Interviews · Movies

Danny Boyle Stays Hopeful With ‘127 Hours’

From 2010, we interview the filmmaker about his latest feature, the James Franco-led ‘127 Hours.’
127 Hours Danny Boyle interview
Fox Searchlight Pictures
By  · Published on November 12th, 2010

Danny Boyle is a jolly type of guy, which is a fact clearly shown in his past few films. Even when Boyle is tackling bleak material, like Sunshine or 28 Days Later or The Beach, he still finds a way to interject a hopeful message. With 127 Hours, he does the same: taking a not so upbeat sounding story on paper and making it almost nothing but upbeat and moving.

There’s a lot of ground you can cover with Boyle not just when it comes to his filmmaking in general, but with the film at hand. Thankfully, I still got enough one on one time with Boyle to discuss the diversity of his films, the themes of his work, how Aron Ralston isn’t a superhero, and also his approach to crafting imagery.

Although Boyle says he’s not a happy “happy” type of guy below, when you speak to him he most certainly comes off that way.

Here’s what Boyle had to say:

Obviously, you get asked a lot about the diversity of your body of work. But when you were working on Shallow Grave, did you hope that your body of work would represent this level of diverseness?

Wow, when I did that? I think when you do one you just hope you get a chance to make another one. You live in a state of insecurity imagining you’ll never get to work again or it’ll be a disaster, and things like that. I don’t imagine you could ever see that far forward. As you get to do a few you then start to think, especially if you have a hit or something works, that you’ll get another chance.

You got to take advantage of that almost certitude chance if you get to have another go, and you want to take use of that opportunity to make… I’ve always been drawn to making something that’s different than what I’ve done before. I think you stay fresher, because there are some dangers with film. Basically, even in interesting films, film is pretty much 70 or 80 percent close-ups of actors looking at each other. You can get a bit bored with that and you can see that, and it’s just not exciting anymore.

If you get something you’re unfamiliar with and uncertain about how to do it, that’s where it remains exciting. You get a buzz about doing it, but it doesn’t always work. Sometimes you know it’s not a good day and other days you think you’ve cracked it. I wouldn’t have been able to know back then, but now I think, “What if I get another chance?” and I’m going to use it doing something interesting and different. I want to do that rather than what will peddle along and give people what they expect.

Do you enjoy those not so good days where you get to think more on your feet?

There are a lot of those days where you run out of time, which is always inevitable, because you always got bigger plans. I meant days where you don’t achieve it and you don’t get there or get what you want. The amazing thing about film, and it is an extraordinary thing about it, is that each day just starts again. You don’t carry stuff from one day to the next day, and it’s a weird thing because you think that you would. You don’t [do that] and you just start fresh. You can recover after having some really bad days where everything is against you from the weather to the actors not being good or you not being very good. A good day makes you feel like it’s all back on again. Film is very ephemeral in a good way and bad way.

Can you recall any moments like that from shooting 127 Hours?

When we started, I was desperate to shoot the whole film in sequence. I thought that was the only way to give James [Franco] the chance to really rise to the occasion and to get the whole journey of this guy. When we got down to the desert it was snowing, and it was like a nightmare. It was like the first time they had snow in 25 years, so all of that was gone. We had to travel back and the set wasn’t ready because we were supposed to be shooting outside for a couple of weeks, and it was just a nightmare. Those were some bad days.

One aspect that isn’t totally diverse in your past few films is how hopeful and upbeat they are, even 28 Days Later. What’s your interest in telling the more inspiring stories versus darker and less hopeful films?

I mean, that’s my nature. I’m not a happy “happy” kind of person, but I am genuinely optimistic. I do with my films, however bleak the circumstances, give a sense of life to them that’s an emphatic sense of life that’s worth going on and to keep going. I’m not a depressive. I like to go to dark places, but only to just have a look at them. I don’t want to stay with them. I’m not like that, really. I’m a perpetual optimistic, maybe foolishly sometimes, but that’s the way I am. I hope the films reflect that in a way.

What makes you say foolishly? The happy endings always come with sacrifice: Aron loses his arm here, the world is still a wasteland in 28 Days Later, and the brother dies in Slumdog Millionaire.

Yeah, but you forget that as soon as it happens. It’s a forward-moving momentum that’s a weird art form. I once tried to cast this actor ‐- this film didn’t get made ‐- but it was an amazing story about these amazing firemen in Massachusetts who died in this burning building; it’s an extraordinary true story. I tried to cast this actor for the main part and when I went to meet him he said, “Ah, it’s great. It’s a great part and very interesting, but I don’t want to play it,” and I said, “Why not?” because it really was a great part. He responded because he dies, and I thought, “Yeah… but it’s a great part,” and he responded that nobody ever remembers anyone who’s died in films. At the time I thought he was this shallow twat, but when I thought back to it later, [I realized] it is true. You tend to just go with what’s living in movies.

With a hopeful movie, there’s always this momentum in them. I think the ultimate movies are action movies because there’s always momentum in them. In action, everything is moving forward the whole time, and I tend to think of it like that. I’m sure there are exceptions, but it is true that you do forget.

So you don’t think he’s a total twat now?

No, but I don’t admire him for thinking it. I actually think it is true what he said. When you think about it… with Slumdog there’s not many people who’ve mentioned to me that his brother died. They don’t carry it until the end. In fact, the actor who played the brother has been having a terrible time since then and hasn’t been able to get work. That’s the art form and that’s what happens in films.

What about Religion? That’s a part of a few of your films.

No, it’s not religion. I was brought up a very strict Catholic, but I’m not religious. I am quite spiritual, but I don’t quite think of it in that way. I’m like Aron, in that sense. When he sees the kid it’s not like Jesus or anything like that, but it’s quite clearly real life and not an icon. I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual and think there are forces at work that are very difficult for the rational mind to absolutely pin down, and sometimes they work in your film.

You don’t think religion is a part of Sunshine or Millions?

With Millions, I was brought up like that. You are religious until you learn to be better than religious because your mom just teaches you to be religious. You’re religious until you’re 11 or 12 where you start to think about girls and all that stuff, and you just stop thinking about religion and think about your independence. Because he was 8-years-old, it would have been wrong to show him under anything but his mother’s influence. The saints spark his imagination because he’s been taught about them for so long. When he gets older, he won’t be thinking like that. He’ll be thinking about music, cinema, girls, cars, drugs, or whatever it is.

What about the scene in 127 Hours where Aron looks up at the end and says, “Thank you?”

It’s not God. It’s something else. On a spiritual level, it’s something. We did have a scene, which we cut, but in one of his darker moments he prays to God saying sorry for not paying him much attention for over the years and how he should have and how he needs help (laughs). Of course, no answer came back. In the end, we cut that because it didn’t seem very relevant to him.

I’ve heard you call this a coming-of-age film before. Why do you see it that way?

Well, coming-of-age is wrong because that tends to be focused on going from teenager to adulthood. The film is a journey, and I think there is enough evidence to support that. Like in the film and in his life, he’s quite reckless with himself and other people’s affection for him. He has to learn that he has undervalued people, and he expresses that in the film. That’s certainly a journey Aron went on in the film, yeah. He went in there, some would say, quite arrogantly, but certainly, he fought for himself. He’s very self-efficient, independent, and a solo-climber with never telling people where he was going.

He felt impregnable and just awesome. He didn’t go to just enjoy himself, but he was timing himself to see if he could do it quicker than the record time. He learns through the 6-days in the film that he’s been kind of a shit… maybe not a shit, but he’s been cold and careless with that girl’s affection. It’s not coming-of-age, which is the wrong expression, but it’s certainly a journey that he has to go on before he can be released.

Would you say he’s totally careless? He seems very loving of his family in those flashbacks.

Yeah, he’s not a rebel. He’s a genuine kid, but as he says, he gives this amazing message immediately after he’s done the talk show host thing and says, “Mom and Dad, I want to take this opportunity to tell you how I haven’t valued you in my heart like I know I could and should have done.” He’s taken them for granted, and it’s as simple as that.

In the circumstance that he’s in, he realizes it’s not just about him and he fits in just like everyone else. That’s why the kid is important; it shows him something that he’s not a part of yet, but there’s potential there and a value to play beyond all this achievement. It’s to hand on life to somebody else, and that’s really what we’re here for. We’re here to hand on life to somebody else.

The flashback of young Aron and his father in the wilderness definitely represents that.

Yes, absolutely. He doesn’t really realize it at that point, because he’s just thinking of it as a moment of sunshine. Really, it’s a key moment in his life. He’s going to benefit from that as well later with that kid of his.

What does the raven symbolize?

Well, the raven was interesting. This is quite interesting because it was something we changed because Aron insisted that we change it. In the script, it was a scene late at night in the journey and he was just scared. He senses something behind him in the dark and he uses the camera to see what’s behind him. In the original script, it was that raven, but a 6-foot raven. When he flashed the camera it was just there waiting to eat him and, of course, that’s what a raven would do because that’s nature. Aron said we had to change it because the raven was something he didn’t want to be portrayed as scary, because it was his friend. It was the only living thing that he had had contact with and it helped him a lot, so we made it Scooby-Doo instead (laughs).

I know you don’t like to storyboard, but with certain images, like the flash of Scooby-Doo, do you write moments like that in the script having an exact visual of what you want?

I wrote on this because Simon [Beaufoy]… I think what Simon felt is that I had an image of the film that was very strong, so he told me I should write a couple of drafts first and that he’ll see if he can help. I wrote them, but then thank God he came in and took over. Normally what I do is I just react to writing. When you read writing you have a journey with it and you do think of specific images sometimes, but it’s very important ‐ this is also why I don’t like storyboard writing ‐ is that there’s a great thing the French filmmaker René Clair said, “You must always leave a door open on the set of your movie for real life to walk in.”

There’s a danger with film where you can seal everything off and just make the film you imagined. Real-life, of course, is surprising. It’s not quite what you think it is sometimes. You should always leave a door open for it to walk in when you’re making your film. That’s the danger of using storyboards and very precision filmmaking, so I try to stay open. I do also try to have a journey of images and ideas I want to convey in the film. You need an overall idea, which is what you’re after. You need an idea of why you’re making a film.

I made this film not to tell the Aron Ralston story, because a TV documentary could do that, but I made it because it wasn’t about an individual superhero. It’s about people. People are what begins and ends the film. People in America, especially, think of him as this shining light and an amazingly courageous figure, but he’s not. What he did, we’d all do in that circumstance. What pulls him back and protects him is not incredible courage. He had that courage before he went in, but it’s actually that bond with other people he had which protects him in the end, and that’s why I made the film.

127 Hours is now in theaters.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.