After the submarine thriller K:19 and a seven-year absence from the big screen, Kathryn Bigelow returns with a vengeance with The Hurt Locker, an intense and riveting film that looks at the psychology of war as seen from the perspective of a small US army bomb disposal unit in Baghdad. Written by journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal, the film is both a psychological drama and a stunningly constructed thriller set against the backdrop of a war, which happens to be in Iraq. Bigelow here eschews cinematic embellishment while also avoiding any judgment or commentary on the actual conflict, an approach that has generated some controversy.
Pamela Jahn took part in a round table interview with Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal to talk about the making of the film, the psychological profile of people who deal with bombs and why more journalists should move into film.
Question: The Hurt Locker is based on Mark’s experience as a journalist ’embedded’ with an EOD unit [‘Explosive Ordnance Disposal’] in Baghdad in 2004 and has a very visceral, documentary quality. Once you had the script in place, how quickly did you formulate the visual style of the film?
Kathryn Bigelow: It came from constant dialogue with Mark and wanting to protect the reportorial underpinnings of it, and not have it feel too aestheticised. In other words, the real objective was: How do you put the audience in the journalist’s position, into the Humvee, into the eyes of the observer? I wanted to make it as experiential as possible, and give the audience a kind of boots-on-the-ground look at the day in the life of a bomb tech in Baghdad in 2004. So, basically, all the aesthetics came from the reporting, and the geography. It was very important for me to make sure the audience understands the geography of any given situation. The ground troops contain an area that is possibly about 300 meters, and then the EOD tech in the bomb suit takes what is called the ‘lonely walk’. The war has stopped for him and he has no idea what he’s walking towards – there is no margin for error. This in itself is such a harrowingly dramatic piece that it didn’t require a lot of cinematic embellishment.
Q: The way you use actors in the film is remarkable. Despite brief but striking appearances by Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes, the cast is made of relatively unknown actors, who all deliver outstanding performances. Was that particular mixture of both unfamiliar faces and big names an important part of the process?
KB:I think that an audience approaches a particular actor within his or her relative stature with a degree of expectation, and if that actor is going to come in harm’s way you think, ‘Oh, well, it will be dangerous, it might be tense, but they’re going to survive’. But if you take that out of the equation it definitely amplifies the tension.
Mark Boal: Yeah, we were really trying to mirror the unpredictability of the environment and that was just one way to do that. Besides, it helped financially (laughs).
Q: The film was shot in Jordan. How did you go about casting locally?
KB: We had a wonderful casting director. She was located in Jordan, and in Amman at the time there were about 750,000 Iraqi refugees. So we had access through her to the people, and some of them were actually actors. For example, the suicide bomber at the end of the film was actually an apparently fairly well-known actor in Baghdad before the occupation, who at the time we were shooting was a refugee in Amman, and we put him in the movie and he gave this incredibly emotive performance. That was one of the real, true surprises. We knew that where we were going we would find phenomenal locations and all that, but a surprise like that is really gratifying.
Q: The film opens with the quote, ‘for war is a drug’, and the story reveals that the soldiers are not solely motivated by a desire to do a good job. What really makes people choose to work as a bomb tech?
MB: Well, there are many different characters in the movie, but certainly one of the themes of the film is that combat, in addition to being a horrifying and awful experience, is also quite alluring to some people. And that’s perhaps one of the reasons why it continues to be a dominant feature of all cultures through all times, that it provides a certain amount of meaning for people – it’s a factory that produces giant existential experiences for some people. That’s definitely one aspect of the film, but it’s not an exclusive explanation for why anybody would do this job. There are other characters who have different motivations, some of them are quite selfish, some of them are quite selfless, for some it’s just about getting through the day and getting home, and for some it’s about the pleasure that you might take from having a high-risk occupation. So, I think it’s quite complicated and very hard to generalise, but it’s something we wanted to portray because we felt that it’s completely opposite in a volunteer army. We wanted to look at some of the reasons why people chose to go into combat situations, why they are drafted there – it’s a life choice.
Q: The film doesn’t seem to take any sides or offer any political view of the occupation unlike other films about Iraq that came out of Hollywood. How big a decision was this for you? Or was it simply more important to you to portray the humanity of it all?
KB:I think the humanity was definitely what was most important, to look at the individual and how he copes with an extremely, almost unimaginably risky situation. And I think of him more as a kind of non-political partisan – he’s not a Republican or a Democrat. But regardless of where you are, this conflict has just been so politicised. For me, if the film can remind you that there are men and women who right now are taking that ‘lonely walk’ and that they are risking their lives out there – regardless of what you feel about whether they should be there or not be there – I think that’s a pretty important emotional and political take-away.
Q: Both the editing and the sound are pretty remarkable: one can almost feel the impact of the explosions. How much of the film was actually shaped after the shooting?
KB: Sound was critical to both of us going into the project. We met with our sound designer, Paul Ottosson, before we went out to Jordan to shoot the film, and we knew that sound would play a bigger role in many respects than score. A score is repetitive, music is naturally rhythmic, and rhythm, even asymmetrical rhythm, creates a pattern. But a pattern can actually defuse tension, because you repeat it over and over again. However, if you take all that away it’s just like having an unfamiliar face. And I wanted the sound to be just as full as the image, it was very important to me that it would be almost physically honest. I tried to create a fundamental understanding of what that man in the bomb suit is experiencing emotionally, physically and psychologically as he approaches the kill zone and the bomb itself.
Q: Are you planning to work together again in the future?
KB: Actually we are working on something that Mark is writing, so hopefully we’ll revisit this combination again. The story takes place in South America in a region that is called the triple frontiers where Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil meet, and this is a fairly lawless area, so hence potentially a very rich environment for drama.
Q: Will you be keeping the same style for the next project?
KB: If it suits the material, yes. I like that style a lot because it allows for some kind of experiential filmmaking, it puts you right in there. That is one of the great things that film can do and that no other medium can. Film can create this almost preconscious physiological reaction to something. Also, I think there is something extremely intriguing in being able to parachute the audience into a particular moment that he or she may not necessarily want to experience first-hand, like walking towards a ticking bomb… I know, I certainly wouldn’t want to walk towards one (laughs).
Q: What was the main difference between shooting action scenes for The Hurt Locker and your earlier films like Near Dark or Point Break?
KB: The real important difference here was the realism and the responsibility – this is a conflict that is still going on. And the fact that it is reportorially based, I think those are the three features that were unique from me and obviously a big departure from something as fictional as Point Break. It’s all been imaginative, or fantastical, or historical. So far I haven’t had the liberty and ‘luxury’ of first-hand observation and the opportunity to work on material that is potentially topical and relevant – I love it. And if some more journalists would move into film, I think film would be a better place.
Interview by Pamela Jahn