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Mark Boal: Screenwriting on the Front Lines

For obvious reasons, director Kathryn Bigelow is the name most closely associated with The Hurt Locker. But it’s also a fact that the film would not have existed without co-producer and screenwriter Mark Boal. As a journalist, Boal reported from the front lines in Iraq, and his screenplay for The Hurt Locker was based in part on the time he spent with an elite bomb-disposal unit. (Another article he wrote formed the basis for Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah.) Pretty impressive, huh? Your first screenplay out the gate, and it happens to be The Hurt Locker. Boal spoke to Vulture about reconciling the demands of journalism and filmmaking, war movies in general, and about what the subjects of The Hurt Locker think about the film itself.

You initially worked in Iraq as a journalist. Was it a challenge to then turn around and go from reporting facts to making a dramatically satisfying fiction film?
It was actually exciting to have the freedom and imaginative power of fiction. It allowed me to go deeper into the war than I could as a reporter, because I could tell a story through the eyes of those three soldiers. I’ve always been a fan of books that create an interesting blend of fact and fiction — whether it’s Norman Mailer, or The Short Timers, or In Cold Blood. I’m a fan of that genre. So it was a question of how that can work in a movie, and to keep the tension always increasing.

The Hurt Locker has a fairly episodic structure, where the characters go from one bomb to another.
I wanted to be as realistic as possible and shine a light on the war. So the structure came out of that — for guys on the bomb squad, it really is kind of a daily battle with multiple bombs. At the same time, I also had the precedent in the back of my mind of Apocalypse Now, which is also told in chapters. It definitely captured a certain sensibility about the Vietnam War. I thought it would be a good way to make their reality seem convincing. It was more of a tonal question than a narrative one, for me. That structure was always there. You can never fully capture in any movie the horror of war, so it was a challenge to capture that and also the kernel of humanity of these guys.

What was your working relationship with Kathryn like?
We collaborated closely, and we produced the movie together. I was on set as the writer, which is somewhat unusual, but terrific for me and useful for Kathryn and the cast. I guess I’m a little spoiled by it. We had spirited, creative conversations from time to time, but by and large, the challenges we faced were financial, in terms of getting the movie made. No studio wanted it, and none of the mini-majors or specialty divisions wanted it. I don’t want to beat my chest too much about it, because every movie’s hard to make. But there really wasn’t a commercial appetite for it.

Why is that, do you think? Is it just that so many films about the Iraq War had failed at the box office?
Those films hadn’t come out yet. I think it’s mostly that there wasn’t a history. There were about 40 or 50 Iraq-themed films in development. By the time they had come out, we’d already started shooting, so their lackluster performance then made finding a distributor really hard. But to be honest with you, I don’t think a lot of these studios even bothered to read the script. “An Iraq spec? No, thank you.” Plus, Kathryn wanted to cast it with fresh faces, so that took out an element that might have helped get financing.

It’s also been an interesting phenomenon that so many films have been made about the Iraq War, especially given the fact that they haven’t made much money. After all, it wasn’t until some years after the Vietnam War ended that narrative filmmakers really started tackling it.
I’m proud to be part of a community of people who rolled up their sleeves and did that, whether the movies performed financially or not. One big, glaring difference I can think of between Iraq and Vietnam is the news coverage. During the Vietnam War era, you had TV coverage of the war saturating the airwaves every night, and that coverage wasn’t put through a military filter at all. So people had a very visceral sense of what was going on, a very concrete visual sense of the bloodshed. By contrast, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were covered in a much more controlled and antiseptic way on TV. The news media cheered the invasion of Iraq on — they helped whip the country into a really nationalistic fervor.

So, you think these films may have been a response to the watered-down coverage on TV?
At least, that’s what was on my mind; I don’t want to presume to speak for other filmmakers. But in some ways, I do think these films helped to be a counterweight to that and show what’s going on. People knew about the war, of course, but there were no images of the wounded. I remember the first time I saw a picture of a wounded soldier on the front page of the Times, and it was something like 2007! And until this year, there were no pictures of the coffins or funerals allowed in the media. Which is astonishing. I was in the U.K. promoting Hurt Locker over the summer, and you turn on the news, and every other news segment is about a funeral or showing these images. We were living in a strange news black hole, and I think that’s why filmmakers jumped in.

Although war movies show a lot of awful things, there is a school of thought out there that suggests that war movies — even the ostensibly antiwar ones — can’t help but romanticize war to a certain extent. Was this ever something you were concerned about?
I actually think every war movie is an antiwar movie in its own way — with the exception of some of the propaganda movies. I know Anthony Swofford made a big deal of this in his book, but the fact that soldiers talk about war movies and watch them isn’t really that surprising. I mean, cops watch cop shows. I’m a fan of movies about journalists, but I didn’t start working for newspapers because I saw All the President’s Men. The fact that they watch them and enjoy them … I never thought that was quite the telling psychological statement that some people make it out to be. It’s an oversimplification to say that they have that kind of influence on somebody’s life.

The fact is that war films, by their very nature, are pitched at a high dramatic range. Apocalypse Now is a movie that’s designed to be thrilling. It’s designed to show you the rock-and-roll aspect of war gone haywire. In some ways, so is Platoon. They’re not meant to be quiet movies. To me, the baseline question is: Do they capture some essential element of the war that they’re attempting to portray? That’s probably true of any movie that attempts to portray something historical. And if you can answer that question in the affirmative, then you can ask whether it’s a work of art. Those are the two burdens, I think.

In writing the screenplay, I was trying to show the logistical futility of the war, despite the fact that it’s decent people trying to do their best in horribly screwed-up circumstances. I was thinking of the Vietnam War, which was basically over by the time I was born. I’d seen news footage of it, sure, but I really learned about it from the cinema of the seventies and the eighties — The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket. So my motivation was that we might make a movie that will hopefully be around for a while, and will help people learn about this war.

Mark Boal: Screenwriting on the Front Lines