Seven years ago, Aron Ralston walked out of Blue John Canyon in Utah alive. Five days prior, he had become trapped while hiking in the canyon—his right forearm crushed under a boulder. Dehydrated and verging on delirium, there was just one thing standing in the way of life.
Ralston eventually broke both bones in his arm and used a dull knife to cut through the tissue and nerves.
Since that day in 2003 when Ralston freed himself, it’s been what seems like a whirlwind for the Boulder resident. His book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, was published in 2004, and he’s gained notoriety across the world for his act of courage. He’s become a husband and a father. His son Leo is now 10 months old.
And now there’s the hubbub surrounding Danny Boyle’s new film, 127 Hours, in which actor James Franco plays Ralston during the most horrifying and freeing moments of his life. With talk of Oscar nods and reports of audience members fainting during the amputation scene, the film has thrust Ralston’s shocking story into the public conscious once again.
And frankly, he couldn’t be happier about it.
Yellow Scene: You’re getting a ton of attention and media interest for the film. How are you enjoying it?
Aron Ralston: Some of it’s really fun. You get to travel to film festivals and premieres, both international and domestic. We’ve been able to enjoy a lot of it together. My 10-month-old baby is now a world traveler. He’s coming overseas with me soon: We’re going to London and Paris for international film premieres. It’s been pretty cool. We were just in Los Angeles and I was on the Tonight Show on Friday. We had a lot of fun with that.
Most meaningfully, when I’m out at a screening or I’ve been able to share my experience in person or through the film, people who have been touched by it are able to share back with me. That’s really special. When it’s had some kind of an impact on someone’s life and they are there to tell me about it. It’s not unusual for them and, well, me to end up in tears.
YS: What is it about the film that touches people?
AR: From what they tell me, it’s that there is something more important in life than the pain or suffering that any of us might be experiencing. I’ve had some late night Facebook messages almost every evening. …It gives someone a sense of courage. If I did what I had to do in that canyon, then they can do what they need to do in their lives. Especially for people who have gone through illness or disease. In particular, with amputations, there is a loss or grieving. Just a hard time in life.
So, it’s pretty special (to share the story with them). There are things that people share with me that are like, ‘Wow.’ I was up in Carbondale and one woman was maybe 70 years old, and she was telling me how she fell at her ranch 100 yards from her front porch. She had broken her femur. She said she had already seen the film and knowing my story, she sat there and said to herself, ‘What would Aron do?’ ‘Aron would crawl!’
She crawled her way from her pasture to her ranch house and called for help. I was honored. It’s humbling to hear that someone had that kind of an experience and draws some inspiration from what I went through.
YS: Being with you—either by reading the book or seeing the movie—through such a powerful experience, I’m guessing people feel quite a connection with you.
AR: Especially, with the film. The film is a transporting experience. You are going off to the canyon from the seat in the movie theater and living that week of my life, being out there and then being trapped and then finally being liberated. It’s very powerful on film. It does take you on a journey, and it lends itself to being a vicarious experience. You feel like, ‘I’ve been there, I’ve been through it.’
YS: So, obviously you’ve seen the movie. How do you like it?
AR: I love it. I think it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. It’s phenomenal. They took my experience and not only told it so powerfully and authentically that people do feel like they are experiencing it but also that I’m happy with it.
My sister told me that even after the second time she saw it she had a hard time watching it—remembering that it wasn’t actually me, that it was James Franco. She had to work to remember that, and I think that’s a compliment to the film. I’ve been blessed that they did such an amazing job with it. I’ve always wanted it to be a film, so it could reach people—beyond those who had heard about it or read the book. They can go to a movie theater or eventually watch it at home with Netflix or something. It’s available to them.
The more I hear from people, the more I know that it works in a very special way.
YS: What do you hope people get out of the film?
AR: I think it’s really like, they get whatever they need out of it. At the very least, they go into it going, ‘Oh, this is the movie about the guy who cuts off his arm.’ You basically know the plot of the film, but at the very least, they walk out understanding that there is something much greater to this story than it being about an amputation. It’s really about: What’s more important than the pain of cutting off your arm? If you were facing your death and you had a chance to consider it, what would you realize is important in life?
I think it gets into some aspect of what is common to all of us: the human spirit. It’s something that is there for all of us. We experience love. We experience liberation and the desire for being free and loving. We experience all of those emotions, and those emotions have a lot of power.
When we are detached from those emotions—as I was in the canyon—you can understand that, yes, I cut my arm off, but I was smiling when I did it.
People can see it in the film. It’s euphoric. It’s so intense. There’s James Franco cutting his arm off, and it’s been so intense that some people have passed out. But you get through it, and if you didn’t pass out, you are probably cheering. It’s triumph.
You need that feeling of hope and inspiration and encouragement and uplift and seeing someone else triumph over their adversities. To me, that’s the blessing of this story. It’s been a gift to me. It’s been a gift to my family and our relationships. And it’s been a gift to other people, showing them that their adversities can be gifts too—that they might be able to smile at the moment they do something so outrageous or horrific, like I did. I think people see that: They see the gratitude and joy of being alive.
YS: OK, wow.
AR: (Laughing). That got heavy. I also hope they enjoy it, and the soundtrack is really good. And I hope they find that it’s a fun movie to see.
YS: What sort of role did you play in the production of the movie?
AR: They had me involved in every step of the way. The first email I had from one of the producers was from back in 2003, when I was still in the hospital. They’ve put in a good 7 1/2 years of work, and there’s been virtually nothing that happened without me being involved with it. Not to say that I demanded that. It’s just that they wanted me to be a part of it.
Once they had Danny Boyle as a director, he reassured me that he wanted to tell the story very authentically and wanted me to be a part of it to ensure that authenticity.
I worked on the screenplay with him and the screenwriter Simon Beaufoy. I worked with the production and art designers on the costumes and the gear and the canyon. We went out to (Blue John) canyon several times in advance as well as for filming, and they had to respect that place. Not just in how they portrayed it but in the physical impact so that they left it in pristine condition. That was very important for me. I really can’t even tell you how spiritual of a place that is for me, and because it’s a wilderness environment. I don’t want it to turn into a circus and damage the essence of that place.
They were very respectful of it.
YS: Was there anything you lobbied to get into the film? A detail or a moment that you thought would be important for the audience?
AR: They were so focused on getting the details that I didn’t really have to push for anything at all. If there was one thing that I lobbied for—just because in the screenwriting stage, it’s not something you would write into a script; it’s what comes out when the actor is acting—it was the smile during the amputation.
(In the film) James Franco has broken his arm and he’s feeling it, but he knows he’s getting out of there. He is no longer trapped, and he cackles almost maniacally, like [Ralston cackles]. It’s like the mad scientist laugh in that eureka moment. It’s like, ‘I’m gonna get out of here!!!’ I lobbied for that smile, so the audience could have something not just to be horrified by or repulsed by. But at that point, it’s a triumph and you want the character to get out of there. You are cheering for him.
I think Danny got it. He wanted this to be an uplifting story and not a horror film.
YS: Is there anything that you didn’t want to be in the film?
AR: I definitely had to understand why the cinematic elements were important in some of the scenes. Like early on, the movie starts with James Franco riding his mountain bike up through the desert.
I was like, ‘I’m not that good of a mountain biker. It was really not that adrenaline-filled of a ride. I was grinding my way into a headwind for three hours on a dirt road. Like, how much more boring could you be?’
But they wanted to spice it up so you could understand who is this guy, what he was doing out there, what this is all about. It made sense, but they would have to explain things like that.
It’s like providing a back-story without doing a whole back-story. There were a lot of times when they had to explain why the adaptations were necessary, but I had a conversation with the screenwriter. He explained, ‘Sometimes fictionalization can actually lead you into a more essential experience of truth.’
YS: Has it ever become difficult explaining or talking about amputating your arm?
AR: No, this was a beautiful experience. For me to cut my arm off, it was to get my life back. It’s weird, but it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I literally was smiling.
I was euphoric to the extent that I almost passed out. I had to keep myself restrained during those moments. Sure, it was extremely painful, but I was going to get out of it. The pain wasn’t going to kill me. What was more dangerous was that I would pass out and go unconscious from being so excited.
For me, it can be difficult to talk about it, but it’s because it’s difficult to convey that idea. It’s hard to get through our general impressions of disgust and horror. That’s a hard thing to contemplate. It requires you to stretch your imagination. It’s hard to think, first of all, ‘Wow, what sort of place do I have to be in my life to contemplate cutting my arm off?’ When I talk about it, I take people to the depths of a really horrible place, which was being trapped and knowing I was going to die. And in that context, then I think people do understand that getting out of there at whatever cost was the greatest thing that could happen in life.
YS: How did you help convey not just the technicalities but the entire experience to James Franco?
AR: It was firstly through the book. Danny gave him the book to read and so the first time we met, he had read the script and read the book and had been selected for the part. So, the first thing James and I did was watch the video that I had made while I was trapped.
I had got my little camcorder out, and starting on the second day, I had made diary entries to make a video journal to be my last will and testament. I could say goodbye to my loved ones. By the end, I was in such a place that I think you could see it on the video, I had done everything I could. I had made multiple attempts already to try to cut my arm off, but I didn’t have a knife sharp enough to get through the bone. How could I possibly do it, if I can’t get through the bone?
I was reenacting this for James in a hotel room. I described that finally I figured out the riddle: I didn’t have to cut through the bones, but I could use the boulder to break through the bones and then just cut through the softer tissue around it.
His face was all lit up and his big eyebrows were arched. It’s wild to be reenacting my experience for an actor who’s later going to re-reenact it. And he did a really incredible job.
YS: Do you think this experience has influenced how you are as a father?
AR: Yes, I think that being a parent is such a transformation in itself. Sometimes it can happen reluctantly or grudgingly.
I have realized that cutting my arm off wasn’t a sacrifice. It was something I needed to do to gain something very valuable to me, which was my life and my freedom. Likewise, there has been a radical change in my lifestyle in the last two years, and it’s been anything but a sacrifice. It’s just what I needed in order to bring a new blessing and gift into my life, being a new father.
A lot of folks go from one stage in their life—being a 20-something with a career to being a parent. It’s a big change to go through the experience of having a child. You have to realize, ‘This isn’t about me anymore, it’s about the child and about the relationship and family.’ That could be the biggest transition of people’s lives. …I’ve had to struggle with it too, but I learned in the canyon that relationships are the most important thing.
If that means I go skiing less, then who cares?
YS: Are you still getting outside or out into the wilderness?
AR: Well, outdoors, yes. Wilderness, uh, not so much.
I get outdoors every day with Leo and my wife Jessica. We go for walks down to Boulder Creek. We walk along the paths. Or up Mount Sanitas. Or we just go down to Pearl Street and watch the squirrels and look at the flowers. Through him, I have a much different appreciation of the outdoors.
I still got up and climbed a dozen mountains this summer in Colorado. But again, it’s a different focus. It’s about being with my friends. It’s about spending time with them, rather than because it’s an accomplishment.