By Elizabeth Latenser
This is part of an ongoing series featuring iconic projects filmed in Utah. Projects and artists mentioned in the series filmed here for inspiration, a strong sense of place or to recreate otherworldly experiences.
“This is a feature film that proves the cliché that no man is an island,” 127 Hours Director Danny Boyle says. “And that even in—especially in—the loneliest place in the world, it begins and ends with people.”
The incredible and cringeworthy survival story of Aron Ralston, a hiker who cut off his own arm in Blue John Canyon, by now has been played and replayed for audiences all over the world in the film 127 Hours. In case you need a refresher on the story, check out the official synopsis from Fox Searchlight and a clip of 127 Hours in 127 Minutes.
The severed arm is often touted as the most memorable part of the story and it’s hard not to replay the agony you see on James Franco’s as he struggles to carry out the task. But many would agree once you get past the grimace and blood that there is another star in the show: Utah’s enchanting and other-worldly Canyonlands National Park. The adventure and thrill of exploring Blue John Canyon called to Aron Ralston and it’s easy to see why. The steep red rock, cavernous channels, teetering ledges, mystical plateaus and dancing shadows make this desert playground a dream for many outdoor explorers.
127 Hours Director Danny Boyle upon seeing the extreme conditions of the canyon said “The first thing we thought was, ‘My God, what were you thinking coming out here on your own?'”
According to an interview with Popular Mechanics, filming in the actual spot where the accident occurred would have been too dangerous so Danny Boyle decided to have production and costume designer Suttirat Larlarb recreate a set to the exact specifications of the canyon. The set was built in an old Furniture Warehouse in Salt Lake City. Reporter, Amy Raphael from The Guardian, who visited the set described it as “tall, narrow and terrifyingly claustrophobic.”
Larlarb pieced together the exact boulder and placement through a series of photos taken by the National Parks Service rescue crew assigned to retrieve Ralston’s arm after he was airlifted out.
The film’s art director, Christopher DeMuri told the Salt Lake Tribune he knew they got the boulder right when Ralston visited the Sugar House set. He looked at the boulder and was surprised that it was a copy. “He said, ‘You see these indentations right here? This is what I chipped away with my multitool.’ Danny looked at me and winked. I knew we got it right.”
Director Danny Boyle talked more about the set:
“We didn’t make it flexible,” he says. “It’s solid like the canyon is.” There were only two ways in—either through the top, or walking all the way around the back and then in—and it wasn’t at all convenient for the equipment necessary for filming a movie, like cameras and lights. “I told everyone to embrace it,” Boyle says. “I know sometimes they looked at me and thought, ‘What is the point of building a set when we can’t move it?’”
Many of the crew members quickly forgot the hassle of working with a tough set because they just enjoyed working with Danny so much. Dennis Light, a Utah-based location manager remarked that the most memorable part of the process was director Danny Boyle because he is “a true class act.”
“Danny was great to work with and watch. He worked 7 days a week but the crew had 2 teams so he could keep working while giving part of the crew a day or two off,” said Dennis. “When we finished at a location Danny was always right by my side personally thanking the people who helped. He would remember their names and be the first to greet them if we returned.”
Danny Boyle stated that the experience of shooting the film reinforced a valuable life lesson. There is no substitute for human connection:
“They’re what sustained Aron, and they’re who he speaks to on his camera. When he starts hallucinating, they help him get out of there because he wants to get back to them so much.”
Boyle pauses. “This is a story about all of us, really,” he says. “We’re all capable of it. We probably won’t have to do it, but we will face our own boulders, if you like. And we will need other people to get through.”
And to this day, Ralston takes that message to heart. According to The Guardian, he always tells or take a friend with him on his adventures. And yes, he still visits the boulder in Blue John Canyon. That proves just how tough he really is and just how enchanting the Canyonlands National Park is. Ralston told The Guardian:
“I touch it and go back to that place, remembering when I thought about what’s important in life, relationships, and this quest to want to get out of there and return to love and relationships,” he says, “to return to freedom instead of entrapment.”
Contributing writer Elizabeth Latenser is a film fan, mountain momma, dog lover and tree hugger.