After winning an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle could pick any followup project he wished.
127 Hours, which opens Wednesday in Tampa Bay area theaters, wasn't a likely choice for a self-described "urban director."
Unlike Slumdog, with its shots of the teeming streets of Mumbai, 127 Hours is essentially a one-man show, set in Utah canyons where meeting anyone is a surprise. It's a true story, although as incredible as the fiction of a poor Sikh winning a game show fortune.
In 2003, a free-spirited Coloradan named Aron Ralston was doomed to die alone, trapped in a crevice by a fallen boulder crushing his right arm. He made it out, but not in one piece.
After five agonizing days, Ralston escaped by amputating his arm with a dull utility knife. The details of his survival quickly spread around the world. Between a Rock and a Hard Place is his bestselling book about the ordeal. 127 Hours is Boyle's pulse-quickening movie about it.
"It's a pretty unpalatable film to sell, theoretically," Boyle said, sitting between Ralston and actor James Franco before a city park audience at Colorado's Telluride Film Festival, where 127 Hours had its world premiere. "But I wanted to take advantage of the short window of opportunity that Slumdog gave us to get away with something."
What Boyle gets away with is turning Ralston's story of desperate isolation into a vibrant celebration of community, with split screens, whiplash editing and a jai ho musical score. Franco is mostly alone as Ralston but delirium allows flashbacks revealing what he gave up for a few days alone that could last forever. 127 Hours isn't the typical man vs. nature movie that Ralston's book would suggest.
As someone who doesn't enjoy the great outdoors, Boyle couldn't do it any other way.
"I felt that it wasn't a film about this act of incredible courage in the wilderness," he said. "It was a film about the call back to this (gestures to the crowd), to people, the way we're all plopped together, really, and how we all pull ourselves magnetically through things.
"I'm an urban filmmaker and I'll bring that tension to it. I think it would be unbearable to watch in a more classical style. You could argue that it's not an accurate film in that way."
Ralston doesn't seem to mind, although he mentioned an "underlying tension at times" over six years of preparation. "You know, between the screenplay and the book, or doing a docudrama versus a drama," he said. "We went on for years on those basic foundational issues.
"There was maybe a little apprehension about having me around too much. There's a need for license in creativity and art. I didn't need to have my finger in the pie at every moment. For me to see the film now, I absolutely believe it conveys every emotion that I went through."
How desperate his need to return to society is evidenced not only by Ralston's severed arm but videos he recorded while trapped. Franco re-creates them with feverish intensity, making the camera a character to be confided in, and occasionally joked with.
"The first time I met Aron, we're sitting in a hotel room and he showed us the videos," Franco said. "It was incredibly powerful. It was a very simple presentation, very intimate, just talking to his family and friends. But also, in the background, he's facing death.
"I'm seeing somebody facing death, and how he wanted to present himself, maybe in his last message to them. That really guided me through a lot of the performance."
The existence of those videos was another reason Boyle envisioned 127 Hours as an urban-flavored film.
"He's video recording, like, three years before YouTube began," Boyle said. "And yet he goes to the wilderness and takes a videocamera and records himself doing these things, taking evidence constantly to bring back. To where? To the city. So, I was obsessed with that."
Ralston supports Boyle's take on his tale, even when it veers from his reality.
"James does a really great self-interview on camera, as though he's on a talk show," Ralston said. "He's the host, the interviewee and the caller who's phoning in. I didn't do that.
"But the elements of delirium, trying to keep it together, being self-critical … those thematic essentials are all very true. It is my experience … the euphoria of salvation, the depression of dark times, the longing for family and love. That's what the film is all about."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/ movies.