A few years ago, I spent the fall in Los Angeles at a one-semester film program, where I got the chance to intern at a major Hollywood director's film company. I can't describe how important I felt when I discovered where I was going to get to work.
Of course, my internship there was glamorous in name only. The director was out of the country shooting a film most of the time I was there, we only met a few times. I spent the semester doing normal internship duties: reorganizing files, photocopying scripts, getting coffee, getting lunch, running errands around town on my bike, and making 6,000 phone calls to CAA and ICM to ask whether Alexander Payne or Roberto Orci might be available to do a rewrite on an unnamed screenplay or not. I spent the rest of the time surfing the net. It was not the most exciting job I've ever had. The food was pretty good, though.
Still, occasionally (very occasionally: in my four months at the company, I think it only happened three different times) I got to do what's called "coverage;" where I'd read a book or a script no one else felt like reading and write up a short summary and recommend whether or not the company should consider doing it. If I liked the script, someone else might end up looking at it, if i didn't, it probably wouldn't get looked at again.
One of the pieces I read was Aron Ralston's book, "Between A Rock and a Hard Place", the memoir of the hiker who had his arm trapped by a falling boulder in southeast Utah and was forced to saw his own arm off. It was a fascinating read - Ralston isn't the world's best writer, but it's certainly gripping reading to hear someone talk about what it was like cut off their own arm. Still, I recommended against adapting it for a movie for a number of reasons:
First and most importantly, it's not that interesting a story. There's the one money scene, where Ralston cuts his arm off, but the rest of the time, he's just a guy lying against a rock. He lies there, trying to extricate himself. He tries to find a comfortable position. He tries to stay warm at night. He listens to a Phish CD. He drinks his own urine. It's interesting to hear about, it's not all that exciting to watch. It's like Castaway, only without a volleyball to talk to and and, y'know, Tom Hanks stuck under a rock. It's not all that exciting.
That means that most of the movie has to become about flashbacks, and whenever you hear someone say "most of the action will take place in flashback," red lights should be flashing all over. Plus, I don't know what you'd flash back to - there's no love story, nor is there a period of time in Ralston's life that he would think back to in order to figure out how to escape. He lies there until his arm dies, then he cuts off his arm. And... scene.
Second, while there's other interesting parts to the story, there aren't many. After Ralston cut off his arm, he returned to hiking, but he doesn't spend a lot of time on it in his book, and I don't blame him. Not to make light of his injury, but losing an arm below the elbow doesn't seem like it would be a gigantic disability in hiking (though it doesn't sound fun), and it's not like anyone reads that and says "well, that's just incredible!" A blind guy hiked the Appalachian Trail. If someone wanted to make a movie about that, I would certainly approve.
If you've read this far, you've got to be wondering what it is that made me bring all this up, and the answer is that apparently not everybody agrees with me. Danny Boyle's next film will be 127 Hours, which is the Aron Ralston story. He's working on the screen play with his writing partner, Simon Beaufoy (they wrote Slumdog Millionaire together), and James Franco has been cast as Ralston.
First of all, let's admit that if you were going to have a director to tell this story, it would be Boyle. He's capable of making almost sort of film - his resume includes such wildly varied movies as Millionaire, Millions, Trainspotting, Sunshine. A survival story in the desert would be cake for him. Plus, the man just won the Academy Award for Millionaire, a movie built entirely around flashbacks, so this should be right up his alley. So it's not impossible that 127 Hours ends up being a very good movie.
Though naturally, I'll be rooting against it. I've spent my time as a blogger perpetually being one of those voices complaining about how movie executives are short-sighted, passing over good stories to make crappy movies, because, I dunno, they're stupid and tasteless people or something.
There's a story from a couple years ago about how at one point or another, one movie studio had managed to pass on all five of the Best Picture nominees for that year: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Sideways, Ray, and Million Dollar Baby. I wonder what it was like for those executives as that story broke. Everyone thought that they were idiots, people who ignored cultured, intelligent stories to make raunchy comedies and bad horror flicks. Probably some of them don't have jobs now as a result.
But really, how interesting does the story of playwright J.M. Barrie actually sound? Why would you ever think that it would be a moneymaker? The life of Howard Hughes doesn't seem like a winner either - a guy who built airplanes but eventually locked himself in his house and pissed in jars doesn't seem like the feel-good story of the year. Sideways is the story of two guys who go on a pre-wedding trip to wine country. Million Dollar Baby is a sports movie that you come out of feeling sad. None of these sound like movies that audiences would flock to see (and, as it turned out, none of them were). Maybe I'd have passed on all of these, too.
One way or another, I have a feeling that I'll be watching 127 Hours closely over the next year or so. If it succeeds, I'll feel humiliated, if it fails, I'll feel vindicated. As if this film somehow represents everything I understand about moviemaking. Maybe it does.
Claire pointed out to me that even if the movie's a success, my choosing not to recommend the book might still have been the right decision. If I'd written a glowing review of the book and pushed for the company to do it, and for some reason the company had chosen to listen to me (highly unlikely), who's to say it would've ended up in as good a situation as it did? Even if both Boyle and Franco had signed on, four years ago their careers weren't as high-profile as they are now and there's a considerable less chance that this movie gets made. Four years ago, I was just a guy who read a book and thought it wouldn't make a good movie. My opinion didn't matter than, and it doesn't matter now.
Though if 127 Days ends up being a failure, you can count on me to be just insufferable.