He reveals how he made an action movie in which the action hero couldn’t move.
After the phenomenal success of his multi-Oscar winning, rags-to-riches hit, Slumdog Millionaire, in 2009, Danny Boyle was deluged with directing offers from Hollywood, but, having been stung by a Hollywood adventure in the past with “The Beach,” starring Leonardo Dicaprio, which was an abysmal failure critically and at the box office, he turned them down.
“I’m not very good with money,” he laughs. “I don’t feel that comfortable with it and I don’t like spending huge amounts of it. We try and keep the budgets of the film down. Spending $55 million on The Beach was unbearable. I am not really cut out to do that kind of stuff.”
Indeed, ever since his emergence onto the world stage with “Trainspotting,” the darkly-comic tale of the drug-infested underworld of contemporary Scotland, the British director has managed to chart his own unique path without having to bow to studio pressure. With meagre budgets, he’s created frenzied and highly-stylised films, such as “28 Days Later” and “Millions”, that have established him as one of the most talented and eagerly watched film-makers in the world.
Watching and listening to Boyle talking is like watching one of his movies. He is kinetic, passionate, animated and bursting with energy. Every time I see him in a party, he is always surrounded by a throng of captivated listeners, like a master preaching to his disciples.
I sat down with him at the Marriott hotel in Toronto, where he was promoting his new film, 127 Hours. Frankly, chatting to Boyle is not only entertaining, but also inspiring and enlightening.
The versatile film-maker says that he tells stories that feel honest, truthful and worthy of people’s attention. One such story that preoccupied his mind for several years was that of the American mountaineer, Aron Rastlon, who had to amputate his own arm, after it was trapped by a boulder that fell on him in Blue John Canyon in Utah.
“I had this idea that we’d make an action movie where the action hero can’t move, where nature intervenes with a pebble, the boulder, and makes him stop,” Boyle says.
Ralston wanted to tell the story in a documentary, but Boyle convinced him that it would be boring. The adroit director, who always manages to make the most mundane scenes visually kinetic and emotionally moving, had a vision that would keep the audience involved and rooting for Ralston’s release until the end.
“There is no point of it if it’s just an endurance. But it’s going to be a first person immersive experience where you join in with him in the Canyon, then you’ll get a sense of it. It might be entertaining as well if we can get the right actor, and stimulating. I wanted for you to literally help him release himself,” Boyle enthuses.
Such a story would normally be balked at by a studio, but thanks to the success of Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle, with his producer Christian Coulson, secured backing from Fox Searchlight, and then embarked on writing the script, but he soon got stuck and sought the help of Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscar-winning screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy, who had turned out to be a climber.
Boyle, whose last adventure in the wilderness was camping 33 years ago, was impressed.
“He is a serious climber,” Boyle exclaims. “He’s a fantastic writer. You realise your limitations when you work with a proper writer. I had a vision for this, but I didn’t have the technical facility he has to illustrate character.”
Concerned that he could be limited in the palate of film because it’s just one man stuck in the same place, the innovative director, who utilised small cameras to chase kids in the slums of Mumbai and a cheap DV camera to capture London in a horror movie, contrived an ingenious idea of creating antagonistic relationship with the camera by using two cinematographers from two different cultures: British Anthony Dod Mantle and Latin American Enrique Chediak.
Boyle presumed that the contrast of their sensibilities, the passion of the Latino vs the cool of the North European, was bound to produce different ways of shooting. To his surprise though, their footage was indistinguishable.
“It’s exactly the same,” he laughs. “I think it’s because James dictated it. In a film like this, we do these long takes, and they just respond organically as cameramen and capture what he’s doing. It’s a human drama, so you can’t tell them apart, which they are a bit annoyed about. They’ve got an ego about them, cameramen,” he laughs again.
Finding the right actor was paramount for this picture. Boyle wanted someone who could play a wide range of characters because there’s nobody else there. His choice of James Franco was surprising to some, for Franco bears little resemblance to Ralston.
“He has a face and a grace that you can watch, which you can’t underestimate with a film like this where you’re just going to be looking at him. There is nothing to cut to; there’s no reverses; there’s no landscapes to look at. He doesn’t have a view from where he’s standing. It’s just that, nothing else. So he has to have that so you can immerse yourself with him,” Boyle says.
Although Boyle made a number of trips to the Canyon with Ralston, where he learned to appreciate the wilderness, which he is not a fan of, he always wanted to make an urban film that has the impatience and urgency of an urban thriller instead of the meditative rhythm of the wilderness.
“That was always the intention,” he stresses. “I didn’t want it to just wash over you slowly, like you’re in the wilderness. I wanted him to feel like the city would pull him back eventually.”
Those ideas were not music to the ears of the Wilderness-lover, Ralston. Therefore, Boyle had to carefully explain to him that the film would not be a documentary. And although Ralston was consulted during the production, Boyle didn’t want him over Franco’s shoulders.
“My belief about real life stories in cinema is that you forget Aron Ralston when you watch the film. What you see is James Franco playing a guy called Aron. Your relationship is with the actor,” Boyle says.
To put Ralston at ease, Boyle promised him that he would ultimately be proud of how emotionally honest to his experience the film was.
Indeed, Ralston is very proud of the film and was grateful for what Boyle has done with it. In fact, he was in tears when he first saw the movie.
The 54-year-old director began his career in theatre, directing plays at the Joint Stock Theatre Company in London, before moving on to the Royal Court Theatre. In 1987, he began directing for TV and in 1994 he made his directorial-debut on the big screen with the dark thriller “Shallow Grave.”
After 15 years of film making, the Manchester-born director is returning to his roots, by directing a spectacular production of Mary Shelley’s Frankestein for the National Theatre in London. To spice up the play and inject it with originality, Boyle is presenting it from the monster’s point of view.
Last year, Boyle was asked to direct the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in east London, where he happens to reside. He was flattered when he was asked and is thrilled by the prospect of doing it.
“It’s quite a responsibility, but it’s an honour and a pleasurable duty to do it. I am very privileged to be asked to do it, but there will be nerves attached to it and a few sleepless nights. It will shorten my life by probably about five years, but there you go,” he laughs.
As he has done in his movies and plays, Boyle is going to innovate and experiment even on this grand scale, by, for the first time in Olympic history, including the audience in the game. But he is reluctant to say how. “I have to keep it top secret,” he laughs.
I guess we have to wait and see, but I bet it will be worth the wait.