Harrowing minutes define '127 Hours,' which chronicles Aron Ralston's Utah trek

By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; E03

It takes only about two minutes for actor James Franco to methodically saw off his right forearm onscreen. But that's more than enough time for the trapped-by-a-boulder drama "127 Hours," which stars Franco, to cause some audience members to faint.

At screenings in multiple cities -- including Toronto, Los Angeles and London -- a few moviegoers have reportedly passed out and, in at least a couple of cases, gotten queasy as a direct result of the tendon-slicing intensity of that amputation scene, a necessary element in this cinematic adaptation of hiker Aron Ralston's actual experience. In 2003, he spent five-plus days with his arm lodged behind an 800-pound mega-rock in Utah's remote Blue John Canyon.

In the midst of all this much-ado-about-nausea hype sits Danny Boyle, the co-writer and director of "127 Hours" who deliberately set out to make the severing of a portion of Ralston's appendage as visceral as possible.

"That's always the danger with something like that and a notorious scene," he says while sipping hot black tea in a modest suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Georgetown, where he set up camp for a recent day's worth of press interviews. "It almost becomes about that scene, doesn't it, rather than the actual film itself. I think [studio Fox] Searchlight tried to stop word getting out about these people who fainted. But of course you can't. People are blogging inside the cinema these days."

The good news for Boyle -- the affable, boundlessly energetic Brit whose "Slumdog Millionaire" dominated the 2009 Academy Awards -- is that most of those blogs have overflowed with praise for his filmmaking, as well as Franco's ability to command attention throughout the film, even though he's largely by himself and barely moving.

"It's James that really conveys it," Boyle says of his leading man, who's already generating Oscar buzz for his performance. "It's true of that whole sequence. . . . It's not a real arm. You know that. But it's James that's making you think: Is this real?"

To foster that sense of realism, the "127 Hours" crew spent most of the eight-week production -- including the majority of the entrapment scenes -- shooting in an intentionally compact reproduction of that crevice in the jagged earth where Ralston deliriously prepared for his death.

Franco surrounded himself with the same gear Ralston kept nearby, right down to the identical 1999 Canon Elura that the amateur mountaineer used to record video messages for his family. And, in perhaps the most challenging attempt at verisimilitude, Boyle forced Franco to perform every task with his left hand by affixing his right to his body with Velcro. ("He had Velcro so he could release it in an emergency, like if something was falling," Boyle explains.)

So, to recap: The guy literally had to prove he could act with one arm tied behind his back.

During the amputation scene, a prosthetic forearm was attached just below Franco's elbow; it's that mass of plastic flesh that he repeatedly hacks away at using a dull, cheap utility knife until, finally, he's able to step away from the rock, half limbless but liberated.

The whole cringe-worthy episode was shot in just two takes that took up a portion of a single production day. "We didn't spend very long doing it because we only had two arms and they're very expensive to build," Boyle says.

Ralston -- who consulted closely with the filmmakers and spent time on the set -- says all that fastidious attention to detail is what makes the scene ring so flinchingly true.

"I spent an hour amputating my arm," he said in a phone interview from Colorado. "It's condensed into just a few minutes, but there were moments when it was just work, it was just effort. And there were moments where it was just the most excruciating pain I'll ever experience in my life. And yet I was smiling at times, too. So you see all of that. I think they hit it right."

When a reporter points out that the person who really should have passed out as a result of the amputation is Ralston -- who has sat through "127 Hours" seven times and seen two of his loved ones faint during screenings -- he laughs. Like Boyle, he emphasizes that the film doesn't tell a story of solitary superheroism, but of a young man seizing the chance to continue living so he can see his parents again and perhaps become a father himself, something Ralston eventually did earlier this year when his son, Leo, was born.

"I still am smiling when I watch it," he says. "I'm crying, but it's tears of gratitude and joy and being alive and having my family and my loved ones. That's what life is about."

And it's that desire for community -- a feeling that ultimately motivated Ralston to perform surgery of the most unthinkable sort -- that Boyle hopes will resonate with audience members, even the ones who get a little woozy.

"One of the guys [who passed out] supposedly came around and said, 'By the way, great film,' " Boyle says, chuckling. "God bless him."

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