On the Boyle
From filming with children in the slums of Mumbai to making an action movie with no action, no challenge is too big for Danny Boyle, he tells John Hiscock
Danny Boyle is used to challenges. After all, he is currently involved in organising the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics and attempting to make it the best ever. But he confesses that his latest film, 127 Hours, posed more problems than anything else he has tackled so far in his 30-year career, including shooting his previous film, Slumdog Millionaire, in the slums of Mumbai.
For 127 Hours he had to decide, as he puts it, how to make an action film with very little action. The movie tells the true story of how climber Aron Ralston amputated his own arm with a blunt knife after his hand was trapped by a fallen boulder in an isolated canyon. For nearly the whole movie, James Franco, the actor playing Ralston in an Oscar-worthy performance, is unable to move.
As he proved with Slumdog Millionaire, which won eight Oscars in 2009, Boyle can take a scene that at first glance looks impossible to film and make it both visually kinetic and emotionally moving. But he had to first persuade a studio to back the seemingly uncinematic idea. And he knows that if he and his producer Christian Coulson had not made Fox Searchlight a stack of money with Slumdog, 127 Hours would probably never have been made.
"When you have the success that we had, you've got to use it," says Boyle. "It's a window of opportunity, and this is the kind of film that a studio would normally baulk at."
The harrowing story hit the front pages of the world's newspapers in April 2003. "I followed the story when it happened because it's one that snags in your brain," says Boyle. "I read Aron's book, and then I met him, and I had this idea of how to make the movie. I had the idea that we'd make an action movie where the action hero -- and he is an action hero because he's super fit -- can't move.
"I thought it might be entertaining and stimulating if we could get the right actor, but most importantly I wanted the audience to be involved in it with him and help release him, because otherwise there would just be streams of people walking out saying, 'I can't watch that'."
The project only became reality after he and Coulson turned their attention to what they should do after Slumdog. "I talked to Christian about making 127 Hours as an immersive, first-person experience in which the audience goes into the canyon and stays there with Ralston, but he wanted to make it more as a documentary. So I showed him the synopsis I'd written, and he agreed we should do it."
Boyle and his crew spent six days filming at Bluejohn Canyon in Utah, where Ralston was trapped, and then, using laser scanning techniques, they created a replica of the site in a warehouse in Salt Lake City, where most of the filming was done.
"We camped out at the canyon for six days," recalls the urban-loving Boyle. "It had been 30 years since I'd been camping, and it'll be another 30 before I do it again."
Like every film Danny Boyle has made, 127 Hours is totally different from any of his other directorial efforts. While many directors choose the safe path to regular employment by sticking to the tried and true genre they are known for, Boyle is constantly striking out in new directions.
But he does not pretend to have any idea about what films will appeal to audiences. "You just kind of follow your nose," he says. "You don't think about whether it will be financially rewarding or make you powerful. You just follow the story you want to tell, and that's what I've always done, and sometimes they work.
"Look, I made this film, Sunshine, which I'm really proud of, but nobody, I mean nobody, went to see it; there was nothing you could do to make people see that film. And then I make a film, Slumdog, and you couldn't stop people watching it. So you just have to continue to make what you feel is honest and truthful and worthy of people's attention. And then hope that it works out."
Immediately after our talk, Boyle is due to attend an Olympics meeting. "You can imagine how nervous I am," he says with a grin. "It's quite a responsibility, and there'll be a few sleepless nights. It will probably shorten my life by about five years, but, to be honest, I feel very privileged to be asked."
The Olympic stadium, where the opening ceremony and many of the events will be held, is only a mile from Boyle's home in Stratford, East London.
"It's very beautiful, like a porcelain bowl," he says. "I can't tell you much about our plans, but we're trying to make it a more inclusive Olympics for the spectators. We want to include them more in the Games and make them a part of it, but other than that I have to keep it top secret."
127 Hours is released on January 7