Danny Boyle talks about his latest movie '127 Hours'
here is a celebrated scene in Danny Boyle's film Trainspotting in which Sick Boy and Renton are discussing greatness, how it comes and goes in a minute.
The fear of having "had it, lost it", of knowing in your heart that it sounds just "all right", often seems to propel Boyle's own career in its unpredictable and fast-forward course. You don't have to talk to Boyle for long — he is the most edge-of-the-seat eager and fluent of interviewees — to discover that he is full of theories about many things, but particularly about longevity. He will suggest, for example, that no filmmaker's golden period lasts more than a decade, not really, not ever (it's 16 years since he made Shallow Grave, 14 since Trainspotting). He will argue that every director's first film is their best (because film is a manipulative medium, and once you've learned the tricks, you employ them, and all innocence is lost). And he will contend, with a laugh, that therefore by any objective criteria, at 54, his career should be over already, while all the time doing everything in his power to prove the opposite.
The theory, he believes, is rooted in his 89-year-old father's view of his work. His dad, a self-educated man, has watched all of his son's films and is the bluntest and most consistent of his critics. "It's quite good," he suggests at the end of each of them. "But it's not as good as Shallow Grave."
For all Boyle's infectious can-do enthusiasm, that anxiety of diminishing returns seems to haunt him just a little. It's why he wages his own one-man war in the cinema against boredom. And it's why, he says, "always changing genres, making very different films is a good idea. It's a way of making yourself feel vulnerable again, getting back to that innocence. As is working within a circumspect budget.
"As soon as you think you can do whatever you want and you have whatever great professional in the world waiting to work with you, then you are sunk. Or, at least, James Cameron might not be, but I am."
Boyle experienced some of that damaging weight of expectation in his response to Trainspotting, the breakthrough film of his early career. He was persuaded to take a £55 million (Dh320.14 million) budget and Hollywood's biggest star, Leonardo DiCaprio, and make The Beach. Over the course of a jinxed shoot and a mixed critical reception he discovered that being King of the World was not all it was cracked up to be. You get the sense that following his second landmark film, Slumdog Millionaire, which last year won eight Oscars, including best film and best director, he was determined above all not to make that mistake again.
It is in this light that you watch Boyle's new film, 127 Hours. It would be fair to say you could hardly be further from Bollywood and "Jai Ho". If this looks deliberate, it is not quite how Boyle planned it. He was keen to make this film before Slumdog, but couldn't persuade Aron Ralston, an all-American outdoorsman, whose true story it tells, to share his vision. The subsequent Oscars no doubt helped.
Like nearly all of Boyle's films, this one is an adaptation of a book: Between A Rock And A Hard Place. The book told the story of how in April 2003, Ralston, an adrenaline junkie, got pinned under a falling boulder at the bottom of a narrow gorge deep in Utah's Canyonlands national park. There was no way of freeing his arm, and no one knew he was there. All he had with him was a rope, a video camera, a bottle of water and, crucially, a blunt penknife.
If you have seen any of the advance publicity for the film, which has involved tales of audience faintings and walk-outs, then you can no doubt deduce the ending. It is not giving much away to say that the film builds to a graphic self-amputation, one that employs not only the rusty penknife blade but also a fair few of the knife's other attachments (the dinky little scissors, for example, with which the desperate Ralston, played with great intensity and lightness by James Franco, goes to work on a stubborn piano-wire of a tendon.)
Boyle's films have never been for the squeamish. But this one takes visceral to new extremes. You might say that it seems designed to be graphic proof, if proof were needed, that Boyle can still cut it.
The response to the film, he says, has taught him a couple of things. The first is that surprise, in movie-making, is all but dead as a device. "I've never done a film before where every single person in the audience knows the ending," Boyle tells me. "I mean suspense, twists are almost impossible these days. People are blogging your endings from their cinema seats. We had people fainting during the first screening and a few people from the film company were saying, you know, "this doesn't look good, we have to stop this getting out". And while they were saying that you could see people Twittering in the audience. You can't stop anything getting out."
That apart, Boyle is suitably sanguine about the audience blackout count — a handful at most test screenings, at least a couple at the London film festival. In his upbeat way, it suggests to him that he is doing something right. "It's cathartic," he says. "I don't think it is linked to revulsion exactly, because if that was the case people would be fainting in Jackass 3. At first, of course, it was deeply alarming. It's not pleasant for the people who faint or the people around them. But in almost every case people would come round and say, you know, ‘sorry, it's a great film'. It's not the blood that gets people, because we see blood in movies all the time, it's because by that point we are empathising so much with the character. James Franco's performance has worked its magic."
It is this process, what he calls "total immersion", that Boyle is always looking for in his work.
"I like to take those kind of tough themes and really push the possibilities," he says. "Although I behave in a quite reserved way in my personal life, give me a stage and I'll be as flamboyant as I can."
When Boyle first tried to sell the idea of 127 Hours to a studio he was met with blank faces — "man spends five days trapped alone in a canyon before he finds a way out" — but he could see straight away the possibilities. He knew that the confinement itself, if you could get it right, would create the possibility of tremendous release. "I have always chased that feeling," he says.
The story also represented for Boyle a way of writing about America. He has never felt entirely comfortable in the States, resisting offers of films, always feeling that he is a distinctly British director, most at home in east London. The great thing about this film was that it mostly reduced America to a rock, some ants and a single bird. It also gave him the opportunity to explore and undermine some of the more seductive western myths.
"What I really liked about the story," he says. "Is that in America Ralston is a kind of Lance Armstrong superhero. Americans like to see Armstrong as a kind of loner against the world, but you don't win the Tour de France without five other guys pulling you up those hills."
It was the same with Ralston. "He doesn't survive because he is on his own, he survives because he finally realises how important it is to get back to the people he cares about..."