James Franco is in virtually every scene of 127 Hours, delivering a performance that carries an inherently challenging film. Though the story of Aron Ralston's ordeal in Utah's Blue John Canyon is dramatic by definition, it's also fairly static: once the Ralston character gets pinned by the infamous fallen boulder, he stays pinned—despite attempts to escape by chipping away at the rock and fashioning a pulley system with his canyoneering gear—until the climax sequence, late in the movie, when he cuts his way to freedom.
How do you make a story of claustrophobia and torment not just watchable but entertaining? Director Danny Boyle—who laughingly admitted after the movie's September premiere in Telluride, Colorado, that he "hates" wilderness—did it by infusing Ralston's ordeal with a rush of urban energy, accomplished through quick cuts, a hip soundtrack, wiggy flashbacks, and an unleashed Franco, who comes off like a mix of Ralston, Neal Cassady, and MacGyver. That the 32-year-old actor pulled it off won't surprise longtime fans of his eclectic career, which has taken him from a cult TV show (Freaks and Geeks) through roles in big-payday franchises like Spider-Man to recent indie efforts like his dead-on portrayal of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in 2010's Howl. And he's doing it all while going back to school, taking graduate-level courses in art, literature, and creative writing at Columbia, NYU, and Yale. Editorial director ALEX HEARD caught up with Franco in Telluride between takes and term papers to ask about his approach.
OUTSIDE: Early on in 127 Hours, right after Aron's right arm is pinned, there's a great scene in which you throw everything you have into making the boulder move. You're inside a studio-replica canyon, but the prop rock has real heft and is bolted into place, so fighting it had to hurt. How was that set up?
FRANCO: Danny said, "I'm just gonna roll the camera. Keep going, and don't stop, and try to get out of it. You won't get out, but keep trying." I knew I was going to get beat up, and I said, "OK, I'm happy to do it, but make sure you get it on camera so I don't have to do it again." That established a way of dealing with a lot of those scenes, and it ended up being a 20-minute take.
Did you get beat up?
Oh, yeah. After that scene, I was purple all over. But when you keep it going that long, you get pulled into a scene in a much different way, in which you're really just doing something to try and accomplish it. If you can't do it after ten minutes, you get really frustrated, especially when it's something that's physically draining.
In this role, you had to convey levels of pain and terror that few people can even imagine. What did Aron tell you about his actions down there and about the things he went through?