With just two weeks to go until the announcement of the 82nd Academy Awards, we can now say with more than a fair degree of certainty that we know which film will win the top Oscar. Sure, arguments can be made for other films (and both studios and pundits are making them) and upsets can happen (you don’t have to remind me). But the fact of the matter is that the raw data (precursor awards) and anecdotal evidence (conversations with actual voters) have rarely, if ever, given the same indication as clearly and consistently as they have this year: “The Hurt Locker” will win the 2009 best picture Oscar. Believe it — it’s true.
I had the same reservations as everyone else: it tackles the last subject that people want to go to the movies to see (the Iraq War); it did poorly at the box-office (only $12.7 million domestically); it has no household-names among its cast; etc.
But at some point you have to stop arguing with reality. To paraphrase Sally Field, people like it… they really like it! And they respect it, too. It has won with the BFCA, GIFA, IPA, NSFC, NYFCC, LAFCA, ACE, BAFTA, WGA, DGA, and PGA (over a movie that has earned 139 times as much money as it has, and under the same preferential balloting system that the Academy is now using); it garnered a co-leading nine AMPAS nods, including the vital ones for directing, acting (which “Avatar” doesn’t have), screenwriting (which “Avatar” doesn’t have), and editing (which “Brokeback Mountain” didn’t have); its director is going to win (even her rivals have acknowledged that at this point); and — as was the case in 2006 when “The Departed” won on Martin Scorsese‘s coattails — not enough voters feel they can justify splitting their picture/director votes to deny the film a win, as well. (“Did the best picture direct itself?”)
So, considering that, I think now is probably as appropriate a time as any to unload several fascinating tidbits about the film that I’ve gathered over the past nine months from conversations with the people most responsible for the film: writer/co-producer Mark Boal, director/co-producer Kathryn Bigelow, and actors Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty. I first chatted with Boal and Bigelow following a MoMA screening of their film on June 23; then moderated a lengthy Q&A with Renner and Mackie following a SAG screening of the film on November 21; then saw them four of them, along with Geraghty, after they won best picture at the Gotham Independent Film Awards on November 30; and then interviewed Boal and Bigelow this past Friday.
So, for your consideration, here are 20 things that you may not already know about “The Hurt Locker”…
1. The characters in the film are composites of several real people.
Boal spent two weeks time in Iraq embedded with Explosive Ordnance Disposal (E.O.D.) units like the one portrayed in the film. The characters in his script, however, derive their traits and experiences from numerous people he encountered or heard about, not any one specifically.
2. Casting decisions were made with the goal of defying audience expectations.
Boal and Bigelow realized from the start that their story wouldn’t work if they cast well-known actors as any of the three members of the central E.O.D. squad. Why? Because audiences know that — with the exception of Alfred Hitchcock and Janet Leigh in “Psycho” — directors don’t kill off their movie’s stars early in the picture. A big part of what makes “The Hurt Locker” work — and what it’s like to be in Iraq right now — is the sense of not knowing what to expect next, which wouldn’t have been possible without casting relative unknowns Renner, Mackie, and Brian Geraghty as the co-leads. (Incidentally, the cameo performances by actors who are well-known — namely Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes — add a lot to the movie because we don’t expect them to be killed but they are.)
3. A year elapsed between the casting of Renner and the beginning of filming.
Renner received the script while in London filming “28 Days Later.” He wrote down three pages of questions for Bigelow; then spoke with her by phone for a couple of hours; committed to play the part; and then waited a full year before filming commenced (during which time Bigelow consulted with him on a number of key decisions pertaining to the film, including the casting of other major parts).
4. Mackie was initially wanted for the part of Eldridge, not Sanborn.
As Mackie recalls, “When I went in to meet, I went in to meet for Eldridge. And I was like, ‘Well, you know, Eldridge is a great character, but Imma tell you why I should play Sanborn.’ And, you know, by the end of the meeting, I was like, ‘I’m gonna play Sanborn, or they think I’m just a straight egotistical bastard.’” In the end, Mackie got to play Sanborn, and Geraghty was cast as Eldridge.
5. Renner took a day of bomb suit training at Fort Irwin in California.
Renner assumed that wearing the suit, which weights around one hundred pounds, “was gonna be no big deal.” He says, “They kept telling me, ‘It’s gonna be heavy, it’s gonna be hot.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, whatever, get this thing on!’ You feel pampered—it takes a couple of guys to get this thing on. And once it was on I was doing jumping jacks—I was like, ‘This is no problem!’” After a brief pause he adds, “A half an hour into it, I wanted to kill myself… it’s intense. Literally, it’s 45 minutes in the suit doing all these little tasks that aren’t so much strenuous as they are mentally straining.”
6. Mackie conducted most of his research for the film online.
“I took a day trip to Fort Bragg, and once I got there I realized I had no reason to be there,” Mackie recalls. “So I went online and just talked to a bunch of people. You’ll be surprised what you can find when you get on these blogs, and Web sites, and message boards, and stuff. So, you know, after talking to people, and listening to their experiences, and watching videos, and stuff, I realized my most important preparation would be once I got in the room with Jeremy and Brian because the cohesiveness of the unit was what was gonna make the film.
7. Bigelow quickly won her actors’ respect.
Renner, who previously made films with female directors Asia Argento, Catherine Hardwicke, and Niki Caro, says of Bigelow, “She’s tougher than all of us. She’s a monster! She’s smart. She’s a warrior. She’s a painter. Painfully shy. Not the greatest communicator. I got along with her, but I was on this project for a year prior to shooting so I got to spend a lot of time with her. I know the other guys didn’t get to spend as much time with her. It’s hard to get something out of her. She’s really good at just observing. She told me, ‘I hired you because I knew you could do the job, so I won’t tell you how to do it.’ I was like, ‘Perfect. I won’t tell you how to do yours either.’” Mackie, who was directed by females in numerous plays, adds, “She never apologized for being a woman,” and says it would have created problems if she had. “If you come in like, ‘Oh, I’m a girl, don’t be mean to me, oh!’ then everybody’s gonna shit on you. I mean, I would, you know? If you’re a man and you come in like, ‘Oh, I’m a guy,’ I’m gonna shit on you. That’s just animal nature, you know? But she never did that. She came in and she was like, ‘We got a story to tell, we got a job to do, let’s get it!’ So we followed. There was the one day I wanted to kill her; there was the one day I wanted to kill the writer; but that’s moviemaking. When your passionate about something, it’s just like anything else. But to have one day out of three months? That’s a pretty good batting-average, you know? So I’ve never had an issue with her being a woman, or taking orders or direction from a woman.”
8. The film wasn’t shot in Iraq, but it couldn’t have been shot much closer.
Ever since the Iraq War began in 2003, only a few movies have been shot within the country’s borders, most of which have been documentaries. In fact, the entire region is so dangerous that it’s nearly impossible to get a cast and crew insured to film there. But Bigelow and Boal desperately wanted an authentic setting for their film, and wound up shooting “The Hurt Locker” only only three miles outside of the Iraqi border, in Jordan, over the course of three months.
9. The weather conditions were brutal.
While filming in Jordan in the middle of the summer, the cast and crew faced regular sandstorms, windstorms, and temperatures that averaged around 120 degrees Fahrenheit (which felt exponentially hotter for Renner inside his bomb suit). Several took weekend “escapes” to the Dead Sea (along a part of the west coast of Jordan), Aqaba (a resort city in the far south of Jordan), and Egypt (which is just across the Gulf of Aqaba), where temperatures got as high as 135 degrees Fahrenheit! Renner chuckles, “We were gonna shoot in Kuwait, where it’s 150, so I’m glad we didn’t go there.”
10. The actors roughed it.
There were no movie star trailers or overflowing craft-service tables for the stars of this film. Instead, the actors stayed in makeshift Bedouin tents with thick sheets wrapped around them to provide some shade. “Sometimes we had a toilet; otherwise we’d go in a hole,” says Renner. “Or just find a rock,” adds Mackie. Worse, says Mackie, “They brought in this little portable air conditioner, but to make it work you had to put ice in the air conditioner, and we’re in the desert so there’s no ice!” But, Renner acknowledges, “Even if we had trailers, we wouldn’t have been in ‘em ’cause we were constantly moving.” As for fine dining? Renner says the unspoken rule was, “If you want to get away from the flies, just go around the food.” Mackie chuckles, “It was bad.”
11. The locals weren’t always welcoming.
Renner and Mackie emphasize that the majority of locals that the cast and crew encountered were “lovely,” but acknowledge that some were anything but. “Some of the locations were just hardcore,” says Mackie, to which Renner adds that a few were just “really awful, terrible places.” One, in particular, brings back bad memories for both men: a refugee camp. “That was brutal,” says Renner. Rocks were thrown at them; two-by-fours with nails sticking out of them were dropped from rooftops as they passed below; and there was even gunfire in their direction (though the shooters were too far away to pose much of a threat). “It was rough,” seconds Mackie.
12. The production, which involved local Muslim actors and crew, overlapped with the holiest month of the Islamic year.
Mackie explains, “Well, we were in the Middle East during Ramadan, you know what I mean? That’s the hardest thing ever, you know? That’s like being a black dude at a Klan rally!” He elaborated, “It was so hard because you had to be respectful of the people around you because, you know, they were fasting during the day in 120-degree heat. We have on these huge suits, and we’re trying to stay focused, and have water and stuff… so that was a huge challenge.”
13. Renner’s first attempt at putting on the bomb suit on location was a disaster.
“[We put it] on backwards,” Renner confesses, as he and Mackie laugh at the memory. “It was bad,” adds Mackie, who explains, “We had to put it on [piece by piece], so we had to figure out how to get the helmet on, how to plug it in, how to get the fan on—it was something! But we finally got it right. It took, like, a half day, you know, figuring out how to put it on.”
14. Renner needed some technical advice while on location in the Middle East.
While wearing his bomb suit and preparing to shoot the scene in which he kicks open the trunk of a car, something caught Renner’s eye: what was supposed to be detonation cord was, he believed, actually electrical cord. He laughs now at how he decided to get an answer then: he rang up the guys at Fort Irwin. “I’m literally calling the guys in my bomb suit—like, I don’t know where they are, they could’ve been deployed at this point, you know—‘Hey! I got some det-cord here. It doesn’t look right. How do I render safe this I.E.D.?’”
15. The film was shot with “Ninja cameras.”
Bigelow hired Barry Ackroyd as her cinematographer because she admired his work on “United 93.” On this film, like that one, he frequently employed shaky hand-held cameras and zoomed in-and-out to make viewers feel like they, too, are in the heat of a confusing situation. The sets were massive and there were as many as four cameras rolling at a time (hidden behind props and even camels, leading the actors to call them “Ninja cameras”), providing the actors with an unusual sense of freedom. Renner says, “You never really saw Kathryn or her cameras for I think 80 percent of the movie.” Mackie adds, “We would do, like, 12 to 15 minute takes. And what was so crazy was the idea of not knowing where the cameras were. It put us in a position where we didn’t have to worry about hitting our light or facing out to the camera; it made it almost like a play, you know?”
16. The mercenary sequence was included, despite having little to do with the rest of the film, for a specific reason.
As Boal recently acknowledged, the only reason he and Bigelow included “the mercenary sequence in the middle of a bomb movie” was to provide Ralph Fiennes with a part that he would agree to play in the film. Fiennes, who had previously starred in Bigelow’s film “Strange Days” (1995), was initially presented with and turned down an offer to play a British Ambassador who harshly chides American troops in “The Hurt Locker,” telling Boal in no uncertain terms that he knew people who were in similar positions and would never do such a thing, and Bigelow that he had no desire to wear a suit on screen again. He was more amenable to making a brief appearance as a mercenary, though, and so the scene was added to the script.
17. Mackie grew to share something in common with his character.
Near the end of the film, in what Mackie calls “the most important scene in this film for me, Sanborn says he wants a son. Mackie, who had been single and childless prior to the film, was greatly impacted by his experience making it. “When I came back home I was emotionally, just, ‘Gah!’ And I just checked out. I moved back to New Orleans, bought a house, and started building a house. I was like, ‘Ah, psychotherapy!’ And, you know, it was one of those things where I realized my mortality. So, at that instant, I was like, ‘Find girl. Make baby. Put in house. Be happy.’ So I started dating my third-grade girlfriend; got engaged; and had a son.” Looking back, he says the film “made me realize how important right now is,” and that “the great thing about being an actor is that you get to live so many different lives, [which] helps you live your actual life.”
18. The film resembles World War II-era war films more than recent examples of the genre.
The majority of war films made over the past three decades — the era of the star-driven blockbuster — have focused on the individual military man, not the military unit. It hasn’t always been this way: many if not most war films made during/about World War II — movies like Howard Hawks’s “Air Force,” Henry King’s “Twelve O’Clock High,” and William Wellman’s “Battleground” — focused more on the military unit. “The Hurt Locker” returns to that sort of story partly because that’s how E.O.D. squads really operate and partly because it just makes for a better story, says Boal. Mackie adds, “Everything we did we did as a unit, on and off camera… we had this open-dialogue, we had this camaraderie, this relationship to where we really took care of each other.” As Renner puts it, “We leaned on each other a lot. And bottles of wine helped.” Mackie laughs, “For real!”
19. Bigelow could make history on Oscar night twice.
As has been widely reported, Bigelow has already become the first female to ever win the DGA Award and only the fourth female to ever be nominated for the best director Oscar, so much of the focus for Oscar night is on her quest to become the first female to ever win the best director Oscar. Bigelow followers should take note of something else, too: on February 2, she also became only the eighth female to ever direct or co-direct a film that was nominated for a best picture Oscar, and on March 7 she could become the first female director to have ever directed or co-directed a best picture Oscar winner. (Make those numbers ninth and second if you count Loveleen Tandan, who was credited as “co-director: India” on last year’s best picture winner “Slumdog Millionaire” but did not share in any of director Danny Boyle’s nominations or wins.)
20. Boal and Bigelow have already announced plans to team up again.
The writer and the director who brought you “The Hurt Locker” will soon be bringing you “Triple Frontier,” which Boal recently described as a “love story” set in “a lawless area” of South America “with crime, drugs, and kidnapping.” (And, since Kathryn Bigelow’s involved, expect lots of tension and violence!) Boal is penning the script; Bigelow will direct; and both will co-produce.
Photo: Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker.” Credit: Summit.