Interview with Danny Boyle ("127 Hours")

Quite the contrast between interviewing Danny Boyle, promoting  "127 Hours," and the other big name British director I chatted with last month, Stephen Frears,  promoting "Tamara Drewe." One is vibrant, engaged, enthusiastic, candid, friendly, informative, and illuminating. The other is Stephen Frears.

Boyle you might remember from the 2008 Academy Awards  when he collected the Best Director award for "Slumdog Millionaire," as well as seven other Oscars, including one for Best Picture.
You might also remember him for the some of the other films in his disparate ouvre, including the grisly "28 Days Later" (2002) and the outrageous and hilarious "Trainspotting" (1996). Both films contained their share of brilliantly repulsive moments, one of my favorite being the dead baby crawling on the ceiling in "Trainspotting."

But they all pale before some of the sequences in "127 Hours," in which the real life protagonist, virtuoso rock climber Aron Ralston, played by James Franco, falls into a slot canyon in Utah, has his armed pinned under a half ton boulder, and in order to survive has to...*

Okay, I won't spoil it for you. Well, maybe a little bit. One thing he's forced to do is drink his own urine (perhaps my favorite line from the movie: "That's no Slurpee!"). Ironically, as Boyle points out to me in the course of this interview, this desperate, disgusting practice was not necessary. Judge for yourself if you think the alternative is any better.

I started out by asking him about his daughter, who was reported to be in India helping out poor people.

Q: Did she go after you made "Slumdog?"

PK: She's been there about a year there, yeah.

Q: Was she partly inspired by the movie?

PK: No, she's inspired by Greenpeace and politics of the future [?]. That's her interest.

Q: You're involved in good deeds too. Aren't you involved in a play in South Africa?

DB I'm kind of like a trustee of the charity. It's a very noble charity. A friend of mind started it from scratch. The South African curriculum doesn't include artistic expression, drama or anything like that. So she does that in these townships. So I'm a trustee of that, trying to support that. I'm doing a play reading of some of the kids' monologues.

Q: Have you kept in touch with some of the kids from "Slumdog?"

DB: Yeah, actually Christian's [Colson, the producer]  there today. I couldn't go today because I'm doing this. We have a couple of trusts out there. Really tiny scale work about all sorts of education, hygiene education, things like that with some kids.

Q: I just read that you just won the British Film Institute Award.

DB: It's called a fellowship. Which is like pretty intimidating because it's got some pretty hardcore names on it. It's very nice. The European premiere of the film is on the 28th and the ceremony is on the 27th.

Q: So are you getting money?

DB: No. (laughs). No you get, actually I don't know what you get. I'm kind of half embarrassed with things like that. Half of me's vein and half of me's embarrassed, like anyone else.

Q: Well after 10 Oscars, the rest is gravy.

DB: No, no. It's like you never can get used to it really.

Q: Has that changed your life?

DB: No, but it does change everybody else, I'm afraid. Everybody else starts calling you Mr. I did a Q and A after a screening the other night and every other question was like "Mr. Boyle..." never used to say that before. Of course that in itself changes you. Even if you try to resist it. We try to put it to positive use. We did a bit of charity work. You know which is good because you can raise lots of charity money. It helps profile. We also used it to try to make this film, because it's the kind of film that would never be made normally. You could set it up but you'd never normally get financing. You'd have to make it from nothing. And then we wouldn't have been able to do some of the things we wanted to do with it. We took advantage of the success to finance this film.

Q: How long have you wanted to make this film?

DB Since about when I first heard the story when it happened. I was really intrigued by it. It snagged into the consciousness in a way that was really surprising. And then in 2006 I read his book ["Between a Rock and a Hard Place"] when it was published in the UK. I approached him then about making the film then. But he didn't want to do it like the way I wanted to do it. He wanted to do something more like documentary, with him in it speaking about the events, because he'd obviously written this book, and he was giving speeches. He was hired by Microsoft to speak to 3,000 executives about why you should never give up, you know?

Q: Always bring a cell phone.

DB: No cell signal down there. They don't carry cell phones because it's weight, and they reduce the weight in the backpack to the bare minimum.

Q: Bring a decent knife anyway.

DB: Yeah, bring a decent knife next time. Anyway, we couldn't find agreement in 2006, so we separated. Because obviously it's his story. But I never let go because I always had this idea of how I wanted to tell it. Which is sort of like a first person immersive experience where you're not released until he's released. You literally go through it with him.

Q: I have a question about spoilers. I mean, it's pretty common knowledge how he makes his release. But would you prefer people not refer to exactly how it happens?

DB: You can't do that. I think you can only do that if you do it up, if you make it fiction. Like the film "The Crying Game," where they did that Hitchcock thing and they begged critics not to give it away, and they did. But you can only really do that it a fiction. In a true story you'd never be able to give it away. So you rely on the amnesia that we have in cinema for the outcome. We go into it knowing the outcome but we still go "Oh my god, he's going to die!" Even though you know he's a live, so it doesn't make sense. But that's one of the irrational things about cinema, it's great.

Q: It's kind of like Greek tragedy or Shakespeare, everybody knows how it's going to end.

DB: And you still go through with it. It feels urgent.

Q: So you had access to his videos.

DB: He doesn't show them to many people. And because of that, and because he was quite tricky about us getting to see them, I was expecting them to be abject or distressing to watch. They're not. They're amazingly composed and controlled. And of course it's because his thought process - even though he was distressed and abject - his thought process was "I don't want to leave a message for my mom. I don't want to be found dead, and the only thing she's got of me is me weeping." So he tries to be very controlled, self-possessed, practical. So there were messages like that. But because they're cut like that, they just jump. The camera doesn't move, he puts them in the same place each day. The background stays the same. The only thing that changes is him. He spends 24 hours without water. And the change in his face is frightening. And it's not like weight loss. I mean you can only last a couple of days without water. You can do 60 days without food if you're lucky. But 2 days without water and you're fucked really.

Q: Yeah, drinking your own urine is kind of extreme. And drinking your own blood.

DB: Yeah, he licks his own blood to get taste. But it's very dry blood because it's full of iron and it dries your mouth out. Urine. What you should do with urine, which he didn't realize, but it's been told, is you should put it in your ass. Because that's a much more efficient use of it. The family that got trapped out at sea, they did it. They were a British family in the 70s. They did it because she was a nurse and she knew the more efficient way of using it as liquid was to put it directly in you. Because it burns your mouth. And it doesn't do you much good.

Q: Well that's a lot of good tips. Actually the scenes with the videotapes reminded me a little bit of Herzog's "Grizzly Man," except it has a happy ending.

DB: "Grizzly Man"'s an amazing film, isn't it? I met him, amazing guy. I loved "Bad Lieutenant." Wasn't it amazing? "Shoot him again. He's dead. No he isn't, his soul is still dancing." It's insane.

Q: He didn't actually shoot the amputation, did he?

DB: No, no, no. Oh God, no. Aron no. Although our compulsive nature to see everything recorded, which of course Aron is in the vanguard of, makes you wish he had recorded it. So you could see everything. But in fact he only recorded the messages.

Q: Your simulation was enough for me. What were those two little wires? Were those nerves?

DB: Yeah. The description of that in the book is extraordinary. It's that thing that you can only get to through real experience. No writer could write that. When he gets to the nerve, and it's clearly protected by the two bones, it seems to be in a very protected position. Obviously there's lot of nerves there, but this main nerve was his biggest challenge.

Q: The whole thing is like a mythological punishment. Your desire is to climb rocks and to walk freely, and your punishment is that you're locked in this rock. It's almost like Sisyphus.

DB: Sisyphus, Prometheus, it's Beckett in a rock. It's extraordinary. The place it has amongst it. James [Franco] would always say it was Samuel Beckett. He said it's insane. And it is insane. Cause this guy climbs the whole time and he's supreme, confident, achiever. He runs ultra marathons, he's so fit. And this is just a grain of sand for nature. It just pins him.

Q: He's  being punished for hubris.

DB: It becomes that. He realizes much more about himself then he ever really knew. And he acknowledges that know. In reality his journey was delayed by the media attention. That immediately replaced the suffering. Immediately he became a media star. He said when that died down he found it very difficult. And then he met his wife. She completed his journey for him.

Q: So he was kind of lost even after he returned to civilization?

DB: I don't think he ever got a chance to fully assess it. Because he was writing the book and the media was desperate for it to come out. I think after that 18 month flush it was very difficult to cope with. Because you're left with that downer, and what does it mean? When I met him for the first time in 2006 he was very different man when I met him again, it looked like he changed a lot. And he admitted that.

Q: Almost like a backhanded swipe at the video media culture, he takes all these videos, even a video of his arm, almost like a farewell to an arm.

DB: I mean you can't make that up. Because when you're watching it, you know it has to be true. No dramatist in their right mind would go, "Oh and now he takes a picture of it." It's just like, that would never happen. And the picture's in the book. Yeah he documents everything. When they went back it took 12 men to move the rock. They took the hand out. They're pretty tough to look at. So they cremated it, and took the ashes back and scattered them in a private ceremony for himself.

Q: He expresses almost a kind of affection for the rock, like it was a rock of destiny.

DB: Yeah, and I think he felt that in the end. That's how we make sense of things. Obviously you can say it's completely arbitrary. Nature is not a consciousness. It's just luck or not luck. But as rational beings we work these things out as being what they mean to us, and he saw it as being that he had come to this point where it was necessary for him to learn. Without a lesson like this he would never be able to make a full learning curve.

Q: It's interesting because your films seem to fluctuate from a very populous place like Mumbai to probably the least populated spot in the world. It's like the conflict between wanting to be an individual and wanting to be part of the crowd. You think the lesson of this movie is that you have to learn to conform with other people?

DB: Not conform, but we all are connected. You can try to separate yourself, but magnetically we'll pull you back. I do believe that very passionately. It's very difficult to illustrate and talk about without seeming pretentious. But I do believe it. I can see evidence of it everywhere. We live in cities, and all cities are growing. You never read on the news about the city shrinking. It's the countryside that's struggling.

Q: Some of the Midwest is shrinking. Detroit and those places.

DB: Yeah. But our basic instinct is to live in these herds, and to live in these cities. And movies are, although they're theoretically about some sort of escapism, they're actually not. They're about other people in other cities, and we go watch them in cities. I find that really interesting. And the story always spoke to me like that. He was presented as a unique hero individual who showed extraordinary courage. And I always thought, I'm not sure that's right. I thought that's what he was before he went in there. Which he was, completely self-sufficient. Could run ultra marathons in the dessert. Physically powerful. But this grain of sand he couldn't move. It's a different story what brings him back in the end.

Q: But he did save himself without the intervention of anybody until he meets the group of hikers.

DB: Well yeah, and I don't think he would have made it without them, because  he was so tired. We did the climb out of that canyon, and fuck, it's really steep, it's like climbing out of the Grand Canyon. But my point is, what he did we would all do. In that sense he's a representative of us. He's not something separate from us. I hope the film shows we would all do that. We might die, we might not crawl out of there, but we would all do that. And that thing that binds us, which is partly a survival thing, is so powerful. It just gets you through the most extraordinary things.

Q I thought it was kind of funny and very poignant that the fact that he didn't return his mother's phone call was like one of the reasons he ended up where he was. Was that true?

DB: Well, right at the beginning we said to Aron, look, we want this to be our telling of the story. James and I said to him, we don't want you around the whole time telling us, "Oh no, I tied that shoelace not that shoelace." Because that will just inhibit the actor. We want him to go through the experience. But by the time you get to the end of the film, you will feel it's been truthful. The circumstances that he'll be in will be the circumstances that you were in, and that James will have to deal with them in the way that you dealt with them as well. We said we will hand you back the story in the end, and we won't disgrace it or disfigure it in any way.

Q: But you didn't give him any final say?

DB: We did let him read all the scripts, and we always took his notes, some of which I followed, some of which I didn't. And then we showed him a test screening, when he came in disguised to watch it. I mean, that's a whole other film. What's it like to see something being created that only you have been through and that only you have a memory of, which is distorted by your recounting of it? All memories are distorted by recounting them. Because you do, you embellish them, you slightly alter them without ever really knowing what you're doing. I know that from this job. By the time you've finished a promotional tour, you've invented things you didn't know at the beginning. You slightly alter things. So how the fuck you deal with this? I saw him during the screening, and there'd be bits of it and he'd be flooding with tears, and other bits of it he'd be like almost hostilely separate from it, like it wasn't happening. And he admitted that after. He's seen it 4 or 5 times now.

Q: It's like a recurrent nightmare. It's like trying to overcome a trauma by reliving it over and over again.

DB: Yeah. I mean he obviously will have to tell the story forever. It's like Neil Armstrong. It just becomes a prison that you're in. What you are becomes nothing compared to this moment.

Q: He's actually still trapped by the story.

DB: I think that's the difference with his wife and child. They're different from the story. In reality it means a new life is beginning. They always say that, when you have a child you're part of a new narrative that doesn't end with your death, which is very true. I think that obviously helps.

Q: One reason why he's probably so moved by the film is because of James Franco's performance. Could you comment on how that was put together, and then secondly, what are you planning to do next?

DB: Franco, yeah. James is interesting because he gives the impression of being stoned, like half asleep, half the time.

Q: Was he? I mean, what with "Pineapple Express..."


DB: No. He uses it in real life as a mask. The problem is that he's hyperactive, his brain is on fast forward the whole time. And he uses this kind of like stoned look to deal with the PR, Hollywood sort of thing. To sort of keep a distance, so he can use it if he wants to and push it away if he doesn't want to. I knew this guy, Stewart Burch [?], who was a brilliant director in London, and he was like the most baffling guy to me. He was a complete mess, but brilliant. And it was a front to make people look after him, and he could get what he wanted. But Franco just soaked up everything, and he was a wonderful collaborator. When I casted him I thought he'd bring variety to the role, which I thought would be crucial, so that he changes literally. If he's the same all the way through it'd just be unbearable. But he brings this variety to it, literally different voices eventually.

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