The last thing Aron Ralston was thinking about when he amputated his own arm was Oscar glory. But that’s where 127 Hours seems to be heading, reckons Paul Byrne.
From a cinematic point of view, having to stay with one person in one place for pretty much an entire film can be a little challenging for an audience. And not just on the ass.
For most filmmakers, it’s a challenge too far, especially at a time when Hollywood treats most cinema-goers as though they’re suffering from a severe dose of Attention Deficit Disorder.
Every now and then though, a film comes along that proves Hollywood wrong, wringing an incredible amount of spills, thrills and tears out of a very confined space.
Last year, Ryan Reynolds spent pretty much all of Buried’s 95 minutes stuck in a coffin six feet underground. French actor Matheiu Almalric had to do most of his acting through the fine art of blinking in the true-life award-winner The Diving Bell And The Butterfly. And let’s not forget America’s favourite uncle, Tom Hanks, and his 143 minutes emoting to a tennis ball on a desert island in a very different kind of buddy-buddy movie, Cast Away.
When Aron Ralston’s incredible story first hits the headlines back in April 2003, Hollywood ears pricked up immediately. Only Ralston wasn’t interested. Or, more to the point, he was incredibly wary.
It would be seven years before Ralston’s story would make it to the big screen – 127 Hours hitting Irish screens this weekend.
You could understand the attraction for Tinseltown. Here was the instantly celebrated story of an athletic young man who liked nothing better than to head out into the wilds and take on Mother Nature. Only this time, Mother Nature bit back, when a solo mountain-climbing expedition in the sprawling Bluejohn Canyon in Utah involved a fall that resulted in Aaron’s right arm being wedged solid behind an 800Ib chalkstone boulder. It would take Ralston five days – or 127 hours, to be precise – to finally realise that his only escape was to hack off his own arm with a blunt penknife.
PAUL BYRNE: When Danny Boyle – the man behind Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire and Sunshine – first approached you about making this film, you turned him down flat…
ARON RALSTON: Yeah, I was convinced that the best way to tell this story was through a documentary. I had this aversion to the idea of some hunk of the month pretending to be me, and just, you know, making this into some kind of Hollywood thrill ride. Or worse, some big weepie. So, yeah, I wasn’t keen on anyone taking my story, and turning it into ‘entertainment’.
It was Boyle’s regular writing partner, Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire), who convinced you otherwise. A keen mountain climber himself, he reckoned that by dramatizing your story, you’d get more of an emotional truth, as opposed to just the actuality of events.
It was good to talk with Simon, because he was determined to understand what I went through. And he didn’t want to sugarcoat it. He said from the start that he wasn’t interested in writing some superhero story…
When he read your 2004 autobiography, that sense of a superhero was firmly there – over-achiever, Grade A piano maestro, superfit, running supermarathons; the whole works. But something wasn’t quite right. And that’s when he realised that you were alone.
It’s something that was brought to the fore in the movie, and something I felt was very important. I was just too busy doing my own thing to entertain the possibility of being there for other people. You can see me, in flashback, avoiding my mum when she phones, letting the answering machine take it. That was crucial to the movie. A way of understanding what sort of person would find themselves alone, out in the middle of nowhere, and with no one knowing where you might actually be.
Woody Allen once said that comedy is tragedy plus time. Is this life-changing incident something you can joke about now? I’m guessing most people approach you with a certain pained look in their eyes…
Yeah, I know that look. I certainly feel it’s important to move on from any sense of despair, depression, or whatever. The thing is, it was seven years ago for me, and my life has moved on in so many ways. I’m happily married, I’m a father, and I’ve got this – the media, etc – to deal with too. I still go mountain climbing, and do all the things I love doing. Only now, I tell someone where I’m going. And I call my mum back.
It’s always difficult, telling a story where people already know the ending, but the reaction isn’t necessarily always the same. At an early test screening in a rougher part of New York, the audience stood and cheered when you hacked off your arm. For them, it was, finally, the moment of liberation…
I love the fact that they recognise that feeling. They’re not squirming in their seats, and thinking about all the difficulties that might lie ahead. They’re saying, ‘yes, this is the first day of the rest of your life. You’re free. Now, go and live!’ That’s pretty inspiring, and I’m glad they read it that way. Because that’s the way I read it.
How do you feel about James Franco, the hunk of the month who got to play you in 127 Hours? There’s already some Oscar buzz…
I think James did an incredible job. It’s surreal enough, knowing that it’s your story up there, but when you find yourself portrayed with such naked emotion, such raw honesty, it goes from being surreal to deeply moving.
This is a film with Oscar glory written all over it. And the three Golden Globe nominations already notched up will certainly help that. Excited?
Well, I’m excited that the film turned out as well as it did, and that people are going to see it. I think anything that happens after that is just another party, you know. I’m not that bothered about the awards. All I cared about was that the film be truthful to what I went through, and it is.
One conclusion writer Simon Beaufoy came away with from his research was that you were “not the most likeable of guys” back when you had your accident. Do you feel as though that you left that Aron Ralston back in Bluejohn Canyon?
Yeah, I guess I did, but you know this is all part of one life. You hopefully grow all the time, and the guy you were as a teenager isn’t necessarily the guy you are at 30, or 40, or whatever age. But that guy is still you. Just, hopefully, a wiser, smarter, happier you.
Words – Paul Byrne
127 Hours hits Irish cinemas Jan 7th