In the winter of 2004, when Baghdad was one of the most dangerous places on the planet—a site of daily explosions, gunfights, and kidnappings—the city was, for the few Western journalists working there, an absolutely lethal place to work. So it was with considerable trepidation that I wished luck to my friend, reporter and screenwriter Mark Boal, when he told me that he had decided to go to Iraq to cover the war firsthand.
As a passionate investigative reporter, Mark had his eye on a little-known unit in the Army, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team (EOD), aka the bomb squad, which was then playing a pivotal part in the military’s attempt to contain the growing threat of roadside bombs, the so-called Improvised Explosive Devices. Such was the nature of his choice to cover this high-risk unit that minutes after landing in Iraq, he was asked by Army officials to sign a “Hold Harmless” contract and provide his blood type and religious preference for a funeral.
It not only put one on the ground in Baghdad, to feel its relentless threats, but it also, quite subtly and brilliantly, became a meditation on existential themes of life and death, courage and manhood, war and human nature.
For weeks he rode with EOD soldiers into hotly contested areas of the city, seeing in their daily battles with roadside bombs a side of the war that had not been documented before. By day, he witnessed and survived ambushes and IED attacks, not to mention random acts of cultural dislocation with the residents of Baghdad. At night, the base he slept in was bombarded with rockets and mortar rounds. Through it all, he gained an insider’s perspective on what these bomb squad solders were living through, in a foreign country, halfway around the world.
Shortly after he returned from Iraq, Mark was determined to bring the story of what he’d seen to a wider audience. He proposed writing a fictional movie about the bomb squad, set in the real world. The idea, he said, would be to capture Baghdad’s lethality while also telling the story of the young men tasked with what was probably the most dangerous job in the world. I thought it was a fascinating idea. We developed a shared vision for the film: an intense, naturalistic, soldier’s-eye view of the conflict. In order to protect this approach and limit committee reaction to the tough material, we also decided to pursue the project independently, without any studio support. For Mark, that meant he’d be writing without any initial payment. He readily agreed and set out to write “a spec.”
After reading the finished The Hurt Locker, I felt the excited rush of encountering an unforgettable script. It was both a probing character study, with the invention of Sergeant James and character arcs that radically unfolded in the reader’s heart and mind, and, at the same time, it was a nerve-shredding combat thriller, with an innovative structure built out of authentic detail. It not only put one on the ground in Baghdad, to feel its relentless threats, but it also, quite subtly and brilliantly, became a meditation on existential themes of life and death, courage and manhood, war and human nature. In short, it was original and electrifying—and I knew it would be my next movie.
• Tunku Varadarajan: The Hurt Locker’s Greatest Victory For his part, Mark felt so passionately about the project that I asked him to join me as a producer of the film. He jumped at the opportunity, and proved to be a natural producer, guiding the production through many logistical and technical challenges with the same commitment to excellence that he showed by going to Baghdad. The benefits were also aesthetic: With both of us as producers, we were able to maintain an unusual level of control over The Hurt Locker’s creative destiny, from inception to the editing room.
Eventually, we raised a modest amount of independent financing, located the production in the Middle East, and cast a trio of talented young actors and several industry veterans, who signed on based on the strength of the script. By June 2007, we found ourselves in and around the city of Amman, Jordan, and Mark’s writing came to life before our eyes. Although we were miles from home, shooting in punishing temperatures with the grit of sand in our eyes and teeth, the screenplay was the steady hand that led the way.
Excerpted from The Hurt Locker: The Shooting Script®, Screenplay by Mark Boal, Introduction by Kathryn Bigelow
Copyright (c) 2009 by Kathryn Bigelow. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission of Newmarket Press, 18 East 48 Street, New York, NY 10017, (212) 832-3575, newmarketpress.com
Kathryn Bigelow won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker . Her previous films include K-19: The Widowmaker , Near Dark , Strange Days , and Point Break .