By Ray Pride
It’s the rare movie that inspires reviewers to elevated prose, and there’s been a lot of fine writing about “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow’s thrillingly precise, visceral venture into the particulars of war and what it may take to wage well.
Written by magazine journalist Mark Boal, who returned from an embed with a unit with technicians who disarmed Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), “The Hurt Locker” is note-perfect in execution, as taut a thriller as Hollywood hasn’t made in some time. Bigelow’s gifts as a director of cool, elegant, lyrical action films well serve the taut set-pieces that define the movie’s structure. The central character is Staff Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner (“Dahmer”) with uncommon physicality and quicksilver moods. There are scenes inside the blast suit and simply crossing the frame where the character feels fully fleshed out, I tell Bigelow and Boal. As a past collaborator of Bigelow’s, the writer-director Walter Hill liked to insist character is revealed through action. Renner reveals character with every bit of his body. “I know! And he’s in a bomb suit, no less,” Bigelow laughs. “It was so hot,” Boal adds, “it was hard for Jeremy to be in that bomb suit all of the time. The thing weighs like eighty-five pounds; it’s a real bomb suit. Naturally, you’re like, well maybe we can get a stunt guy to do some of this walking stuff and save Jeremy so he doesn’t die. The sets are really long and he’s walking up and down, we thought, shit, what if he gets heatstroke? He’d had heatstroke before. It’s, what, 100 degrees outside? We tried, I probably grabbed every white guy in Jordan to audition for [Bigelow]: actor, non-actor, soldier, worked at the U. N., whatever.”
“They studied his gait,” she says, “they’d watch his walk. Couldn’t do it.” “We couldn’t get a double,” Boal says. “Just put on the suit, walk down the street, that was the job.” “Every single time, it was Jeremy,” she says. “I tried it, everybody tried it!” “There’s that kind of almost jauntiness to his gait, and cadence, that was unreplicatable. It was also part of that character.”
Boal returned from his Iraqi embed with stories about the men who do this work. How does the more diffuse form of reportage become a film this well-calibrated? “I think it’s like a jazz riff. Maybe, maybe not,” Bigelow says. “I don’t know, I’ve never written any jazz, riffed any jazz,” Boal says. “It felt to me like a writer-editor thing that I had been lucky enough to have with some of the great magazine editors in New York. You’re both trying to achieve the same thing, but you’re coming at it from different vantage points. At least with the magazine editors, I’m the guy who’s on the ground and he’s the guy who’s sitting in the office and I’m coming in fresh from the ground with all this stuff that I think is really cool. He has a little more perspective on it because he hasn’t seen it. I feel like Kathryn was in that position, she hadn’t been to Baghdad, but she was the one who was going to translate the script into a visual medium. She was able, I think, to help me focus on certain elements in the way an editor would.”
“I was really hungry for specificity,” Bigelow says. “And because he had been there and he’s a reporter, he had that in large quantities. If you’re going to direct something you’ve got to be able to look at the big picture but then look at the smallest, smallest, smallest detail. Then, how does the micro and the macro, how do you hang it together and create a kind of grid or frame that’s going to sustain itself for 120 minutes.”
“Then there’s the old-fashioned way. I would write something, and give it to her, and she would say, this is great, or, this is… not that great. Joan Didion has a line in ‘About Henry,’ and she talks about her book editor, and she says that the main function editors have for writers is that they give the writer a sense of themselves. It’s not really about craft, it’s [the editor saying], ‘Just give it to me, whatever it is.’ That’s very important when you’re sitting alone and looking at a blank page. Kathryn gave me a sense that I could write a movie script, for one thing, which I have never done before. It’s not like I had ten scripts in the drawer, I don’t have any of those. I’d just written articles.”
While the editing of the action scenes, covered simultaneously by four camera operators, is electrifying, there are other cuts, including one that defines James at film’s end that are knockouts. “Transitions are something that are really key to storytelling,” Bigelow says. “That particular transition was something we had arrived at very early on, first draft. That transition never changed. Just trying to compress… taking language and then putting it into the visual, there’s a compression and expansion that happens simultaneously. It’s like trapping light in a glass. You have to have a certain amount of design and intention that allows for spontaneity. Once we had a draft, we boarded it, to be sure key moments worked.”
I mention the names of several contemporary directors, but Bigelow demurs at comparison. “I think it’s really important to keep up with all mediums. Be it film, art… Yeah. I like to be surprised. I think that’s what underscores my interests in art. I like to be surprised.”
“The Hurt Locker” opens Friday.