A Q&A with filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow, who based her new film, "The Hurt Locker," on journalist Mark Boal's observations of a bomb squad in Iraq.
Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker,” opening in Seattle-area theaters this Friday, is an edge-of-your-seat combat story following the tense work of a U.S. Army bomb squad in Iraq. The film features remarkable performances by Anthony Mackie and Jeremy Renner as explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) “techs.”
Renner’s character is the more unsettling, a highly likable fellow disturbingly casual about, and possibly addicted to, his work. The script is written by journalist Mark Boal. Bigelow is best-known as the superb action director of such genre-bending works as “Strange Days” and “Near Dark.”
Q: How did you get involved with “The Hurt Locker?”
A: I was familiar with Mark’s work as a journalist. Around 2002, I’d turned one of his articles for “Playboy” into a television series (the short-lived “The Inside”) with Fox and Imagine. Then he went to Iraq and was embedded with an EOD team, and while he was there he communicated with me about it. I thought, this is fascinating: a bomb squad. I figured I must be as ignorant as the general public about IEDs (improvised explosive devices), the signature weapon of the insurgency, and how it’s dealt with. Mark came back from Iraq in 2004, and his stories were astonishing. In my opinion, these EOD techs have the most dangerous jobs in the world, yet they volunteered. For the first time, I had a reportorial look at what it might be like to be in Baghdad at the point when the city was erupting in bombs. While he was there, Mark went out with one team 10 to 15 times a day to watch them do what they do.
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Q: Did Mark meet any explosive ordnance disposal techs like Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. William James?
A: Sgt. James was a composite. Mark knew individuals that had some of his qualities. In our discussions about Mark’s research in Iraq, we realized there were extraordinary characters to work with once you made composites from different people and fictionalized them. We could begin to extrapolate a film out of it. But what we both wanted to preserve was the reportorial aspect of the story. That part is what I think is so strong about the script. Hopefully that signature remains, putting the audience on the ground with these guys. There’s no escape, you’re in their world 24-7. You watch the tech walk down the street toward the bomb, and you’re only a few hundred meters away. We wanted that you-are-there feeling to the film.
Q: What drives Sgt. James’ passion for risk?
A: If you read Chris Hedges’ book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” that’s a seminal work about the kind of psychology that finds the allure of combat intriguing. Just imagine walking toward what the entire city is trying to get away from, at a safe distance. The war sort of stops in that situation, while civilians and ground troops wait. Ground troops have many tasks, but one of them is to look for suspicious wires, bags, anything that looks unusual. If they find something, they call in coordinates and the techs get called and they go out and have no idea what they’re going to find. They’re under enormous pressure in 135-degree temperatures, wearing a 100-pound suit with limited oxygen. They make split-second decisions day in and day out. They also have to limit their time on the ground because of snipers. Looking at the Hedges book, listening to Mark’s observations, and trying to get a handle on what type of individual has the stamina, courage, fortitude and heroism to do the job, you then look deeper at the price of that heroism. Is it a flight from intimacy as it is for Sgt. James? That was the jumping-off point.
Q: What was the production like?
A: We shot in Amman, Jordan. Something I did not anticipate was that there are several hundred thousand Iraqi refugees in Amman, some of whom have a theatrical background. Apparently there was a thriving theatrical community in Baghdad. Suhail Aldabbach, who plays a suicide bomber toward the end of the film, is an extraordinary actor who’s a refugee. For a filmmaker, it became an incredible bonus. All the extras are Iraqi refugees.
Q: Pretty much each of your films has a cult following. Do you know why?
A: I don’t know. I choose material purely instinctually. I’m intrigued by it, or I start with a question that isn’t answered until I’m done with the film. I start with something that’s rich enough to keep me interested and excited for years. All the characters in my films, from “Near Dark” to Ralph Fiennes’ Lenny Nero in “Strange Days” are kind of provocative in a way. They’re not easy to define or feel familiar or predictable. We’re all drawn to the elements that surprise us in people, like Sgt. James.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org