The 127 Hours director reflects on his career and reveals what the world can expect from the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony.
In his 16-year career, Danny Boyle has delivered some of British cinema's most iconic moments; from an apocalyptic London in 28 Days Later... to Renton's Iggy Pop-fuelled opening sprint in Trainspotting. Two years ago the keys to Hollywood were handed to Boyle on a silver platter after Slumdog Millionaire swept the Oscars and catapulted the Lancashire-born filmmaker firmly into the big leagues.
But Boyle didn't go the Hollywood route. Instead, he rounded up his trusty crew, grabbed a young A-lister and set course for canyon country, Utah. The result, 127 Hours, affirms Boyle's talent with electrifying aplomb. LWLies sat down with the Lancashire-born director recently to to discuss the making of the film, reflect on his career so far and find out where he plans on going from here.
LWLies: We’ve heard that there have been paramedics on standby at screenings of 127 Hours...
Boyle: Yeah, it’s turned out to be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, that’s the problem. I’ve seen people passing out in a few screenings myself actually. I’ve taken them outside and watched them recover. But I would say that it isn’t revulsion, they wake up and they go back in because they’re already so involved and invested with the character.
It’s certainly not gratuitous.
No and I think there’s so much empathy with the character that people are drawn to him. What I’ve tried to explain to people is that Franco’s performance is so good, so believable... it’s not the blood, or the knife, or the noise – you’ve seen far worse things in lots of movies – it’s actually his performance. It’s the way he’s built the story through the character and lead up to that climactic point – that’s why people might find it too much. There’s this great story, which is true, about this guy at one of the test screenings and he – you know they give out cards at the end?
And so this guy’s passed out and they took him out and he woke up and went back in he said ‘I’m gonna mark this excellent by the way.’ It’s like... it’s just insane how people can react so strongly, so viscerally, and yet still enjoy it so much. But you just go with it and hope people will like it at the end.
Who would you say this film is for?
I don’t want to put anyone off; it’s certainly not just a film just for blokes, it’s for everyone. It’s a very emotional film, Franco’s performance is very emotionally varied and driven, there’s a real journey in it – a real respect he earns for the things that he’s ignored in life, or taken for granted, or discarded too easily. He learns how precious those things are and I hope people can relate to that, in whatever way that might be. And it’s a very touching film in many ways and I wouldn’t want people to think it was all about that scene, because it’s not – it’s actually much more about this all-American superhero, which some people see him as and I don’t think is true, has to shout at the top of his lungs ‘I need help.’ That’s the real climax of the film, when he gets to actually admit that.
Can you talk a little about how you came to make the film?
Sure, well I heard about it in 2003, when it happened. I lived in London but it was a worldwide story, you could sense the fascination for it straight away. And I read [Aron Ralston’s] book in 2006 and I went to meet him in Holland, he was on tour, or on holiday or something, and I went to meet him... I wouldn’t say we got on that well, I had a very different vision of it than he did, I thought very strongly it was a one-person film; that you should see it through an actor. And he didn’t, he was very clear he wanted it told as a drama-documentary, ideally like Touching the Void. But I thought that wasn’t right for this story – I love that film, I think it’s brilliantly made and brilliantly told, but I felt this had to be told from a first person experience and that only an actor would be able to get you to watch that scene, which of course is the crucial scene in many ways. If you’re going to show it as fully and as brutally as is in his book then there’s no way you could do that outside a horror context without a great actor taking you there. We separated then and agreed to meet another day, which I never thought we would. But he changed because my vision for the movie remained the same and after Slumdog I think he realised that we were decent filmmakers, that also some of Slumdog was tough, so we weren’t going to shy away from that. We weren’t going to do a bullshit ending on it.
Was it hard to convince him that when you approached with the angle of doing a dramatisation?
Yeah but I think he knew we weren’t going to have a surgeon out trekking with his wife that comes along and saves the hand or any shit like that. But also, Aron’s a bright guy and he knew it was going to be impossible to finance a documentary on the scale he wanted; they’d never managed to raise any money. But most importantly in all this he’d met his wife, Jessica, and she has changed him I think and he is more trusting now. I think originally he was cautious because we said ‘You’ve got to let us tell this our way, you can’t control it like you might be able to a documentary.’ But we did let him do that with the script and would tell us if something was accurate or not, but he didn’t have veto over anything. You’ve gotta keep that. So we listened to some stuff he said and on other stuff we ignored him.
There’s a powerful and poignant sense of realisation when he says, "This rock has been waiting for me my whole life."
That’s it. There’s a great quote from Cormac McCarthy in All the Pretty Horses that says that grace is 'the power that heals men, and brings them to safety long after all other resources are exhausted.' And it’s very, very true, because what gets him out of there is not power, which everybody thinks it is, but the change that comes from within him. We always thought that there was a journey in this film that’s not jut a survival journey but an emotional journey of him reaching back to people through his camera, through his memories, through his longing, through his hallucinations.
It’s also a journey he has to make alone, quite literally, because no one knew he was lost...
That still amazes me. He had that cockiness you have when you’re 27 and he went off all the time without a word to anyone. It’s that raw, omnipotent, immortal, invulnerable attitude. I tell you what you visit this fucking place and it’s unreal. I’m sure it’s probably because I’m old but you think ‘fucking hell, if you come here on your own you’re fucking asking for it.’ And the rescue services actually said to us that you’d never find anyone during the day, maybe at night if they could light a fire, but never in the day. You just can’t see anything and you can’t cover enough ground to do a proper search.
How much did the success of Slumdog pave the way for 127 Hours?
I don’t think there would be a movie. We certainly wouldn’t have got it financed. It was still difficult now, even with the cash in the bank from Slumdog it’s still difficult to get the go-ahead. But it’s the appeal of the film that has been so important in that sense. It’s a film for everyone, not just for canyoneers or climbers – but also [for the studio] it looked like an ordeal with an actor being fucking brutalised at the end of it. I could see that in their eyes when we first approached them with the idea, it was like ‘How the fuck are we going to sell that’ across their faces.
Was there any pressure from the studio to tone bits down or to spice bits up?
Well with the arm amputation we shot it in such a way that’s very, very close to the book, because I thought they’d come after that scene, they’ll want to reduce it in some way, effectively trivialising it, you know? But to give them their dues they didn’t – they saw the whole film and said ‘Well, we wish it was a bit shorter and not quite like that, but if it has to be like that it has to be like that.’ Of course some of that is the power of having a success and with that it’s also the flush of confidence you get in being able to tell a story. That helped get through this film for sure because you’re constantly working through people’s caution and doubts.
This is very much a Danny Boyle film; you’ve kept that authorial voice and style. For example there’s a couple of shots – like the camera at the bottom of the water flask – that are very idiosyncratic and very patently you...
You hope that all that comes out of the story because for that shot specifically I thought it was so important to emphasise the water. You know water is the most important thing in the film in many ways; it’s not even a character, it’s beyond that. And we could’ve emphasised that in many ways; we could’ve talked about it like he does in the book, but it’s boring in cinema. You’ve got to visualise it, you’ve got to make it so that every movement of it is like a seductress saying ‘drink me’ and he’s saying ‘fucking hell I’d fucking love to!’
How important is the sound design in that respect?
Well the water is over-loud, deliberately so. Because it’s such a reductive film with so few characters you need to be stimulated visually and I’ve always loved the way cinema can magnify things. It had to be almost over the top – it’s not like we were doing a wilderness film, we’re doing a film in a fucking corridor, and he’s chained to the end of it. Everything there had so much significance for him staggeringly beyond its value because of the fact that he had so little – and so everything has its close-up or its point of view shot of him. And again his camera is so important because it’s effectively his emotional lifeline back to the people that he has neglected and not paid enough respect and affection towards.
It’s convenient for you that he had the camera with him...
It’s unbelievable. I mean those climbers strip everything back in their backpack – he didn’t take a mobile because there’s no signal, therefore why carry it? But he took the digital camera and batteries to power it. It doesn’t make any sense because it’s two or three years before YouTube, so why does he do that? It’s because he’s obsessive and a control freak, but there’s also a symbolic reason which is ultimately him connecting back to this urban world he says he’s fleeing, but I’m not so sure. I see it as being an urban film; it’s not like Into the Wild or something meditative like that. When he does go to the wild he doesn’t just sit there he goes a fucking races through it with his earphones on and he’s fucking timing himself to try to get through it quicker than anyone else and try to climb higher than anyone else. It’s this restlessness about him that’s very urban.
After having a huge success like Slumdog how do you keep yourself grounded?
Well, age helps. Anybody that it happens to in their thirties I think ‘fucking good luck mate’, because it’s quite tough. It’s a bit insane really.
It must have been a crazy couple of years for you...
Yeah and it’s lovely to get back to work and to work on something that has a restrictive budget. But it’s only the fact that I’ve done a number of films – some of which had worked successfully and some of which had not worked at all critically or commercially – that helps me find a balance. It’s a big warm cuddle being extended to you, but you’ve got to remember that it is fake, or if you’re being generous temporary, and you have to learn to deal with it circumspectly and not get too involved in all the warm cuddling everywhere. You’ll find yourself very lonely then at the end of it.
Does having the same crew with you help?
We try and stick together and do things as a family because it’s a long campaign [making a film] and there are many temptations within that and many people put in front of you the opportunity to split, join your own band you know. It’s a big factor, staying together, because everyone knows you and they know how it’s done, they know your fallibilities and they don’t accept all the warm cuddles.
After Slumdog were you determined to keep it small in terms of budget and production?
There’s usually two options after a big success: a huge movie where everybody’s cashing in getting huge fees, or a vanity project that nobody wants to do and is a disaster and is unwatchable. I’m sure the studio thought this was the vanity project.
How conscious are you of not repeating yourself?
Yeah I kind of invent a reason for it, I don’t know whether it is just kneejerk, wanting to do something different, or whether it’s a more noble reason which is that I always say it’s like your first film is your best film because although it’s technically not your best, the techniques that you learn the longer you make films are not necessarily a good thing. Quite often all they’re adding to is the manipulative nature of cinema. I mean all cinema is manipulative, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the Dardenne Brothers or Spielberg, it’s all manipulative. There’s an innocence about your first film that is fantastic, where you don’t know what you’re doing and you have to find out quickly what it is. And the only way you can get back to that is to pick a subject where you don’t really know how to do it. And I’ve never tried to go into a film that’s the same tone as the last one, because the danger with that is you think ‘Oh, I know how to do this, we’ll just do that.’ Even if you pick something different though you always bump into yourself and you start to think you’re making the same fucking film and that does happen. But those thing you hope people won’t notice and the story itself dominates so much that it takes the attention away from the style or the way you’ve gone about telling it.
You have quite a distinct style though...
Of course you do have fingerprints that you leave on stuff and you’re always aware that some people like those and some people don’t. But if you get too self-conscious about it you’ll lose the battle and it won’t be your film anymore.
Is Shallow Grave your favourite of the films you’ve made?
Well it’s my dad’s favourite film. Every time he watches a movie he says ‘Well, yeah it was alright, it wasn’t as good as Shallow Grave.’ No I’m very fond of it because it’s not a particularly emotional film but it’s the first one and you never get back to that again, it’s amazing. Blood Simple is good evidence of that for me; I don’t think the Coen Brothers have ever been better than that. I remember the first time I saw that movie it was like ‘What?!’ It’s the audacity of it, you know.
You’re seen in many ways as an ambassador for British film, but what do you think about its current health?
The UK Film Council closing I think is a real blow, but even that’s difficult to know how it’s going to manifest itself because it’s been said that the money will remain in play. But you just don’t know. I can understand why they’re doing it because it’s been perceived as a Labour quango, but actually I signed a letter from the UK Film Council with Stephen Taylor, which in retrospect I can see was a disastrous thing to have done, supporting Gordon Brown saying how much he’d done for the British film industry. Which may be true, but it’s not exactly the right thing to do when you can see this new government arriving. It’s a great shame that it’s gone though because although it has its critics any stability that you can find in this industry is precious. It was only running for 10 years and really you need to say 20 or 30 years before you can start talking about that level of stability that you need. It’s a surprisingly elite industry and the UKFC were trying to open it up to other areas of the public domain, and I don’t see how that course of action is going to be continued now. To be honest I always saw the music industry as being the more successful representation of our cultural aspirations as a country, because it’s much wider, it’s much more open. If you’re express you think ‘I’ll form a band’, you don’t think ‘I’ll make a movie’. Compared to our music industry we only really have occasional hits.
Do you think we’re slightly inhibited by our culture in that respect?
Partly because we’re traditionally more interested in theatre and literature, we don’t worship the camera in the way the Americans do. It’s a part of their lives like it isn’t here. You know, we don’t go to the movies on Christmas Day. It’s their artform – the French and the Indians would disagree, but it is the American art. It’s certainly not ours.
What film would you like to make next?
I’d love to direct another 28 Days Later... film, but it’s a time thing. I’m doing a play at the national theatre actually with a friend of mine, Nick Deer, and we’ve been working on it for many years – it’s an adaptation of Frankenstein and it opens in February. It’s fascinating for me because I started in the theatre so it’s always interesting to go back to it, I kind of owe it a great deal and I hope I can survive in it now and shake off the rust. And then I’m doing the Olympic Games.
What are your plans for that as artistic director?
Well, I’m presenting it to the IOC in a computer pre-vis form and then it’s a case of bringing it to life.
That’s when you’ve got to sell the vision?
Yeah but it’s a good time to do it because Beijing is almost impossible to follow in a direct sense because it’s beyond the scale of any economy other than the Chinese one. They had a very breast-thumping reason to do it, you know. Whereas I think ours will really utilise the intimacy of the stadium – which is the same seating capacity as Beijing, but half the size. So it will be a bit more about the people in the stadium rather than the sheer spectacle on TV. It does have to be a spectacle, of course, but I hope there’ll be a personal side to it as well.
Trying to top Beijing just wouldn’t be British would it?
Exactly, and not only that you’d never get anybody to do it! Our equivalent of what they did in Beijing would end up looking like a half-arsed Halifax advert. No one wants to see that.