Beaufoy rises to a rock-hard challenge of a script

Two years ago Simon Beaufoy was ruminating over the potential of a modest little movie called Slumdog Millionaire. By March of the following year he'd nabbed a trio of major screenwriting awards including the Oscar, and the film had swept the board, winning another seven Academy Awards.

As we speak he is wondering whether time and work commitments will allow him to attend the Golden Globes on January 16. He has been nominated again for his duties on 127 Hours, the story of American climber Aron Ralston who, notoriously, cut off his own right arm to escape from a narrow fissure where he had become pinned by a falling boulder while solo trekking in Utah.

Beaufoy takes such things in his stride. In 2008 no-one could have predicted the rollercoaster effect that would turn Slumdog from a sleeper into a global phenomenon. Since then, Keighley-born Beaufoy has spent much of the last two years fending off lucrative offers to make glossy dross, preferring to focus instead on the sort of projects that float his particular intellectual boat.

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He spent months on a BBC television script, has completed Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, based on Paul Torday's novel, for director Lasse Hallstrm (Chocolat, The Cider House Rules) and is talking up 127 Hours which marks his second collaboration with suddenly super-hot director Danny Boyle.

Everything has fallen into place for Beaufoy. At 43, he is one of the most in-demand writers in the world. The Oscar for Slumdog changed everything, just as the Oscar nomination he received for The Full Monty might have done the same had he actually won it in 1998.

But that's ancient history now. Beaufoy's imposed middle name has changed from "Full Monty" to "Slumdog Millionaire". He's evolved and moved on. Slumdog marked a new beginning. 127 Hours represents the so-called difficult second film. And he couldn't have picked a tougher project.

Aron Ralston's 2004 memoir Between a Rock and a Hard Place is, says Beaufoy, "anti-cinema and anti-drama". In filmic terms it represents something akin to an internal monologue with pictures. The direction was Boyle's; the interpretation was Beaufoy's.

His journey took him to Ralston and, separately, to the crack in the Utah desert floor where nearly eight years ago he almost reached the end of the line.

"It was very important to go there," he asserts. "It's the bleakest, loneliest place on earth. Dark and cold. The film doesn't really do it justice – the utter impossibility of anyone coming along and finding him.

"In Britain, in most parts of Europe, you've got some possibility that someone might just wander along and help. In this tiny little crack – one of 10,000 cracks that are utterly similar nearly four hours from the road in the middle of nowhere right at the bottom of a 200ft fissure – you have got no chance at all.

"The boulder, of course, is still there. It's surrounded by much, much bigger boulders, ones that are more striated and geographically interesting and beautifully coloured. Then you have this rather dull, grubby, unimpressive little boulder."

Did he try and lift it?

"Everyone had a go! But of course it weighs half a tonne. You can't move it."

Danny Boyle had long coveted the opportunity of turning Ralston's story of endurance with a wincing, improbable climax into a film but the climber was wary and turned him down. However, the success of Slumdog Millionaire pushed open the door once more.

Beaufoy, himself a keen climber, had read the book on publication. He felt very keenly that its apparent openness was hiding something that hinted at far deeper issues than simply a man who triumphed above the most appalling bad luck.

Says Beaufoy: "I was really against making the superhero film about that all-American boy who could overcome anything to survive, which is sort of what his book is. You can see how a film could turn it into a great celebration of the American pioneering spirit.

"I spent a lot a lot of time saying 'I don't want to do a superhero story, I want to do the opposite. I want to know why you were down there three days before anyone even noticed that you were missing. How come? Where was everybody in your life?'

"He finally understood what we were trying to do and completely trusted us to do it the right way.

"We weren't doing a character assassination but examining a particularly self-centred person at a particularly self-centred time of his life. He turned his back on absolutely everyone. He thought 'Why should I tell anyone where I'm going?'"

Isn't Beaufoy's reaction an intrinsically English reaction to what is an intrinsically American story?

"I think so, yes. That's a very acute thing to say. We have an in-built suspicion of the simplicity of the great American story which this could easily be on the surface.

"Going solo down a canyon in Utah without telling anyone where you're going is a serious ****-up. Ralston's name is mud in the climbing community because there are these bitter and poor mountaineers with a much greater talent than him in terms of climbing – and he would say that himself.

"They're penniless and have never gained this fame and huge amounts of money by ****ing up in their mountaineering. Many climbers are furious at him because of how he's managed to turn what the rest of us would be a little bit embarrassed about into a celebration of the human spirit."

Beaufoy's biggest challenge in adapting Ralston's book was to transform an interior monologue into digestible entertainment without boring audiences. There was also the issue of dealing with audience expectation: 90 per cent of cinemagoers will know that Ralston severed his own arm, and lived to tell the tale. The key to the film's success was a script which somehow managed to create dramatic tension around a story so well-known it has almost become mountaineering folklore.

The reaction when 127 Hours was screened at both the Toronto International Film Festival and London Film Festival last year, suggests he can sleep easily.

"What was very helpful to me was that there was a narrative already there. That was a blessing and a curse at the same time but there was the possibility of self-examination. You have to become very rigorous. How do you make people forget that they know what happens?" questions Beaufoy.

The film was previewed without fanfare at an out-of-town multiplex in a blue-collar suburb of New York. When James Franco, playing Ralston, cuts off his arm, far from collectively fainting, the watching crowd "whooped and burst into applause".

Recalls Beaufoy: "We weren't expecting that at all. Nor were we expecting anyone to faint. It didn't occur to us that this was the moment of the film, somehow, or that it would be in any way controversial. We thought that was an extraordinarily American reaction to a situation: push through it, get on with it.

"The film basically says that everyone would have a go. I think I would try. Everyone would. You become an animal after a while. I don't think we would all necessarily succeed – in fact I think most of us wouldn't.

"(Aron] didn't just decide on the spur of the moment. He went through a

very long period. He tried twice before getting there. By then he absolutely knew that the alternative was death.

"The whole time he was doing it, he was smiling because he knew he was going to get out. To survive. He knew he was going to get away from that rock."

127 Hours (15) is on nationwide release from tomorrow.