Exclusive: 127 Hours Co-Writer Simon Beaufoy

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Danny Boyle’s new movie 127 Hours has been playing in limited release for a number of weeks now, and hopefully a lot of readers have already had a chance to see it. For those who haven’t, we want to give you a little more about the making of the film as an incentive to check it out when it opens in your area.

As you may or may not know by now, it’s the story of Aron Ralston, a professional mountain guide played by James Franco, who falls into a crevasse in the Blue John Canyon in Utah and gets his hand trapped underneath a boulder for five days. Ralston survived the ordeal and figured out a rather dramatic way in order to free himself, and then wrote a book about the experience called “Between a Rock and a Hard Place,” which Boyle has turned into an amazing, visceral film unlike anything else you’re likely to see this year.

One of the talented guys who helped Boyle pave the way for his previous hit, the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, is screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who originally adapted Vikas Swarup’s difficult novel into a screenplay. When Boyle decided he wanted to adapt Aron Ralston’s story, he called upon Beaufoy to help him, and the results are just another brilliant adaptation of a story that isn’t particularly easy to tell.

Two years ago, ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with the two jovial filmmakers at the Toronto International Film Festival. This time around, they were sequestered into separate interviews, so we had two times as much fun, and we got to see if their responses would corroborate. (You can read our earlier recent interview with Boyle here.)

ComingSoon.net: I just spoke with Danny and one of the things that’s interesting about the film is that he has almost the exact same team from “Slumdog Milionaire” back on this movie, including yourself. He mentioned that you said “no” at first despite your experience as a mountain climber…
Simon Beaufoy:
Of all the stories, it was the one that was least likely to be told. I mean, I just didn’t know how one would do it. It seemed an impossible adaptation, and I’m quite keen on difficult adaptations, but I didn’t understand how it was to be told. And then Danny presented me with a document (and said) “This is how you do it,” and I immediately got it.

CS: Was that document really much about the visuals or how to encompass some of the stuff that’s not normally easy to visualize?
Beaufoy:
I suppose he cracked the key to it, which is the video camera, which is the past. If you talk to people from your past and in your life and you can go back to it. As soon as I realized that, I thought, “Okay, I understand how to do this” and then I got really interested in the man (Aron Ralston) himself, why he was there, because he’s a very interesting character, and a superhero story about this ultra marathon runner who cuts his own arm off in a superhuman way. It was just a story that I thought, “Nobody in the audience is going to be able to understand that”… beyond the kind adventure story of a sensational instant, and I thought, “That’s not the way to make films. Films have to connect with everybody in the cinema.” So it was my job to mine the emotions of Aron and find out why he was there on his own, what was going on in his life at the time that had led him to this strange place. To be perfectly frank, there were a lot of things about his personality at that time that weren’t the stuff of heroes and superheroes and weren’t particularly likeable. And I totally leveled with him, I said, “Look, this is how this film is going to work, because nobody in the cinema is going to be canyoning and have a boulder fall on their arm. They’re all going to have done some pretty tough things in their past, and I need to know what those things are that you’ve done, because this is a story about someone looking back on their past and things they wish they’d done differently and better and wished they’d treated people in a different way. What’s redemptive about the story is that he has a second go at it, but I think every member of the audience understands that.

CS: Was any of that covered in Aron’s book at all?
Beaufoy:
It sort of hints at it, but I had an interesting conversation with him where I said, “You come across as a superhero. That just doesn’t do it for me, and it’s not going to do it for an audience.” And he said, “I’m not a superhero! I caused an avalanche and I nearly killed my friends and I wrote about that in the book,” and I said, “Yeah, and you also wrote that you outspeed the avalanche in a superhero way! You gotta stop doing the superhero thing!” Absolutely to his credit, he said, “I understand entirely what you mean and yes, that is the way people are going to connect to the story.” He was incredibly open and trusting about the more difficult sides of his personality, which we all have, but I just said, “They have to be in the film or otherwise, this doesn’t work.”

CS: I was curious about that because he’s obviously such a character and much of that is through James’ personification of him, but would this have been harder if he didn’t have such an outgoing personality and cavalier attitude? Who knows Maybe he wouldn’t have survived if not for that. How important was that personality of his to make this an interesting movie?
Beaufoy:
It’s sort of key to it really, and the fact that he’d allow us to show all the facets of his personality… because he’s not your average hero of a drama and in dramatic terms, you’re treading quite a dangerous path, because you’re saying, “This is a troubled person,” and yet, you’ve gotta root for him, you gotta want him to get out. At the same time, you are specifically showing the most troubled parts of his personality and how he’s behaved towards people.

CS: This is a very visual movie, and it probably required a lot of storyboarding and figuring out the technical aspects of how it was going to be done. It doesn’t seem like there would be a ton of room for improvisation, especially in the fact they were shooting a lot outdoors. How tightly-scripted were you able to do this? Were you able to leave a lot of room for James to improvise?
Beaufoy:
No, no, Danny’s not a fan of improvisation and neither am I, so it was very tightly-scripted. It kind of has to be, because you have to know where you start on something like this, because you have to have a shape and that shape has to work on paper, before you get in there shooting. ‘Cause it’s such a risky enterprise, one guy on his own not moving is a tough sell, so you have to have a document that absolutely works as a piece of drama. Yeah, it’s pretty much word-for-word I would say.

CS: So even things like the dream sequence were very much written out?
Beaufoy:
Yeah, absolutely.

CS: You had access to the video tapes Aron made while trapped, so how much of the actual things he said on tape did you want to include in the movie?
Beaufoy:
Well, it’s a mixture. He spent a long time, over an hour, talking to his friends and family and quite a lot of that would make no sense to anyone who isn’t intimately acquainted to Aron and his family, so some of it is verbatim, some of the bits I could have rewritten, because I was like, “That sounds like bad writing,” but that’s actually quotes taken verbatim from the tapes. Others are versions of what he said, so it’s a mixture of the two.

CS: I know when you did “Slumdog,” you and Danny never met and you just wrote the screenplay, and it went from there, but this one is different because you’re working closely together, so how else was this different? Danny had worked with John Hodge and Frank Boyce and Alex Garland a couple of times each, so how was this experience different from “Slumdog” in terms of the collaboration? Were you on set at all?
Beaufoy:
No, I never like being on set, because I always think that writers, if you’ve done your job properly than you’re irrelevant on set. “Slumdog” was very collaborative anyway. Danny is a man who will investigate every line of a script, he’s very forensic, so every scene is talked over hugely to make sure it’s right. It’s fabulous working with someone who you just know can do it, who you have absolute faith that they know what they’re doing. For instance, one of the scenes, the scene where he breaks up with his girlfriend, I wrote as a scene in a bedroom like this. Danny says, “I like the scene, but I want to set it at a basketball game,” and I went, “What? It’s two people! They’re breaking up! It’s really intimate, what are you talking about?” and he said, “Exactly, I want it at a basketball game.” With any other director, I would fight to the death and go, “What the hell are you talking about?” With him I went, “Okay. Of all the people, if you think you can pull it off then you can.”

CS: One of the things he mentioned when I asked him about working with you again is that he said he doesn’t like yes men and I guess he knew that you would not say, “Yes,” but you’re basically denying that now.
Beaufoy:
(laughs) No, no, we really examine everything and go (Simon then does a near-perfect impression of Danny Boyle) “Really? What, no, why?” but in the end, if he says he can pull it off, you absolutely trust him. You have faith in the can, and I wouldn’t say that of any other director I’ve ever worked with.

CS: I’m curious about the humor in the movie, even things like when the title appears. I saw the press screening in Toronto which had all the crazy problems and delays, and when you watch the movie knowing what it’s about, but then 20 minutes in, when you get to the title “127 Hours,” it gets a laugh. Where does that humor come from? From you, from Danny? Do you have to find ways to bring humor into this?
Beaufoy:
We both say, “Get a laugh where you can.” But I think humor is essential. I come from a part of the country in Britain that had huge unemployment when I was growing up, and the worse things got, the funnier the jokes got, that’s what I found. It’s a coping mechanism. It’s a way of giving yourself perspective, stepping away from the horror of a situation. If you can make a joke out of it, it is a sort of survival mechanism in a way, so I thought it was really essential to get some humor in there. Like that whole talk show thing, I was just like, “Please, give the audience a break.” And it does two things: It gives the audience a break, but of course you can’t keep that intense an experience up for 90 minutes without some circuit breaker standing there and going, “I’ve had enough.” So if you just give them a break for a while. It’s a classic torture technique really. Give them a break and then come back and give them a bit more, so you’ve actually increased the sense of pressure by giving them a laugh beforehand.

CS: It’s funny because that talk show segment is just a minute or two before the climactic moment where someone in the audience inevitably passes out…
Beaufoy:
And it comes directly after the lowest point in his journey, when you think he’s escaped and he’s dreaming he’s escaped and there’s a flood and he’s gotten back safe to say “Sorry” to his girlfriend, and then he comes back and realizes that he’s still there. I was sitting there thinking, “Well, what do you do now? You’ve got to the lowest point in his journey.” And I thought, “Gee, that’s the next step. If anyone is going to survive.”

CS: You’ve done two amazing movies with Danny, so do you feel like you’re up for doing another movie together. He’s busy with the Olympics and the play, so do you think you’ll spend time writing something and you’d send it to Danny first?
Beaufoy:
Of course, always, yeah. You know, it’s very hard to imagine anyone else directing my writing really, because he’s a visionary. One of very few people you hand a script to and it will become greater than it is, it becomes better, he takes it to a new place.

CS: You have a movie that you wrote that was directed by Lasse Halstrom which is just shooting or finished shooting…
Beaufoy:
It’s just finished shooting, yeah.

CS: So how was that experience, because he’s obviously a very different director… I don’t want you to bash Lasse or anything because you love working with Danny so much…
Beaufoy:
(laughs) No, no, no, it’s a very different experience. It’s just very odd working with anybody else. It’s just a very intense thing working with Danny. I meet with Lasse and he goes, “Look, this is the best script I’ve read in ten years, it’s great!” where Danny would be like, “Okay, this line, this line, this line…” There’s a huge investigation. Directors just work in different ways.

CS: Any progress on “Truckers”? I remember the last time I talked to you guys…
Beaufoy:
Oh, they fired me.

CS: Awww… really?
Beaufoy:
They fire everyone on that film! I have no idea what is happening with “Truckers.” I loved that! I thought I’d written a great screenplay (chuckles). That’s what happens when you think you’ve written a great screenplay!

CS: So who knows if this is ever going to happen since obviously, Danny can’t do it anymore and you’re not on it anymore, so who knows?
Beaufoy:
I dunno, no, no, it’s a real shame.

CS: What happened to that other book you were adapting? I remembered you mentioning it being almost as difficult as “Slumdog.”
Beaufoy:
“The Raw Shark Tests.” (Based on the novel by Steven Hall.)

CS: That’s the one. Is that something you’re still working on it or trying to crack?
Beaufoy:
I have to do another draft, that’s a really tough one.

127 Hours is now playing in select cities and should expand even wider on Friday, December 3.