It wasn't until fanatical outdoorsman Aron Ralston was sitting in a theatre in his home state of Colorado that it dawned on him just how the biopic 127 Hours - about his perilous five days trapped in a canyon - would affect fellow moviegoers.
First one person, about 20 rows away from Ralston, passed out cold. Then another young woman, making a beeline for the aisle, complained she was having a panic attack.
The 35-year-old canyoneer knew Danny Boyle's much-anticipated film packed a powerful punch - but he says he never expected people to react quite so viscerally to the segment where he's forced to amputate his right arm just below the elbow.
"I know it sounds weird, but there is a little bit of emotional disconnect," says Ralston of viewing the scene in which actor James Franco, who plays him in the film, saws through muscle and tendon to free himself after being pinned by a boulder. "It's graphic for sure, but I'm usually sitting there eating my popcorn when people are gripping their chairs, reeling.
"What they don't know is that I was actually smiling when I was doing it. ... I was thinking, I'm one cut closer to seeing my sister, one cut closer to seeing my mom and my dad. I wasn't cutting off a hand - I was getting my life back."
Ralston, who was in Toronto in September to promote his film, actually smiles in retelling the story of his ordeal. And although he normally wears a metal prosthetic, for this interview he was totally at ease with just his stump.
Less at ease was Franco, who describes the film - a virtually one-man show interspersed with flashbacks that is already garnering Oscar buzz - as his most "intense" role to date. And the 32-year-old actor, now a Yale University PhD candidate in English literature, is the first to admit he doesn't know if he could go to the same extremes to survive. "I get squeamish when people take blood at checkups so I don't know if there's anything I'd cut my arm off for," he says.
Some audience members, clearly, feel the same way.
At the Telluride Film Festival, where Boyle's film premiered, two people fainted. At the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks later, three more swooned during the gruesome denouement. Two more collapsed at recent screenings in California.
To prepare for the role, loosely based on Ralston's 2003 memoir, Franco says he watched video clips Ralston recorded as a final goodbye to family and friends while trapped in the gorge near Moab, Utah. "As far as I know, he doesn't really show those to people, other than family and friends. But they were basically gold for an actor because I got to see him in that situation, in the moment, when he was in the middle of it," says Franco, whose credits include Pineapple Express, Milk and Howl.
"Danny [Boyle]and I had Aron take us through everything he went through while he was there. Why he did it. What he was thinking. Then we went through the physical motions," adds Franco. "You can say in hindsight, well, that was horrible but he got out. But when you see him in those videos, when he had no idea if he was going to get out ... it was just extremely powerful. Here is this guy accepting his own death, but not wallowing in self-pity or anything."
In Boyle's film, the hand amputation lasts 10 minutes. In real life, it took Ralston an hour - and that is after he snapped two bones in his forearm ("I knew, from Grade 12 biology, that the knife wouldn't cut through those bones or the cartilage in the elbow.") The day he left his Aspen apartment, he says he cursed the fact he couldn't find his Swiss Army knife, and grabbed a cheap replacement his mom had given him as a Christmas stocking stuffer.
The dull blade, he notes now, likely saved his life. "If I'd used the other one, I would have bled out too fast. This one allowed for clotting. The timing and circumstance of it all is really a miraculous thing," adds Ralston, an adrenalin junkie who married his girlfriend, Jessica, last year, and now has a young son, Leo.
The gore factor aside, most critics have praised the 94-minute film, which was written by Simon Beaufoy ( Slumdog Millionaire) and tautly directed by the Oscar-winning Boyle. The Brit says his intent all along was to make an "action movie about a guy who can't move."
"The movie is incredibly inert in one sense," says the director. "But I believed if it felt that way to the audience, it would be catastrophic. So we pushed and pushed and pushed. We made James work to a very tight schedule, hoping that recklessness would bleed into the film and make it bearable to watch, really. It's not a drama-documentary. There is nowhere to cut to. There are no other actors in it, except a couple people at the beginning and a few in the end. James had to carry it all."
While Franco doesn't resemble Ralston physically, Boyle says the two men are freakishly similar in their hyperactivity: "Aron in a very obvious, fidgety way, and James in a much weirder way because he's got this relaxed, stoner thing going that you think he's half asleep half the time. But he's not lazy. He works like an insane person."
Before production started, Ralston says he had no clue who Franco was. "I remember thinking, 'Oh yeah, he's one of the dudes in Pineapple Express, but which one was he?'" says the hiker, who rarely watches TV or goes to movies. "Then I Googled him, and thought, 'Wow, he's handsome. This is kind of flattering.' "
"James was actually perfect to play me. He's hyperactive, and that's me too. In fact, when my friends found out what had happened to me, they were flabbergasted. But not by the fact that I'd cut my arm off - by the fact I'd been able to survive standing still for six days, not doing anything."
The night the film screened at Toronto's Ryerson Theatre during TIFF, Ralston sat in the audience with his sister. "It was her first time seeing it," he says. "And I was concerned for her. I think when my mom sees it, it's going to be very intense."
The film received a standing ovation, moving Ralston to tears.
"I want audiences to understand this film is a real conveyance of my experience, and you very closely go on the journey that I went on. It's not graphic gore. It's just real," says Ralston. "This movie is about the will to live. The will to love."
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