Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty is currently in limited release and about to go wide, but while it’s unclear what the film’s box-office reception will be the critical one has been fairly unanimous. Unless you count the Academy Awards.
Bigelow’s previous visit to the Middle East netted six Oscars including Best Film, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (for Mark Boal), and like her new one, it faced its fair share of criticism over accuracy. Director and writer both sat down for a commentary track, and while they don’t comment directly on those claims, Boal in particular seems very aware of them.
Keep reading to see what I heard with this week’s The Hurt Locker Commentary Commentary…
The Hurt Locker (2008)
Commentators: Kathryn Bigelow (director) and Mark Boal (writer)
1. Boal opens talking about the script’s inspiration. His time spent in Iraq with the three-man bomb squads whose job it is to clear roads and homes became an article first, but he saw a bigger picture there and brought the idea to Bigelow who was equally excited at the prospect.
2. Bigelow mentions that the film is cast for performance as opposed to marquee value. Wouldn’t it be nice if all filmmakers and studios felt the same way when it comes to casting?
3. Bigelow and Guy Pearce had wanted to work together for several years.
4. The bomb-disposal robot had to be obtained from Northrop Grumman who manufacture the units for the US military and others. They would happily make one for you too if you have the scratch.
5. The big bomb-disposal suits weigh 80lbs and are made of Kevlar and ballistic plates.
6. The opening scene was filmed in Oman, Jordan, and it was a difficult deal to arrange as the city had little interest in allowing the filming due to its high traffic level and the overall content. Bigelow was fixated on shooting there, and Boal agrees that the location was a perfect match for Baghdad. They had scouted Morocco first but decided the mismatched architecture was enough of a reason to look elsewhere.
7. The real life bomb squads shared criticisms of Hollywood Movie Explosions (HME), that they felt never looked right. “They had yet to see a real explosion in a Hollywood movie that looked accurate,” she says, “and that was because of the predominance of gasoline, the bright orange plumes that tend to be the signature of Hollywood explosions. The explosions that… they’re familiar with are these dense, black, dark, grey clouds of particulate matter.” Because of this she made an effort to capture more authentic explosions.
8. Bigelow used the Phantom camera to give “a sense of the roiling mass of air preceding any kind of detonation and hence the rocks lifting off the ground.” She says the camera can shoot ten to twenty thousand frames per second and “kind of unpack those events in a sort of granular way.” She’s such a nerd.
9. Jeremy Renner got the role of Sergeant William James because “he has the right sort of innate bravado and hubris” according to Bigelow. She had seen him in Dahmer and felt that anyone who could excel in that role would do well here. Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty caught her eye with with their small roles in Half Nelson and Jarhead respectively.
10. Boal recalls having to “ask the local imam, or whatever it is… the mosque man” for his permission to film on a particular street nearby a mosque. It wasn’t required, but it was done as a courtesy.
11. Renner spent time at Fort Irwin before filming began familiarizing himself with bomb-disposal equipment and the process behind their application. “Yeah,” agrees Boal, “he did a lot of research.” He adds, “One of the first things Jeremy did when he got to Ft. Irwin was he put on the bomb suit, and he had to move a pile of about two hundred paper clips from one side of the room to another.”
12. They shot for 45 days in Jordan and came back with a million feet of film.
13. The filmmakers tried to save Renner’s stamina by stunt doubling him in the bomb suit, but it was not to be. “I probably went through, I don’t know, ten, fifteen people trying to replicate Jeremy’s walk in the bomb suit… and the walk was such a signature of his character that even in the widest shot, that’s Jeremy walking. That kind of lift to his gait and cadence to his walk is absolutely Jeremy Renner.”
14. One of the oft criticized scenes in the movie, where Sergeant James removes his armor while working on the booby-trapped car, is one of Boal’s favorite moments in the film. “It’s such a great movie moment… because you get to learn a lot about his character. It’s also based on a true thing. There was this EOD guy that told us this actually happened in Israel. It makes sense when you think about it from a practical standpoint.” So suck it haters.
15. Boal is terrified by the windshield wipers during the car scene. “One of the all-time scariest moments I think.” So, yeah.
16. The film’s sound designer, Paul Ottosson shared many of his sound effects/recordings with composers Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders. “There was a tremendous kind of synchronicity between the two departments, and it was all of our intention to make sure the piece felt like a kind of sonic three-dimensional landscape.”
17. Bigelow compliments the script’s dialogue as “extraordinary in that it feels so naturalistic and… carefully crafted.”
18. “David Morse is one of the great actors,” says Bigelow. You’ll get no argument from anyone who knows anything.
19. One scene takes place at a real bomb disposal site for the Jordanian army, and Bigelow recalls that they “had to be very careful where we were walking or setting up our cameras because there were still live ordinance in this whole area, and it was basically kind of like a mine field.” Boal, clearly paying rapt attention to Miss Bigelow, responds with “well you had to be careful where you walked right? Because there was still all sorts of old munitions lying around?” She resists slapping him and instead simply says “yeah.”
20. Critics of the film’s accuracy will be pleased to hear the duo cop to one factual error in the scene where a single Humvee is seen driving through the desert. “There’d be a convoy,” Bigelow admits, adding “you’d need a different budget.”
21. Train track arches are seen in the background, and Boal points out that they’re the same ones attacked in Lawrence of Arabia.
22. When Bigelow realized they needed a British actor to play a contractor she thought immediately of Ralph Fiennes whom she worked with and enjoyed on Strange Days. “I know he was very happy to play a character who didn’t have to wear a suit.”
23. The two discuss their motivation for the sniper ambush scene in the desert as wanting to make it a real-time experience from beginning to end. Boal comments that when people are shot at in most films they seem to instantly know where the shooter is firing from, so they wanted to show that realistically that is not always the case. More importantly, Boal makes a point of legitimizing the oft-criticized scene where James and Sanborn (Mackie) magically transform into a sniper team. “In point of fact EOD is trained to use those Barrett sniper rifles. There’s actually a technique for destroying an IED from long range by shooting it with that big gun. So they do know how to use them.”
24. Discussing the availability of equipment in Jordan it seems most of their necessities including lights, trailers, camera equipment had to be shipped in from Los Angeles, Germany and elsewhere. “They had plenty of weapons…”
25. Boal recalls their first audience screening which was in the Venice Film Festival. “At the end of the screening everybody stood up and applauded and kept applauding and kept applauding. It didn’t stop for ten minutes. It was very strange and I kept looking down at my watch and thinking when are they going to stop applauding, this is almost getting uncomfortable.” By contrast, the Toronto Film Fest audience was the friendliest he ever saw it with.
26. The scene where James retires to his bed drunk was a struggle for Renner. “Why am I putting the helmet on my head?” Boal remembers him asking, “Why would I do that?” He responded, “Well, because you’re not entirely normal, Jeremy.”
27. “I think of Evangeline Lilly as a really strong presence,” says Bigelow. Not much else to say here… I just wanted to say “Evangeline Lilly.”
28. Both Boal and Bigelow felt the film had to made independently of the studio system. This gave her unparalleled creative control “that needed to stay intact and uncompromised.” Boal adds that “the down side to that is that you go broke and you have Visa bills that are miles long.”
29. The Prince of Jordan visited the set during the tanker explosion scene and looked across the devastation with Boal. The prince turned to Boal and said “you’re going to put this back together right?” Bigelow and Boal quickly mention that they did indeed clean the area back up again, but Boal adds “the neighborhood I will say did not look that great when we found it. It was pretty ratty tatty.”
30. The film’s final firefight was filmed in a Palestinian refugee camp that the filmmakers were told was completely off limits and too dangerous. Bigelow persisted though and eventually found herself visited by an elder who brought her some tea. Large crowds numbering in the hundreds gathered during the shoot and went from throwing rocks to paying rapt attention to utter boredom.
31. The kite that James sees immediately after the explosion that nearly takes his life is a beautiful image, but Boal reveals that it’s also meant as a possible communication between terrorists. That duality between beauty and terror is is disorienting but intentional and mirrored in the following scene with kids chasing the Humvee… some are smiling and cheerful while others are grimacing and throwing rocks.
32. “Evangeline Lilly projects such warmth and heart, and yet there’s a kind of pain behind her eyes.” Again, nothing really to add here, but you know. Evangeline Lilly.
33. “This is beautifully written,” Bigelow says in reference to the scene at the end where James is talking to his infant son. It’s the last of many, many compliments she gives to Boal and his script. Geez lady, just sleep with the guy already, am I right?
Best in Commentary
Boal: “The air that’s moving away from the explosion is moving so quickly that it will expand anything that contains air within it. So it will literally blow up your lungs or puncture anything that contains air. It’s something the soldiers are very afraid of.”
Boal, discussing traffic scene on 1st day of shooting: “Brian [Geraghty] just threw a water bottle at some guy in the car, and I couldn’t believe he did that. I mean it was a great shot, and the guy was genuinely wondering what the hell was going on, but I don’t think that car was working for us was it?”
Bigelow: “Neither was the cat.”
Boal: “It’s obviously not a good idea to have a lit cigarette when you’re handling explosives.”
Boal, discussing a woman who shut down the shooting site at one point: “This giant woman in a burka with tattoos on her face just refused to leave the middle of the street.”
Boal: “There was this report trying to quantify the amount of explosives existing in Iraq at the time of the invasion, and I think they concluded that there was enough explosive material to fuel an insurgency for several hundred years.”
Neither Bigelow nor Boal are particularly exciting commentators, but they do both have lots of information to share. They both discuss various details of the making of the film, and while Bigelow is extremely complimentary of her cast and crew and takes the time to repeatedly credit them by name Boal explains a lot of the film’s subtext, symbolism and concepts that some viewers may have missed. So, not a fun commentary necessarily, but an interesting one all the same.