Following Danny Boyle and James Franco across the United States into Canada was not part of the plan. Having seen the moving and exhilarating “127 Hours” while at the Telluride Film Festival, congratulating the duo would have been much more convenient in the small confines of the Colorado Labor Day staple. Instead, the opportunity to chit chat at a casual Fox Searchlight soiree was interrupted by a fascinating conversation with Aron Ralston, the real life outdoor adventurer who is the subject of Boyle’s impressive work. Fast forward a week to a suite at the Toronto Four Seasons where the duo have popped in for a quick conversation during a whirlwind of press opps.
What struck me the most about our conversation, which you can also listen to below, was how passionate and energetic Franco is when talking about the film. Perhaps it’s the euphoria of the initial reaction to the picture, but I can’t remember the mercurial actor sounding so engaged about a project in the past. Boyle, on the other hand, was a little rambling, but what else would you expect when you’ve been talking about one subject repeatedly for almost ten days? So, with only 10 minutes to discuss “127 Hours,” we were able to cover topics such as Franco’s goofy running stance, the amazing videos Ralston made while trapped in a Utah canyon and just how surprisingly un-claustrophobic the picture is.
AC: I was at the party at Telluride and I spoke to Aron Ralston and one of his friends and one of the things his friend says was that he was so struck by how you captured Aron’s [mannerisms]. There is that scene where you are running across the desert and his friend said you run just like him.
Boyle: I used to say that to him and he’d go ‘What do you mean?’ ‘You’re so like him. The way you run’ And I remember you said, ‘I’ve got a backpack on, you have to run like that.’ I think what happens is that they do start to slowly, without knowing it, the begin to mimic each other. And it works both ways as well.
Franco: That’s one thing that I hoped would happen. Because Danny was very particular about how to approach the role. How to work with the material of Aron’s life and the material of his and how much to bring that in from the outside and how much to let that rise from the surface of the inside. So, but the running thing is — I always thought it was really different, because I think I do run — I think that’s my run. (Laughs.) And I think it’s fortunate that I run that way for the character, because it’s a slightly goofy run I think. And you need that feeling at the beginning of the film. And Danny kept saying it to me and I thought he was, as the British would say, ‘Taking the piss out of me,’ because he kept saying, ‘Oh, James it’s brilliant. It’s brilliant how you are doing this funny run.’ (Laughs.) I was like, ‘Shut up Danny.’ So, I think that’s one of the things that worked out really well, but in other situations to think about the performance. One of the things I was always thinking about and really taking Danny’s lead was ‘What will be most valuable about this performance?’ Or, ‘What will be most alive about this performance?’ It’s seeing a person experience this situation. Not necessarily getting all the details of what Aaron actually did. I mean, we pretty much go through everything he went through, but we don’t try to impose it on the top. Meaning, ‘O.K., at this point he chipped here and chipped his finger and da, da, da,’ Instead we say, ‘At this point he was chipping at the rock and he realized it wasn’t working and then he did this.’ And we go and do it ourselves and let the experience of going through the same paces that he did create the performance.
AC: Does that mean with the videos that he had, you didn’t use them as a bible?
Boyle: Some of them they are. They are verbatim some of them. I mean, some of them and if you listen to them very carefully they are very curiously expressed sometimes and we didn’t change them. Because you’d never write like that. They repeat words sometimes and any writer would go, ‘Oh, don’t do that. ‘Cause he just said ‘really.’ But like any human being you just use really too much. So we used them verbatim sometimes, but James is right. What we agreed, at the beginning, between the two of us was that it wasn’t an impersonation of sorts. I mean, I think it does become an impersonation in many ways, because the material is so similar to what he want through, but it’s not strictly an impersonation. It’s not like in a documentary where you get an actor that looks exactly like Aaron Ralston and you are filming in wide shots so everyone starts to believe, ‘Oh, this is him.’ We didn’t want to make it like that. We wanted to make it an intense experience of watching him playing a guy called Aaron in that canyon. Do you know what I mean? You forget the real thing as much as possible until you get out and you think, ‘[Expletive], hell. Was that real?’ Yeah, it was.
Franco: But then the video diaries were slightly different because.
AC: Yours were different than his you mean?
Franco: No, the process of creating those scenes was slightly different because those are physical in the same way. Those are playing these scenes of a guy talking to a family thinking he is going to die. But, what we got for those, the most valuable thing was Aaron showed us the real videos, so I got to see the real thing. And, it was incredibly powerful. It’s really different than when I’ve played other characters based on real people where you might get some video or film on them talking about an experience or moving in a different context of what I was eventually going to depict. But here is the actual thing without the guy looking back on the experience. He’s in the middle of the experience which means now you can talk to Aaron and he can look back on it and tell you how it was. But, when you watch the videos, that’s him not knowing he’s going to survive. So, I could see or feel or experience or try and take on what that felt like. A guy accepting his own death right there. In some ways, so simple, because a guy just talking to his friends and just saying these personal little things that are not particularly profound, but because underneath all that, what he’s really saying is, ‘If you’re watching this I’m dead and I want you all to have a good life and to think well of me and I love you all.’ And that combination was like incredibly powerful and that is what guided me through all those videos messages.
AC: Because in those scenes what’s so powerful to is how you do the performance. He’s accepted it and that’s what’s so interesting is how he finally decides to live and move on. One of the things about the film that I’ve had people say to me is that ‘Oh, I loved it, it was great, it was very moving.’ But people still say to me, ‘Oh, but you’re stuck in a cave and I’m claustrophobic and I don’t want to see it.’ And I’ve said to them the thing that was so surprising about the film to me is that I never thought it was claustrophobic. And I’m curious in how you shot it and how you worked together was that the most self conscious thing? You don’t want to be that movie ‘Buried.’ You don’t want to be stuck in a — I mean how did you approach that?
Boyle: Because he’s completely free.
Boyle: Except he’s in this handshake with the canyon. He is completely free. He isn’t in a box, but he’s in a handshake with the canyon and until he can resolve that there is nothing he can do. But it is this wonderful image for this perfect man. Because he is this perfect specimen. He used to run ultra-marathon’s in the desert. He’s invincible. Totally independent. Totally self sufficient. Measures everything for the weight of his backpack so he can judge his times. He’s knocking off record times all the time. He’s 27, he’s got everything. IT’s just that little pinch. In terms of the earth’s surface it’s a tiny little staple that affixes him. So, you actually get to examine what he’s about and he proves to be as he shows as he gradually unravels that he’s the perfect specimen, but not the perfect man in life. Not cruel to that girl, but he’s heartless really, careless with her affection really and he lives to regret that. So, he learns a lot about himself and also how much he needs all these people he is running away from at the beginning of the film. It’s that simple really. And they pull him back in some weird way. We are all interconnected. I have this big theory that we all live in these cities and we are all meant to seek refuge, but we don’t see films for escapism, all our films are in cities. Almost all our other movies? They are set in another city, they just don’t make wilderness films. We never go and watch them! People can make them ‘Oh, that was alight.’ But we won’t go and watch them! You’d think it was the one thing we’d want to watch, but no we want to watch films about nightmare cities. And I think we are all bonded together in this love/hate relationship with each other and it’s incredibly powerful. And I always thought this since the first time I read the book, ‘That’s what pulls him back.’ And he expresses it in individual items like the love of family, but I think it’s much wider than that. It’s people. It’s this sense of ‘I want to get back. I want to be part of being a part of it.’ And I think it’s a wonderful thing about it. He says at the end to that Dutch family as they walk away from him, ‘I need help.’ And for Aaron Ralston to say that is a big admission. His own failings are a part of us. What you think he’s an extraordinary example of, he’s full of achievements, he’s actually super human, but I think we’re all capable of it. That’s my own theory.
AC: I don’t think I could do it. (Laughs.) I have to ask you James, had you seen the movie at Telluride? Because you had this look of shock on your face when you went and sat up at the Q&A.
Franco: Really? Well, it was the first time I’d seen it with an audience. Which was a very different experience. It was a different experience than watching any movie I’ve ever been in. Usually I can detach to a certain extent, but this was. This feels very intimate. Very revealing.
AC: If someone had taken a picture, you looked like a deer in headlights. Like someone had shown you your death.
Franco: Really? (Laughs.) I was feeling good, but I was wondering if I was going to have to do the Q&A and ‘I don’t know if I can say anything.’ (Laughs.)
End recording. And with that, the duo was off for another round of Toronto interviews in what will no doubt be a long and emotional campaign for their newborn baby.
“127 Hours” opens nationwide on Nov. 5.