Oscar-winner Mark Boal on how his journalism background helped him sort through the complicated reality behind the story of Detroit and why writing anything other than the brutal truth of what happened would have been cowardly.
We all deal with characters that are morally ambiguous, but these cops were wrong...I thought a frank, brutal, unyielding representation of that was the right way to go. There was something actually cowardly trying to give their racism a psychological sophistication that maybe it actually didn’t really have.
Mark Boal’s writing style is unflinching and stark. He is, after all, a journalist who used his time embedded with combat troops to dramatize the reality of the Iraq war for the 2010 Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker. He and director Kathryn Bigelow also retold the high-tension midnight mission to take out Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty for which Boal won both an Academy nomination and a Writers Guild Award for Original Screenplay.
But with the duo’s new film, Detroit, the war has come home. The film remembers the true events of 1967’s ruinous 12th Street riot in Detroit, Michigan, which lasted five days, left 43 people dead and thousands injured, and became, at the time, the most destructive urban upheaval in America since the 1863 New York City draft riots during the American Civil War. As with his previous efforts, Boal leaned heavily on research and interviews with living witnesses, crafting a script spare on redemptive narrative embellishments that might ease the stark horror of this real American history.
The film centers on what is known as the Algiers Motel incident—a brutal episode where three teenage African American males were killed and seven others, along with two white females, were severely beaten by officers of the Detroit Police Department, which at the time was more than 90 percent white. Though felony charges where brought against the officers involved, all were found not guilty, two of the deaths were ruled “justifiable homicide” and one was never explained.
For Boal, the challenge was telling the story in a way that didn’t artificially redeem the heinous reality, but instead took viewers there without necessarily giving them a way back. During an interview with the Writers Guild of America West website, he explains that he felt it would be “deeply disingenuous” to graft artificial triumph or redemption onto a history that had sorely little. As he puts it, “I was going for a lack of resolution that’s still somehow satisfying.”
I read the Vulture piece you wrote about tracking down [Algiers Motel incident survivor] Larry Cleveland Reed. You couldn’t be embedded, but how extensive was the journalistic work here?
It’s a period piece, and [since] I didn’t live through the ‘60s, I had to do a lot of homework to learn about the decade. I had to do a lot of talking to people who had survived the particular story I was telling. Then there was an additional layer because the story involves murder and some court judicial processes. I had to wrap my arms around all that and questions of culpability. But to be honest that part of it is familiar to me, the research part. The creative screenwriting tasks were much harder than the research tasks.
By the way, let me add, this time I was able to hire people to do some of the research. Before I had no such luxury of doing that. I used to have to do it all myself.
What were your biggest concerns making this history into a movie script?
There are issues of cultural representation that were complicated because I was writing about African American men in the ‘60s, and I’m a white guy born in the ‘70s. But every writer at some point or another has to write about things they don’t know. So we all face those kinds of challenges in one way or another. The other thing was how to tell this story without [using] the tropes of individual agency and characters that triumph over adversity. Because even though it’s a story of resistance and survival, ultimately it’s a tragedy. The film winnows down to the crisis that’s exacted on the main character, and it has nothing to do with him, it has to do with this system that he lives in. So that’s challenging.
From a movie standpoint, you did not want to rely on any of these typical narrative constructs?
Well, you can’t. The fact is, it’s about a real-life person who is traumatized by the police. So it would be deeply disingenuous to write that as a story of personal triumph, because it’s not. At the same time that creates a creative challenge—how do you create emotional satisfaction when you don’t have those sorts of moments available to you?
What did you rely on to get emotional satisfaction or resolution without losing fidelity to the reality of the situation?
That’s a good question. I don’t know how well I succeeded or didn’t succeed in that. I wasn’t really going for resolution. I was going for a lack of resolution that’s still somehow satisfying. And satisfying isn’t the right word actually. I guess what I was trying to develop was [an] emotionally charged, moving experience, but one that doesn’t necessarily put you back together again. The effect I was going for was to leave you stunned, and really to replicate the emotional journey…
No, not that, but when I left Larry’s apartment [after] the very first time I heard his story firsthand from him, I had this feeling of being stunned and sad and also moved by his resilience all at once, and angry at what had happened to him. So really, in the simplest possible terms, I was trying to make other people feel that too.
There are clear bad guys and clear victims here. From a writing standpoint, were you concerned about being too binary in terms of the good and the bad in this story?
Not really. I did think about that. The story I wanted to tell is a story where there isn’t a lot of room for moral ambiguity. We all deal with characters that are morally ambiguous, but these cops were wrong. They were racially motivated, and they committed murder in my opinion. I thought a frank, brutal, unyielding representation of that was the right way to go. There was something actually cowardly trying to give their racism a psychological sophistication that maybe it actually didn’t really have.
Something artificial to balance out the narrative?
Yeah. Just to go back to my own impressions of the story, it didn’t feel balanced to me when Larry told me what had happened to him. It didn’t feel balanced when I talked to the other survivors. So I thought, why inject that just because it’ll make audiences more comfortable? There’s something baroque and weird about that.
How much did you deliberate over that decision?
I thought about it for sure. “Deliberation” is a little strong, but I thought about it. I was aware that what I was doing was kind of binary. There is some variation among the different policemen in terms of their character and stress level and how the group operates and so on, but yeah, it’s intentionally black and white, or good and evil. I don’t see how it could be any other way. I did think about it, and it did occur to me that there might be an expectation for wanting to understand, for example, the chief police officer who’s responsible for the most heinous stuff, to understand his psychological motivations more thoroughly. I did think about that, but his motivations came from racism, and racism, in a technical sense, is a system of ideas that are basically bullshit—lies about how other types of human beings are inferior based on skin pigmentation. It’s kind of pseudoscientific crap. So I think the larger point was, instead of trying to explain that away, [was to find] what it would feel like to encounter that if you were a young African American male in 1967 in the Algiers Motel.
You’ve made a career on historical work, based on real events, which can be tricky, as you well know. Do you yearn at all to go into completely original, fictitious work from a screenwriting standpoint?
Maybe I’m stuck in a rut, I don't know…
I’m not saying that, I’m just curious how you feel about it.
I would be. What did you call it, pure fiction?
Original, purely fictitious work.
I’m interested in that and a huge fan of movies that do that well, but I always seem to get caught up and interested in these real-world stories. It mostly happens through meeting people and being affected by them.
It’s kind of who you are, in terms of your background, right?
Yeah, professionally, that is where I got my start. I got my start as a reporter, and as a reporter you spend a lot of your time talking to people and writing down what they say. Screenwriting is a completely different discipline. It is its own art form and craft.
Research aside, interviews aside, when it gets down to writing the script, when, where, and how do you write? What’s your specific routine or ritual?
I like the way you said that, because once you get past all that stuff, it’s the same position as every other screenwriter. We all face the same blank page, and we all have to deal with a bunch of different material that doesn’t necessarily gel in a coherent way. That’s true when you’re writing period drama, but it’s equally true when you’re writing Spiderman 10—I’m not sure which one we’re up to—but it can be an added complication with these based-on-real-event-stories, just the mechanics, the chronologies, the facts that are truly stranger than fiction and don’t work in a tidy script. It’s different than if you were writing a purely imagined, original story where you can do anything.
I don’t know, that sounds pretty difficult too. In some ways that seems harder to me. Putting aside convention, for me, having the boundaries of the real world are helpful.
And the characters?
For sure. I have a lot of respect for writers who don’t need that.
When, where, and how do you write? What’s your routine? Are you listening to music? Are you an early morning writer?
It’s the usual stuff; I use a computer, nothing particularly baroque or interesting. I wish I could say I wrote with a fountain pen on my own handmade paper…
That would be pretty pretentious.
Yeah. I listen to music. I’m kind of a binger with the writing, so I try to get myself worked up to the psychological state I want to be in, and then I try to knock it out.
So you just dive in and just get immersive when you finally get up to it?
I would say I make myself crazy and try to really immerse myself in the story. When I’m really into it, I’m not really doing anything else. The producing stuff kind of falls away, and I don’t return phone calls and stuff like that.
You go dark?
Does that help you get the momentum to push through to a finished draft? A lot of people struggle just with completion.
Yeah. I don’t mean I necessarily do that all the way though. I’ll probably come up for air after I have a certain number of pages that I’m happy with. Usually the first act maybe, and then I’ll take a minute to chill and go outside for the first time in two weeks or something. I just have to do that in order to unplug from the Internet and concentrate. For me it’s about mustering to focus. On a professional level, I can probably write a decent scene on the train or in someone’s office, because as a reporter you don’t always have your own space, you can be up on a mountain top or something. But to do something that is surprising to me and that’s interesting? I usually have to burrow in.
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