Mark Boal
“The [episodic] structure came about in an attempt to be faithful to the reality of the situation, more than any preconceived notion… There’s nothing wrong with those kinds of [three act] movies, but there are enough of them out there, so why not try something different?”
Bombs Under Baghdad
Written by Denis Faye

Given Time recently described The Hurt Locker as “a near perfect war movie,” its adrenaline-addicted protagonist, bomb squad Army staff sergeant William James (played by Jeremy Renner) could go down as one of the silver screen’s great macho protagonists, right next to Rooster Cogburn, Snake Plisskin and Martin Riggs. The problem is, that’s not what screenwriter Mark Boal had in mind.

“I don’t think any of it was Hollywood-inspired. It was inspired by real life,” claims Boal, a veteran Rolling Stone, Playboy and The Village Voice journalist who is responsible for the article upon which Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah was based. “It’s a composite of different people that I met. My source material was the reporting that I’ve done. I didn’t have a bunch of cinematic references.”

True, it’s obvious that Boal’s time as an embedded reporter in Iraq shaped The Hurt Locker, directed by Katherine Bigelow, into something special, but James’ manly antics are, at times, one eye-patch short of John Wayne. It’s something the writer only figured out in retrospect.

“Having talked to a bunch of people who know more about film than I do, I realize that, in fact, he does come from a long line of cinematic types,” he concedes. “But at the time it was just an attempt to be faithful to real life and actually present somebody that was a complicated character. Maybe on the surface, to be brimming with bravado and hubris, yet have an inner life that’s very complicated.”

Boal talked with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site recently about the importance of these inner character lives in The Hurt Locker, how journalism intersects with screenwriting, and how Paul Haggis saved him from having to apply to film school.

Does your journalism background affect the way you approach screenwriting?

It does. Journalism is all about telling a story through detail, so I took that aspect with me to screenwriting. And as a journalist, my head is oriented toward stories that are topical and relevant.

Another thing you pick up on as a journalist is capturing the dialogue, because sometimes you don’t have a tape recorder. I’ve interviewed all kinds of people and listened to different people talk from different walks of life. That professional listening you do as a journalist carries over into screenwriting when it comes time to invent characters.

Photo: © 2009 Summit Entertainment, Inc.
Guy Pearce in The Hurt Locker.

So you have an innate sense of dialogue after interviewing all those people?

I don’t know. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I think in terms of similarities between the two forms. The type of journalism that I do, which is long-form feature writing, is very detail-oriented and dialogue is very important to telling the story.

How did you feel about not being restrained by the facts as a screenwriter? Good or bad?

It was good and bad. It was in some ways really liberating and exciting to be able to invent, but at the same time, as is the case with everything, sometimes it’s easier to have fewer possibilities than unlimited possibilities.

The internal arcs of the characters seemed far more important than the outer arc of keeping bombs from exploding. Was that intentional?

Yeah. It’s a character piece sort of masquerading as an action movie.

It was inspired by your time as an embedded journalist. From all the stories you garnered from that, why was this the one you decided to tell?

That goes back to the character. I was really struck by the personalities that I met over there. I just really wanted to tell a character story that took you past the headlines of what it means to be a hero, to look at somebody who has a lot of courage and bravado and pays a price for that. That was really the starting point – starting from character more than any particular plot line. Then it became about marrying that character, or those different characters, with a through line.

Speaking of that through line, it’s not really the standard three-act structure. It felt episodic, yet you managed to tell a really compelling story without the standard conventions.

It’s the not the first war movie to be told in chapters. Apocalypse Now is told in chapters, in sort of an episodic way. And I think that war is like that in the sense that war doesn’t have a neat, little through line. I didn’t want to write one of those movies where the whole story revolved around one particular mission because I was trying to capture the daily grind of the job. It would have felt like a distasteful imposition to make it seem like there was one master terrorist and all these guys had to do was diffuse this one masterful bomb and everything would be okay. It’s not like that. It’s a tidal wave of bombs. So the structure came about in an attempt to be faithful to the reality of the situation, more than any preconceived notion that it should be three acts or four acts or episodic or something else. I think there’s nothing wrong with those kinds of [three act] movies, but there are enough of them out there, so why not try something different?

By the way, ironically, the character stuff does kind of break down into three acts. In some ways it’s hard to get around.

How do you compare this experience with In the Valley of Elah with Paul Haggis?

They were both great, but it’s apples and oranges. I worked closely with Paul. It was basically my screenwriting graduate seminar compressed into a short period of time. That was really his movie, but with The Hurt Locker, I wrote the script, I produced it with Katherine, and I’ve been involved with it every step of the creative process, from writing to set design to editing. I was enmeshed in the film.