As a former journalist, political science major, and current entertainment industry minion, I’ve enjoyed and admired Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s desire to tell topical stories in their films.
The basis for The Hurt Locker were Boal’s experiences as an embedded reporter in Iraq in 2004. Shortly after the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, Boal embarked on researching the raid that led to his death. He compiled his research and interviews into the script for Zero Dark Thirty.
After seeing the film, I read two books about events that took place in the ten year span between the 9/11 attacks and the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Triple Agent by Joby Warrick, focuses on the 2009 suicide bombing at Camp Chapman near Khost, Afghanistan. The Finish by Mark Bowden, follows many of the decision makers leading up to the Navy SEAL raid on bin Laden’s compound. Both of these confirm the events fictionalized in Zero Dark Thirty and more accounts of the raid have been published since then.
On March 28, the Writers Guild Foundation hosted an Anatomy of a Script event with Boal.
It was clear from his answers he didn’t skimp on the research of the events in Zero Dark Thirty and in general, Boal’s well read and well informed of current events & historical events relating to the War on Terror.
There were some funny moments and he had a couple stories from shooting Zero Dark Thirty which haven’t been recounted elsewhere.
First, he gave the interviewer, Robin Schiff, a hard time when she started out the interview with the torture debate which surrounded the movie. “That’s not what you said in the green room. You said you loved torture,” Boal joked.
More seriously, Boal acknowledged that the torture debate was the dominant way the film got talked about. “Which was disappointing to me and I know it was disappointing to Kathryn….In our minds, the film was about a lot more than the detention program or whether it was effective or moral, but that’s sort of what happens sometimes when you make a movie that walks pretty aggressively into the culture and you can’t necessarily control how it gets discussed.”
When Boal off-handedly mentioned he saw something of himself in the character of Maya, Schiff pressed him to talk about it.
Schiff: You said you relate to her and that obsession. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Schiff: Why not?
Boal: I mean, it’s just a character.
Schiff: But you said you relate to her.
Boal: I relate to all characters I write about.
Schiff: But do you blush when you talk about all the characters?
Boal: No. Look, she’s based on a real person, so there is a real world analogue to her, who was really driven and really obsessive and kind of a pain in the ass who really did drive this lead forward. She wasn’t the only woman who did that, there were others involved who were also really obsessed. But it’s also a type I can relate to because I admire people like that, like maybe I see something that I find aspirational. They’re great dramatic types, too, because it’s fun to watch somebody drive through obstacle after obstacle.
Schiff brought up this point again near the end of the interview, when she tried to juxtapose Maya’s ‘Where do you wanna go?’ scene in the movie with Boal winning an Oscar for best screenplay. She wanted to know if he related to the feeling of, ‘I’ve been working on something for so long and I finally finish it and now what do I do?’
Boal said the Oscar was a great honor and affirmation that maybe he could stick around and make more movies. “But I was broke. I needed money. I had to go back to work, because the Oscar and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee.”
When Schiff turned over the questions to the audience, Boal joked, “I told you I was going to be a tough interview.”
One question was posed about why Chris Pratt, who is known for his comedic work on Parks & Rec, was cast in a more serious role as a SEAL. Boal credited Kathryn’s eye for casting and then relayed how Pratt was often cracking them up on set.
Boal: He would riff on something and every time I thought it was really funny. He’d say stuff to Chastain in character, like the scene where she’s briefing the SEALs and then they walk over to this model of the compound, and he’s like, playing with it and says, “Wow, I’ve never worked with a model before, especially not a redhead.” She [Chastain] laughed.
When questioned about whether they changed the number on the bus in the London bombing sequence, Boal quipped, “Don’t blame me for that.”
He then explained they had a day to shoot the scene and had a permit to film on one street in London. “We were there for about half a day and Kathryn said, ‘This really isn’t working. The street’s really not good.’ She did a really guerrilla thing and hijacked the bus we had rented and was driving it around the streets of London. It was leading up to the Jubilee and there was massive security everywhere and people were saying if you pulled out a film camera and started shooting, you would get arrested. Well, we didn’t get arrested.”
Another audience member posed the question: “How did it feel to make a movie where everybody knows the ending?”
Boal: “Yeah, I never worried about it too much. I had a good line for it, which was: Titanic. That movie did okay.”
Although most of the questions centered around Zero Dark Thirty, there were a few that incorporated ZDT and Hurt Locker and Boal talked about how he ended up producing.
“It happened really by necessity. Kathryn encouraged me to do it and explained that Hurt Locker probably wouldn’t happen unless someone stepped into the role of trying to push it up the hill. I was happy to do that, because it was my work, and I had no idea what I was doing and made every single possible mistake you could make.”
Boal admitted that part of the reason he’s been so involved in both Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty was his working relationship with Bigelow.
“As it happens, I’m on set because of the thing I have with Kathryn, but it’s really fulfilling to stay on through the whole life cycle of a movie as a producer, too. But there’s no trick to it [being a producer]. You just do what needs doing.”
Boal also spoke about his first screenwriting experience, which was working with Paul Haggis on In the Valley of Elah.
“I really studied every single thing that we did on In the Valley of Elah and asked him a million questions and it was a great learning experience to sit next to him as he was writing that. When it was done and I started Hurt Locker, I was like okay, I like know how to write a screenplay because I’ve watched Paul. And then I realized no! That was just Paul writing In the Valley of Elah, and I realized nothing he did on that screenplay was at all relevant to The Hurt Locker. It was a totally different story and everything he invented for that story was invented for that story,” Boal said.
In light of all the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty, it was brought up that in the screenplay, after the interrogation scenes, the stage directions state: “They’ve learned nothing.”
Boal remarked that not only was this in the script, but originally he’d written a scene where the characters discussed this fact.
“They talked about that they were failing to get information out and they were bummed about it. But it got cut because it seemed really obvious at the time, to us,” Boal remarked wryly. “There was a moment like six months later where Kathryn and I looked at each other like, ‘Fuck, maybe it was more obvious to us than everybody else.'”
Boal also commented on how many of the scenes took place in offices and other confined spaces, because he wanted to be true to the research. “Kathryn was thrilled to get out of the embassy and be able to move the camera around to get some scope [during the Khost bombing sequence].”
Because the movie is a lot of CIA detective work, Boal said both he and Bigelow worried audience members would lose interest.
“Kathryn and I were both worried about losing people in the first whatever it is until the raid. We were always like, ‘God, if we can just get people to sit there until the raid, we’ll be good.’ But I was never worried about it once that big set piece [the raid] started because of the way she choreographed it,” Boal said.
When asked about what’s next, Boal joked he was going to write a romantic comedy. “Set in Baghdad.”
You can watch part of the Q&A here: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/30562899