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Interviews

In the winter of 2010, long before anybody else spoke to Danny, Simon and Christian, and even longer before they would again be nominated for both the Golden Globe and the Oscars (for 2011) I had the opportunity to sit down with the filmmakers. While the Q & A appeared in bits and pieces in several publications – including the November issue of Men’s Journal http://www.mensjournal.com/127-hours-the-essence-of-survival, here is the original interview in its unedited, all-inclusive, entirety.

127 HOURS

Slumdoggies Go West

Three Brits gallop into a remote Western town. Whoopee-ti-yi-yo – get alongggg, l’il Slumdoggy.

By

Lois Cahall

Intro

The assignment seemed simple: a Manhattan journalist interviews the three Englishmen – director Danny Boyle, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and producer Christian Colson, who made Slumdog Millionaire – and cleaned up at 2009’s Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars.

Their next movie, 127 Hours, is the true story of Aron Lee Ralston, who, while mountaineering in Utah in 2003, chopped off his own arm with a dull knife to free himself after being pinned under a boulder. James Franco stars.

As I board my plane from New York to Salt Lake City, it occurs to me: isn’t this portrait of a loner trapped in the middle of nowhere the unlikeliest possible follow-up to the teeming, pulsing, overheated story of impoverished young Jamal racing through the throngs of Mumbai? What are these three Slumpuppies doing setting their next film in the great outdoors? I’m sure their idea of a good time is the great indoors: a dark pub in SoHo, with whiskey, cigarettes, and an assortment of women. Can Danny Boyle even ride a horse? What a clash of cultures.

I’m five seconds away from what I expect to be their five-star hotel. Where will they be staying? The Four Seasons? The Hilton, at the very least? Wait a minute – can this be right? The Courtside Marriott?

It’s not the last time I will be surprised by three of the most dedicated and hard-working filmmakers I’ve ever encountered. But nevertheless, time to get some answers straight from the horses’ mouths.

You three strike me as hang-in-the-pub kind of guys. Can any of you even ride a horse?

Christian (producer): I can’t even ride a bike!

Danny (director): I’ve been on a camel a couple of times. Does that count?

Simon (writer): Horses smell strange and can really sneer. So we Brits should feel right at home, but I’m not much of a horse person unless you count riding bareback across the Hidden Quarter of the desert, I guess. Not really. I was just interested to see your eyes light up when I said that, Lois.

Q: Did you ever mountain climb?

Danny: I didn’t actually. I live close to a famous climbing wall [in London] – Mile End Climbing Wall – and I’ve never done that either. But I began to understand the physicality of it. You’re so physically committed when you’re up there, you forget everything else. It erases the worries. Simon’s a perfect person to write this movie, as he’s a climber.

Simon: I did spend the most amazing time in Jordan climbing the sandstone rock walls – the ones you see in the film Lawrence of Arabia. Alone in the desert, high above the desert floor, dicing with death. I used to do a lot of it when I was less of a fat writer. Rock walls in Jordan, snowy mountains in Bolivia, crags in the Lake District of England. I completely understand Aron’s drive to be alone in the outdoors. He was heavily criticized after the accident for going out into the wilderness alone, but that’s the purest way to experience it.

Q: But with unemployment through the roof, a massive oil spill, a health care crisis, families losing their homes, why should we care about a man who was dumb enough to go hiking, tell nobody, and lose his arm in the process?

Danny: The survival instinct should never be underestimated in any one of us. You may think, “I couldn’t, I wouldn’t!” but if you were ever there – and hopefully the film is the closest you’ll ever come to this kind of scenario – then Ralston becomes not just a hero displaying unbelievable courage but an Everyman figure representing us all. The pull of the collective survival instinct connects us all, from the foolish to the brave, from the shrinking violet to the adamant. The man cuts his arm off, yes, and you’d be capable of doing that yourself as well. You may not do it as successfully as he did, you might not even survive it, but the survival instinct is still there. That is the most powerfully primal of instincts.

Simon: In writing it, I realized it’s not about a man losing his arm. It’s about getting a second chance at life. Although everyone will enter the cinema knowing it’s about the man who chopped off his arm, it’s about facing your worst demons, your failings in life. Aron had five days to think through just how he’d got to where he’d got. Not just literally, but metaphorically, in terms of his relationships with his friends and family. So it’s not a film about an American hero who will do anything to survive in the wilderness, it’s about a person like you or me, understanding the fault lines of their life and having the incredibledrive and courage to break free, go back and put some of the past to rights.

Christian: Aron was an experienced outdoors man. It was a pretty innocuous day out for him. A walk in the park. The movie says “Yes, you would” [cut your arm off] because you’ve got a mom and a dad and a sister to get back to, too.

Q: Danny, what do you look for in a project? Surely you could have selected a more surefire subject than a guy stuck in a crack.

Danny: When I heard about this story and read the guy’s book I just knew I had to do it. I like to think of myself as a dynamic filmmaker. In this film he can’t move. I liked the limitations of filmmaking in a story like this. The physical experience, yes, but also another issue: How can you make this into a film? How reductive can you be and have it still remain a movie?

Q: So that’s the director’s challenge. And Christian, you’re the producer – the man who juggles everybody’s balls. Let’s talk about your “Avatar”-size budget…

Christian: Let’s not. All good producers really rely on a good line producer and management team to put that together. It’s about intent, really. You can make a decision to make a movie for any price. We could have done Slumdog for $60 mill, or half the price we made it at. But it’s about trying to figure out what price you should be making the movie for. You don’t want a movie that’s so big that it puts unwanted pressure on the story in a certain way.

Q: I like to think of you three as the stars of some absurd British Western – the three Slumdoggies riding into the tough frontier town. The director, the producer, and Simon, ahhhh…the screenwriter – the man with ALL the power…

Simon: And always the wrong adaptor to connect it up. As for your cowboy analogy and us rolling into town… I’m the mountain man. Christian is the poker player with cigarettes. Danny is the Man with no Name who instinctively knows the score, a stranger in town – Bombay, Utah, Glasgow – who nevertheless seems to know about the place more than the people who live there.

Q: How does Aron fit in?

Simon: Aron is the guy who’s not only missing an arm but his name is also missing an “a.”

Q: “Slumdog” and “Trainspotting” are all about the chase. But this is about a guy who’s been caught. He’s stuck…

Danny: Every bloody film ends up being about the last film, and you try not to do that. We have the challenge of doing something different – to go from a billion beating hearts in India to one guy in Utah.

Simon: This was my ultimate challenge: not a chase film, but a stuck film. I tried to keep the story moving all the time, back to the past, bits of the future, unexpected side-alleys of the imagination, so that we’d never get bored.

Christian: One of our pitches to the studio was that this is an action movie about a guy who can’t move!

Q: In “Slumdog” the big gross-out scene was in the beginning of the movie – Jamal being strung up and electrocuted. Now the gross- out scene is held off until nearly the end. How is that different for the audience – especially since they know it’s coming eventually?

Danny: It’s a very interesting dynamic. How do you experience a movie knowing that that’s going to happen sometime in it? Who would want to go to a movie like that on a Friday night? But by the time you get to that point you’re living it with him, and you are egging him on – willing him to do it.

Christian: In a test screening we’re in the back row. While the audience watches the film we’re watching the audience. How did they react? They didn’t look away. It’s not voyeuristic. We’re with him all along. We want him to do it. On some level all movies – and certainly Danny films – are meant to entertain. The audience will have to endure it. The truth is it took Aron forty-five minutes in real time to cut his arm off. Once he figured out how to do it, and as he got more desperate and dehydrated, he kept trying until he could do it. He had to find a way to penetrate the skin. In the editing we need to honor and balance the immensity of what he did with making it watchable.

Q: Danny, you can’t go two hours in a movie without putting in a toilet scene. How do you go 127 hours?

Danny: Oh there’s a toilet scene in the movie. Not a full toilet but the essentials are there. [He tosses his head back and laughs.]

Q: Simon and Christian, earlier today you talked to me about how authentic Danny’s process is.

Simon: Danny does things the hard way for the authenticity. Why film on a set when you can risk doing it in a desert, or in a monsoon? Because of that, the shoot was delayed a few days and the schedule was in constant flux because of the snow in Moab, fear of flash floods in the canyon. And then we have a set in a massive furniture warehouse outside Salt Lake City – an exact replica of the canyon itself, down to every lump and bump of rock. Authenticity – even in such an impressionistic, subjective film – is crucial.

Christian: With Danny, there’s always something new happening, so we had specific challenges. Getting to the specific spot where Aron had his incident. It’s a two hour drive to Green River, and then sixty miles down a dirt track. And later, when we were on location filming, we had to have great safety advisors and a doctor on site. We had defibrillators and drugs. Not of the recreational kind, Lois. [he raises a brow in my direction.] No one was allowed to drink. You weren’t allowed to wander off. There were toilets so nobody had to walk into the dark to pee. In the end what you rely on is that people aren’t going to be stupid. When we originally started talking about shooting on site we decided we’d take twelve people down to the camp. Of course the number of bodies multiplied. Everybody wanted to go “camping” like it was some holiday. Next thing we know there’s eighty people camping out.

Danny: I try to make films that aren’t just realistic. There’s a heightened nature to them, hopefully, where the film lifts out of our realistic everyday lives and behavior into something more expressive and suggestive. One example in this film is that Aron is clearly inspired to live on by the vision of his future child. When you step outside conventional realism, then plausibility – the “Do I believe that?” factor – is best created in the real place, no matter if it’s outside your comfort zone. In fact, especially if it’s outside your comfort zone.

Q: What was your own personal biggest obstacle in making this film – your boulder?

Danny: Getting started, really. I was going to write it, and what Simon said is that it needed a vision that everyone could relate to, not just mountaineers. So I started writing, thinking, “You have to write it down and then maybe somebody can come in and help you.” And Simon did. I love working with writers. I don’t consider myself a writer. Simon came in and improved it enormously. And I thought yes, I can see it now. That was my biggest obstacle. As you can tell, I like to talk a lot. But it’s different sitting down with a blank piece of paper.

Simon: It’s not a documentary, it’s clearly a drama, but it needs to have the authenticity of a documentary. A tricky combination. The conventional narrative arcs of normal drama make it seem constructed, a fiction, if we’re not very careful. That was our biggest obstacle. We have to make the audience feel they’re trapped down there, too. But not so much that they want to run out of the cinema screaming.

Q: My biggest obstacle as an American would have been where to brush my teeth in a canyon. But you’re British, so…

Simon: I’ve discovered that white teeth are the way to a woman’s heart. [He unleashes a huge clenched-teeth grin.] So it was essential that all safety officers on the set were also trained dental hygienists. I’ve also discovered that teeth cleaning is more painful than cutting off one’s arm. Frankly, Aron had it easy.

Danny: Don’t listen to him. That’s rubbish. Our teeth are not as central to us as they are to you Americans – but I’ll tell you, personal hygiene was interesting for us. We did shower in the tent. I would wake up at 5 a.m. in the desert. It was tough to get up in the cold to go brush my damn teeth. But I did it. On the first day everybody was there showering, and then everybody changed their mind and waited until we got back to the hotel at the end of the week.

Q: Danny, your first impression of the wide-open Utah landscape….

Danny: Weather problems. The desert had more snow than in twenty years. We had intended to shoot sequentially, but we had to do the beginning at the end. One of the advantages of having done Slumdog was we were all eager and willing to get to work. In this situation we were trying to use the advantages Slumdog gave us [the Oscar momentum].

Q: Let’s talk about Aron. Difficult? Easy?

Danny: Well…here’s the thing, Lois. I’m a nice guy – but I’m also a stubborn motherfucker. You have a vision of doing things. It can be right and it can be wrong. Part of the job is my personal vision. I didn’t budge from that. It wasn’t literal. But Aron has always been literal. Abso-lutely literal. He’s meticulous. And that drove me mad. You know, we hadn’t used as many Phish songs as he’d liked. So we part company there. I said to Aron – when we had a big row in New York – “You have to lend us this story. You can’t make a decent movie. You can do a speech and a book, but you can’t do a movie. Let us tell it for you. It’s very natural and highly original. Let us make the fucking film, will you? And then we’ll give it back to you.” Let’s just say good rows lead to good other things.

Christian: Right from the get-go we wanted to remain true to the core of Aron’s experience. We didn’t fuck around with the core stuff. We sent him every draft of the screenplay for his input.

Simon: Aron was put in a very difficult position. This is his life we’re telling, yet we do shape the facts. He understood that we wanted to make a story that had more layers than an adventure film, and he helped us construct a narrative that is intensely personal and yet makes it a story everyone can relate to. Only Aron has physically been trapped by a boulder that he had to cut himself free from – but, on another level, we’ve all got a boulder in our life that we need to cut free from. We’ve all got a massive obstacle that dogs our lives that we need to challenge and rise above.

Q: At the end of the movie, in the final scene, and without giving any plot away, it was imperative that Aron’s real-life wife cooperated and was on set…

Danny: Initially she didn’t want to. She had just had a baby in real life. She had…

[He searches for the phrase]

Q: Post-partum blues? Maybe she was frightened because her world was suddenly being invaded by movie people…

Danny: Yes, only another woman would get that bit. I wouldn’t speak to her at all about that because I have complete respect for her. She has my sympathy, really. She did end up turning up on set, and it was difficult for her. For people who don’t know the movie world it always seems intimidating, especially when you have just given birth to a child.

Q: After all this, do you think you could cut off your own arm like Aron did? To survive? Or would you Brits just be “woe is me” and let yourself die?

Danny: You got the British thing right. On the arm cutting, it’s something that unites us all. We’re all capable of it. The story is often portrayed as being about an impossible hero. But it’s his force that pulls him out of the canyon. It’s not this supreme individualism. It’s all of us together united.

Simon: I think I’d end up moaning myself to death in a very British way. I’d be busy composing letters of complaint to the knife manufacturer about poor quality tools, another one to the Utah park rangers about their habit of carelessly leaving these loose boulders around. “Dear Sir, it has come to my attention that….” Honestly? Who knows what you’re capable of doing when the chips are really down? Animals try to gnaw off their own legs when caught in a trap. I think the desire to live is the most primeval and basic of them all.

Q: And what are your impressions of Aron now? What is it like to have one’s life largely (or at least very publicly) defined by a single event?

Danny: Super bright. A genuine person. But in answer to your other question, you can get up and go no matter how much you’ve been hurt or damaged – he’s a real living example of that. He’s so different from a Brit. It comes out in complex things.

Q: Aron resides in Boulder, Colorado. Last winter, Simon, completely jet-lagged from London, you thought you were going to meet him for the first time. Instead, he convinced you to scale a mountain as a way of putting you to the test.

Simon: I thought we were going down the street for coffee and a chat. Instead, he took me up a number of Flatirons. Five hours later – of non-stop striding and talking – I think he saw the sweating mess in front of him was still alive and decided that he could trust me. We talk mountains – of which he knows the exact heights to a meter and I don’t know to the nearest 500 meters, even though I’ve been on top of them. He has total recall, whereas I have trouble remembering what day of the week it is.

Q: He sounds amazingly intense. I suppose next you’re going to tell me he had you shoot and eat a grizzly bear for dinner?

Simon: Only the paws. I have a really good recipe for grizzly paws grilled.

Q: When I say the name “James Franco,” what comes to mind? .

Danny: So very lean. He was on a strict diet. He’d lost forty pounds in this role. And he reads all the time. A defense mechanism against the process. As soon as you cold-cut, he’s reading Proust. Part of your brain is thinking, “I wish he’d pay as much attention to me as to that bloody book.” It’s a very special way that he protects his focus for you. I could tell him forty things to do and he’d remember them all. It was his special technique as people were fussing around him like a honey pot. He didn’t get irritated. He read.

Simon: We went through the script and he was very internal, very quiet. He had a big hat on, headphones, big shades and a moustache. You could barely see any face at all. And then every so often he’d look up and smile. It was an astonishing thing. Beautiful. A kind of blessing. Lit up the room. You couldn’t help smiling back. That’s charisma. He’s by American definition a movie star.

Q: Danny, who are your favorite directors?

Danny: Directors have ten years when they’re good. Nicolas Roeg. A British director. He did Don’t Look Now.

Q: If you could give one piece of advice to some young director breaking into the business during a time when nothing is certain, what would it be?

Danny: Don’t work on your own. Form partnerships. You don’t have to be friends. You don’t have to go on holiday. Don’t even have to like each other, but you have to respect each other. It often helps that you’re not big buddies. But they have to be somebody you can trust and bounce off of. That kind of trust with no agenda? It’s priceless.

Q: Curveball question, boys. Are you really as good in bed as the rumors say?

Danny: Ahhhh…I’ve been waiting for that question, Lois. All those actress and director stories. All true. [he laughs at his own joke.] If there were time. There’s just no time.

Christian: The reality of our lives is we’d love to demonstrate that we’re always good in bed – but we shot in seven weeks, so we were never in bed. And speaking of long work days, I have a union issue to address.

[We do a cheek-peck, and Christian is out of here, leaving me with the director and the writer.]

Simon: Am I that good in bed? Well, I’m very pleased there’s a rumor going around. I think being good in bed is a mutual thing, don’t you? Just like making a film, it’s all about who you’re collaborating with that makes it really hot or not…I mean, we’re collaborating right now, aren’t we Lois?

Q: Does the screenwriter ever get the girl?

Simon: The writer’s in charge of the story, so the writer always gets the girl. Is that a loaded question?

Q: Last question. My life will be complete when…

Simon: All writing ends up being about oneself. My life will be complete when I finally confront the boulder in my life.

Q: Danny?

Danny: When my football team from Bury – that’s where I’m from – one day wins the cup. Or just wins the league. I’d break down – absolutely break down on national TV. I would.

Q: Okay, Danny, you’re off the hook…imagine it’s time for you to go see a man about a horse….

Danny: We must have picked that quote up from you. It’s a gambling reference. Race horses. Not cowboys in Utah, Lois. It’s about the man who’s going to give you a tip in the stables. But, I can’t even ride a horse, remember?

[Danny rises to leave and we do the round of hugs. I’m left alone with Simon, the flirty screenwriter. He’s staring me down with his killer blue eyes. Okay, he’s cute, in a Hobbit kind of way, if you’d go for say, an extra from say Lord of the Rings. He stands to grab a piece of rope near the side of his backpack never leaving my gaze. He drapes the rope very Indiana Jones over his left shoulder.]

Simon: Okay, Lo-is… I’m off to climb the North Face of the Matterhorn. Bivouac on the mountain, wake up at dawn above the clouds. A rope’s got two ends. Fancy being on the other end of it?

THE END

For more of this interview – the portions printed in Men’s Journal on the experience of mountain climbing go to:

http://www.mensjournal.com/127-hours-the-essence-of-survival

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