The story of Aron Ralston, the American climber who went to extraordinary lengths to free himself when he became pinned to a canyon wall by a boulder in May 2003, may be a remarkable one, but the task of adapting it into a watchable cinematic experience sounds nigh-on impossible, at least on paper.
Yet, in the hands of director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, 127 Hours is as much about hope and triumph as it is about the grim details of against-all-odds survival. As the film arrives in UK cinemas, we caught up with Beaufoy to discuss his adaptation of this remarkable story…
Spoiler warning: If you don’t know Aron Ralston’s story, and want to see 127 Hours cold, you might want to skip the interview.
I thought the film was fantastic, first of all. Were you daunted by the task of writing it?
I was by the idea of it, because it seemed impossible for all sorts of obvious reasons. Of course, if you say impossible to Danny [Boyle], his eyes light up, and he goes, “Ah! Yes, I know! Impossible is good. We like impossible.”
And this story had been knocking around in his head for years. I didn’t understand how to do it until he wrote this document down, which was how he saw it. Rather than a script, it was more like a “This is how it’s going to look” kind of document. It was an amazing piece of work.
He started with all these crowd scenes, and I instantly understood what he was up to, and immediately went off to meet Aron Ralston and start investigating the psychology of him, really, because that’s what fascinated me. Not so much that he chopped his own arm off, but the psychology of what he was doing down there in the first place, and why three days went by before anyone even missed him.
All those things were of interest to me, and rang bells for me as a writer.
When you were planning the film and writing it, was it a worry that people would only focus on the sensational aspect of its subject matter, that it would just be known as the film about the man who cut his arm off? That they wouldn’t see the psychological value in the story?
Well, I think it’s our job to make them see that, if you like, but, yes. Modulating it so you’re not banging them over the head with it, while still sticking to the facts of the story. I mean, it’s a great challenge writing a piece where, without exception, everyone goes into the cinema knowing what happened. Without exception. So, they all know he chopped his arm off, and they all know he survived.
Immediately, you’ve lost any sense of tension, of drama. And you haven’t got much there in the first place, because there’s only him, no other people. It’s a brilliant set of limitations, in a way.
See if you can make everyone in the audience forget that he survived. Make it such a subjective and immersive experience, that they’re living in it second by second and moment by moment, so they’re not thinking, “Oh yeah, he was the guy that got out and wrote a book, and blah, blah, blah.”
You’ve got to be with him for every moment while he’s down there. It’s a big challenge.
How important was casting James Franco? How early in the scriptwriting process was he considered?
We had a pretty tight script by the time he came onboard. We knew from very early days that it had to be someone extraordinary who would understand how to modulate it so it wasn’t a huge, brute performance, that it was actually quite a delicate thing, with all sorts of shades that go all the way from very intense all the way to Pineapple Express moments.
So, [James Franco] read a passage of it, and it was very clear that he was the guy.
I understand that you’re quite into climbing yourself.
Yeah, I’ve done a lot of that in the past, yeah.
How did that help you to connect with Ralston’s experience while you were writing the script?
Very much. Aron and I had an immediate sense of trust, working with each other, because we came from a similar point of view. We both love the outdoors and mountains. We talked a lot about that before I sat him down and said, “Okay. We need to discuss the tough bits of your life.” So, I think it definitely helped, yes.
Going back to the subjective viewpoint of the film you mentioned earlier, did you consider not ever cutting out of the canyon, of leaving out the various flashbacks and so forth?
I think it would have been a disaster if you had done that. You immediately know he’s all right if you do that. You’ve lost your subjectivity. You’ve allowed the audience to step away from the person and go, “Oh, it’s just a film.” We’re out here, and he’s in there. The whole point is, if he’s in there, we’re in there. If he doesn’t get out, we don’t get out.
It’s interesting to contrast 127 Hours with Buried, which are, of course, very different films.
Yes, Buried sounds like a very bold film.
And they both feature a single actor trapped in one location.
I don’t think I could watch it! [laughs] I know lots of people are saying the same thing about our film, and we’re all going, “No, no, it’s fine!”
There were rumours that the first part of 127 Hours was originally going to be shot without any dialogue. Was there any truth behind this?
I don’t know where that rumour came from, actually, because [Ralston] met up with these girls, which was only going to be the only proper dialogue in the film. That was always going to be in there.
As it is, the script is extremely economical.
Yes, I think it needs to be.
Did much change between writing it and the actual shoot?
Not a great deal, no. It’s such a strange piece of work. Such an individual piece of work that you have to stick to the script, really, otherwise you’d get lost. It doesn’t have the shape of your average drama about.
What did that mean to you, that contrast between the crowd shots, depicting society, if you like, and those shots of Ralston by himself?
The received opinion is that it’s about one person doing extraordinary things, but it’s not, really. It’s about all of us. It’s about people, about crowds, about humanity. And he’s turned his back and said, “I don’t need them.” It’s his movement towards grace, if you like.
You do need people. You can’t live without them. We’re all interconnected in some way. I wanted to start with crowds and end with crowds.
And the tone of the film is extremely positive, of course.
Yes. It should be. Very hopeful.
But it could have been quite sensationalistic, and certainly the fact that Ralston had to sacrifice his arm could have been portrayed as tragic.
When he cut his arm off, he had a smile on his face. I remember doing the last draft of the script, and Aron wrote, “I was laughing and smiling while I was doing this.” And I remember thinking, “Really? Well, I can’t put that in the script.” And I kept not putting it in the script, and he kept saying, “Guys, it’s really important. This was a really euphoric moment for me when I realised that I could chop this dead thing off.”
So, in the end, we put in this big laugh when James snaps the bone. He really laughs, because it was really important for Aron that people realise that this was a wonderful thing. It wasn’t a disaster that he was chopping his arm off. It was a relief. It was liberation. It was back to his old world. Back to people.
It was almost like a psychological hurdle he had to jump. And that’s perhaps what other people can take from the film.
That’s right! I always think of that. It’s not a survival story. Well, it’s not just that. Everyone’s got a boulder that they have to overcome, of one sort or another. It’s a film about confronting your big problem, and getting back to people. Understanding that complex web of interpersonal relationships, which help us all through.
Writing something based on a real event, on a living person, that was a new thing for you, I understand.
It was a big responsibility, because he’s alive and well, and sitting next to me in the cinema. And you have to get it right. You’ve got an obligation to the facts, which can obviously run counter to the demands of the drama. You’ve got to shape and balance, hone and polish.
Real life is messy, and drama is a shaped version of real life. Those two things are quite often at opposites, so I’d often find myself slave to two masters, with the facts of what really happened and what we wanted to say.
And always, because Aron’s sitting right next to me in the cinema and was there all the time, I’d always have to err on the side of what really happened. It was a great, fascinating challenge to get that right. We didn’t know we got it right until he was sitting in the theatre watching it. It was a good thing we did get it right. He’s very proud of the film. He feels it’s very true to his experience.
He read every draft of the script, and had a lot to say about an awful lot of it. And we took on board as much of that as we could. But again, it’s this to and fro about this fictionalisation of a real event, in order to get at a greater emotional truth than you might get from a documentary.
You get a sensational survivalist tale, and we were after more than that. Fortunately, he really understood that. He really got what we were trying to do.
The hallucinations that Aron experiences are a big part of the film. How did they come about?
They all came out of conversations with him. Some of those video messages are verbatim what he said on tape, and others are spun out of conversations I had with him about his terrible fear of a flash flood, because that would have meant instant death. And the sensation in the morning, as the sun came up, the rest of America was waking and nobody knew where he was.
By then he’d run out of water. And all those things allowed me to spin drama out of what he was thinking. Not exactly what he was thinking, but a version of it.
The key scene is, of course, where Aron finally releases himself. How did you decide how graphic you should make it? In the book, it’s a moment that really lingers in the mind.
It’s an amazing passage in the book, isn’t it? It’s brilliant.
Startlingly written, yes.
That was our guiding light, really, is that we should stick to what he wrote. It’s superbly described in intimate detail. And it took him over an hour to do. So, we could hardly cut away and say, “Oh, his arm’s free.” It’s part of the experience.
You have a duty to survive it with him. It’s tough, but he does survive it, and everyone knows he survives it. And I always think, if he can do it, we can watch it.
Simon Beaufoy, thank you very much!
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