Many people are familiar with the amazing survival tale of Aron Ralston, the mountain climber whose life was irrevocably changed in 2003, when his arm became trapped under a boulder for five days until he managed to amputate it with a dull knife. Now the subject of Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, an adaptation of Ralston’s 2004 memoir, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the ordeal has been turned into an uplifting adventure-thriller starring James Franco.

While the Boyle-Franco pairing may suggest a Hollywood treatment that smoothes over the brutality of Ralston’s experience, the director found that the climber’s real-life persona had enough charisma to avoid creating an entirely new character. “He’s pretty confident,” Boyle says of Ralston.

Still, when he first met Ralston during his European book tour in 2006, Boyle was clear that he would need to take certain liberties with the story. “I remember telling him, ‘You won’t be able to control this,’” Boyle recalls. “’I was actually talking myself out of the job, but it was necessary for me to say that.” At the time, Ralston had little interest in a narrative adaptation of his book, hoping to oversee a documentary project instead. “He was very cautious then,” Boyle recalls. “He knew what Hollywood could do to people’s stories.”

The two men parted ways, with Boyle diving into production on Slumdog Millionaire and Ralston continuing his efforts to raise money for a documentary. When Slumdog Millionaire cleaned up at the 2009 Oscars, Ralston had yet to secure funding for his own project, and reconsidered. He had adapted to his global celebrity, married and made peace with relinquishing some control.
“He was much more amenable to the story being altered,” says producer Christian Colson. “But that’s not to say we didn’t have to be pretty careful negotiating with him about what the rules of the adaptation would be.”

Then the real work began: Now that Boyle—re-teaming with Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and producer Colson—had Ralston’s support, they needed to get inside his head. That meant they needed exclusive access to the one aspect of Ralston’s ordeal nobody had ever seen before: A series of video diaries that the climber miraculously managed to record throughout his weeklong entrapment. “He had made a living telling his story, but he had shown these tapes to no one,” Boyle says. “I was expecting them to be abject, truly distressing.” But he had to know for certain.

In 2009, Boyle sat down with Ralston, Franco, Colson and Beaufoy in a Los Angeles hotel room to relive the hellacious experience in close-up.

Ralston’s tapes were comprised of rambling long takes in which he kept himself company by creating a document of his death. He spoke to family and friends, confessing his fears while attempting to hide his weakening state. Even under such literally crushing circumstances, Ralston managed to take a curatorial approach to his videos. “When he was recording, if he broke down or got distressed, he would go back and redo it,” Boyle says.

As a result, Boyle and Beaufoy (who wrote separate drafts of the screenplay) decided to turn the camcorder into a central prop. “He actually had someone with whom he could talk, and that was himself,” Beaufoy says, explaining how the tapes enabled them to write a feature-length script without many scenes taking place outside of the cave. “It was a portal that allowed us to make the film. It was this performance, his way of saying goodbye to his friends.”

The structure of the tapes created a unique viewing experience. Ralston turned on his camera once a day, which created abrupt cuts that highlighted his rapid physical deterioration. Colson recalls one particularly memorable cut that takes place after Ralston’s third day in the cave, when he runs out of water. “It cuts to 24 hours later, and you’re watching the guy die,” Colson says. “He’s a skeleton, but he has incredible composure and fortitude. There was very little self-pity.”

In some cases, the writers imported lines from the tapes directly into the screenplay, even if they sounded contrived. “It gives the audience the feeling that what we’re telling is true and we haven’t messed with it the way a lot of adaptations do,” explains Colson, who then takes a stab at Tom Hanks’ infamous companion in Cast Away: “We’re not giving the guy a volleyball.”

They did choose to embellish in one scene where Ralston imagines himself on a talk show discussing his experience, and the ironic laughter of a studio audience is heard on the soundtrack. According to the screenwriters, that incident never happened. “Life isn’t shaped like drama,” says Colson. “What the film had to do was somehow replicate the emotion we felt when watching the footage.” Boyle adds: “We tried to do it in a way that was respectful to the way he writes about the experience in his book.”

Ralston’s lack of faith in his own survival provided a challenge for the moviemakers in their re-creation, especially since they assumed most audience members would be acquainted with the back story: They know he gets trapped, slices off his arm and survives. Boyle worked against those preexisting assumptions, he says, by inducing the “amnesia” of the audience that exists in many hero-driven movies. “You’re pretty sure Tom Cruise isn’t going to die 20 minutes into a film,” Boyle says, “but you still feel for him.”

The creative team agreed that they had to stick to the saga that Ralston had already made famous. “We were pretty specific from very early on that we wouldn’t mess with the core factual details of his experience,” says Colson.

For Beaufoy, watching the footage reinforced the responsibility to accurately reflect its contents. “We needed to both work around it and with it,” he says. “The fact that he allowed us to watch it was very profound.” “He tries to be composed and leave a good impression,” says Boyle. “That’s what’s really interesting. It’s a story that has resonance for a lot of people.”

While viewers can relate to Ralston’s perseverance, they can’t fully comprehend his conviction in the footage that he’s on the brink of death. Boyle found that aspect to be the biggest hurdle. “Aron was aware that this was his last will and testament,” says Boyle. “He really did think he was going to die. He was trying to keep control, but was also revealing to us, in his eyes, what it’s like when you know that all the avenues have been closed and there’s no way out.” MM