After spending time in 2004 as an embedded journalist in Iraq, Playboy writer Mark Boal turned his experiences and observations into a fictionalized character study of three bomb technicians in Baghdad. The result, the Certified Fresh film The Hurt Locker, has earned some of the biggest raves of the year from critics who hail Boal’s riveting characterizations along with superbly tense direction from Kathryn Bigelow.
But while the film features its fair share of action movie danger and, yes, explosions, it derives a sobering weight from the very real efforts of the few American soldiers tasked with diffusing the Iraq War’s most unpredictable weapons on a daily basis. Incredibly, the soldiers of the EOD — short for the US Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal team — volunteer for this duty, an assignment with far more casualties than any other military post. Boal explained why he felt compelled to turn his embedded observations into a film.
(Watch the first eight minutes of the film on page 2.)
Mark Boal: It started out as a story; I was interested in doing a story on the bomb squad because they hadn’t been written about. And they had this really interesting job that continues to be very topically important, because the bomb squad is one of the key military units in a war that consists largely of IEDs (improvised explosive devices). So that was the fairly straightforward journalistic impulse; I wanted to write about something that was newsworthy.
That’s how it all got started. After I came back from Iraq, I had some conversations with Kathryn Bigelow about what I’d seen, and those conversations turned into the idea of writing the screenplay.
MB: Well, we had worked together before, so I don’t remember who picked up the phone first. We worked together on a TV show before, so we sort of knew each other. It was really just the idea of making a movie that was compelling in cinematic terms, but also in journalistic terms, if that makes sense.
MB: No, not really. I was really lucky in that I had worked before that on In the Valley of Elah with Paul Haggis, so that was my introduction to screenwriting. I learned a lot from Paul. Kathryn was very generous with her time and taught me a lot, too, so between the two of them I got my feet wet.
The time in Iraq was really research, and I did additional research after that. What it did was it enabled us to make something that was pretty faithful to what life was like in 2004.
MB: Well, I think I was really struck by the danger and intensity of the job that these soldiers have. And so that’s just something that stayed with me that made me want to write a movie about it.
MB: I was with the bomb techs the whole time I was there, and I was there for several weeks. I don’t remember the exact number of days. I went on a lot of missions with them, and saw them diffuse all sorts of bombs and IEDs.
MB: Well, maybe a hundred yards.
MB: Well, it’s certainly more dangerous than going to a Lakers game. But it’s something I wanted to do, and it was certainly my choice. I was only there for a short amount of time so I don’t want to exaggerate the danger, but I found it to be quite scary.
Next: On the psychological toll of EOD bomb squad life, and where real life stories intertwined with fiction
MB: Well EOD at the time I was there was literally one of the most dangerous jobs in the military. They had a mortality rate that was five times higher than any other job in the military in Iraq. And it’s also a relatively small unit, so every death in EOD is felt very keenly by everybody else that’s a bomb tech. But I think that’s probably true of any military unit, that they feel their losses keenly. I think much more keenly over there than we feel them in the United States. I mean, if you’re sitting in a base — the proximity of it, even just hearing about it and seeing it is so real and so present, and I think here in America people are somewhat disconnected from the war and the actual, tangible costs of it.
MB: I think all of them are brave, and bravery takes many forms. And at the same time, the movie isn’t about real people; these are fictional characters. But I do think the film is pretty accurate, in terms of the personalities and in terms of the situations. Obviously it’s not a documentary — it’s a piece of entertainment — so there’s obviously some imagination involved that goes beyond purely what you might see in a documentary.
MB: Well, it’s hard to point to one particular story on that [scene], although I did hear — it was sort of a mix of a couple of different stories. At some point, I did so much research into gun battles, and sniping, and guys getting stuck on the side of the road that it’s hard to look back and say if there was one particular one or if it was a mix of a couple of different battles. But I can tell you that when we shot it, we had all sorts of military technical advisors who I hadn’t talked to when I was writing the script, who were telling me stories that were similar to the one we were shooting.
MB: I don’t know if they were actors or if they were extras, but we put them in this role of pretending to be Iraqi POWs and then it turns out that they had actually been POWs in Iraq; in other words, what happened to them in the movie actually happened to them in real life, about a year or six months before we got there and shot with them in Jordan. So they had been captured or arrested, held and eventually released, and they moved to Jordan where they found themselves on a movie set playing the role that they had lived through just a short time before that.
MB: It was very moving, to be honest. I remember the guy showing me the scars on his legs from bullet wounds… but I think all that stuff helped give the movie a kind of realism that really underscored the tension.
Watch the first 8 minutes of The Hurt Locker (not suitable for all ages), which is currently in theaters: