Aron Ralston’s insight helping form Boyle’s ‘127 Hours’
ASPEN – When Aron Ralston first met Danny Boyle, in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in 2006, Boyle was not yet the Academy Award-winning director of “Slumdog Millionaire.”
Still, Ralston came away from the meeting impressed with the British filmmaker. What struck Ralston was the work Boyle was putting into a potential future project: bringing Ralston’s story of his escape from a remote Utah canyon to the big screen.
“He showed me his copy of my book” – “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” Ralston’s 2004 account of being pinned by a boulder in Blue John Canyon, and the self-rescue that meant amputating his own arm – “and every page had marks and underlinings,” said Ralston, a part-time Aspenite now living mostly in Boulder. “He was really interested.”
Boyle is no longer merely interested; in film industry parlance, he is attached. The director, whose works include “Trainspotting” and “28 Days Later,” is scheduled to bring Ralston’s story to the cinema as his first post-“Slumdog” film. Titled “127 Hours,” the project is also set to include “Slumdog” screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and producer Christian Colson. The distributor will be Fox Searchlight, which also distributed “Slumdog Millionaire,” the winner of eight Oscars, including one for Best Picture. On-location filming in Utah – including some shooting near Blue John Canyon – will begin in the spring, to the best of Ralston’s knowledge.
Ralston had envisioned a different sort of filmmaking adventure. Determined to have the big-screen version told as accurately as possible, he sought to have his story told as a docu-drama that re-created the factual circumstances of his escape, rather than a theatrical drama, which would use his story as a template for Hollywood-style storytelling.
“For me, initially, I wanted to stick to doing a docu-drama,” Ralston said. “At first, I thought that was the best way to inspire audiences, and that was the most important thing.”
Docu-dramas, however, tend to have limited audience appeal. Ralston – along with John Smithson, a producer who has been working with Ralston for five years – eventually realized that a docu-drama wouldn’t attract the financing that they sought for the project. Nor would it bring in Danny Boyle.
“We had to have a director who would attract financing,” Ralston said. “To make it something Danny Boyle wanted to do, we had to make it a theatrical drama. He had no interest in doing a docu-drama. But there are different ways to inspire audiences through filmmaking.
“Instead of being ‘Touching the Void'” – an acclaimed 2003 docu-drama about a harrowing climb in the Peruvian Andes, that was produced by Smithson – “it’ll be more like ‘Into the Wild'” – the 2007 film, directed by Sean Penn, based on the true story of a young man’s journey in Alaska.
Ralston understands that strict adherence to the facts will be sacrificed in “127 Hours.”
“There’s a necessary compression and embellishment in order to tell the story in the language of film – which is not necessarily how I told it on the page,” he said. “You have to get the audience to really care about that person in the first 10 minutes of the film. So it’ll be an intensified version of the character in the first minutes.”
Ralston is confident that the essential elements of the story – having no contact with the outside world, using only a small knife to cut his limb free from the boulder that pinned him down – will be kept intact. For one thing, Ralston is acting as a consultant on the script, making sure that facts are accurate and that dialogue sounds authentic to his character; he has a meeting this week with Beaufoy, the screenwriter.
Ralston called his role at this point “a lot of input, but no control.” But he has faith in the person who does have ultimate control: Boyle, who has “final cut” authority – meaning studio heads and producers cannot alter his vision for the film that eventually gets released.
“That’s a great thing about working with Danny – he retains that kind of control,” said Ralston, who met with the director three times this past summer. “And, thankfully, I have a lot of trust in Danny Boyle.”
“127 Hours” may tell Ralston’s story, but Ralston recognizes that the project is in many ways out of his hands. As for who will star in “127 Hours,” Ralston will go only as far as to acknowledge that he has heard the rumor that is making its way around the blogosphere: that Ryan Gosling, nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for portraying a drug-addicted school teacher in 2006’s “Half Nelson,” was being considered.
“If it turned out to be Ryan Gosling, I’d be happy with that,” Ralston, 34, said. “He’s one of my wife Jessica’s favorite actors. I’ve been watching a lot of his films, and I’m impressed.”
Perhaps the element of the project that Ralston would most like to keep his hands on is the music. A music aficionado with an affinity for jam bands, he would love to see his favorite group, Phish, contribute to the soundtrack. Ralston said such an idea is entirely speculative, but there is some precedent. He mentioned that Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder wrote the award-winning soundtrack for “Into the Wild.”
“It’s just in the fantasy stage,” Ralston said. “We’ve had talks about Phish music. Danny’s asked what Phish lyrics might be able to be worked in.”
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