The creative director of London-based factual production company Darlow Smithson talks about working with Danny Boyle on 127 Hours.
London-based Darlow Smithson bills itself as “one of the world’s leading factual production companies.” Its award-winning documentaries, which have been mainly made for TV, include 9/11 The Falling Man,Thriller In Manila and Stephen Hawking.
However, John Smithson, the executive chairman and chief creative director, was producer on Kevin Macdonald’s feature Touching The Void. As he explains, Smithson also played a key role in getting Danny Boyle’s awards contender 127 Hours to the screen.
How did you and Danny Boyle come together?
You have to go right the way back. We were filming Touching The Void and we heard about this amazing story because it was worldwide news.
This guy (Aron Ralston) pinned under the rock and cutting his arm off - I thought, ‘Wow, what an amazing story.’ I managed to persuade one of the mountain guides we were working with on Touching The Void to give me Aron Ralston’s email. I sent him an email and never heard anything back. It turned out that he had had more than 1000 emails from people all over the world - producers, journalists - trying to get his story.
Touching The Void had been released in 2004. At the end of 2004, I got a call out of the blue from his lawyer, saying Aron would like to meet me. He was promoting his book, which 127 Hours was based on, and he loved Touching The Void. Of course, I said yes like a shot.
Was Ralston like Joe Simpson ( the character whose story is told in Touching The Void)?
When you get people who’ve been through these amazing survival stories, these events change their lives. Joe’s amazing survival in the Andes changed his life and he talks about it and thinks about it every single day. The same is true of Aron Ralston. I’ve been to the canyon a couple of times. It is truly frightening - the remoteness and the extent of his predicament. How you tell the story is absolutely crucial and the subjects are unusually sensitive to how you tell it because it is the most important event that has happened to them. The fact that Aron Ralston loved Touching The Void gave me a fantastic opportunity. The opportunity was that even though he was getting major offers from very serious players in Hollywood, he decided he wanted to work with me on making a film. It was a bit of a David vs Goliath but I was able to option the rights to his story and jump ahead of all these big names.
He thought that I would respect him and his role in the story and that it wouldn’t be embellished in a way that would diminish the experience for him.
You always intended to make a dramatic film rather than a documentary?
Aron, who is a very, very precise guy, had a position which was that he loved Touching The Void, the veracity of the story was incredibly important to him and he wanted to do it (his story) like Touching The Void. I said, OK, we will try to put that together. For the next couple of years, I was in the process of putting it together. I worked with Pathé and with Film4. I had a film development slate with the (UK) Film Council. Touching The Void had done so well that there was real interest in putting it together.
Some British directors were a little reluctant (to do it). A lot of people thought Kevin (Macdonald) had done so brilliantly with Touching The Void that what do you do with the Aron Ralston story? Out of the blue, we heard from Pathé that Danny Boyle was interested and would like to meet. This was pre-Slumdog Millionaire. I met up with Danny in London and thought his take on the story was really exciting. It was a story that had really captured his imagination.
The next step was that I arranged to go with Danny to meet with Aron Ralston. Aron was still wedded to the drama-documentary approach although that wasn’t Danny’s vision. Aron read Danny’s document. He thought about it. I think that at that time, it was still too soon after his accident. He simply wasn’t ready to go the full feature route. He wasn’t ready to go with the Danny vision. So we were back to square one. Danny went off to do other things.
So how did you revive the project?
I still totally believed in the story. I dusted myself off and tried to put it together again. I managed to get Alex Gibney very interested in the story. Alex, Aron and myself met. I knew how getting a brilliant documentary director had paid handsomely with Kevin Macdonald (on Touching The Void).We had partners in the US and UK and it was close to happening although the market for theatrical documentary or docudrama is a very difficult one.
Why are feature docs so tough to sell in the theatrical marketplace?
Feature docs are an attractive option if you’re a film company. They are not as expensive as feature films and if they break through, then they’re great. Touching The Void did break through but it is very hard for films to break through in that market. Sometimes now with some of our stronger stories, we choose to make them directly for television.
The other problem with theatrical documentaries is that it’s not like with feature films where you’ve got a script, a known director, a lot of your elements and a good sense of how they’re going to play before the shoot. A documentary is a much more organic thing. You don’t know what your interviews are going to be like or how your elements will knit together. Sometimes, you only know if it’s really going to work when you are putting it together in the cutting room.
But you stuck with the project?
It was the best story we had found since Touching The Void to do it in that way. Alex Gibney was doing other things and I was putting together the money. Then, post Slumdog Millionaire, Pathe and I had both been thinking could Danny be interested in the Aron Ralston story again because he loved it. The challenge was to get Aron Ralston to accept the Danny approach. He (Danny) had said this is an action thriller in which your hero doesn’t move because he is pinned under a rock for 127 Hours. Danny along with (producer) Christian Colson had meetings with Aron. The first meeting was in London. The second meeting, we all went back to the canyon in Utah. The third meeting was in New York. I had the rights to the story but we needed Aron to commit to Danny’s vision.
What swayed Ralston?
It was Aron accepting that Danny wanted to capture the essence of the story.
For you at Darlow Smithson, how do you tells which projects have big screen potential?
With Touching The Void, it was a brilliant story. Partially with the encouragement of Kevin Macdonald, we thought let’s grow the ambition of that story so it went beyond television. There was something about that power of the story that took it beyond the TV screen on to the film screen and in to the domain of film. What Touching The Void taught me was that if you’re brave and try to maximise the power of the story, then you can break through the TV screen to the big screen. The lesson of 127 Hours was again about maximising the power of the story.
Ultimately, a big story has the legs to go onto the big screen around the world. Some stories have that magic ingredient. 127 Hours in the hands of a brilliant director like Danny had that power. It is absolutely Danny’s film but I am proud of my part in enabling that to happen.