Film Short: Screenwriter Mark Boal’s Journey to “The Hurt Locker”


Academy Award Winner Mark Boal’s journey from journalist to screenplay writer was an interesting one that began long before he wrote the “The Hurt Locker” he explained at the 2010 Campus Moviefest.  Graduating from Oberlin College as a philosophy major, he became a journalist while travelling through Eastern Europe.  From there he moved on to New York, where he wrote for alternative weeklies such as the Village Voice.  “It was a pretty random journey for me and one that I couldn’t have anticipated,” he said stating that he worked for 12 years in New York City making little money as a freelance journalist.  In 2001 he received a call from a producer selling stories to people in L.A., which is how he connected with Paul Haggis, who worked in television at the time.  This contact led to the development of “In the Valley of Elah”.  In 2004 Playboy Magazine did a piece about Mark going on missions with troops in Iraq, the groundwork for ”The Hurt Locker”.  

He wrote the script on spec for Katherine Bigelow, who he knew from the Insider and Fox TV.  Although the film was financed independently with foreign pre-sales it didn’t find a distributor for the U.S. until it played at the Toronto Film Festival, where Summit Entertainment bought it.  

While in Iraq, Mark interviewed 50 soldiers, writing details in the pages of notebooks.  “I had no idea what the story was,” he admitted.  He had never been in a life threatening situation before and as a result put together a complete information dump.  The first story to take shape was about a soldier who was killed and the desperate need of his parent to find out why, which became the script for  “In the Valley of Elah”.  

After this project he moved on to “The Hurt Locker”.  Planning tension for the story was something he was unfamiliar with and had no idea what would work best.  “That really goes back to the journals,” he explained.  One thing he was certain of, however, was that he wanted to infuse his piece with more realism.  He explained  that in most films characters in a firefight are placed close together during the action and then there’s a cut, while in reality, soldiers are at least 300 yards apart.  Boal decided to create a general vibe where people in the audience would feel like the 4th person on the team, as if they were a journalist watching as the action went down.  He wanted to avoid having a God’s eye point of view or having characters say things to each other that he deemed obvious. 

Mark decided that for his lead character he wanted to identify a certain type of individual.  A person who finds this type of work exhilarating and is what Boal  believes the military needs.  “There isn’t a lot of the movie that deals with the leadership of the war,” he commented.  Instead he concentrated on the warrior type characters and the real life situations that create risk. 

Ironically enough, Mark has found himself the subject of a lawsuit involving the real life counterpart he admired.  Coming out of the world of journalism Boal was used to dealing with first amendment law and said that intellectual property is much different and fuzzier.  “Your artistic view will clash with a person’s point of view.  We live in a litigious society.” He said.  Still, he was surprised at how common lawsuits are when it comes to filmmaking.  There were 20 lawsuits filed against the Tom Hanks hit film “Big” with people claiming to be the real life person that character was based on he told us. 

Shot in Jordan instead of Iraq, Boal wanted to cross the border, which was 12 kilometers away and shoot for one day there, but the insurance company vetoed it.  Another option that was rejected was shooting in Morocco.  He found that filming even in the poor neighborhoods in Jordan were too clean and had to be made to look dirtier.  The trade off, however, was that there were no security issues to shooting there.  He described the experience as “surreal in some way to see it all recreated.  You have a sense in your head, but it’s never as rich as when someone brings characters to life.”  Mark enjoyed his collaboration with Bigelow “just because of who she is.”  He became a producer on the project, scouting locations and weighing in on the budget.  He claimed that he made every bad deal he possibly could, yet managed to retain a lot of the control.

“The Hurt Locker” has grossed approximately 12 million, which is low considering all of its accolades.  It’s been said that one reason for this is that Americans want to avoid going to see these types of films.  Because of this, it has often been referred to as the definitive Iraq movie to which Boal remarked, “I hope there’s many more.  I’m really proud of these filmmakers.”  Referring to his own income from the film he said, “I set out to make two million dollars.  It just didn’t happen this way.  Jim took all the money; we had to take the awards.”  He admitted that while “The Hurt Locker” was a hard film to market, nothing drove traffic to it more than all of the Academy Award nominations.  Every 10 seconds they were mentioned even though they had no hook and no stars which led Boal to jokingly recommend to other filmmakers, “My advice would be to try to win an Academy Award.”  He tried marketing the film as more of an action movie commenting, “I tried to sell it as Black Hawk Down without the helicopters.  That’s what I said to the financiers.  I think it’s more of a thriller or a drama.” 

As for screenwriting itself, Mark related that he learned formatting from Paul Haggis, but that the actual craft is new for him and is more complicated than it looks.  He said that he tends to write with an obscure amount of detail and that the sniper scene in “The Hurt Locker” originally went on for about half an hour.  When he was finished it looked great on paper, but seemed redundant on film.  When asked about his writing regimen Boal said with a laugh, “That’s some top secret shit right there.”  He admitted struggling when writing some scenes that required moving from Point A to Point B, but said that to him being blocked means having conflicted ideas.  When it came to creating his characters he did a lot of profile writing, wanting to see how he could take that and broaden it a little.  He said that writing about a real person was not the same as writing about a transformative event.  He felt he was creating more of a portrait.  “The arc would occur in the audience.  Your impression of him would change,” he explained.  He likened developing characters and getting inside their minds to being like a weird personality transfer or shift that you take as far as you can.  “You do put a bit of yourself in there,” he went on saying that at some point imaging a vision of yourself gets interesting.  “It becomes a personal journey too,” he believes.

Boal is committed to screenwriting fulltime in the future and at present is in the midst of working on a project now for Paramount.

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