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While hiker Aron Ralston's amazing true story is a marvel of human survival and resilience, it is not necessarily the stuff of film. A man stuck in a canyon for 127 hours, his arm pinned by a boulder, is not the most cinematic of vistas. And even Ralston himself was under the impression that if his story was made into a movie, it would be a documentary. It is, at its heart, an impossible story to put on film.
Which is why Danny Boyle's adaptation of Ralston's ordeal, 127 Hours, is such a wonderful surprise. Boyle has always been one of modern film's great humanists, and he's able to find the kinetic joy, the energy, and the great keening empathy in Ralston's story. Starring James Franco as Ralston, the film cuts away from what you'd expect with a lost boy—no search parties, no worried parents—and simply focuses on Ralston's mental journey, how he looks death right in the face and manages to live. The film's early buzz has revolved around the fact that people are fainting at screenings, but in a day and age where gore is rampant in the multiplex during Halloween, there's something different about 127 Hours. You are there with Ralston as he fights for his life, you watch him speak to his family on his videocamera, preparing for his certain death, you consider how much water you can drink with a limited supply. You question whether you could do what he did, if you were in his shoes. You leave the theater faint and drained, and the next glass of water that you drink tastes like liquid gold. It's a deeply moving experience, and it's the very reason why cinema, at its best, wields such power.
Tribeca was particularly interested in talking with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who collaborated on the screenplay with Boyle, based on Ralston's book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. The last few years for Beaufoy have been a sharp turn from his early work, like the ever-popular The Full Monty, and loads of tiny kitchen sink 90s British indies. He's been carving out a certain niche, turning "difficult" stories like Vikas Swarup's Q&A (Slumdog Millionaire, which won him the 2009 Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay) and Paul Torday's Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, into sharp, funny scripts. Tribeca talked to Beaufoy at the Crosby Hotel.
Tribeca: Basically, you're doing all sorts of impossible adaptations these days.
Simon Beaufoy: I love that, though. The impossible adaptation is absolutely what I enjoy. It allows a huge amount of one's self into the story. Doing a Jane Austen, I wouldn't know where to start, because you're so wedded to the material. You've got very little room to manuever, in a way. So, yeah, the more difficult the better.
Tribeca: How do you make the throughline and the heart of the story work when you've got a just—a guy, stuck beneath a boulder?
Simon Beaufoy: The bit in the film where Aron lays out everything in his rucksack: water, some keys, a rope, a knife, head torch. It felt a bit like that—you've got very few tools, writing tools, to use it, you have to get them out and examine them, and use every aspect. It was a fantastic challenge, to go how can we keep changing that story around without ever leaving that canyon? Because that was the rule we set ourselves—he's stuck, and we're not going to cut away to rescuers, police dogs, helicopters, none of that. And if he ever leaves the canyon, it's only through his imagination, and you gotta come back. So then, you have to use every writing tool you've got, to keep it inventive. To mine it, for emotion, that's what I was after, was not to tell a story about a superhero. To tell a story that every guy, woman, in the cinema—who's never going to do down a canyon, run an ultramarathon—they go, still, I feel what's going on with this man. I understand the greater sense of what the story's about. It's not about a guy and a boulder.
Tribeca: And that's why—when you get to the climax, you really feel it in the audience.
Simon Beaufoy: Oh, yeah—people are falling over!
Tribeca: There's been a lot of faintings, right?
Simon Beaufoy: Yes, there has. We can't tell whether that's good or bad—it's because you've spent a very intimate, emotional time with this guy that people faint. Because blood, flesh, chopping off per se, happen in the cinema all the time.
Tribeca: It's nothing you won't see in a Saw movie.
Simon Beaufoy: Right. And I think it's the intimate nature of the time you spend with him. Aron was very open with me, the same way that we were very open with the audience. About the mistakes he made in life and the kind of guy he was at that stage. He certainly wasn't a superhero in his own life.
Tribeca: He was only 26, right? He had this presence at the press conference—he'd looked into the great beyond, and got out of it—that was really striking. How did meeting him affect what you wrote in the script? You guys were hiking together, climbing?
Simon Beaufoy: Oh, a huge amount! We hiked together, yes, a lot. We're both climbers and we understood each other at a very particular level. The psychology of what leads people to push themselves nearer and nearer to the edge. And each time they get away with that, they look at themselves and go, oh, I'm going to take another little step forward and see if I can get away with that. It's a very particular mindset and psychological makeup that we both understand. I think that gave us a sense of trust in each other, actually. Because I said to him the story's not going to work if it's just "My Superhero Escape from Death." It has to be about much more than that. And he really understood that and was very trusting and very open.
Tribeca: Did he describe at all what it was like being there, to you—for example, I can't imagine being that thirsty—
Simon Beaufoy: It was very difficult emotion to convey, thirst, on screen. We spent a lot of time working on that. Particularly when you're cold. Cold and thirsty doesn't work. Hot and thirsty works. A lot of the time, he was shivering down in that canyon. Very difficult to convey, but we did our best.
Tribeca: Hearing Aron talk about those tapes that he made—while he was in the middle of his ordeal—was mindblowing.
Simon Beaufoy: They're an extraordinary thing. You see him on day five, after he'd run out of water. His face just becomes a skeleton. For the first—he's in amazingly good shape. That's the weird thing about this story. He had one extremely specific injury that didn't affect the rest of him. So he was absolutely fine. So you have a guy out for a walk, for all intents and purposes, talking to a camera. For the first three days, physically, he's pretty much the same, and on day four, he just shrinks in this astonshing, scary way. You see the fear in his eyes. It's a very difficult thing to watch. But the composure of them is unexpected. Mind moving. I would've been a mess.
Tribeca: And the scene with the hikers—so that kind of rooted him in the world, before the accident, yes?
Simon Beaufoy: We had a tiny little window at the beginning of the film to set up a lot about it. And that's before you get into the kind of minute-by-minute intensity. All that stuff has to be working very hard, but not seem to be working very hard. That's the trick of screenwriting. You have to lay all these trails but try and make them invisible.
Tribeca: What are you up to next?
Simon Beaufoy: I have another film coming out next year called Salmon Fishing in Yemen, another adaptation.
Tribeca: What's the one liner for that one?
Simon Beaufoy: I don't know yet—mad sheikh tries to set up a salmon run in the middle of the desert, with hilarious consequences.
Tribeca: I liked when James Franco was saying that 127 Hours, it's sort of like Samuel Beckett.
Simon Beaufoy: Absolutely! In End Game, where they're stuck, or in dustbins or something weird. It really felt like that. The surreal nature of a guy shaking hands with a rock. And he landed on his feet. Again, that allowed him to survive. The strange chance, luck and unluck of the story, is that if he'd landed two feet off the ground, one inch on the ground, he would've died in two days. He landed with his feet on the ground.
127 Hours opens in theaters this Friday, November 5.
Watch the trailer: