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Q&A – 127 Hours Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy on Oscars, Amputations, and Audience Faintings

Coming off the 2008 hit Slumdog Millionaire, Oscar winners Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy earned the freedom to pick their next project. To several people’s surprise — including Beaufoy’s — the director-screenwriter team chose to tell the challenging life story of mountain climber Aron Ralston (James Franco), who found himself caught between a rock and a hard place for 127 Hours. (See an interview we shot with Boyle and Franco here.) As the film continues to earn critical accolades, we spoke with Beaufoy about writing this script, Franco’s fearless performance, and those pesky faintings at early screenings.

Q: Why were you interested in tackling an assignment where your protagonist is trapped in one location for essentially the duration of the film?

A: Well, as a writer, I initially said, “Don’t be stupid. This is the one climbing story that can’t be told.” I then gave him three examples of other mountaineering stories that he needed to do instead. But he said, “No, this is the one.” It was just an extraordinary challenge in terms of craft. There’s that one bit in the film where Aron lays out everything that he has in his knapsack. He puts his keys out, the rope, the headlamp, the knife, and you can see him thinking, Okay, this is what I’ve got. What am I going to do with it? And it felt just like that as the writer. You have very few tools, and you have to use every angle of those tools to make it work.

Q: How difficult is it turning over a screenplay to actors or, in this case, one actor like James and hoping they’ll understand what you were trying to convey?

A: Well, we all knew that 127 Hours stood or fell on the
performance of whoever Aron would be. There’s nowhere to hide at all.
It’s all him. But James gave a tremendous performance.

Q: Did you include the footage of overcrowded rat-race situations
over the opening credits so that Aron’s eventual isolation and fear
would sink in even deeper?

A: No, you see, Danny and I actually have very different feelings
about those scenes. He wants to be in that crowd all of the time. He
loves the crowd. Me? I’m a climber as well, so I completely get Aron.
I’m always looking to leave the cities and get out there, so I can get on
my own. That’s another reason why I was drawn to this story. I felt I
knew how to tell it because I understood the mind-set of the person who
walks closer and closer to the next danger. And each time they get away
with it, they sort of say to themselves, “Wow, I got away from it that
time. I won’t ever do that again.” But they go even a little bit closer
to the edge the next time. And I understood that mind-set. That’s what
led me down the journey. It’s not that Aron did this extraordinary
thing, which he certainly did. It’s more, What is he doing there in the
first place? And on his own? He was on this isolated journey to
challenge himself. And sure enough, he got exactly what he asked for.
That’s why I don’t think this is a film about a guy who is trapped
beneath a rock. It’s a film about someone looking back on his life and saying, “If I had my life to live again, what would I do differently?”

Q: And you adopt the technique of the video confessional, which has become recognizable owing to reality-television programming.

A: Right, but it’s a funny thing because this story happened way
before Facebook and the current reality-TV craze. Aron was ahead of his
time, recording everything that he did on-camera. He was a strange,
confessional being, well before that became the norm. Now it’s totally
the norm that people post to Facebook whatever crazy thing they did over
the weekend. He compiled this aimlessly self-interested blog about
himself before blogs even existed.

Q: Reports of people fainting during 127 Hours seem to have subsided since the film opened. What was your reaction to that strange phenomenon?

A: It is very unexpected, actually. The actual visuals on the screen are fairly less graphic than anything you’d see in any Saw
movie. It’s the intensity and the emotion of the experience. I think
audiences have become so intimately involved with this man’s predicament
and his past, so they are empathizing with his situation so much. I
think all of that combined with the pictures on the screen lead people
to have a very intense reaction to it. But it’s not, per se, horrific.
In fact, as Aron himself has said, for him it was a euphoric moment. It
was his moment of freedom.

Q: And I’m sure it never crossed your mind while writing it that
this would be the moment where people would be passing out in their
seats.

A: No, not at all! [Laughs] But you never can predict reactions like
that. The funny thing is, though — and this is important to mention — that
people were fainting but they tended to go back into the film. One of
the people who fainted at a test screening excused himself, then came
back in and scored us as excellent. And I thought, Now that’s
commitment to the cause.

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