Exclusive: Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow Talk ‘The Hurt Locker’

Screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow share the methods they used to create an intense, heartfelt combat film. We talk camera angles, mistaken journalists, and cleaning the dust off after coming in from the desert.
By  · Published on May 7th, 2009

he Iraq War – or The Second Persian Gulf War if you need to be specific – was launched on March 20, 2003. In the years that followed, 16 films were created that deal with that war either directly or tangentially. These range from American Dreamz to Stop-Loss, and almost all of them could be considered commercial and artistic failures. The reason for their failure is up for debate (certainly quality has something to do with it), but the best guess involves an interesting cultural quirk. The films have all been made and released while the war is still going on (something that should hurt them), but the war itself is barely in the day-to-day thoughts of the average American (which should negate the previous effect). Whichever the case, gone are the days where creative minds wait out the grace period on wars in order to create distance between their subject and their work.

With over a dozen films evoking the war at the bare minimum, you’d think that an Iraq War Film has been made. And you’d be wrong.

That’s a point that Mark Boal, the screenwriter of The Hurt Locker, wants to be very clear about. It’s a question that he gets a lot while doing interviews, it’s a question I end up asking, and it’s obviously one that gets under his skin. Probably for good reason. After the onslaught of films that deal with soldiers returning or pale satires that mock the war along political lines, he and director Kathryn Bigelow have done something that no one has done before: putting audiences directly into the war zone seated next to soldiers in a Humvee as they travel to disarm explosives.

On the six-year anniversary of the launch of the Iraq War, I sit down with Boal and Bigelow to discuss going into new territory, presenting a war without political agenda, and the difficulty of washing the dust off after coming home from the desert.

It’s early in the morning, and we’re sitting in a conference room that looks out over downtown, sunshine threatening to come in, the sounds of ambulances and police cars already ramping up as the film portion of SXSW gives way to the drunken revel of the music portion. Boal and Bigelow sit straight up in their chairs, dressed impeccably, and I have to admit I’m scared to death. Here’s a filmmaker who is talented and whose presence fills the room seated next to a legitimate journalist who was embedded with soldiers in Iraq and wrote a fantastic script. Who am I but some random guy who watches movies for a living? Even in a button-up shirt, I look like a hack.

The war film grace period or, rather, a lack of one is my first question. It’s been a pressing question for me ever since the first wave of films that mention the war hit the big screen. Now, here comes a film that not only mentions the war or features characters that have been there – it is the war. It’s the constant dust storm and pressing fear of death strapping in alongside a commitment to doing a life-threatening job. It’s an important question, I think, but it’s something that never really crossed the filmmakers’ minds.

“It never occurred to us to wait,” Boal says. “That thought never came up until – we’ve heard it since, but when we were making it, talking about it, and thinking about it, it wasn’t like ‘would it be better served ten years from now?’ It was like, ‘let’s do it now because we have the idea, and if we wait till the war’s over we might be 150.’ You know? We might be dead before this war is over. So let’s do it now while we have the thought. Why wait? In our opinion, there was no reason to.”

“I think the information is really valuable to have,” Bigelow says, sirens screaming outside on the street. “And I think it helps shape and frame an opinion about the conflict. I think the fact that the film doesn’t necessarily judge it – it presents it as a result of Mark’s embed in as authentic and realistic a way possible. What we call ‘true fiction.’ It enables an audience to have an experiential look at a conflict that’s been virtually unreported.”

The point that Bigelow mentions is an important one and a key to the success of the film. Instead of presenting a sort of faux-theater version of the harshness of war or mocking it outright, The Hurt Locker uses the very real, very human reality of the war zone to present a group of characters that haven’t really been seen yet.

“Plus, we felt like because it was going to be a little bit reportorial and not trying to push any particular party line, that that would be okay,” says Boal. “We could be respectful to the reality and still do a fictional Hollywood movie. I think if it was more agenda-driven, it would have been wiser to wait, but since it didn’t have that kind of political agenda, we just kind felt like – let’s do it.”

Here’s where I ask the wrong question – bringing up the litany of “Iraq War movies” that have already been made in order to ask how their failures speak to the possible reception of The Hurt Locker. After all, whether or not there has been a true Iraq War film yet, there seems to be a lacking success rate for any film that evokes that subject matter. It stands to reason that the subject matter might be a major factor in how each film is received.

But Boal doesn’t see this as another Iraq War film; he sees it as the first Iraq War movie. And he’s right, at least in defining it as the only Iraq combat film.

“We felt like there hadn’t been a combat movie,” says Boal. “We were looking at the slate when we were developing it, looking at what was coming out, looking at what was in development, and they all seemed like stories that took place in the United States. Good or bad. So if we had had another one of those we would have felt like, maybe, we’re gonna be the last guy in line. That’s not a good position to be in. But since 99.9% of the movie takes place where bullets are flying, bombs are going off, you’re running with the soldiers and you’re in the suck of the fight with these guys – we felt like that hadn’t been done yet.”

I offer to rephrase, and Boal offers up that he’s a bit anal about the question. It would be hard to blame him considering that it’s easy to imagine him having to deal with the conflation and comparisons during the pitch stage, the pre-production phase, the filming, and the distribution phase. Now, as he and Bigelow get closer and closer to having their film released, they’ll experience the true avalanche of that question. Especially from their marketing team.

Maybe it’s an important one to ask. Maybe not. Maybe the premise is unfair. Maybe not. But it seems at least a bit self-evident. If there’s a question of how audiences will respond to a film about the Iraq War after the theater has already tested a few (albeit homefront films), even if Boal finds the connection a tenuous one, it seems like the sheer number of journalists making the connection is proof enough that film-goers might also make that connection.

We talk a while longer about the catch-22 of a war that is simultaneously able to elicit an emotional response from an audience while not being present in the minds of the people. I claim that mentioning the war generates a hard audience reaction. Boal believes it’s a media trope. But I digress. What’s more important is the story itself, and whatever the background for the characters, Bigelow sees the story as far more resonating – something that lasts well beyond the confines of the desert.

“It’s a story of heroism, bravery, courage under extreme pressure and those are timeless elements. Universal elements. I think one can extrapolate and look at the courage of these characters and the psychology of a character that chooses to engage in probably, what I would consider, the world’s most dangerous job. Gets up in the morning and does that on a daily basis,” she says.

Jeremy Renner, the main actor who plays Staff Sergeant William James (a name which may or may not have any symbolic importance), is a main factor in bringing that psychology to life.

“She was convinced that Jeremy was the right guy to go with right from the beginning,” Boal claims, motioning to Bigelow who goes on to explain her thought process.

“[Jeremy’s] ability to convey honesty, truth, complexity and a kind of moral ambiguity, and then ultimately, as Mark has written all the characters – they are defined through activity – and then you ultimately come to fall in love with him by the end of the film. It’s a portrait of real leadership. Especially as evidenced by the scene where he’s helping [Specialist Owen] Eldridge clean the blood on the bullets. Eldridge absolutely believes this is the moment he’s gonna die, and he’s almost incapable of functioning. James just talks him from that ledge and sets him on his way, puts him back into action. So, yeah, it’s a real portrait of courage under fire.”

That portrait is painted by Bigelow with astounding expertise. She created a tone of humanity within the confines of the ever-present fear of death, and the main tactic she used was treating the camera as another character embedded with the soldiers. The result of that technique produces a film that makes the audience feel as if they are riding alongside the soldiers, in the scene. The camera is responding to the situations the same way the characters are.

But make no mistake. It isn’t done through the shaking handicam fad – it’s done beautifully, completely professionally.

“It’s kind of a heightened subjectivity,” she says. “That’s how I look at it and how I talked about it with the crew. Total immersion. How can I put the viewer as close to this experience as humanly possible…with camera, with production design, finding locations that allowed me to shoot 360 degrees. There was no bad angle. Re-staging all of those set pieces from beginning to end multiple, multiple times so they weren’t made mechanical or artificial or clinical. They were just bomb disarmaments in a 300-meter contained area.”

Beyond also creating a closed-in feel by creating perimeters, she also set up cameras in dozens of locations without alerting the actors to their presence. The reason?

“There was an immunity to the lens,” Bigelow explains. “They were just performing. Actually doing the protocol, which really helps with the feeling of immediacy and rawness. Real, and raw, and visceral.”

Those are perhaps the best words to describe the film – a film that I have no qualms about calling the best I’ve seen so far this year. Whatever the implications of its subject matter or the uphill battle it might have with marketing, The Hurt Locker is a fantastic movie. It will be a hard film to watch for anyone who has friends and family shipping out to Baghdad, but it’s an important one to watch anyway.

The Hurt Locker is in theaters in limited release on June 26th.

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