So I’ve now watched 127 Hours twice, once with the commentary. I had wanted to catch this in the cinema but just couldn’t get to it–and now I’m actually glad I didn’t since I found the experience to be personally devastating. I’m not just talking about That Thing That Happens In The Last Reel. And it’s not spoilers if it’s history, so let’s just have it out and be done with it: Aron Ralston, played in the film by James Franco, amputates his own arm with a dull multi-tool in order to free himself from the rock that has pinned him down in a narrow canyon. And I’m glad I didn’t watch this in the cinema because watching that had me out of my seat, hands over my face (but not covering my eyes) and in absolute shock. And I’m the guy who is normally fine with “fake” gore…but this was so real and felt so real–and I felt so much for the character of Aron–that I was mind-blown.
So I’ve been trying to process my way through this film and I wondered if I could apply the Four Things template to it, like I did with Christopher Nolan. But to be clear: I’m not going to tell you four things I learned from Aron Ralston, because let’s face it: once I’ve told you the premise and you’ve seen the trailer, you can guess those for yourself. But let’s run them down quickly, just to get them out of the way.
1) Quit your bitching. Or at least tinge your bitching with a sense of humor. I include myself in this. Before you fly off the handle, think to yourself: it could be worse. I could be down a canyon miles from anywhere having to perform self-surgery.
2) Tell somebody where you’re going, especially if you’re planning on being out in the middle of fucking nowhere, potentially four hours’ hike from anybody else.
3) Enjoy the people you have while you have them. Because when they’re gone, for whatever reason they’re gone, you’re going to miss the hell out of them.
4) Drink water. And lots of it. And enjoy it even more than the people. Because you can live for a long time without people. You can’t say the same for water.
There, now that we’ve gotten the survivalist stuff out of the way–here we go.
If you haven’t already seen the film, there will be stylistic spoilers incoming that may color your impressions of the film. So from this point forward, I urge you: watch the film first.
That done? Okay, fine. Here we go.
1) Limitations Can Be Your Friend. Leaving aside the flashback and flash-sideways (and well, flash flood) sequences, consider the film. Consider that it pretty much takes place…in a single location…with an actor…who can’t really move all that much. I’m sure there’s someone out there who could find this boring–but not me. I was riveted from the get-go and even though intellectually I knew that this was the limitation for what they were doing…it didn’t really sink in until the commentary. It was shot in such a way where I never felt–I mean, apart from wanting the character to escape–like I as the audience was bored and thus needed to escape.
The lesson here is not new: when you give yourself (or have handed to you) limitations, whatever their nature–I’m talking physical, financial, could be anything–the creativity kicks in. How many big Hollywood projects have sucked ass because there were no limits? Hell, as I understand it, Boyle‘s film 28 Days Later started like it did because they simply couldn’t afford to film a proper zombie outbreak. Just avoid it altogether! The examples are endless. And so is the capacity to deal with most limitations.
2) Let the Cameras Roll. The sequence in which Franco as Aron tries to budge the rock pinning him–a bunch of cuts which show him exerting eye-popping strain against the thing–was basically shot in one go with Franco spending a good twenty-plus minutes giving all he had. Franco apparently stated that he could do it one time–because he would be spent afterwards. And it’s easy to see that in the end result. Franco the actor knew the rock could not be moved, but he let his character of Aron not admit defeat and thus attack it until he could not anymore. Since we’re talking about the film and not the story itself, the end result was an amazingly effective sequence that pretty much demonstrated that Aron wasn’t going anywhere.
What’s the lesson? The reason you can let the cameras roll a lot easier these days than previously is because it’s digital. More film just equals more hard drive space. And I think we all know how cheap that can be. What I take away from this is sometimes it’s best to just, you know, attack the rock. If there’s a writing problem (and I relate this to writing because that’s where I deal with most problems, you know, things that don’t require multi-tools, dull or otherwise) then so what if you know what you’re about to write isn’t going to work entirely. It could be the draft that jars something free. Or it could be a way of working through something else. Hell, I lost track of how many times I had to start my novel before I finally got a couple of prologues that didn’t make me embarrassed to read over. But finally I got all the crap out of my system and words I could live with showed up. So, you know, it’s digital. And so is publishing. If you’re not certain, throw it out there. Let some people gnaw on it for a bit. In general, screw it: let the cameras roll and assault the freaking rock.
3) Less is Still More, or put another way: Use Just Enough and Not More. I’ve bitched about this elsewhere, but I’m depressed by the way that a lot of Hollywood directors think we’re stupid. They have forgotten that their greatest weapon is the mind of the viewer. Case in point: Hitchcock did not need to show us every single knife strike in the shower scene of Psycho. (The accepted notion I’ve always heard is that he didn’t actually show any.) Also, sound: we don’t need to see everybody body being dumped in the original Ladykillers. Just the sound is enough to tell the entire story. So yes, while the self-surgery is horrific–it’s just horrific enough. It doesn’t glory in what it is. They again apparently let Franco go to work on this prosthetic arm they created for him and just cut what was in reality (and by that I mean reality-reality) a forty-minute process down to what you see on the screen.
I think the lesson here is not new but it bears repeating: whatever the right amount is, Use That. Feel free to cut back. Just because you have thirty minutes of footage, that doesn’t mean you have to use all of it. Just because you know every iota of your character’s backstory, that doesn’t mean the audience needs all that info. You can not only have too much of a good thing, you can have too much of anything.
4) There is Always Room For Another Good Story With a Different Twist. And Asking the Next Question Can Get You There. I remember walking out of Being John Malkovich–in that sort of haze that can only be attributed to leaving the cinema after an amazing film–then calling Doc Ezra and saying, “If this film can get made, anything is possible!” Boyle has stated this is an action film in which the lead character cannot move. To me that smacks of the question that no doubt spawned a great deal of the creative thought I mentioned in Thing 1. However, letting the “No, that’s impossible, nobody could pull that off” fade and then asking, “But let’s just assume we could do that…how would we do it?” That’s the lesson. “How do we make an action movie in which our hero…stays basically in one place? The ultimate inaction action movie?”
It doesn’t matter what it is: Ask the Next Question. Going back to the example of my first novel, when I realized that the entire storyline that I had been toying around with really, honestly bored me to death…I figured out the Next Question. In this case, I knew I did want to write a coming of age novel, and I knew I wanted to write it with these characters…so the Next Question was: “How do I do this?” In my case it was shifting the story ahead several years and telling the story after my original story. The Next Question is whatever opens up your head and lets the juice flow. Like Robert Kirkman, who’s stated that Walking Dead is essentially the answer to…what happens if there’s no closing credits to the zombie movie? If you’ve got an idea that doesn’t work for whatever reason, and you know you want to make it work, approach from a different angle and attack it with different questions. Again, I’m taking this from a writing perspective because that’s what I have to go on, but it could be anything. In my case, what if this was in a different time period? What if I changed up the genre? What if I dropped in a completely different character at this point? Again, I think when you hit the right Next Question, you’ll find you’ve gone around whatever was blocking you.
127 Hours is simply an amazing work of art. Like I said, it transcends its survival story aspect and becomes something much deeper. I’ll probably still be processing it for a while to come, but this was good therapy for me. So thanks for reading.