BLUE JOHN CANYON, Utah — Danny Boyle could barely be heard over the low-flying helicopter. “It’s like ‘Apocalypse Now,’” he yelled as he fastened his helmet and tightened a climbing harness around his waist, preparing to descend into a narrow canyon.
The British director had brought his moviemaking team to this remote locale just outside Canyonlands National Park to film several key scenes in “127 Hours,” Boyle’s first feature since 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” Every supply — sleeping bags, tents, toilets, cameras, makeup, forks, beef jerky — had to be flown in, and the latest delivery had just noisily arrived.
Yet as soon as the chopper lifted off again that April day, a stillness settled over the Utah landscape — the same haunting quiet that surrounded hiker Aron Ralston after he was pinned by a falling chockstone here in 2003, famously forcing him to amputate his right forearm to escape.
Boyle climbed down a series of ladders to the precise spot of Ralston’s solitary, five-day ordeal of dehydration, starvation, hypothermia and sleep deprivation. The actual rock that trapped the hiker was removed years ago so that Ralston’s hand could be recovered and cremated; in its place was an artificial boulder, splattered with fake blood added for the scene.
In the sequence being filmed, Ralston (played by James Franco) had just severed his forearm with a dull multi-tool. In the next shot, he was to stagger out of the tight coulee, only to be faced with another unthinkable task: to rappel about 70 feet down a sheer cliff, using one hand. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, tethered by a rope to a large shrub, leaned over the gorge from an opposing precipice to shoot Franco’s walk from the dark slot to the sunny rappel spot — “into God’s light,” as Boyle described it.
“His last, worst fear is that he’ll lose control of it,” Boyle instructed a gaunt Franco, who had lost 25 pounds for the role. “And he’s got to be careful that he doesn’t pass out from the blood loss.”
A middle-of-nowhere location, precarious camerawork and physical strains were hardly the only challenges Boyle’s team faced in filming “127 Hours,” a Fox Searchlight release arriving in theaters Nov. 5. They also dodged scorpions and weathered a freak late-season snowstorm that delayed production.
Yet those were all trivial tribulations compared to what Boyle, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and producer Christian Colson had to wrestle with even before the “127 Hours” cameras rolled: first, sell a reluctant Ralston on any number of dramatic liberties; second, craft a compelling narrative in which the hero has no one to talk to and can’t move; and third, figure out how to depict a grisly procedure that wouldn’t make moviegoers pass out or run for the exits.
Even if Boyle succeeded on all those fronts, the “127 Hours” director admitted, “This will be a difficult movie to sell.”
Boyle’s filmography is extraordinarily varied: the zombie thriller “28 Days Later,” the sci-fi story “Sunshine,” the children’s fantasy “Millions,” the dystopian drama “The Beach,” the crime movie “Shallow Grave,” and the hallucinatory “Trainspotting.” The 54-year-old has tackled every genre, it seems, outside of musicals and biography.
Six years ago, he tried to adapt “3000 Degrees: The True Story of a Deadly Fire and the Men Who Fought It,” a book about six firefighters who died in a 1999 Massachusetts blaze. But he and Universal Pictures canceled production at the last minute when some survivors objected.
“I remember thinking after ‘3000 Degrees’ that I’ll never do another real-life story,” Boyle said. “It’s just too complicated. You don’t have control over the material.”
After turning “Slumdog Millionaire” into an art-house chartbuster and Academy Awards champion, Boyle contemplated directing the next James Bond film or remaking “My Fair Lady.” But he kept thinking about Ralston’s near-death experience, having previously given the hiker’s 2004 book, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” to Colson.
“I read it and said, ‘There’s no way you can do this,’” the producer said. “It’s one bloke with his arm stuck. How could you make that dramatic?”
Boyle had an answer, albeit a strange one, and gave Colson his outline for the film. Rather than focus as much on the mounting rescue effort as on Ralston’s predicament, as some filmmakers might, Boyle said his cameras would never leave the hiker. That way, spectators in a multiplex could be transported to the canyon.
“I wanted it to be a subjective experience for the audience,” Boyle said. “My feeling is that we’re all capable of what Aron did. So if it’s subjective, you won’t avert your eyes. You’ll say, ‘Go on, do it!’”
But Ralston wasn’t initially buying Boyle’s vision.
Smitten with the Andean survival movie “Touching the Void,” a 2003 feature combining interviews with the real climbers and reenactments by actors, Ralston thought the same fact/fiction mash-up would best serve his story. He joined forces in 2004 with “Touching the Void” producer John Smithson and filmmaker Alex Gibney, the documentarian behind the Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side.” But their movie went nowhere for two years.
“We had a vision, and still we couldn’t get financing,” Ralston said. “So we had to challenge that initial assumption that I was the best person to tell the story.”
Ralston met Boyle in 2006, before the making of “Slumdog Millionaire,” and the director told him how he would tell his tale. “He wanted to work within that very challenging framework. It’s a tight space. There’s one guy. And he’s not moving for two-thirds of the movie,” Ralston said.
What’s more, Boyle told Ralston, he needed to dramatize Ralston’s state of mind, embellishing small details — such as Ralston’s fleeting mention in his book of a girlfriend — into larger narrative passages with emotion. “If you want me to do it,” Boyle told Ralston, “you have to lend us your story.”
In other words, the filmmakers would make sure the climbing gear was right, and would resist the studio’s suggestions for product placements like candy bars, but they would have to make stuff up. “You have to sacrifice the small truths,” Colson said, “to honor the larger one.”
Ralston still wasn’t convinced. “I thought accuracy was the channel to inspiration — that it had to be absolutely the truth to touch people and inspire audiences,” said Ralston, who has been a popular motivational speaker. “And then I started realizing that’s not the only avenue to get to that goal.” After “Slumdog Millionaire” swept the Oscars in early 2009, he was willing to let “127 Hours” proceed.
So with screenwriter Beaufoy, Boyle sketched out a story that attempted to answer the big questions of how the experience transformed Ralston, while including moments that Ralston never discussed or actually didn’t happen: In one scene, the trapped hiker masturbates. “Come on, he must have tried to,” Boyle said, though Ralston has remained silent on the issue.
Ralston had quit an engineering job at Intel in 2002 to dedicate himself to mountain climbing. Before the accident, he said, he was “more hedonistic, more narcissistic and more concerned with ego-fulfillment.” But Boyle needed to capture that evolution in the compressed time span of a 90-minute movie. So, for example, his script employs the girlfriend character of Rana (Clemence Poesy) to dramatize Ralston’s selfishness and remind the hiker of what he had left behind.
In reality, the 34-year-old said, it was his family, not a former flame, that filled his thoughts during his ordeal. “Basically, they needed more girls in the movie,” Ralston said.
Because the narrow confines of Blue John Canyon made it impossible to film the entire movie there, production designer Anne Suttirat Larlarb built a precise replica of the crevasse in a Salt Lake City warehouse. On that set in late March, before the team headed to Blue John Canyon, Franco was taking the first step in Ralston’s backcountry surgery.
With a prosthetic arm in place of his own, Franco folded out a knife from the multi-tool and plunged it into his (fake) flesh, the blade stopping when it hit (fake) bone. Syrupy imitation blood — thick, like Ralston’s would have been due to dehydration — oozed from the wound. Looking exhausted, the actor took a swig of the only drink the hiker had left: his own urine (fake), stored in a CamelBak hydration pouch.
“Oh that’s it, James, brilliant,” Boyle said after Franco finished gagging. “If you can get in that position again, you can see it moving through the tube into your mouth.”
Boyle knew that a movie focused almost exclusively on one stuck man, even with some flashbacks and an encounter with two female hikers before the fateful moment of entrapment, could quickly turn tedious. So he used an array of visual flourishes to keep the story moving — like putting a lens in the CamelBak so that the audience would see the urine traveling toward Ralston’s mouth. He also takes the viewer into Ralston’s arm, to witness knife hitting bone.
Boyle also took the highly unusual step of employing two cinematographers: “Slumdog Millionaire’s” Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak, who shot “28 Weeks Later.” While Dod Mantle was setting up one shot, Chediak was filming another — giving Franco little time to rest.
“It’s partly about harnessing Danny’s energy. He doesn’t like sitting around,” Colson said.
While Ralston was trapped, he recorded himself on video, including moments where, convinced of his impending death, he made an impromptu will and offered instructions about where his ashes should be scattered. While Ralston hasn’t shown the videos publicly — “I promised my mom not to,” he said — he shared them with Franco and the “127 Hours” team.
“They feel like the scariest home movies you’ve ever seen. For an actor, it’s just gold,” Franco said. “It’s not Aron retelling the story in one of his speeches. It’s a guy who thinks he is going to die but not wallowing in self-pity.”
Ultimately, Boyle believed, Ralston would have an epiphany in the canyon, and it wouldn’t simply be how to break his arm bones so he could cut off his hand. Ralston would lose a limb, but the experience would make him whole.
Two things would compel his escape: the hallucinatory image of his not-yet-conceived son (which is mentioned in Ralston’s book) and the nearly magnetic draw of humanity, a yearning to rejoin everyone else both literally and metaphorically (which isn’t).
“For me, what the film is really about is the pull of the crowd,” Boyle said. “It’s an incredibly powerful thing.”