Hurt Locker, The: Authenticity in the Middle East

“The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow and starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty, is being released by Summit Entertainment on June 26, 2009.

Shooting in Jordan

The production took place in and around the poorer neighborhoods in the city of Amman, Jordan, which had architecture similar to Baghdad’s. The climate and geography of the two countries are also comparable, with the added bonus of the presence of ethnic Iraqis who could fill small parts and work as background and bit players, further heightening the realism of the film. “There are about one million Iraqi refugees living in Jordan who have fled the war, and as it turns out among them is a pretty big pool of professional actors, and it was great to be able to cast them – it was good for the movie, and it was good for the set,” explains Bigelow.

But what cast and filmmakers remember most about shooting in Jordan was the summer heat. “There was something incredibly immediate about shooting in an environment that was unforgivably hot and putting the actors in a very arduous situation on a day to day basis,” says Bigelow. “Just sand, wind, sand, heat, sun and sand.”

Not surprisingly, the actors found the conditions challenging. “It would be 130, 135 degrees,” says Mackie. “It was so hot you could feel your brain cooking in your head. Everything was magnified by the level of body armor we had to wear.”

Renner adds: “Working in Jordan was extremely difficult in the sense that conditions were very hard. But it made my job as an actor easier. That sweat is real sweat. Those tears are real tears of pain, so I’m glad we weren’t on some soundstage. I feel like I got just a sliver of an idea of what an EOD or anybody in the military might go through every day. It’s unbelievable how tortuous it can be.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve had to do physically as an actor,” he continues. “I love to be challenged and I was really, really challenged on this. I think we all had a nervous breakdown or two or three—I kept telling my mom to FedEx my dignity back to me. But the most awful days I had were the most memorable. I look back and I know it was the most spectacular experience that I’ve had as a man, not even just as an actor.”

Talking to Real POWs

“I remember speaking to the two men who play Iraqi POWs in the desert sequence—and asking them what they did in Iraq. They said, we were prisoners of the Americans. I thought maybe there was a problem with the translation because they played prisoners in the movie. Then I realized that no, they actually were prisoners in Iraq, and now they are playing prisoners. It was surreal, and a little uncomfortable, but then they laughed and said they were happy to have the work—but I thought ‘maybe we are taking this authenticity thing a little too far.”

Authentic Living Arrangements

Nevertheless, the desire for authenticity extended to the actor’s living arrangements as well. In order to instill the military’s close camaraderie, Bigelow housed all the actors on set in a basic communal tent with a dirt floor, rather than in air-conditioned trailers. “You could meet them for a coffee on the weekends, and they’d still be in character,” recalls Boal. “They’d be in a café talking military jargon to the waiter, “we need three cappuccinos by oh-six-hundred. Roger that.” Before the shoot, Renner, Geraghty and the other principals spent time learning from Army EOD teams at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin. Located near Barstow, California, the NTC is the army’s premier training camp. Its Mojave Desert location makes it perfect for instructing troops headed for the Middle East. “It’s just crazy,” says Geraghty. “When there’s a bomb, most people want get as far away from it as possible. These guys are trained to do the opposite. Their job is to go in as close as they can get.”