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Danny Boyle Talks Eclecticism, ‘Hours’

‘Slumdog’ director speaks on challenges of realism, screenwriting, and acting

In his peripatetic career as a director, Danny Boyle has traversed the drug-addled backstreets of Edinburgh (“Trainspotting”), a post-apocalyptic future (“28 Days Later”), and most famously, the fairy-tale success story of a boy from Mumbai (“Slumdog Millionaire”). Now, in “127 Hours,” perhaps the grittiest film of his entire career, Boyle has turned his attention, for the first time in over a decade, to realism. The film traces the true story of Aron Ralston, an intrepid hiker who falls down a gorge in Utah and finds his right arm trapped under a rock. Over the next five days—the time period referenced in the film’s title—Ralston (played by James Franco) wages a remarkable battle against the elements and his own fears and insecurities, reflecting in excruciating detail on his life and, eventually, summoning the courage to extricate himself, amputating his arm with a blunt, Chinese-made multitool.

Boyle, 54, says he has always been attracted to stories of extraordinary human courage and suffering, whether of the trapped Chilean miners or the incarceration of the kidnapped Irish writer Brian Keenan in Beirut in the 1980s. “I first heard of Ralston’s story in 2003,” he says, “but while Aron wanted to make a docu-drama, I preferred the idea of a real-time experience film.” He says that the medium of cinema is uniquely suited to convey a story such as this. “When you go to the cinema, you’re trapped in a black box: you’re committed to the film. The only way the audience can tolerate Aron amputating his arm is if they are invested in the film.”

After a decade of fantastical and sometimes dystopian films—in particular his multiple collaborations with writer Alex Garland—it is perhaps surprising that Boyle should turn his attention to such a story. However, he insists that he has never intended to specialize in a certain kind of film. “The studios want you to be a specialist, but I’ve never wanted to repeat myself. That’s a danger with success: it breeds familiarity.” The film required Boyle, always known as a technical innovator, to shoot in specialized ways. “Most of the film was shot in long takes—for instance, a 22 minute talk of James trying to move that rock, and then we edited until we had the perfect footage.”

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Boyle is full of praise for Franco: “Unusually for a lead actor these days, he has real variety and range.” Boyle emphasizes that while they collaborated with Ralston at various stages, he wanted this to be Franco’s impressionistic rendition. “I wanted James and the audience to go through the experience together, rather than to exactly portray Aron’s story. Aron read each of this scripts, but this was our version of the story.”

The script itself is notable in that, for the first time in his career, Boyle receives a screenwriting credit. “I’m not a writer, I don’t like writing,” he avers, “But when Simon [Beaufoy, the screenwriter] first heard the idea, he didn’t quite get it, and asked me to write a draft first.” However, he does not intend to write his own scripts again. “Now I can go back to my day job, which is critiquing other people’s scripts.”

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Beaufoy, along with producer Christian Colson, composer A.R. Rahman and many other members of the crew of “127 Hours”, worked with Boyle on his previous film, “Slumdog Millionaire”, which garnered Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. The films could not be more different, except in the vibrancy that characterizes all of Boyle’s work, but the director asserts his love of working with a group. “I’m a team player, and like to be surrounded by people who will be honest with me. Success makes people say yes to you, and it’s important to work with people you can trust.”

—Staff writer Keshava D. Guha can be reached at kdguha@fas.harvard.edu.

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