Reporting from Blue John Canyon, Utah ——Danny Boyle could barely be heard over the low-flying helicopter. "It's like 'Apocalypse Now,'" he yelled as he fastened his helmet and tightened a climbing harness around his waist, preparing to descend into a narrow canyon.
The British director had brought his moviemaking team to this remote locale just outside Canyonlands National Park to film several key scenes in "127 Hours," Boyle's first feature since 2008's " Slumdog Millionaire." Every supply — sleeping bags, tents, toilets, cameras, makeup, forks, beef jerky — had to be flown in, and the latest delivery had just noisily arrived.
Boyle climbed down a series of ladders to the precise spot of Ralston's solitary, five-day ordeal of dehydration, starvation, hypothermia and sleep deprivation. The actual rock that trapped the hiker was removed years ago so that Ralston's hand could be recovered and cremated; in its place was an artificial boulder, splattered with fake blood added for the scene.
In the sequence being filmed, Ralston (played by James Franco) had just severed his forearm with a dull multi-tool. In the next shot, he was to stagger out of the tight coulee, only to be faced with another unthinkable task: to rappel about 70 feet down a sheer cliff, using one hand. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, tethered by a rope to a large shrub, leaned over the gorge from an opposing precipice to shoot Franco's walk from the dark slot to the sunny rappel spot — "into God's light," as Boyle described it.
"His last, worst fear is that he'll lose control of it," Boyle instructed a gaunt Franco, who had lost 25 pounds for the role. "And he's got to be careful that he doesn't pass out from the blood loss."
A middle-of-nowhere location, precarious camerawork and physical strains were hardly the only challenges Boyle's team faced in filming "127 Hours," a Fox Searchlight release arriving in theaters Nov. 5. They also dodged scorpions and weathered a freak late-season snowstorm that delayed production.
Yet those were all trivial tribulations compared to what Boyle, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and producer Christian Colson had to wrestle with even before the "127 Hours" cameras rolled: first, sell a reluctant Ralston on any number of dramatic liberties; second, craft a compelling narrative in which the hero has no one to talk to and can't move; and third, figure out how to depict a grisly procedure that wouldn't make moviegoers pass out or run for the exits.
Even if Boyle succeeded on all those fronts, the "127 Hours" director admitted, "This will be a difficult movie to sell."
Boyle's filmography is extraordinarily varied: the zombie thriller "28 Days Later," the sci-fi story "Sunshine," the children's fantasy "Millions," the dystopian drama "The Beach," the crime movie "Shallow Grave," and the hallucinatory "Trainspotting." The 54-year-old has tackled every genre, it seems, outside of musicals and biography.
Six years ago, he tried to adapt "3000 Degrees: The True Story of a Deadly Fire and the Men Who Fought It," a book about six firefighters who died in a 1999 Massachusetts blaze. But he and Universal Pictures canceled production at the last minute when some survivors objected.
"I remember thinking after '3000 Degrees' that I'll never do another real-life story," Boyle said. "It's just too complicated. You don't have control over the material."
After turning "Slumdog Millionaire" into an art-house chartbuster and Academy Awards champion, Boyle contemplated directing the next James Bond film or remaking "My Fair Lady." But he kept thinking about Ralston's near-death experience, previously having given the hiker's 2004 book, "Between a Rock and a Hard Place," to Colson.
"I read it and said, 'There's no way you can do this,'" the producer said. "It's one bloke with his arm stuck. How could you make that dramatic?"
Boyle had an answer, albeit a strange one, and gave Colson his outline for the film. Rather than focus as much on the mounting rescue effort as on Ralston's predicament, as some filmmakers might, Boyle said his cameras would never leave the hiker. That way, spectators in a multiplex could be transported to the canyon.
"I wanted it to be a subjective experience for the audience," Boyle said. "My feeling is that we're all capable of what Aron did. So if it's subjective, you won't avert your eyes. You'll say, 'Go on, do it!'"
But Ralston wasn't initially buying Boyle's vision.
Smitten with the Andean survival movie "Touching the Void," a 2003 feature combining interviews with the real climbers and reenactments by actors, Ralston thought the same fact/fiction mash-up would best serve his story. He joined forces in 2004 with "Touching the Void" producer John Smithson and filmmaker Alex Gibney, the documentarian behind the Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side." But their movie went nowhere for two years.