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What makes Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker a great war film is its simplicity. Instead of grasping for polemics or wrestling with morality, it shows three men at work—but in this case, they're dismantling a bomb, one of the many IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] in Iraq. And this task takes up their days. Working from Mark Boal's script, Bigelow gets in the soldiers' heads. She films it all in her uniquely unnerving style as-if-you-are-there, next to these warriors: Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), and Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner).
Set in the summer of 2004, the film follows the enigmatic James, the new squad leader whose swaggering cowboy style illustrates the film's initial maxim, "War is a drug." The flip side, though, of his talent and his off-kilter psyche is that he may also get his colleagues killed. Locker manages to be a sharply observed character study, concerned with masculinity and its discontents nestled in the Iraq War's high-wire pressures and thrills—a dichotomy typical of Bigelow's fascinating career (Near Dark, Point Break)—and the result makes you think about the toils of war. It's one of the best films of the year.
Tribeca talked with screenwriter/producer Boal about writing and filming Locker, which is based on his experiences as an embedded journalist with a bomb squad in 2004. Boal's journalism (Rolling Stone, The Village Voice) was also the source of Paul Haggis' directorial debut, In the Valley of Elah (2007), based on the writer's 2004 report for Playboy, "Death and Dishonor." (Boal has a co-story credit for that film.)
Tribeca: What was it like being embedded in Iraq? Were you with a bomb squad the whole time?
Mark Boal: It was a rollercoaster ride, a very eye-opening experience. I was embedded with [the Bomb Squad] the whole time, and I went on daily missions with them in Baghdad to disarm IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices]. The really extraordinary thing about it is that they're the only unit in the military that goes toward the bomb. Everyone else is running away from the bomb. There’s even a bomb squad T-shirt that says "if you see me running, go the other way."
It's really intense and the job is arguably the most dangerous job in the world. The job does select for a particular psychology. It's something you're born with, the ability to stay calm under pressure and to think clearly in situations like that. Most normal people, their brains shut down when the adrenaline kicks in.
Tribeca: Are the bomb squad guys as cowboy-like as they are in the film?
MB: It's fiction, but they did [have that attitude], for sure, especially at that time in the war. It's much more organized now. In 2004 it was really the wild west.
Tribeca: What was it like for you as a normal person amongst the professionals? I can't even imagine how scary it would be.
MB: I get scared easily, and I was terrified the whole time. But it's so constant that after a while, you just have to put it aside or you're going to get an ulcer. After a while, you just sink into it, you can only be afraid for so long physiologically. And I think one of the things that the movie does is capture the tension of it really well.
Tribeca: I agree wholeheartedly. So how did the movie get started? What kind of structure did you want the script to have? Some of the best war movies, like Three Kings, are more genre flicks. Locker has that, too, and that's part of why it's effective.
MB: I wrote a script that [Bigelow] liked and when I came back from Iraq we talked and she said that this was a movie. The impetus was to make it feel life-like and spontaneous and naturalistic and realistic. The structure came out of that, of wanting to capture the reality so the audience could feel like they were actually watching something real and not be able to distance themselves from it.
Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow
Tribeca: Were there any particular war films/ephemera that you were looking at when you were working on the script?
MB: We really tried to draw inspiration from real life more than from any particular cinematic references, although I'm a fan of all the classic war movies as much as the next person. I think if anything I looked at The Battle of Algiers and Taxi Driver. Algiers is a classic, definitive, cinematical portrayal of an occupation and an insurgency, with a very naturalistic and humanistic kind of frame. Taxi Driver is a great character study and psychological profile: you learn about the character gradually, as the film proceeds.
Tribeca: What's the difference between working with Paul Haggis (who wrote and directed In the Valley of Elah) and Bigelow?
MB: They're both great filmmakers and great directors and great storytellers, and I think the movies are two vastly different movies. They'd be separate categories of the videostore aisles in terms of classification. Locker is a war movie, while Elah is a mystery/drama. So it’s kind of apples and oranges, but they were both great to work with in different ways. I feel very lucky—the first thing you can do as a writer is have a great director directing your script. I'd work with either one of them again in a heartbeat.
Tribeca: What were your duties as a producer?
MB: The producing side was really fun and gratifying, to be able to be involved in the process all the way through. That’s one of the advantages of doing something independently and making no money—you get to be creatively involved, and you don’t have a big studio bank kind of calling the shots.
Tribeca: What was it like shooting in Jordan?
MB: It was hot. It was hard because of the cultural differences. We were the first production of any size to shoot there in a long time. Lawrence of Arabia shot in Jordan, but most of the people involved in that movie were not around [anymore]. It was really a new thing for them. It’s a complicated movie to shoot: it has six or seven giant action set pieces with multiple cameras and masses of army equipment and trucks and humvees and helicopters and explosions and gunfire. A little harder to shoot than a romantic comedy. I think in the end everyone kind of came together. The Jordanian royal family was helpful in cutting through the red tape.
Tribeca: The royal family?
MB: We met with the King of Jordan, which was one of the things I was able to pull off as a producer, which was a thrill because he was my first king. They helped with logistics and supplies and military supplies and equipment.
Tribeca: I read that the film cost about $15 million to make. Did it all go to explosions?
MB: It was actually about 30% less than that. Everybody took a huge salary cut to make the movie. Kathryn took a huge pay cut, and all the money was on the screen.
Tribeca: What have you learned from Bigelow when it comes to shooting action scenes?
MB: The importance of establishing geography in the scene and not losing perspective. So many action directors kind of gratuitously slam things together and do this frenetic cutting to create a sense of excitement and to cover up for the fact that the story is inane. She’s one of the only directors who can approach action in an intelligent way. You feel what the characters are going through. Its kind of old school. She’s really amazing at putting you inside the scene. I think that the script [also puts you inside the scene] so you have that double hit there.
Tribeca: The actors are across-the-board amazing. When's Anthony Mackie going to become a superstar?
MB: Here's my crystal ball prediction—Anthony Mackie, Jeremy Renner, and Brian Geraghty will all become giant movie stars. That’s the next generation graduating class of Denzel Washington, Sean Penn, and Russell Crowe. It takes a while for that to happen. Nobody knew who Russell Crowe was until he was 35. Deeply masculine types, they don’t really pop until they reach a certain age.
Tribeca: What are you up to next?
MB: I'm working on a script for Paramount [described as a "big, exciting film"] for Kathryn to direct.
Tribeca: So she's back. We're going to see her making more films.
MB: She’s back now. You know at the end of The Color of Money, when [Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson] says "I'm back"? It's like that. She’s back.
The Hurt Locker opens this weekend in New York and Los Angeles. Click here for ticket information.
This weekend, Mark Boal and Katherine Bigelow will be appearing at New York Hurt Locker screenings for Q&As. Ask them about blowing things up on Friday (6/26) and Saturday (6/27) at the Sunshine cinema (7:10 and 9:00 pm screenings) and on Sunday (6/28) at AMC Lincoln Square (1:45 and 4:55 screenings).