Hurt Locker: Iraq War Movie Is Bigelow’s Comeback

It’s a great pleasure to report that Kathryn Bigelow’s action thriller “The Hurt Locker,” which opens June 26, is not only the most interesting film about the Iraq war, but also signals a comeback for this talented director, who has not had a successful picture in years. (see my review).

 

Bigelow says that she had been a fan of journalist Mark Boal, who wrote the screenplay based on his experience in Iraq, for some time.  Boal’s observations of one bomb squad’s work seems 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,” Bigelow says, “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.

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.”

“James really anchors the movie. He’s the galvanizing center of the team in that he instills fear and admiration, ” says Bigelow. “A lot of what happens in terms of character development is about how the other guys react to this almost elemental force that comes whirling into their already on-edge lives.”

When it came to casting the three leads, Bigelow wanted to find breakout, young actors in order to heighten the film’s authenticity and boost its surprise factor—avoiding the calming familiarity of an established movie star. “There’s a convention that the movie star doesn’t die until the end of a film, and I think that in our case having that certainty would undermine the naturally suspenseful, unpredictable quality of being in a war where death can happen anytime, to anyone,” explains Bigelow. “With ‘The Hurt Locker,’ I wanted it to be as tense and real as possible, and that mean having actors who were relatively fresh faces so the audience wouldn’t know who among the three main characters was going to live or die by virtue of their public profile.”

 

For the role of Staff Sergeant James, Bigelow conducted exhaustive search of up and coming young talent before finding an actor with the range to realize the role of the wild, alluring, good ‘old boy with a surprisingly rich interior life. The search ended when Jeremy Renner came to her attention via his turn playing the notorious title character in the film “Dahmer.” “Jeremy gave an incredibly nuanced performance in that movie, eliciting compassion and revulsion in almost equal measure,” says Bigelow. “I found it an arresting display of major talent, and from that moment forward was determined to work with him.”

“It takes an incredibly skillful and intelligent actor to embody James’ bravado and allure in a nuanced way that doesn’t seem artificial, and Jeremy is as skillful as an actor gets,” Bigelow adds. “The role calls for the ability to command authority while also seeming to be totally reckless,” she continues, “that’s a very difficult but seductive combination which Jeremy can inhabit with seemingly natural ease.”

Bigelow had been impressed with Brian Geraghty’s performances in Jarhead, We Are Marshall, and Bobby before casting him as Eldridge in this film. “Brian exhibited the fierce and the vulnerable in perfect measure,” she says. “He’s natural, totally fluid.”

“Having Guy Pearce open the film sets up a sense of credible reality from the very start,” says Bigelow. “You need that because the world is so exotic, but Guy just seems like he belongs in it.” “I’ve wanted to work with Kathryn for years,” says Pearce. “And ultimately the material has to be the reason why I go and do any film. This film is packed with action, but it’s about people and emotions. It’s about people trying to connect with each other. The way in which the script was written is really fascinating and Mark and Kathryn have both done a beautiful job of capturing and realizing these characters.”

Bigelow made the shoot her movie with four handheld cameras simultaneously. She has shot with multiple cameras on each of her films, using as many as 12 at a time. “When I storyboard the entire film, every scene is broken down to its essential elements,” she says. “I look at the boards shot by shot. It’s at this point that I realize what the technical needs of the shoot are. I can determine the camera needs, as well as the blocking of each scene. Even before we’ve chosen locations, I have basically ‘shot’ the entire film in my head.”

But for Bigelow, it always starts with the script, which in this case centers on the details of bomb disarmament. She observes: “Early on, I realized geography would be central to the audience’s understanding of what the bomb squad does on a daily basis. Military protocol for bomb disarmament in the field is approximately a 300-meter containment. That’s a big set.”