The story of Aron Ralston and his incredible survival journey made a helluva book (Ralston's own "Between a Rock and a Hard Place") and documentary (2006's "Survivor: The Aron Ralston Story with Tom Brokaw"). But who in their right mind would try and make this a narrative story and then try and sell it to audiences around the world? How would this gruesome story, (and this should be no spoiler as it's been almost 8 years after the event was reported worldwide) of how a guy freed himself & survived being trapped by a bolder for 6 days in a deserted canyon with virtually no food or water, sell?
Well, leave it to none other then the brilliant "Slumdog Millionaire" English director Danny Boyle to figure out a way to uniquely make one of the most compelling and, yes, one of the most entertaining films of the year.
James Franco (who played James Dean in a TV movie in 2001), giving the best male performance I've seen so far this year, plays the reckless, carefree lad who doesn't inform his family and friends of his whereabouts the day he sets out alone for his usual wilderness jaunt. As he is trying to maneuver around the canyon walls, a boulder is jarred and comes crashing down pinning his arm to the rocks. He quickly finds that no amount of effort will successfully free him.
Equipped with a video camera, a still camera, minimal food and water, a couple of climbing tools, and a pen-knife, he fears that his young life can now be measured in days unless he takes drastic action to free himself.
Boyle will never be typecast as a director. His repertoire includes such diverse topics as 1994's dark noir "Shallow Grave", heroin addicts in 1980's Edinburgh (the brilliant 1996 film"Trainspotting"), zombies running amok in London as a result of a monkey virus outbreak (2002's exciting original "28 Days Later"), a children's fable (2004's well received "Millions"), 2008's crowd-pleasing, Academy Award winning salute to Bollywood, and now this extraordinary true tale of survival. Boyle ingeniously manages to pull in the audience by using a style that is all his own. Through the outstanding use of music, editing, and storytelling, the talented director manages to hold your attention throughout the entire ordeal-despite knowing the outcome.
Most folks I know, when hearing of the subject matter, have said that this wasn't the type of film they would be interested in experiencing. All I can say is, not only is this one of the best films of the year, but one that is, ultimately, uplifting in a way that can't be related in words. It must be seen to be believed-and admired.
This was a rare opportunity to attend a screening with one of the world's finest A-list directors and the post-screening discussion/Q&A with Danny Boyle, fresh off his well-deserved success directing last year's Best Picture, "Slumdog Millionaire", didn't disappoint.
Moderated by D.C. film critic, Kevin "Big Daddy Kev's" McCarthy, (who humorously began by remarking how guilty he felt drinking water), the discussion granted rare fascinating insight into the director's strategies as well as pertinent background in the making of the harrowing film.
In talking about James Franco, Danny recognized him as a really great actor who has been underused. He said he & James watched the 45 minutes of Aron's actual video that he shot over the 6 days-video which he had previously shared only with a couple of close family members. Referring to the footage, Danny mentioned they were "weirdly controlled . . . because his thought processes is that he thinks he is going to die, he didn't want his mom to see him in a terrible stage as his last message to her; he wants to look dignified and purposeful and coping as best as he can. It was really moving . . . and helped James act here." Aron revealed to Danny that he changed a couple of messages after reviewing them while trapped in the canyon because he thought it showed that he was too upset. That gave the director the (fictional and somewhat humerous) idea of James imagining himself as a talk show host interviewing people talking about him. However, the video message he left for his parents (where he said "I'm sorry that I haven't appreciated you in my heart the way I know I should") was taken verbatim from the tape.
The film was partially shot at the actual remote site: Horseshoe Canyon in southern Utah's Blue John Canyon in Canyonlands National Park. Danny mentioned it was tough getting a crew there and they ended up camping out for 5 days to shoot. Aron joined the set on location,which just happened to be on the 7th anniversary of his ordeal. Although it must have been strange to revisit the site, at least, as Danny pointed out, this time he wasn't alone.
An audience member asked what inspired him to write the screenplay (he co-wrote it with Simon Beaufoy) and direct the tale. He responded that he was intrigued when he first heard of the story back in 2003 when it happened and it just "snagged" in his brain. Although not on the same scale as what had just happened to the trapped 33 Chilean miners, he couldn't help put himself in Aron's place thinking what would he do if he was caught in that predicament. That gave the story an "amazing resonance beyond the survival" aspect. So, after reading the book in 2006, he approached Aron telling him that he had a specific idea about how to make it by essentially putting the audience in the canyon with him until he was released-"a first person immersive experience". Aron at first wanted to make a documentary with him narrating in order to keep control of it. Boyle's success with Slumdog helped sway him and convince him to make a narrative. Also, that success gave him a window of opportunity to get the funding for the project-which, understandably, was not attractive to the studio. By that time Aron had changed as a person and had met his wife "who helped him complete the journey".
When Kevin asked if Aron's parents has seen the film, Danny replied that only his sister has seen it. At the first test screening in New Jersey, at the point in the film when he amputates his arm and steps back from the canyon wall, the crowd cheered wildly and Aron was "pouring tears" from the reaction. When Danny approached him afterward, Aron remarked that it was strange watching it because there were parts of it he was very cold and distant from, while during other parts, he was overwhelmed and that he couldn't control himself. Boyle added wryly that Aron liked the film ("thank goodness").
When asked about the wonderful use of music, Danny said that it was the one variance, other than editing, that was important to changing the film since he was essentially dealing with one character and location (he even tried using 2 different cinematographers, but that failed when both shot their sequences the same way). He chanced upon Free Blood, an American band from Brooklyn (which happened to be friends of Suttriat Larlarb, the production designer), while traveling around Utah looking for locations and used their song "Never Hear Surf Music Again" in the opening sequence. He mentioned his use again of composer A.H. Rahman (who composed for Slumdog) who also composed the wonderful song over the end credits.
On commenting on a question about his varied career, Danny revealed his silly theory that "your first film is always the best", although it might technically not be the best, but is the one where "you really don't know what you're doing and there is something wonderful about that; there is an innocence that you never get back again . . . so you're always trying to get back to the beginning again if you can." He went on to say that one of the ways that you can try and generate that is by changing genre or scale of a story. This was the first time he's done a one-actor film and was inspired to do that after seeing Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler" where you just follow an actor. Figuring out how to do that kind of film is what makes it challenging and interesting. "It keeps you vibrant"-like it was for him at the beginning of his career.
When quizzed about how he approached the amputation scene, knowing full well that the audience knew the end result, Danny went on to explain the dynamics of shooting the trapped sequences. He said they were done in a series of uninterrupted 20 minute takes of him trying to escape the bolder. During that time, James lost himself in the role "which is a wonderful way of getting a performance . . . forgetting who he was in the process." He added that he thought the intensity of his performance is conveyed as a result. Boyle felt an obligation to be true to the story adding that it, in reality, it took Aron a total of 44 minutes to remove himself from the rock. However, the euphoria of freeing himself resulted in his leaving a more complete man-that it represented a kind of rebirth.
Danny then talked about how Franco got the role. He stated that a number of actors read for the part but that James always looked "stoned". However, Boyle was familiar with his range of work and that it was really important for the actor to play a character with various moods and tones in order to sustain the film. He was finally convinced when Franco read for the second time. He added that he personally didn't think that a lot of actors could have pulled it off.
An audience member commented on the kinetic visual energy of the film on what must have been a very passive experience. Danny responded by saying there were 2 ways to approach this. He could have, on a purely business level, done it as a meditative wilderness experience-but then no one would come to watch it. But disagreed that people go to movie to escape since folks generally see films dealing with their urban existence-implying they aren't really escaping anywhere. And although it appears to be a wilderness theme, and that Aron is escaping his urban existence, on the contrary, Boyle considers it an urban film. He went on to explain that the rhythm of it is urban, pointing out that "he takes with him an invisible umbilical cord back to the city" (a video and still cameras, as well as having the rock group Phish on his IPod). He added that he "always considered it an action movie where the hero can't move . . . that's the puzzle in terms of tactfully how to make it".
As to the decision of injecting humor into the proceedings, the director merely responded by saying "that you can get away with so much if you can find humor in stuff." He added that it was very important that you are drawn into the character and realized that it was incredibly important to your tolerance to be able to live through the film with him because, obviously, you are not going anywhere, you're staying in the same place the whole time. Further explaining that "the danger with the film is that it is very still, but it must never be inert. . . and humor is one of the ways of avoiding that. It refreshes everyone who hears it and, therefore, it is a crucial element in the film."
Commenting on a couple of his previous films, when asked about a possible sequel to "Trainspotting", Danny said he considered picking up the story using the same actors when the characters are in their middle age. However, he inferred that dealing with vanity issues with those actors would be a concern to pull it off. And he would be open to doing a "28 Months Later" sequel to his "28 Days Later" & Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's"28 Weeks later" but his schedule won't permit it right now. He's directing "Frankenstein" in early 2011 at London's National Theater and will be doing the opening ceremonies at London's 2012 Olympics.
Boyle then shared a humorous story of how he managed to show a deserted London in "28 Days Later" without using CGI. Not having a major studio involved, he had to be creative in getting the natural effects he needed. Shot pre-9/11 in the summer of 2001, at 3:30 AM, he employed students to help out in crowd control-including his 18-year-old daughter. In order to make predominantly male drivers comply with his request to stay off the roads, she enlisted her female friends and found that, by their wearing short skirts, male drivers were much more easily convinced to pull over while filming.
Danny closed the entertaining session adding that he keeps the prosthetic arm used in the film in a shoebox.
I've been to scores of screenings locally as well as various film festivals around the country and usually discussions with A-list actors and directors are concluded with organizers, publicists, etc., stepping in at the end to whisk away the celebrity. When the half-hour was over, an attempt was made to "protect" Danny from the audience, to which the director clearly refused. Instead, he proceeded straight to the lobby where he took photos, signed autographs, and spoke to whoever wanted to ask further questions-or just to shake his hand. In short, Danny Boyle was so approachable and down-to-earth that I am in total awe and respect of both his professional talents as well as his incredible people skills.