One of the most triumphant moments in Aron Ralston's life occurred when he finally managed to break the bones in his lower right arm.
That instant is re-created with a gleeful laugh by James Franco, who plays Ralston in director Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," which opens in selected theaters Friday and chronicles in agonizing but often exhilarating detail the mountain climber's five-day ordeal trapped in a Utah canyon.
It's terrible for the audience to watch, and what comes next is worse: Franco's Ralston using a dull blade to hack off his own arm, which was pinned beneath a fallen boulder.
But Ralston revels in the demented joy Franco expresses, saying it's just how he felt when he was able to snap his bones that day in 2003, realizing that to free himself, he now only had to cut through flesh.
"He touches his arm and is like, 'Hah! Hah hah!' That to me is so important. I was so glad to see that in the film, because it's not a revulsion. It's a euphoria," Ralston said in an interview. "For me, it was the liberation, the freedom that was coming from getting my life back. Not at all something that I was reluctant to undertake.
"Yeah, it was the most painful thing that I'll probably ever experience, but to the greatest end. To have a life. To get back to my family and friends, just the thought of whom had kept me alive for all those days, long after I should have died."
Ralston, who now has a prosthetic arm, wrote a book about his experience and worked for years to bring the story to the screen as a docudrama, combining interviews and narration with dramatized re-enactments.
Boyle, making his first film since 2008's Academy Awards champ "Slumdog Millionaire," became fascinated with Ralston's story from the first news reports seven years ago.
Film was a tough sell
It took years, but Boyle convinced Ralston that a full narrative drama was the way to go, then managed to sell the idea to dubious Hollywood, which had trouble picturing the merits of a film about a guy trapped alone in a narrow crevasse ("127 Hours" comes from News Corp. unit Fox Searchlight, which released "Slumdog Millionaire" to unexpected hit status with $141 million at the domestic box office).
"Six days in a canyon and what are you telling me? At the end of the six days, he cuts his arm off? That's it?" is the reaction Boyle recalls from studio executives.
"'Slumdog's' commercial success made us have sufficient credits in the bank to allow us to make this story, not with a huge amount of money, but sufficient to make it in the way I'd imagined. Exciting and exhilarating, and a real journey, a first-person, immersive experience," Boyle said.
While "127 Hours" is largely a one-man show, the film has a furious pace, hurtling along through flashbacks, wild hallucinations, vibrant music and passionate monologues by Franco.
The film offers surprising laughs, mixing the horrific and the humorous the way Boyle did on "Slumdog Millionaire" and such earlier movies as "Trainspotting" and "28 Days Later."
Franco had firsthand source material to help get into his character's head: Messages Ralston recorded on a video camera, figuring they were farewells to loved ones that would be played at his funeral. Some of the video messages Franco re-creates were verbatim reproductions of Ralston's, the actor said.
"What was so powerful about the real messages was the dignity with which he held himself together," Franco said. "He thought he was going to die and thought these would be the last things his family, his mother, would ever see, and so he wanted to leave these dignified and heartfelt messages, rather than messages full of self-pity."
Graphic scene tough to take
As entertaining and uplifting as "127 Hours" proves, the bloody amputation scene is a challenge for viewers.
The audience gasped and cringed while watching the amputation at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of "127 Hours" in September. Some viewers reportedly fainted there and at a screening a few days earlier at the Telluride Film Festival.
"We knew this would be the scene that everybody would be anticipating anxiously but also kind of wanting to see," Franco said. "It was a balancing act. It was finding the middle road between showing too much and not showing enough and shortchanging the story and the experience. ...
"That act was like a portal for Aron to go through, and the audience, to have the full experience, needs to go through that portal with him," Franco said. "You need at least a taste of the intensity to pay respect to what he went through. On the other hand, it's not gratuitous. It's not horror-film gore that is trying to gross an audience out."
Ralston, who appears briefly along with family and friends at the end of "127 Hours," agreed that the amputation scene is necessary to carry viewers from the despair he felt while trapped to the fulfillment he found afterward.
In the years since, Ralston met and married his wife and had a son while the film was in production, fulfilling a vision of his future that he had in the canyon, one that finally drove him to cut off his arm after several aborted attempts over the previous days.
"I don't want people to walk in blindly. 'Oh honey, this is going to be a great movie, a great date night.' I do think it's a great movie, but it may not be appropriate for all circumstances, and I do think we want people to be calibrated to that," Ralston said.
"It's gory, but in a way it's beautiful. It's that effervescing that bubbles out of a very dark place, out of death itself. Coming up from that, bubbling back to life. For me, it's really a flood of emotions. Potential joy. A whole life full of the happiest moments of what could be."