INTERVIEW: Desperate Hour Writing ‘127 Hours’

Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1

Originally published in Script magazine Nov/Dec 2010

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INTERVIEW: Desperate Hour Writing '127 Hours' by Ray Morton | Script Magazine

In May 2003, 28-year-old mechanical engineer and amateur mountain climber Aron Ralston was hiking alone in Utah’s remote Blue John Canyon when a large boulder tipped, crushing Ralston’s right forearm and pinning it against the canyon’s wall. Ralston spent five days trying without success to free himself. Since he had not told his friends and family where he was going, he knew no one was coming to rescue him, so Ralston—out of food and water and facing certain death—finally saved himself by using the dull blade of a cheap multi-tool knife to saw off his own arm.

Ralston’s harrowing ordeal is the subject of 127 Hours, the film from the Academy Award®- winning director and screenwriter of Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy.

Once he was free, Ralston rappelled 65 feet down the sheer canyon wall and began an eight-mile hike out of the canyon. He eventually crossed paths with some tourists who called for help. A rescue helicopter flew Ralston to a hospital where he received surgery to repair the damage caused by his impromptu amputation and eventually recovered. Ralston then wrote a book about his horrific experience called Between a Rock and a Hard Place (2004) that became a best-seller. Boyle read Ralston’s book and immediately thought it would make a compelling movie. Boyle feels that when a filmmaker adapts someone’s real-life story, he is essentially “borrowing” that person’s tale, so in 2006, the director approached Ralston and asked the climber to “lend” him his story for a dramatized feature film. Ralston declined because at the time he wanted to make a documentary about his experiences and was in the process of optioning his life rights to producer John Smithson. Disappointed, Boyle moved on to Slumdog Millionaire, but following the success of that film, Ralston changed his mind and agreed to lend Boyle his story after all.

Boyle and his producer Christian Colson made a deal with Smithson to acquire the necessary rights, and then Boyle asked Simon Beaufoy to adapt Ralston’s book. A climber himself, Beaufoy was familiar with Ralston’s story but couldn’t see how an effective film could be made in which the protagonist is literally stuck in one place for most of the movie’s running time: “It never in a million years occurred to me that you could turn this story into a film,” Beaufoy recalls. “One person, on his own, trapped down a slot in a canyon that’s about three feet wide, who can’t move for five days because his hand is literally immobilized. It’s the opposite of cinema in all sorts of ways.”

This problem was compounded by the fact that—apart from enduring a flash flood, using his camcorder to videotape goodbyes to his loved ones, and carving his name in the canyon wall when he thought he was about to die—Ralston did almost nothing during his confinement but think. Plus Boyle’s intention was to stay with Ralston in the canyon after his accident and to not “open” the narrative up in expected ways, such as cutting to other people in other locations or employing conventional flashbacks. So, for Beaufoy, Ralston’s story “seemed to me … impossible to tell. Which is, of course, like a red flag to a bull for Danny.”

In fact, Boyle had already determined how he wanted to tell this “impossible” story. Ralston had reported that during his ordeal, he tried “to reconnect with my loved ones through memories and fantasies and even out-of-body experiences. It was some pretty trippy stuff as I became more dehydrated, sleep-deprived and desperate.” Boyle’s idea was to dramatize Ralston’s subjective experience by using an energetic combination of narrative devices (such as having Ralston talk to his camcorder) and visual components (such as breaking the screen up into triptychs, continually moving the camera, and switching film stocks) to create “a first-person immersive experience” that would take the audience viscerally through, not just Ralston’s physical ordeal, but also through all of the thoughts, memories, fantasies and hallucinations that he experiences as he moves through despair to “a powerfully moving recommitment to life.” Boyle felt that this would be the only way that the audience would be able to endure the excruciating climactic sequence in which Ralston amputates his arm—a procedure the director intended to show in graphic detail. “You can’t change what happens to him at the end because it is so extraordinary—[but] the only way you’ll ever be able to really get through it, the only way you’ll ever be able to watch it, is if you’ve been through the experience with [Ralston]. Therefore, you want to help him get out of the canyon. And you want to get out of the canyon.”

Writer-director Danny Boyle on the set of 127 Hours and Franco

Boyle’s conception was daringly original, but as clear as it was to him, he had a hard time communicating it to Beaufoy. “Because you have a clear idea of how you’re going to do it, you assume that you’re making sense when you’re talking about it, and you’re often not,” the director explains. “You forget people don’t necessarily understand when you explain it … [and that] it doesn’t necessarily make the sense you think it’s making.”

Beaufoy suggested that Boyle write an initial draft of the script himself to get his ideas down on paper and make them more understandable. In reality, Beaufoy was not being as supportive as he seemed. “I hoped [Boyle would] write something terrible and then we could go on to a better idea.” Although he does not consider himself a writer, Boyle decided to take Beaufoy’s suggestion and applied himself to the task: “It was a first stab at it in a couple of versions. It was a kind of structural thing.”

Much to Beaufoy’s surprise, he found that Boyle’s draft really worked. “I genuinely thought it was the one tale that you can’t tell … and then Danny came up with an extraordinary draft. It had that extraordinary Boyle thing—it had energy on every page and you kept turning the pages. And suddenly, the story is possible and it’s exciting and it’s not static in the way it so ought to be because it’s a man who can’t move. It made the film that I considered impossible, possible.”

Excited, Beaufoy agreed to join the project. “The first thing I said was ‘I’ve got to talk to the guy.’ I was very interested in what was really going on with Aron—why he was down in a canyon on his own without telling anyone where he’d gone and why no one noticed that he was missing for that long. And when I went to talk to him about all of that, I said, ‘We can’t make a superhero film because no one in the audience is going to get that. You did a superhuman thing, but we can’t make a superhuman story. We have to make a human story about a flawed human being and why you were in the place that you were at that stage in your life where you were just driven on this very isolated journey away from people into the wilderness as far as you could possibly get. It’s not a totally flattering portrait—this was a person who’d become very alienated from other people. And instead of trying to stop us and say, ‘You can’t say that about me because it makes me look [bad]’ … he allowed us to do that because he was just very honest about where he was at that time in his life. [That approach], for me, made the emotional sense of the film possible.”

Franco, Kate Mara as Kristi, and Amber Tamblyn as Megan

Boyle and Beaufoy asked Ralston to take them back to Blue John Canyon, a trip both filmmakers considered essential. “You have to go through the journey, really, to learn—most importantly narrative-wise—how isolated it is,” Boyle explains. “First of all, on a basic level, to know nobody’s going to come and get him—he’s far, far, far away. And on the second level, as Simon was talking about, to understand him as a human being. That isolation is what he’s after. It’s up to the drama to illustrate why he’s after that. It’s a mixture of arrogance—y’know, he’s the perfect specimen going in there—and escapism, to get away from people, literally. You can see that by the isolation of the place. It was really shocking how difficult it was to get to. It tells you a lot about the character.”

Boyle continues, “Then you can illustrate how much he has to do to get back and what the forces are that are working on him that will pull him back eventually. Some of them are understandable and some of them are … not mystical, but slightly more invisible. They are more magnetic forces. I always think of them as the pull of the crowd and ]the realization that] he does belong. He has the vision of a child, of a purposeful future, of a place among us, and these are the kinds of things that pull him back

Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy

Boyle and Beaufoy promised Ralston that, as they dramatized his story, they would preserve the spirit of his experience, although not necessarily the particulars: “You have a huge responsibility to tell the truth, whatever that complicated truth might be, about his story,” Beaufoy explains. “And that’s not necessarily the facts of his story, because we were not doing a documentary, we were doing a drama. That puts him in a difficult situation because we’re not doing a factual account, we’re doing a dramatization which involves a certain amount of invention and going into the world of fiction—a real leap for the person to whom it happened. I think you have to promise the person you’ll get to the emotional truth, and it can be the truth without it being absolutely locked to the facts. And he allowed us to do that. It was a really brave thing to do, a really difficult thing to do. Because if you get it wrong, you’re getting it wrong with a person’s life. That was the most intense moment he will ever have in his life, and you have a responsibility to get it right.”

When Beaufoy finally began rewriting Boyle’s original draft, the director was thrilled with the results: “Simon transformed it, really, [through] a couple of scenes of dramatic invention, but, more importantly, by illustrating a character with minimal means. Especially minimal means here because you don’t have the other characters to have big dialogue scenes with or anything like that. It was really interesting watching [the script develop] through subsequent drafts.”

Once the script was finished, Boyle got on with the task of actually making the movie, both on location in Blue John Canyon and on a soundstage recreation. Actor James Franco was cast as Ralston and, according to Boyle, became something of a collaborator: “Because the onus is on him so much and so much of [the acting] is wordless, in a way. I mean, Simon would describe it in the script. Then I would describe to James what I’m thinking about as a director. Then we would do these very, very long takes in which James would interpret those two ideas—and ignore them or develop them or copy them, depending. In a way, he’s kind of a third writer on it because that’s inevitable when you have this kind of emphasis on a solo performance.”

The result of all this effort is an extremely powerful and moving film that Aron Ralston has said really captures the essence of his terrifying and transformative experience. His reaction pleases Boyle immensely: “We promised Aron that when we handed [his story] back to him, he’d be proud of it and proud that he’d lent it to us. I think he was.”

THE END

Copyright © 2015 by Ray Morton
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