While Slumdog Millionaire is remembered for its cache of Oscars and cast dancing through the end credits Bollywood-style, Danny Boyle’s real achievement was drawing a global mainstream audience for a film that depicted such brutal moments as the mother of the young protagonists being beaten to death, and a child blinded to make him a more productive panhandler. That was a walk in the park compared to 127 Hours, Aron Ralston’s harrowing tale of survival after being pinned for five days under an 800-pound boulder. Given the opportunity to follow Slumdog by taking a multi-million dollar paycheck for James Bond or another big studio film, Boyle instead got paid $666,000 and gambled his Oscar currency on the bet he could get an audience to sit through a grueling survival story for a rich spiritual payoff. Here, Boyle provides the logic behind the most daring creative leap he has made in an exceptional career:
DEADLINE: Early in 127 Hours, Aron Ralston takes an exhilarating free-fall through a chasm and into a pool of blue water far below. Isn’t there a parallel to the creative leaps you take, the way you jump from one genre to another and take on improbable premises that could easily end up going splat?
BOYLE: There certainly is that possibility of going splat. One of the things I believe in is to be extreme. I don’t mean do things for shock value, but to tell a story as extremely as possible. People go to the cinema to see the whole screen stretched and pushed to the sides, up and down and across. I love when you can get that image to pulsate. When you get those moments, or watch them, that’s what I love most in cinema. You do transport people in that moment. Beyond persistence, the only advice I ever give to young filmmakers is, don’t be shy in the way you tell a story. Be bold. There is that great quote, boldness has genius in it. People forgive you many things, if you remember that.
DEADLINE: When you have a hard-sell premise like 127 Hours or Slumdog Millionaire, is part of the appeal proving you can pull it off?
BOYLE: You learn things about yourself over time. I learned that I am at my best when my project is under $20 million and I’m trying to make it look like $100 million. Chris Nolan can take $160 million and make it feel like $320 million and I love and admire him for it, but I’m not that guy. Give me the $20 million. But that’s only the arithmetic. The truth for me is in the story, the trip you’re going on. It has to capture you. My interest in this story predated Slumdog Millionaire, and it survived everything that happened on Slumdog. I knew we had something because of the way Christian Colson was immediately very interested when I introduced him to it. It was tricky. What do you follow Slumdog with? Scorsese said the genius is in the choices. Even if nobody saw it, I knew at least we were sure in ourselves when we chose it. The other thing was how the story did flower when we told it. Sometimes you work on films and they don’t flower in your hands. You can just feel it. They don’t get more profound, richer or more rewarding as you go into telling them. There’s nothing you can do at that stage, you have to keep going and compensate. But you know when they open up. I could feel Slumdog open up, I just got lost in it because it was so wonderful. This one did, as well. You could just feel the story ripen.
DEADLINE: How long from your magical Slumdog Oscar night you decide to invest that currency in 127 Hours?
BOYLE: It wasn’t instantaneous. Slumdog was so overwhelming, it was hard to think clearly. We spent a lot of time setting up charity trusts in India. You become a bit of public property in the wake of something like that, especially in Britain, where people wanted to celebrate what they saw as a big home win. You can avoid that, but I felt it was right to go along with it, and raise some money for charities. All that takes up space in your brain. I flirted a bit, talked to Duncan Kenworthy about a musical, stuff like that. But it was this story, really, that we settled on. It really fell into place as a lovely film we could use the trajectory Slumdog had given us to tell it the way we wanted to.
DEADLINE: After Slumdog, I’m told you could have directed the next James Bond, or taken a huge check for some studio tent pole. What was that post-Slumdog courtship period like?
BOYLE: It was very flattering. If I was 27, it would have been very dangerous. Fortunately I’ve made a few films, some very successful and some very unsuccessful. That does help guide you. I remember thinking about Sam Mendes, when he won an Oscar with this first film. Bloody hell, it would be tough to handle that fresh out of the block. The town, the whole industry…distortion is the wrong word, but a warping happens in front of your vision, how people regard you. You need a good bit of perspective. I have grown kids who will not take any bullshit off me at all. If I start talking about myself in the third person, or saying things like ‘My film, my oeuvre,’ anything like that, they are merciless with me. That helps.
DEADLINE: After Fox Searchlight rescued Slumdog from a direct to DVD fate, you then pitched them 127 Hours as an action movie where the lead character is pinned under a boulder. What was their reaction?
BOYLE: [Laughs]. Well they were cautious, rightly so, but in the end, courageous. You can look now and see the film has a wonderful performance, and on a certain level it is a visceral and engaging thrill ride. Back then, the prospect must have looked dangerously like a vanity project, something insane that only one person in the world—me—could ever watch. But I knew it wasn’t that. The point of a good partnership is the ability to flesh it out together. The pitch is so important in that regard. Sometimes you can feel it crumble, that it won’t work. But every time I pitched this, it felt solid to me. Then it was a matter of them making sure they didn’t give us too much money, which is one of their important functions. Honestly, giving me too much money could have turned it into a vanity project.
DEADLINE: Though screenwriter Simon Beaufoy wrote the first draft of Slumdog Millionaire, you wrote the first draft of 127 Hours. Why? Was it that hard to verbalize how you’d turn the unpalatable into something spiritual?
BOYLE: Christian and I thought it was a slam dunk that Simon would want to do it and we were shocked when he didn’t. He was a climber. We’d lived like a family on Slumdog and had all been amazingly rewarded and we wanted to work together again. And did I say he’s a climber, and so the one thing we can’t bring to the story, he can? But he’s wise and has been through this a few times. He knew I had this locked in my head, really, and I think he felt that I had to get it out or any draft he did he would disappoint me. He thought I had to go through that writer’s process and get it on paper. It’s such an important testing ground for a story. They sent me off to do a couple drafts last summer, and it was brutal. I’m not a writer and saw the truth in all those stories writers tell you. Wandering around the house, doing nothing all day, just waiting for that 20 minutes when the writing finally comes. It’s all true. It’s a curse and a gift. It eludes you and then suddenly something comes and you go, that’s it! And you get up the next morning and say, fucking hell! How did I write that?
DEADLINE: What was Aron Ralston’s biggest fear entrusting his story to you?
BOYLE: That he would lose his voice. Not only had he written a book, he was running a motivational speaking business. He’s told his story 1000 times, embellished it and organized it, the way we all do when we tell stories. Suddenly, he’s being asked by a guy from Britain who is not a climber, let me become the voice of your story. I wanted him to understand I would tell his story through an actor like James Franco, and the audience will experience it through that actor’s voice. That must have been very tough for him. We joked about him being worried that Hollywood would change the ending, and he was distrustful of Hollywood. The real fear was he was going to lose control of telling the story with his own voice. That control instinct is one of the things that helped him survive in the first place. He is a controlling man who was sent spiraling out of control by nature, deliberately. But he wouldn’t give up control when I first met him in 2006. I think the reason he did in 2009 was the influence of his wife. He’d changed as a person by the time I met him again. Also, getting ready for a child, these are important steps in which a man gives up control by assuming more responsibility. We all know that feeling of giving up that narrow focus we have, to get on with something a bit more complicated.
DEADLINE: What was the biggest challenge in not making the audience feel claustrophobic and isolated?
BOYLE: The challenge was to maintain momentum in that isolation. There was an engine, still burning, still moving the story forward and that was partly his own industry, and the fact he never gave up and had to occupy himself constantly. Editing accentuated that. But it was also the story we uncovered that wasn’t so obvious in the book. There was an emotional journey that was right for a great actor. Aron had to learn to change. We never called them flashbacks, but those images and scenes he sees in his mind are keys for him to unlock a part of himself. He needed to let go of his previous life. The thing that will unlock it isn’t cutting his arm off, though that’s the obvious physical manifestation. It’s like he is putting in the right combination that will allow him to step back, free. That’s something we found that connected things emotionally and made this story universal. It made it, weirdly, our story, me and Simon. We’ve both been guilty, like Aron was as a character, of dealing with the emotions of other people and not being as respectful as we might have been. We’ve learned better, with the passage of time, over decades. He’s learning it in 127 Hours, because of those circumstances. It felt like a personal story to us as filmmakers, a classical story. It’s weird how that happens. You highlight the things that matter to you, tell it with a passion and it becomes personal to you. That’s the process we went through.
DEADLINE: What about James or his work made him right?
BOYLE: Pineapple Express was key. When I saw it, I wasn’t thinking about casting him. I was just a punter watching a good film but I remember thinking, that’s a major actor, a proper actor, good on you. I’d seen his other stuff that was quite intense, and moody. A lot of people can do that. But when they can turn their hand to comedy and occupy that soul expertly? I’m not comparing him to De Niro, but I love actors and remember thinking the same thing when he did The King of Comedy. I grew up with him playing those heavy roles for Scorsese. I loved them and was in that fan club. Then you see King of Comedy, when all the fans drop away and you become part of a more exclusive club, appreciating a really great actor. When we were casting, you meet all these guys and then you think about their work. I knew James would be able to bring a range to this performance that would sustain the shape of the film. I can shape things a bit as the director, but with an experience like this, the major shaping is your experience of living it with him. Simon could provide things, like that amazing speech with him on the chat show, but James had to be able to do most of this. And subtly, he had to be able to show despair. There’s a terrible moment where he…it’s a wonderful bit of acting…he can’t get to the girl’s door to talk to her. It’s obviously a dream in his head but he starts crying in the canyon. I remember it was one of the few moments where the camera literally pulled away from him. That was instinctive, because it had become too much to bear, too intrusive. It’s one of the few moments in the film where you had to pull away and give him space. There were all kinds of shapes he found. A young actor, when they have some experience, they should be looking for things to do like that, ways to flex their muscles.
DEADLINE: Franco is an NYU student, he’s directing a feature and a short, playing a menacing performance artist on a soap opera, doing the Planet of the Apes prequel. Simuntaneously. It would be easy to label him a flake. How do you sum up that constant motion and curiosity?
BOYLE: The flake thing. He’s looking at what flake-dom is, it’s part of his process. As a modern actor, he’s thinking that soap operas are part of the language now. He’s said, you can sneer at them, but they influence everything we do, down to where the sofa goes in our living room and what IKEA sells. We don’t realize we’re being affected by these things. He’s really into this, and he’s right of course. It’s pervasive, beyond which reality star is going to be thrown off next, for us to have a look at, then destroy, and follow them through drug addiction and rehab. It’s acting in other ways that we don’t fully understand. That’s what he’s exploring. Whether he sustains that for a very long time, I don’t know. Maybe he’ll specialize and become a major actor. Or dip in and out and take a few years off from acting to try something else. He’s super bright. I could give him a long list, which you shouldn’t do with an actor. It’s one of the rules, you tell an actor no more than one thing, because they’ve got their own agenda running. I’d give him 10, and he would accommodate them. I remember DiCaprio being the same. I didn’t direct him as well, but he was hungry. Anything you could give him, he was like, more. These are thoroughbreds. They want challenge and stimulation. You find yourself running out of ideas. You’re like fucking hell, and you’re running to keep up. You’ve got to be on your game, because he’s going to turn around and say, what else? And you haven’t got anything else.
DEADLINE: The audience escaped claustrophobia in the way you shot the film. Franco had intense scenes in a confined space. What role does a director play in keeping him on point?
BOYLE: You mainly keep his spirits up. You don’t really need to keep him on point. It was very rare where I felt he was off-key. He was loving the challenge of doing it on his own, but sometimes he must have wished for some other actress to fool around with, all those normal things you feel. Jealousy, an affair coming on. There was none of that here. He couldn’t even relate to the crew, really. They could only go in one at a time and I’d limit the amount of time they went in there. I tried to keep his spirits up, which I like doing with actors, anyway. I don’t like isolating them or playing psychological games. But I do try to act it out sometimes and he used to find that entertaining. He’s quite confident as an actor and he could see that I’m quite a poor actor. He would get me to act something out and then he’d just smile. I think I entertained him. Those great actors have a filter and it tells them why certain lines in a script just don’t work. He’d say, I don’t care how much you need that information, a character would not say that, Danny. They filter out bullshit while bad actors can get bullied into it by a director or a writer. And when they say that shit, you go, who is that shit actor? And it’s not their fault.
DEADLINE: At the Toronto premiere, I felt that the audience was so invested in Aron, we collectively felt relief when he freed himself. When you labor to get that just right, how troubling is it when the media harps on people fainting?
BOYLE: My worry, funny enough, was that we’d get people walking out at that moment. It’s a tribute to James that, even though people don’t find that scene easy, you can see people making an effort to stick it out. But when you read that, it doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation for seeing the film.
DEADLINE: So what’s in it for the audience?
BOYLE: You’re on a journey, and the things that are going on are tough. It is important that people know they’ve been through something, and that there is a reward attached to that. That reward is a profound sense of well being. It’s not the thrill sense of well being you got from watching Slumdog, with a feel-good ending and a dance song. This is a more serious, proper sense of well-being that you deserve after going through that with James. We don’t do a dance, but I wanted to celebrate that feeling with music and a sense of completion. You feel like you really have earned the sense of belonging again. I profoundly believe in that, in my own life. It’s very important that it’s not easy, not some Christmas jingle. It’s deeply earned. That will always toss some people off and I don’t blame them. You work hard all week, and you don’t want to spend your Friday night in a canyon. That’s fine. But there will be people who will want that, and it’s what I love about movies. Finding that special experience that moves you.
DEADLINE: What’s your best memory of that Slumdog Oscar night?
BOYLE: It was looking down my row and seeing all the people I’d worked with, in profile, all holding Oscars in their hands. They gave speeches but who can remember what they said? You don’t remember much of your own moment. But that lovely feeling, the profiles and the Oscars, because you only see photographs of famous people holding Oscars, from the front.
DEADLINE: You are choreographing the Olympic opening ceremonies in Britain. The last one in China exploited the acrobatic precision. What is it that the British do better than anybody that you can showcase?
BOYLE: We’re a slightly awkward bunch, and idiosyncratic. I don’t think we could organize games like the Chinese. When it comes to a war or something, we can get ourselves organized. But in peace time, we won’t put up with organization. It’s that kind of Sex Pistols thing, we’re not having any of that. That contrariness is something I like very much. I’m hoping we’ll be able to figure out a way to celebrate it.