When John Smithson set his mind to making a feature film about the mountain climber Aron Ralston’s horrific experience of being trapped in a canyon and having to cut his arm off to escape, the British film producer did not envisage falling down a cliff himself.
But that’s what happened when Smithson tried to show his dedication to the film project by accompanying Ralston on a return visit to Blue John Canyon in Utah, the remote wilderness where the climber suffered an accident that is the subject of the six times Oscar nominated film 127 Hours.
Smithson describes himself as “no climber”. He had already driven for three hours (and had a car crash), then trekked for a further three hours in order to arrive at the entrance to the canyon, and then found himself having to descend a 30 feet high slippery wall. “Aron said ‘It’s just a little bit technical’ but his definition of technical and mine are just a little bit different,” he says.
After descending a short distance, Smithson lost his footing and slithered down the cliff face for around 20 feet. His initial reaction was a deep fear that he had broken his leg. “You are in the middle of nowhere with no mobile phone coverage, it’s incredibly remote,” he says. “No one else was around and I was really shaken.”
Although Smithson was able to walk on, he spent the rest of his day at Blue John “terrified” at the prospect of having to climb back up the same wall. Ralston went to visit the spot where, five years earlier, he had found himself pinned to a canyon wall by a falling boulder, forcing him to self-amputate his arm when his meagre water supply ran out five days later.
“Aron went to the precise spot and he was gone for an hour or two hours,” Smithson recalls of their 2008 trip. “The time went on and on. I was on my own and I have never known anything like the feeling of remoteness, that deafening silence. He took forever and I started thinking ‘He’s had another accident in the canyon - what do I do here?’”
The journey played a critical part in convincing Ralston he should make the film version of his story with Darlow-Smithson, the London production company that also made the documentary Touching the Void, another mountaineering epic. “I did the trip to show Aron I was absolutely committed to the story. It was the big statement that we were in this together – and to get Aron to believe that I would deliver the project.”
Getting 127 Hours made was a drawn out process. Ralston was rescued after encountering a family of Dutch walkers, six hours after cutting away the lower part of his right arm and hauling himself from the canyon. The tale quickly became international news and when Smithson sent his first email in 2003 he learned that he was one of 1,000 film-makers looking to tell Ralston’s story. His hopes faded.
The next year Touching the Void – a true story of a near fatal climb in the Peruvian Andes – won a BAFTA and became the most successful British theatrical documentary release ever. Soon afterwards, Ralston published a book of his experience, Between A Rock And a Hard Place. Ralston loved Touching the Void and agreed to sell Smithson the rights to make his own film.
But that process would take five years. Ralston was, naturally, fearful of his life story being misrepresented. In 2006, Smithson learned that the British director Danny Boyle was interested in making the movie. “I saw Danny and I really loved his creative take on the film,” he says. “But I knew there was a major problem because Danny is Danny, a brilliantly exciting and innovative filmmaker. He’s not a director who would embrace doing a Touching the Void style approach, he would want to do it his way. But I totally supported that, I thought it was really exciting.”
Ralston was less enthusiastic as he met Boyle in the Netherlands to discuss the director’s four-page outline for the project. Although the pair got on well, the climber asked for more time. “A couple of weeks later I got an email from Aron saying he just wasn’t ready,” says Smithson. “It really knocked me back. Everyone was so excited at the prospect of Danny doing it.”
The plan was shelved. A development deal that Smithson had secured with Film 4 came to an end and he was forced to look for fresh finance from America. “There would have been every reason in the world to have killed the project off at that point but I thought I can’t let go of it now, I was still too much in love with the story,” he says.
He approached Alex Gibney, director of Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. A meeting was arranged between Gibney and Ralston in Chicago and the project began to come back to life. And then Slumdog Millionaire came out and everything changed.
Boyle’s film about Mumbai orphans electrified cinema audiences around the world and would later win eight Oscars.
Pathe Pictures, which had worked with Boyle and Film 4 on Slumdog, was keen that Ralston’s story would be the director’s next project. Early in 2009, Boyle and Ralston met up again in London – but still the American was not ready to commit. That summer, Boyle, his production partner Christian Colson and Smithson flew back to Blue John Canyon with Ralston (this time in a helicopter and accompanied by mountain guides).
Later at a hotel in Moab, Utah, Ralston agreed to show the group footage from the video camera that he had used to film himself during his 2003 ordeal. “Aron showed us what is an incredibly powerful tape, because you are watching a man dying,” says Smithson. “It’s about building trust. I thought we are back on, but then almost at the end of the meeting he started having cold feet again.”
The deal was finally clinched at a “do or die meeting” in New York, where Ralston finally agreed to entrust his story with Boyle. “Danny played a blinder and Aron agreed to totally go with his creative vision, which is the film you now see, 127 Hours.”
Tonight a movie that John Smithson bought the rights to back in 2004 is up for six Academy Awards. James Franco is shortlisted in the Best Actor category for his portrayal of Ralston, while Boyle is nominated for best director - two years after winning the same award for Slumdog.