Call of the wild: Director Danny Boyle on '127 Hours', the first must-see film of 2011

Before he takes on the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, there's the small matter of following 'Slumdog Millionaire'. Danny Boyle talks to Craig McLean about '127 Hours', and why an action-loving city boy had to make a film about a man pinned under a boulder
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Teeth being hammered from a corpse's mouth. "The worst toilet in Scotland." Rampaging zombies, murderously annoyed. Leonardo DiCaprio, totally stoned. An avalanche of faeces engulfing a little boy. Over the years since his big-screen debut in 1994, Danny Boyle has treated us to many disturbing images. But with his new film, the director of Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, The Beach and the Oscar-sweeping Slumdog Millionaire may have outdone his own horrifically, terrifically exciting back catalogue.

127 Hours is Boyle's dramatic retelling of the six-day ordeal that befell young American hiker Aron Ralston in a Utah canyon in 2003. In intimate, no-punches-pulled detail, we witness a man, played by James Franco (Spider-Man), hacking off his own arm with a blunt penknife. We see it: the dulled blade sawing, at first uselessly, at skin; the tip piercing flesh and hitting bone; a nerve like a nylon guitar string being pulled from the bloody gore. And we hear it, the superhuman, herculean, out-of-body effort that the 27-year-old Ralston had to make to free himself after a boulder crushed his arm and trapped him at the bottom of a narrow slit in the remote, rocky wilderness of the American West.

"In the book," says the 54-year-old film-maker of Ralston's autobiography, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, "the description of the bone break is sound – Aron said it went round the canyon like a deafening gunshot. On both bones. So we followed it very, very exactly." '

Then there's the sonic approximation of a man having to hold his nerve while severing a nerve. Full credit to Boyle's sound designer, Glenn Freemantle: it's possibly the most jarring, jolting thing you'll ever hear. It's like guitar feedback being dragged down a blackboard. "And it's interesting," adds Boyle, excitedly, "although he doesn't report that sound for the nerve in the book, his simile is that it was like putting your hand in volcanic lava and leaving it there. We had to find an aural way of matching that description. But he does say he hauled it out like a guitar string off a fretboard."

"Danny has created this immersive experience, using the way that [the film is] cut and the music," says Franco. The actor is, of course, hard in front of the camera for almost the entire movie. But he appreciates the kinetic excitement – and, yes, entertainment – that Boyle has managed to craft from the story of someone trapped, immobile, in a tiny space for days on end. He knows why the Englishman was the man for the job. "I like the idea of slower movies, and yeah sure, I could appreciate a movie that took away the music, and [had] fewer cuts and you just sit with a character. I can appreciate that, but that's not a Danny Boyle movie. Danny does not like those kind of movies. So I'm certainly happy with the way he's created his own very unique experience."

"The film's got an urban rhythm, which maybe Aron wouldn't think it would necessarily have," offers Boyle. Born in Manchester and having cut his teeth on stage and television in Northern Ireland and London, the director brings this dynamic – this dynamism – to all his projects.

He likes to be technically innovative – 28 Days Later, about a plague called Rage that turns people into zombies, was a pioneering digital movie; Sunshine, his 2007 sci-fi film about astronauts journeying to the sun, was entirely filmed in a studio in east London. But he likes a good human story too. Cue Slumdog Millionaire, his social-realist fairy tale about a slum boy out to save the love of his life from gangsters while captivating all of India with his prowess on a TV quiz show.

"This surprises people, but we told it as we found it," he says of his 2009 film, which won eight Oscars. "We didn't go in and editorialise about the slums. They are vibrant, amazing places. They are hellholes in a physical sense. But actually, emotionally and spiritually, they're an amazing resource. We tried to capture that in the telling of the story. There's so many kids like this in India that don't normally get listened to – why shouldn't his voice dominate? Ascend?"

He admits that one of the reasons for the relative failure of The Beach, the big-budget, DiCaprio-starring adaptation of Alex Garland's cult novel about backpackers in Thailand, was because he's an urban man. Boyle just couldn't get his head around – that is, empathise with – the idea of barefoot travellers getting hippy-dippy in paradise. As a man and a film-maker, he crackles with excitement and pace, which is why 127 Hours is Boyle's particular take on a "wilderness movie" – there's not that much wilderness in it.

"I always thought the film should be jangling, impatient and pressing," says the director, who adds that he had to persuade Ralston that documentary was not the route to take to tell his incredible, gruelling story. "That's what was amazing about Aron – he did keep going. It's futile, and he knows chipping at the rock is fucking pointless. But he keeps doing it because it gives him something to do. And deep down, in the bottom of the well, it keeps a bit of hope alive somehow. However futile or pale it is."

As beautifully orchestrated by this director who likes to operate on all human senses, the sonic horror doesn't end with the ear-freaking twanging of the nerve. Enter, stage left, Dido. Well, the singing voice thereof.

"We've had a few issues with people fainting in America," says Boyle – and he might be a little gleeful as he reports this – of 127 Hours' early screenings on the festival circuit. "I keep saying this and they don't listen to me. They all go, 'Oh, it's the sound of that moment with the nerve... Oh, it's the bone breaking... Oh, it's the grisliness of what you see...'

"But I think it's two things: James's performance of pain is extraordinary. And you kind of get taken there by him. So some people in the audience will feel vulnerable. But I think the thing that also makes you vulnerable is that before it happens, when he sees the bone, there's this song..."

For this, the director who memorably had Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life" raise the curtain on Trainspotting and who wants British music to play a key role in the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, of which he is artistic director, turned to AR Rahman. The Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire musical composer collaborated with lily-white, English singer Dido. Their soundtrack contribution, Boyle thinks, "makes you feel vulnerable. It opens you up. And as soon as you've been opened up, there's this crack of bone. Music can do that. It can suddenly just make you intensely sensitive. And Dido's voice is incredible – she sings, 'If I believe there's more than this...'

"And it just makes you think, fucking hell. Then people are gonna be, 'Aargh!'" he shrieks, happily, approximating cinema-going audiences' likely responses to this incredible scene in this incredible film. "They're gonna find it a bit much."

The first time I met Danny Boyle, I remember thinking: this is a bit much. He was in the hallway of my Edinburgh flat, crouched over a prone and bloodied granny who had just been beaten up on his orders. My mum and dad were visiting, and I had managed to forget that we'd agreed to let a film crew take over our place for the day.

The director was filming Shallow Grave, and the grand home upstairs from my (rented) Edinburgh New Town pad was being used as the residence of the characters played by Ewan McGregor, Christopher Ecclestone and Kerry Fox. When their new flatmate (Keith Allen) inconveniently dies, they find a suitcase full of money. They decide to keep it – attracting the attention of thugs who, in the course of trying to track down the loot, mistakenly beat up the neighbour (the granny) downstairs (my place).

As he bounced round our hallway, directing his camera crew, reassuring the extra playing the unfortunate old lady, preparing the young McGregor for his next scene, the enthusiasm of the stranger who'd invaded my home was infectious.

Andrew Macdonald was Boyle's producing partner on many of his films, from his opening killer one-two of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, both of which were scripted by doctor-turned-writer John Hodge. He also clearly remembers his first meeting with the director. "He just poured out his enthusiasm for John's script," Macdonald says down the phone from South Africa, where he's making the new Judge Dredd movie. "And that is what Danny always does – his ability to transfer his love and passion for something is incredible. That's what he shows in most of his work as well. And he's still like that."

James Nesbitt, who starred in Boyle's 2004 children's movie Millions, echoes the sentiment. "Danny was the most amazing man, the Northern Irish actor remembers. "It's not much of an exaggeration to say he's the sort of man you wish you could be. His energy was incredible, and he dealt with the ' children brilliantly. He has a great intelligence and a very clear idea about what he wants. But that never translates as an ego or a hidden agenda. He's just very open and caring."

Interviewing Kenneth Branagh earlier this year, I asked the actor/director which film-makers had impressed him. He immediately nominated Boyle, who had directed him in a short 2008 film called Alien Love Triangle (part of a planned triptych that was never completed). "Danny was inspiring," he said. "Watching how he dealt with crew and actors was most impressive. [Robert] Altman, when I worked with him, was an inspiring figure – I think of him and Danny in similar ways. They knew how to approach what they were doing, how to value others' work. And they value the adventure of film."

Danny Boyle, his twin sister and his younger sister grew up in Radcliffe, near Manchester. It was a devoutly Catholic upbringing, and after passing his 11-plus, Boyle attended a boys' Salesian school in Bolton. The teaching order was "a softer version of the Jesuits". Looking back, "my life changed at that moment. It was a very strict education, and a repulsive one in some ways. Certainly in modern terms. But actually it suited me. I am fanatical about things when I get going on them, and it definitely suited that."

The notion that he might enter the priesthood vanished in his teens as, first, left-wing politics (his dad was a "heavy trade unionist") then theatre took over his life. Inspired by a school trip to the RSC in Stratford, Boyle studied drama and English at Bangor University. After a decade working in the theatre, in 1985, he became deputy director at the London's Royal Court, then worked at the BBC in Belfast. His TV breakthrough came on 1993 mini-series Mr Wroe's Virgins.

I meet Boyle in a Soho hotel during the London Film Festival. Earlier today, after the LFF press screening of 127 Hours, he and James Franco had held a press conference for international journalists. During the Q&A session – Boyle excitable, Franco laid-back – they described the experience of making the film, and of telling Ralston's story. There was much talk of faith, ecstasy, birth, rebirth and ascension. I ask Boyle whether the lapsed Catholic in him was trying to tell us something with Ralston's survival fable. He laughs good-naturedly, his spriggy hair bouncing on his head. "Keep going! You're almost engineering something!

"I don't know," he continues, quieter now. "It's a very spiritual story. But he doesn't turn to God. It's one of the things that shocked me in the book – cos they say there are no atheists in a foxhole. He prayed to God once and we recorded it, and we cut it, cos it didn't add very much." Any spiritual dimension in the images of Ralston flashing back to childhood "is not a spiritual thing in the strict religious sense of that word. It's something wider about how we can be transported.

"And I do believe in that transporting thing. That there are things you can summon up that can convey you to different places in a way. But I wouldn't attribute it to my religious upbringing, no!" he concludes, the laughter bubbling up again. "But others might, and you're very entitled to try, ha ha!"

Is Danny Boyle – in commercial and critical terms – Britain's greatest working director? Probably. Michael Winterbottom (Welcome to Sarajevo, A Cock and Bull Story, TV's The Trip) matches him for eclecticism. Anyone associated with Working Title or Harry Potter has a better box-office tally. But in combining artistry, eclecticism and ambition, no one can equal him. 127 Hours isn't even out yet, but Boyle is already in the thick of his next two projects. He's directing a new adaptation of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, which opens in February. He's cast Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and his old Trainspotting mucker Jonny Lee Miller. The actors will alternate the role of Dr Frankenstein and his monster creation.

"I love that. It is a story about how they are mirrors of each other. That'll be really interesting to do. And it'll make the run of the play really interesting for the actors to do as well – they won't be able to settle, and they'll be constantly sparring."

He and the writer Nick Dear first discussed the play when they worked together 15 years ago – Boyle's last time in theatre – on The Last Days of Don Juan for the RSC. Their idea is to tell the story from the creature's point of view. "It's a beautiful adaptation," says the director. "There's a very accessible tone, yet it's very honest, faithful, to the original."

How is he finding the pressures of the stage after all this time away? Different from a film set? "I'm not sure yet – I'll tell you when I feel them!" he smiles. "All you worry about at the moment is being rusty. I remember enough about theatre – but whether I can shake off the rust sufficiently for the modern actors... Cos they're gonna need a certain amount of stuff from the director. That's your main fear – wondering whether you're up to it in that sense."

Nicholas Hytner, artistic director at the National, has no such fears. "Danny was a wonderful theatre director, and I'm quite sure still is. What is exciting is that, in the 15 years since he last directed a play, he has developed a form of high-octane, highly intelligent, highly visceral popular entertainment through his movie work, which I think he's now going to bring to the skills he already had as a theatre director."

Once Frankenstein is up and running, Boyle will immerse himself in the Olympics. He and his team are working on ideas. "But the principle is, we're trying to stop it being 'a spectacle' in the way they've become." There's no point, he thinks, trying to top Beijing; he and fellow film director/creative director Stephen Daldry won't be seeding clouds.

"Beijing was the top of a chain that began at the Los Angeles Olympics, where they started to think about getting bigger every time. And I think people will understand that we start again. And, also, the stadium is not an obvious beauty – it's certainly not a spectacular beauty like the Bird's Nest [in Beijing], or even the Johannesburg stadium for the World Cup. But it is interesting because it's the same number of seats as Beijing but half the size. So it's amazingly delicate for such a huge thing. It's very intimate, and we're gonna try to use that to influence the way we do the opening ceremony."

For Boyle, there were no fears that he would be tackling a Millennium Dome-shaped white elephant. He immediately jumped at the offer of the job. "I said yes straight away without thinking about it." He's a "big Olympics fan, a big sports nut". The site is also a mile from his home in Mile End in east London, where he lives with his 21-year-old son, an animator (his elder daughter, 25, is working in India for Greenpeace; his younger daughter, 19, is studying design in New York; he is separated from their mother). "So it's local – and the investment going in locally will be of huge benefit to an under-resourced and neglected area of London.

"Everybody keeps saying, 'What about those four billion people on television watching?' But how can you think of four billion people? So you think about the people in the stadium; we're gonna try to make it sensible for them."

Anyway, Boyle knows all about pressure. He admits the awards-season hoopla surrounding Slumdog Millionaire was a new type of trial, but he quickly turned it to his advantage. He realised the film's Academy Awards triumph would give him the opportunity to make 127 Hours, which he'd initially considered making before his Mumbai movie. But, ordinarily, 127 Hours "is the kind of story you'd never get finance for".

So Slumdog Millionaire gave him leverage and clout? "A bit. It's only temporary but you have a bit, for a bit. If that studio won't make it with you, they get humiliated because you take it to another studio – who then humiliate their enemy studio by going, 'Look! We financed his new film!' So you engineer it in a way that gives you a good advantage. And they did step up for it, and we got a chance to make it.

"It was nice to do something where you have different expectations. Because the danger if you do something at all similar is that expectations are immediately inflamed. And you're just setting yourself up for disappointing people. So we thought it would be nice to do something that actually surprises people. And yet not make it as a really indulgent vanity project."

Forget the horror of the self-amputation in 127 Hours. This film is so much more than "That Scene". It's a beautifully crafted hymn to the human spirit. Boyle has triumphed again.

And there's another bit of sound design with which this gung-ho team-player is particularly thrilled. "When Aron gets out, he packs his bag and takes the photograph of his arm left in the rock. And he looks up and says, 'Thank you' to something. Glenn brings this sound back in, this wind, which he was very proud of – it was a Utah wind that they went there to record. And it's very subtle, but when know it's there..." Boyle is whispering now. "Oh, that's so beautiful. It's life returning, being brought back in. Anyway..." he beams, clapping his hands and snapping himself out of the reverie.

'127 Hours' (15) is out on Tuesday. '127 Hours: Between a Rock and a Hard Place' by Aron Ralston is published by Simon & Schuster, priced £7.99

Five narrow escapes: From icy escapades to flailing freefalls

Arctic horror

While Australian Douglas Mawson was leading a three-man surveying team in the Antarctic during November 1912, one of his companions fell into a crevasse – with six dogs, a sledge containing essential provisions, and a tent. The two men, Mawson and Xavier Mertz, began eating their remaining dogs. Mertz suffered seizures (possibly as a result of eating Husky liver) and died in January 1913. Mawson made the final 100 miles to base, but missed the supply ship by hours. It was recalled, but was trapped by bad weather for a second Antarctic winter. Mawson died in 1958 at the age of 76.

The wandering tourist

Lost for 12 days in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales in July 2009, Briton Jamie Neale used bark as insulation, kept his feet dry, and ate berries and leaves. His feat was matched by the furore over the cost of the rescue and the fees paid to Neale for interviews.

The fall girl

Karina Hollekim is the base jumper who fell to earth and lived. The Norwegian's parachute failed to open during a skydive in 2006 and she hit the ground at 60mph. Her legs were fractured in 25 places and she lost three litres of blood. Her rescue was swift but the recuperation is ongoing: Hollekim can now walk short distances but hasn't returned to the skies.

The desert nomad

The Marathon des Sables is a six-day, 145-mile running race through Moroccan desert. In 1994, a sandstorm caused the Italian runner Mauro Prosperi to lose his way; he ended up in Algeria, 186 miles off-course. At one point he attempted suicide by cutting his wrists, but due to dehydration, his blood was too thick to flow. After surviving by eating bats and a snake and drinking his own urine for nine days, Prosperi was found and rescued by a nomadic family.

The mountain ranger

Thanks to a wrong turn he made while snowboarding in California in 2003, Eric LeMarque spent eight days stuck in the Sierra Nevada in little more than a hooded sweatshirt, hiking (with one bare foot) and sheltering in an igloo in sub-zero temperatures. He ate bark, pine needles, nuts and chewing gum. His feet and part of his legs had to be amputated due to frostbite.

On set with my worst nightmare by Aron Ralston

It's a classic dinner-party question: who would play you in the movie of your life? But I never thought I'd find myself on a couch next to James Franco in a suite at the Four Seasons, showing him how to cut off his arm.

It's January 2010, and Danny Boyle – the British director of Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire andnow, 127 Hours, the film about my six-day entrapment in a Utah slot canyon – has brought me to meet James for the first time. The actor unpacks his lunch while the film's producer, Christian Colson, prepares a VHS deck to show a video: my last will and testament, actually, an hour-long diary I recorded from 26 April to 1 May 2003, while an 800lb boulder kept my right hand pinned. James wolfs down a walnut-and-spinach salad, chased with a Diet Coke. He's already shedding weight to portray my starvation, I realise, as we settle in to watch.

Immediately, a 27-year-old version of me fills the screen. "It's 3:05 on Sunday," my ghost says. "This marks my 24-hour mark of being stuck in Blue John Canyon. My name is Aron Ralston..."

I've seen this tape before, and while it reminds me that I'd accepted my own imminent death, the footage has never distressed me. For others, though – especially my mom – the emotional impact is intense, even disturbing. I glance at James as he absorbs my goodbyes, thank-yous, and death-watch updates. When I explain on the tape that I've resorted to drinking my own urine, then add in disgust, "It's no Slurpee," the face of Gucci laughs at my pitch-black humour.

Sporadically, Danny pauses the video as James interrupts with questions.

"Where did your bones break?" he asks.

"Just a few inches back from my wrist, here."

"Is that where you started cutting?"

"Uh-huh, on the inside, farthest from the wall."

It's a surreal game of charades – re-enacting my experience for an actor who will later re-re-enact it. As I pantomime snapping the bones of my ensnared arm around an invisible boulder that floats above the coffee-table, James's spirited eyebrows arch and glide across his forehead like feather boas on a drag queen. I lose my concentration and laugh out loud. Will someone tame these things, please? I can't work like this!

This whole movie process has been quite strange. Producers' solicitous emails started arriving within days of my rescue, while I was still in hospital. Among them was a note from John Smithson, the Brit behind the survival docu-drama Touching the Void, who would eventually option my book Between a Rock and a Hard Place, and take it to various financiers and directors.

One of those was Danny Boyle. When we first met at a canal-side café in Utrecht in 2006, I was struck by his preparation. He had highlighted, underlined, sticky-noted, annotated, and dog-eared his copy of my book to the brink of illegibility. Over espresso, Danny described his fascination with this "exstrawrdinry" story, even as he explained that he's not a wilderness guy himself, nor does he have much interest in adventure tales. What compelled Danny most were the challenges inherent in making an action picture that has so little opportunity for action. One guy, in one place. An hour without dialogue. And absolutely no voice-over. Clearly, this was not going to be a mainstream adventure flick.

Some months later, Salt Lake City: a windowless factory.

I follow James and his three arms through the dust-clouded factory back to the canyon set. I scoot up a back way into the upper canyon, carefully crawling past two scorching-hot lamps and a hodgepodge of light-diffusing flags. Danny is giving James his directions.

"The pain sears through your arm. Sears," Danny emphasises. "Stabbing with pain." I infer that this is one of the attempted amputation scenes. Oh, boy, the good stuff! With a glance up to me, five feet overhead, Danny raises his eyebrows to say, "OK, let's clear out." I meet him at the video-monitoring station, where we can see James on two screens. One camera is looking head-on at James from just above his entrapped right arm, the canyon wall framing the left side of the shot. The other view is from just a foot to the right of the first, giving the oblique angle. Cinematographer Enrique "Quique" Chediak and another cameraman are squished side by side into the 3ft-wide space just behind the boulder, each manoeuvring a pared-down digital camera rig.

"Pan right and tilt up," Danny directs Quique. "Pull back. Too much. Press in. More dutch. Boss right..." Finally, he says, "Yes. That's it. Ready."

Danny doesn't generally sit in his director's chair. He stands to watch and move between the video screens. David Ticotin, the first assistant director, issues the command, "Shh!" through his microphone, then, "Roll cameras." Danny cues "Action," and the efforts of 40 crew culminate with a collective focus on James.

He takes a few laboured breaths. "Even more rasping, James," Danny calls out, which James provides before reaching for the neoprene covering of his unpeeled CamelBak [water bottle] tubing. He loops it around his right forearm, knotting it, then uses a carabiner to wind the makeshift tourniquet so tight it pinches his skin.

"Damn, man, be careful. You're gonna hurt yourself," I think, before I remember it's the fake arm. With the knife in hand, he braces himself, then attacks his arm, sawing maniacally, grunting, heaving, and sweating. But the blade is too dull. Defeated, he sets the knife down.

I'm alternating between watching James on the screens and watching Danny watch James. James clutches his chest, Danny clutches his; James leans into the boulder, Danny presses into the video cart; they each purse their lips, then bare their teeth, then relax, in concert. I can't tell whether Danny is mimicking the action or directing James through animated telepathy or playing out the part that he's created in his mind. Whichever, it's intense, slightly funny, and amazing.

With renewed gusto, James picks up the knife. Holding it like a dagger, he slams it into his arm to the hilt. Blood oozes out of the wound.

Then something truly horrific happens. A mobile phone rings. A tinny melody shatters the world. The way everyone dives to cover their pockets, it's as if somebody had shouted, "Grenade!"

"Shit! Shit! Shit!" Danny swears through gnashed teeth as it rings a second time. David Ticotin cues his microphone: "Cutcutcutcutcut!"

A third ring – and I snicker as Danny realises it's his own phone. Pulling it out, he smiles at me sheepishly.

Well, good. Cos that's about the only way this could have ended without a real amputation and someone's head rolling out of the set doors.

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in 'Outside' magazine (