03.01.10

Hurt Locker Blows Up

Moments before Oscar ballots are due, The Hurt Locker has gone from awards darling to awards disaster. Nicole LaPorte reports on nasty emails, an ostracized producer, and an ill-timed story.

When director Kathryn Bigelow first heard that Nicolas Chartier, the Frenchman who financed and produced her film, The Hurt Locker, had sent out emails last week urging members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to vote for Hurt Locker and "not a 500M film"' (i.e., Avatar), the first thing she did was pick up the phone and call Jon Landau, who produced Avatar, to express her horror.

"Kathryn and Jon's relationship goes back a long time, and everyone understands that we wish each other well," Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal told The Daily Beast. "All sides have been extremely supportive of each other… Kathryn was shocked and appalled and embarrassed by Nick's poor judgment, and condemned it."

In the wake of The Hurt Locker controversy, one publicist claimed that some members of the Academy are demanding new ballots in order to change their vote.

And so a bomb was detonated in what has suddenly become a very nasty Oscar battlefield.

Until now, the campaign leading up to this weekend's Academy Awards had been relatively low-key and peaceable, at least by Hollywood standards. Bigelow and James Cameron (her ex-husband and the director of Avatar), who are perceived to be neck in neck in the race for Best Picture, have been blowing kisses at each other every opportunity they get. Inglourious Basterds' writer-director Quentin Tarantino has also been spreading the love (he endorsed Bigelow on Larry King Live). Even Harvey Weinstein, normally a bête noir this time of year, has kept his hijinks to a relative minimum. Although he's been pumping Basterds like crazy, his rallying is nothing compared to the smear campaigns he was accused of back in the day, when he muscled Shakespeare in Love to Oscar gold by allegedly bad-mouthing Saving Private Ryan.

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Chartier's emails—which were first reported by Los Angeles Times Oscar blogger Pete Hammond, and which are a violation of Academy rules—was just the first scandal for Hurt Locker, which until now, was enjoying a near-perfect run. To this point, Bigelow, who is expected to be the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar, is the belle of the Hollywood ball. Her movie is regarded as the deserving David facing a Goliath (Cameron), who has already had his share of Oscar spoils.

On Friday, another blow came in the form of a front-page Los Angeles Times story—" The Hurt Locker Sets Off Conflict"—saying that several soldiers and Army veterans found the film an inaccurate representation of combat, and that the U.S. government had pulled its assistance for the film after seeing the script.

Given that The Hurt Locker was released in theaters last summer (a more likely time for critics to come out of the woodwork) and that the due date for Oscar ballots was four days after the story ran, one Oscar consultant—who has nothing to do with Hurt Locker— called the article "Smear 101." (As TheWrap.com's Steve Pond has pointed out, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Associated Press have all run stories about soldiers' and veterans' reactions, concluding that the majority of them approved of the film. The Daily Beast also featured a story about a real-life Marine EOD soldier who thought the movie captured his experience.)

At this point, most voters have already cast their ballots, thus the effect of the Times' revelations is minimized. However, one publicist claimed that some members of the Academy were demanding new ballots in order to change their vote.

According to Academy spokesperson Leslie Unger, once a vote has been sent in, there is no way to change it or receive a new ballot. If voters want to change their selections before they send in their ballot, they must initialize the change.

Behind the scenes, things are even uglier. Chartier, who was never cozy with his Hurt Locker comrades, has now been essentially tossed off the bus. Although he quickly issued an apology for his "extremely inappropriate" emails when the story first broke, the damage has been done. Chartier has been reprimanded by the Academy, which is banning him from attending the Oscar ceremony. If Hurt Locker wins Best Picture, Chartier will have to pick up his statue at a later date. His fellow filmmakers are not expressing condolences.

"Everyone understands that Nic bears the responsibility for his mistake 100 percent on his own shoulders," Boal said.

A French sales agent who came to Hurt Locker's rescue when no one else would finance a movie about Iraq with no stars—Chartier put up the film's $15 million budget—Chartier was almost immediately ostracized from the production, and came close to not getting a producer credit. (When the Producers Guild of America, which limits the number of producers on an Oscar-nominated film to three, did not initially grant him credit, he appealed the decision and won. Contrary to reports, neither Boal nor the other producers wrote a letter on his behalf.) Described as a "reactive" personality prone to fits of anger, and who, at one point or another, tried to fire Boal, the film's accountant, line producer, and even the travel agent, Chartier was banned from The Hurt Locker set.

"It was a hard movie to get made," Boal said. "It was a challenging shoot, and it's the nature of those things that tempers can flare and strong disagreements can arise. And Nic was eventually asked not to come back to the set."

Chartier did not respond to voice message left at his office by The Daily Beast.

As for the Times story, Boal said, "I was disappointed in the reporting and handling of the story. It seemed like it was stating the obvious with a sense of discovery."

Besides the timing of the story, there were omissions, according to sources who worked on The Hurt Locker's publicity campaign. For example, the story quotes Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director and founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, saying, "We are not cowboys. We are not reckless."

Yet it is not reported that besides being an Army veteran, Rieckhoff is a Hollywood producer with his own films in the works. According to IMDb.com, Rieckhoff is a producer on nearly half a dozen war documentaries. Newsweek also recently published a piece, this one penned by Rieckhoff, that does not mention his role as a filmmaker.

In response, Nancy Sullivan, a Los Angeles Times spokesperson, wrote in an email: "Paul Rieckhoff was quoted in the story as the director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which is the source of his authority on the topic."

Boal said of Rieckhoff: "I think he's an articulate advocate for his point of view, and now he has a foot in Hollywood. I look forward to seeing his work as a filmmaker."

Even with this last-minute round of implosions, however, this year's Oscar campaign remains one of history's more claw-less. The Hurt Locker's troubles are nothing compared to what A Beautiful Mind faced in 2002, when every day seemingly brought a new slur against schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, the subject of the film. Or, in 1999, when Miramax was charged with the whisper campaign against Saving Private Ryan.

The closest this brouhaha comes to matching is, in 2004, when DreamWorks took out ads in the trades that quoted critics supporting actress Shohreh Aghdashloo in House of Sand in Fog over Renee Zellweger in Miramax's Cold Mountain.

Though that ploy proved ineffective— Zellweger won. Right now, The Hurt Locker camp is hoping history repeats itself.

Note: This story has been updated to reflect the Academy's punishment of Nicolas Chartier. And in the paragraph that introduces the Los Angeles Times story about the film, the phrase "funding of" has been changed to "assistance for."

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.