does give you confidence, seriously. The reception we got for “Slumdog,” and the journey we went on … If you can’t make a film like this after that, you’re never gonna be able to make a film like this. ‘Cause it does require a lot of pushing through people’s skepticism. And the trajectory after the Oscars is sufficiently distinguished, at least for a while, that you can  push through.

I wish  she was right about me in all the other things she says – but in terms of confidence, it is true.

Did you consciously use your Oscar clout to make something risky?
BOYLE: [Producer] Christian [Colson] and I talked about trying to use it in a really positive way. I mean, I guess you can use it to make a lot of money, but I didn’t want to do big adverts or get a stack of money to make a picturesque thriller that would have been terrible.

So we thought, how can we use this? And this story, which I first read in 2006, way before “Slumdog,” was nagging away at me. We started talking about it, and how it was gonna be hard. But we liked that. We had a number of bridges to cross, but we like a campaign. And our friends at Fox Searchlight swallowed hard, but they said yes.