Aspen Filmfest: Aron Ralston and ‘127 Hours’
ASPEN – As Aron Ralston talked to filmmakers about turning his book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” the former Aspenite was horrified to see that many of their backgrounds were in horror films. “A lot of the producers, they had nothing but horror films in their rsum. But I didn’t want to make a horror film of my story,” he said.No question, Ralston’s story has a terrifying element to it. It was Ralston who, in May of 2003, while hiking Utah’s Blue John Canyon, got his right arm pinned by a massive boulder. The ultimate resolution – the self-amputation of his lower arm, using a dull knife – is a difficult image to handle. The scenario leading up to the amputation, too, is disturbing: five days of fear, discomfort and loneliness leading to dehydration and delirium.For Ralston, though, the episode is not in essence a fright tale. Instead, it is a story of love and realization. Among the most satisfying and significant scenes in “127 Hours,” the drama based on Ralston’s 2004 book, is the closing one, in which James Franco, who plays Ralston, is ice-climbing, his ice tool clutched in a prosthetic hand. “He’s recovered; he’s living,” Ralston notes of the scene. Franco then enters a living-room scene, and as he is being embraced by friends and family, the actors are replaced by the real-life Ralston and his real-life loved ones, including his wife, Jessica, and their 8-month-old son, Leo.”These are the people I got out of the canyon to be with,” the 34-year-old Ralston, who was living in Aspen at the time of the canyoneering incident, said in an interview with The Aspen Times. “It was that love, that questing for love, that’s what I was trying to get back to. That’s why I survived.””127 Hours,” which has its third public screening at 5:30 p.m. Friday, as the centerpiece presentation Aspen Filmfest (and shows again on Sunday, Oct. 3, in Carbondale) thus becomes a lesson in discovering what is most important in life. The film early on depicts Ralston as an impetuous 20-something whose passion for adventure, particularly in the outdoors, verges on the careless. Though presented in dramatic fashion, it is a characterization that rings with some truth; Ralston had entered Blue John Canyon solo, without notifying anyone of his plans. Following his ordeal, Ralston gains a new perspective on life. “What was this all for? It was for them. It was how much I love my family and friends,” Ralston, who will be in attendance tonight for a post-screening conversation, and will participate in a benefit event for the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop after the Filmfest event, said. “I love my adventures, my outdoor experiences, but that’s not why I got out. It’s a wilderness film, but it’s more about society and connections with people.”****Following his recovery, Ralston shared his tale on television (a two-hour edition of “Dateline,” with Tom Brokaw; an epic appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman” that had Ralston featured through nearly the whole show), in his book, and in personal appearances. He was courted by numerous film producers; Steven Spielberg’s company expressed some interest. But Ralston was convinced that the best way to tell his story on the big screen was with a docudrama that sought to re-create the actual events, la the mesmerizing 2003 climbing film, “Touching the Void.””I didn’t want this to go the Hollywood direction,” Ralston, who now lives in Boulder, said. “This is part of my life. My feeling is, the best way to inspire an audience is to tell the truth.”But John Smithson, who had produced “Touching the Void,” wasn’t interested in another film about a harrowing outdoor adventure. And Ralston found that the corner of the filmmaking community that finances projects wasn’t nearly as interested in a just-the-facts docudrama as it was in a narrative film that could dramatize the story.In 2006 Danny Boyle came into the picture. The British director had made his name with such hyper-kinetic films as “Trainspotting” and “28 Days Later.” The story of someone who is stationary for five days was, according to Ralston, “the ultimate storytelling challenge” for Boyle. Ralston, though, was still hanging on to the hope of making a docudrama, and turned down the proposal.Instead, Boyle went on to make another pulse-quickener, “Slumdog Millionaire.” In the aftermath of the “Slumdog” experience, which included taking eight Oscars, including those for best picture and best director, Boyle was, to Ralston’s delight and surprise, still interested.”He’s going to get any story he wants,” Ralston said. “It was a blessing he still wanted to make the film. I think he took it as a challenge: How do you tell a story of a guy who doesn’t move through the whole film?”After meeting with Boyle, and reading his five-page treatment, Ralston became convinced that the project could be more than just a cinematic challenge for the director. He believed Boyle was aligned with his own desire to tell the story with authenticity, and with an emphasis on what Ralston actually went through in the canyon and what he brought with him out of the canyon.”That was as authentic, accurate and factual as a docudrama,” Ralston said of Boyle’s write-up. “I had to personally get to a point where I trusted him and his team. And I got there. He was trustworthy. Danny’s not a Hollywood guy. He’s like a friendly neighbor. He remembers my friends’ names when he sees them six months later; he holds my baby at dinner. He’s an attuned, sensitive, respectful person.” Boyle’s team features several of the key players on “Slumdog Millionaire,” including screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and composer A.R. Rahman.Despite the overall trust, Ralston was stopped by some elements of the script. An early scene depicting Ralston meeting some girls, leading to a steamy scene in a car, left him with some questions.”I objected at first – gratuitous T&A. It didn’t seem tasteful,” Ralston, who consulted closely on the film, and spent much time on the set, said. “But they have the bigger audience in mind. I had to understand and be empathetic with the need they had to draw the audience in and get out a lot of information about this character. If they don’t care about him, they’re not going to get that much out of his story. It’s this fictionalized device to make it more thrilling, but it also draws the audience into this adrenalized thing of being in the wilderness.”It was a lesson: These guys know how to make a movie and I don’t. You need to give this to them and let them do what they need to do.”Ralston did make three demands of the distributor, Fox Searchlight. He wanted a private screening for friends and family, a screening in Aspen with an event that would benefit Wilderness Workshop, and a screening in Utah to which he could invite people who helped in his rescue.****Just as momentous as handing off the story to Boyle was the director’s choice of an actor to play Ralston. There were early whispers of Ryan Gosling, but the part went to James Franco, who turned in an acclaimed performance as Harvey Milk’s lover in “Milk,” and had prominent roles in the “Spider-Man” movies.The two previous screenings, at festivals in Telluride and Toronto, seem to have placed “127 Hours” among the early Academy Award contenders, with Franco and the film itself registering high marks with audiences and commentators. Ralston himself leads the cheering section.”James almost embodies me. Both from the storytelling aspect – a solitary guy in his house with a lot of gear, a little distant in his relationships but passionate about the outdoors – and the jerky mannerisms,” he said. “My sister” – who is played in the film by Lizzy Caplan – “said, ‘By 15 minutes, I wasn’t watching James Franco anymore; I was watching you.’ Seeing him, in my clothes, was like seeing a ghost from my past. Disconcerting.”By the time Ralston saw the finished film, he was sufficiently taken with Franco’s performance, and Boyle’s handling of the story, that he wasn’t bothered by a fictional sequence. In it, Franco interviews himself with a hand-held camera and does a variety of voices, giving a comic tone to the scene.”It works, because it shows this delirium. He’s going crazy; he’s losing it,” Ralston, who generally refers to his on-screen self in the third-person, as “the character,” said. “It shows this self-criticism and this arrogance: ‘Didn’t you think you were some hard-ass who could go out on your own and do anything you wanted? Is it because you thought of yourself so highly that you got yourself into this predicament?’ There are real themes being looked at.”Boyle’s handling of the amputation scene apparently doesn’t back down from the gruesome visual and emotional reality; reportedly, three members of the Toronto audience fainted during it. But to Ralston, the way the scene is presented says a lot about what kind of film Boyle made, and what kind of experience, ultimately, Ralston himself had in the canyon.”He’s smiling when he cuts off his arm, because he knows he’s going to see his family. It’s a victory,” Ralston said. “It’s a release of this tension, and the audience gets so swept up in it, they burst into applause. They get that it’s not a heroic act. It’s terrifying, but also beautiful. It’s about the will to love. I didn’t get out of that canyon to go ahead and eat and drink – that’s survival. It was about going to see my family again – that’s love. And they nail that in the movie.”It’s about a guy’s human relationships, not a guy who cuts his arm off.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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