Like its stars Dev Patel and Freida Pinto, Danny Boyle – the director of 2009’s Academy Award winning Slumdog Millionaire – was thrust onto the international stage when his inspirational tale of love and survival became a global phenomenon. To many, he was a new face in the film industry, but Boyle has been making unrelenting cinematic treasures since the mid 90s.
From dark comedies to science fiction fantasies and horrific dystopian tales, Boyle has done it all. With his latest effort, a conceptually fresh biographical account of Aron Ralston’s gruesome road to redemption called 127 Hours, he takes a limiting premise and expands the narrative with his uncanny audio-visual talents. I sat down with the director to talk about the hardships of getting the film made, his work on the 2012 Olympics and much more! Read on for the full interview!
The success of Slumdog clearly opened up a lot of doors for you. In a day and age when it’s difficult to get a film greenlit, do you think 127 Hours would’ve been harder to get going pre-Slumdog?
Oh, we never would’ve made it. Honestly, unless you have a major industry figure, like Spielberg or Cruise or someone like that attached to it directly, it would never get financed. Especially now. It’s so difficult to generate an audience for an independent film with a subject like this, which could easily turn people off — and it could still do that. They’re still nervous because you don’t know if people are going to actually go on a Friday night and watch someone cut their arm off. It’s conceptually risky, without a doubt. And our approach to it, which was to maximize the appalling nature of the experience — that he’s alone for that whole time — and to not make a thriller out of it or make a big, human drama with people looking for him and coming back together again and that sort of stuff.
But to do it monolithically through this James Franco figure makes it even more dangerous. But our argument was always that if they have the courage to do it, and we sort of morally blackmailed them because they got a lot of money out of Slumdog and all that stuff, that the reward would be phenomenal. Because the euphoria, the ecstasy, the sense of life being given back again is so deeply earned by the audience by being through the experience with him. You’ll not only tolerate him cutting his arm off visually, which is difficult to watch, but you’ll encourage him to do it. And when you get out of there, you’ll feel that heaven, that pulse of life. You know, that ‘I want that and I deserve it.’
On that basic human level I was able to sympathize with Aron because no one wants to see anyone die. But I found it difficult to sympathize with him totally because of his behavior toward his family and friends that we see through these flashbacks. Obviously, this was a creative choice on your part. Do you think that there would be a greater emotional payoff on the back end if there was more empathy created throughout? Or do you even need empathy for the character at that point?
You need empathy, but you mustn’t lie about him as a character early on. You mustn’t airbrush him as a character. I think he makes clear in his book that before it happened, he was so independent, so full of himself, so brilliant, a brilliant engineer, brilliant brain, major athlete, climbs these peaks — 14,000 feet — in winter, on his own, runs marathons. You could read all that from his character as arrogant at the end, and reckless as well. There’s an avalanche in the book and he almost kills two of his friends. And he says in the book they haven’t spoken with him since. So it’s very clear that you shouldn’t airbrush his character. And that’s what happens is that when he stopped — and the beginning of the film is recklessly pleasure seeking, great fun, great music, even when he crashes he laughs and takes a picture, unstoppable, you know? Omnipotent almost, until nature says no, you’re not omnipotent, no one is. Then he has to go on a journey himself and that’s a journey back towards more empathy.
We always wanted the film to be full of movement, a journey. An emotional journey that he’s on. And you can’t do that if he’s empathetic already, it just becomes a survival story. You’re sorry for the guy and you want him to get out. You find that he’s got to earn your sympathy by actually learning that he has disrespected people and he hasn’t returned that affection and care. And that’s true of his Mom and Dad, and in a very touching way, he says that directly to them. He says, “I haven’t learned to appreciate you in my heart as much as I know I could.” And also, the girl, you know, who’s clearly not over him, and he doesn’t return it. He’s not careful enough with her affection. He’s plagued by those thoughts now, and they both haunt him and sustain him. He wants to have the chance to go back and put things right. And that’s a classic human trait. We all want to go back and say to people, “I’m sorry it turned out like that. I really didn’t want to hurt you.” We’re all guilty of that. I’m guilty of that. And I’m at an age now where I can appreciate that. But at a time, I didn’t. And you want to illustrate that through a story and that involves a story with him.
And your review is exactly right to point out that he’s not a sympathetic character to begin with. He has to move that way and earn it for us.
I’m so glad to hear that from you.
Absolutely. And I think Franco, also, that’s part of his journey that he’s making in the film, is to eventually to get you to empathize with him fully and he deserves the right to get free.
Of all the genres that you’ve tackled, this is the first quasi biopic that you’ve done. This film is a part of a man’s life. But what drew you to this story exactly? Was it the book?
It was the book. Well, it was the story in 2003. The original story. An extraordinary story. Then when I read the book in 2006 I had this vision of it which is as we described it that it’s not about this single guy in a lonely place, but it’s about people. Other people. It was ironically not a superhero story. He was a superhero at the beginning of the story, at least he thinks he is.
The fallen hero.
Yes, yes, the fall. And there’s great things involved in a fall, and that’s why we have these falls. Usually, ours aren’t as extreme or dramatic as Aron’s, but we all have them.
Yes, that’s what I loved about it.
What do you have planned for the future? I hear a lot of rumors about you returning to the 28 Days Later fold?
I’d love to direct the third part of it. Whether it happens or not, it’s partly a time thing I suppose now. But what I said was I so enjoyed watching the second one, because I wasn’t really involved with it, and I realized the pull there is from that franchise. So I’d love to direct the third part of it. The Olympics, we just started working on it. It’s exciting. If I survive it, I’ll be delighted.