Hurt Locker: Interview with Bigelow and Writer Boal

In 2004, journalist and screenwriter Mark Boal spent several weeks embedded with a U.S. Army bomb squad operating in one of the most dangerous sections of Baghdad, following its movements and getting inside the heads of the men whose skills rival those of surgeons—except in their case one false move means they lose their own life rather than the life of a patient.

His first-hand observations of their days and nights disarming bombs became the inspiration for The Hurt Locker and, eventually, a script that simultaneously strips down the classic American war epic and broadens its concerns to encompass themes as universal as the price of heroism and the limits of bravery in 21st century combat.

“It the experience in Iraq made a deep impression on me. When I got home, I thought ‘people have no idea how these guys live and what they’re up against,’ and then later I started thinking about it dramatically and doing a fictional story about men who voluntarily work with bombs,” says Boal, who also created the story for the drama In the Valley of Elah, for which Tommy Lee Jones received an Academy Award nomination. “On a character level, I was intrigued by the sort of mental and psychological framework that a bomb technician develops on the job. What kind of personality is comfortable with extreme risk and with living so close to death? And in a thematic sense, the bomb squad seemed like a promising entry-point for a war movie.”

Coalition bomb squads have played a pivotal but mostly underreported part in the war, and bringing their work to light was also part of Boal’s motivation for writing the script. The Army relies on its bomb squads as the first –and last- line of defense against the IEDs that have become the insurgency’s weapon of choice. The opening scene in the movie depicts the kind of situation that US soldiers in Baghdad encountered on a daily basis—sometimes 10 or 20 times a day, according to Boal. “Someone finds an IED, they call in the bomb squad and the bomb squad has to deal with it while everyone else in the military pulls back.”

“What many people don’t know is that although Baghdad was horrifically dangerous in those years, it could have been a lot worse,” he adds. “On any given day, for every bomb that exploded in the city, there were probably ten or fifteen that didn’t detonate because of a few, secretive bomb squads that were in theater.”

In order to capture the tension of Boal’s intricately detailed, nuts-and-bolts descriptions of bomb disarmaments, it would clearly take a filmmaker with her own gift for innovative storytelling to bring all the nuance on the page to life with visceral, poetic imagery and powerful performances.

When it came to evoking the hair-raising intensity of bomb squad work, there was no better choice than Kathryn Bigelow, who began her career as an artist, working with the avant guard conceptual art group Art & Language in New York, before becoming one of cinema’s leading filmmakers and a director renowned for stylistic innovations, masterful suspense, and groundbreaking action sequences.

Bigelow’s cult following and reputation as one of the most inventive filmmakers in world cinema began with her vampire noir Near Dark and was cemented by her influential surfer-heist classic Point Break, the science-fiction thriller Strange Days, and the coldwar submarine drama, K-19: The Widowmaker.

With The Hurt Locker, Bigelow marries Boal’s screenwriting style – closely-observed characters, and realistic, intense set pieces – with her own unique vision; the result is incredibly suspenseful and action-packed cinema that reinvents the war movie for the post-Vietnam era. Bigelow had met Boal while she was developing a television series from an article he had written in 2002. They stayed in touch, and Boal contacted the filmmaker when he returned from Iraq. “Obviously, Kathryn is a brilliant director who has a terrific feel for how physical and psychological danger effect character, and so I was pretty much fell out of my chair when she said she was interested.”

“I’d been a fan of Mark’s reporting for some time,” Bigelow says. And Boal’s observations of the bomb squad seemed like a perfect fit to a filmmaker known for films that put key characters in extreme situations. “The fact that these men live in mortal danger every day make their lives inherently tense, iconic and cinematic,” she adds, “and on a metaphorical level, they seemed to suggest both the heroism and the futility of the war.”

Bigelow and Boal decided to produce an independent movie that would be character-driven, suspenseful and “intensely experiential,” as Bigelow puts it, by placing audiences on the ground with the bomb squad. “Everything about this movie—the directing, script, camera work, music, editing—was conceived from the beginning with the single goal of creating that heightened sense of realism that underscores the tension, without losing the layering of these complicated characters.” says Bigelow.

With Bigelow’s guidance, Boal worked on the script on spec for the director, writing in what he calls a “naturalistic style, a sort of true fiction,” that seeks to replicate the tension and unpredictability of war itself, and mirror the daily grind of real life bomb squad soldiers who disarm bombs week after week, year after year.

They wanted The Hurt Locker to avoid polemics and instead place the audience in the soldiers’ point of view in order to give them a vividly authentic sense of what it was like to walk the highwire act of a bomb technician. “The dialogue is meant to feel life-like and spontaneous, as if it wasn’t written, while at the same time revealing intimate character detail and capturing the excitement of their work,” he says. “The portrayals of bomb disposal and urban warfare are pretty faithful to real life incidents that soldiers have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, although the characters themselves are composites.”

He worked on 17 drafts with Bigelow before finding a final version, and the pair continued to tweak the script during filming so that the major set-pieces could be sculpted to fit the available geography of the shooting locations. In the end, the result was The Hurt Locker, in which Boal pays tribute to the spirit and dedication of the soldiers in Iraq with his layered story-telling and sharply delineated, intensely human characters.

Once the script was completed, Bigelow called in favors from her years in the business. “We said to people, the bad news is we have no money, no studio, and no means of outside support,“ Bigelow recalls. “But that was also the good news, because we had creative freedom and we could work outside the box.”

Bigelow and Boal approached financier Nicolas Chartier, who raised funds for the production through his independent company, Voltage Pictures. “It was the best script I’d read since Crash,” says Chartier, who had helped sell that Academy Award winning film. “And I had wanted to work with Kathryn for a really long time. She has an incredible eye for action and is one of the top directors in the world.”

The Hurt Locker caused a sensation when it screened at the Venice Film Festival, receiving a ten-minute standing ovation, and earning four awards, including the SIGNIS and Human Rights Film award, as well as a nomination for the Golden Lion, the festival’s highest honor. It was praised for being a film that “avoids dry ideology,” according to the La Navicella Venenzia, “in a controlled but complex style.” “An uncompromising approach to the Iraq war and its consequences seen through the experience of the bomb diffusion specialists for whom war is an addiction rather than a cause,” stated the SIGNIS committee, “Kathryn Bigelow challenges the audiences view of war in general and the current war in particular [by] demonstrating the struggle between violence to the body and psychological alienation.”

Shortly after Venice, the film screened to widespread critical acclaim at the Toronto International Film festival, winning The Screen Jury competition for the best reviewed film of the festival, based on an international slate of newspaper and magazine critics. Shortly thereafter, Summit Entertainment purchased the domestic distribution rights to The Hurt Locker, insuring that the film would reach audiences in America.