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‘The Hurt Locker’ had explosive effect on Mark Boal’s screenwriting career

In 2004, investigative journalist Mark Boal persuaded Playboy magazine to send him to Iraq for a story about the “practical reality” of the war. He was embedded with a unit of U.S. soldiers who have the most dangerous job in the military -- disarming deadly bombs.

The members of the Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal squad provided the human-interest angle to the story that Boal wanted to tell about the horrors of the occupation and futility of the war.

Over the course of his three-week assignment, Boal realized that the harrowing daily accounts of those who risked their lives to save others would also make for a riveting movie with far greater reach. It also occurred to him that a career writing screenplays might be a safer line of work.

After he returned from Iraq, Boal pitched the idea to director Kathryn Bigelow, whom he had met years earlier when she developed a TV series for Fox based on an article he wrote about an undercover drug agent. When Bigelow expressed interest, Boal wrote a script for “The Hurt Locker” on “spec,” meaning without a definitive buyer in hand.

Everyone they sent the script to passed on financing the movie, which had several strikes against it: at least 40 competing Iraq-themed projects, Bigelow’s preference for casting unknown actors and the filmmakers’ desire to shoot in the Middle East.

Boal gave a free option to producer Nicolas Chartier, whose company, Voltage Pictures, raised $11 million by selling foreign distribution rights. Later, Summit Entertainment acquired the U.S. distribution rights for $1.5 million.

Boal, 36, spoke with The Times about the unlikely journey of “Hurt Locker” and its effect on his screenwriting career.

What’s it like to go suddenly from obscure journalist to Oscar-nominated screenwriter?

I consider myself extremely lucky. As a reporter I always felt like a dentist in some ways, pulling stuff out of people when they don’t really want to be talking to you. Now to be in a position where I can put my opinion into a script, and have it be relevant to people and not feel like I’m always pestering people, is really nice.

Has that changed your life?

Drastically. The single biggest change is probably seeing a story I care about discussed on the “Today” show with Kathryn Bigelow and Jeremy Renner. It’s a far cry from being on the subway and seeing the story you wrote being read by a guy as he turns the page to look at the escort ads. I was in the post office the other day sending a copy of the screenplay to someone whose house I stayed at in Nantucket, and this woman behind me in line who had seen the movie said, “Oh my God, I’ve got to text my friend that I’m in line with you.”

Do you enjoy the fame?

It’s not the recognition. It’s the feeling that the work has penetrated the culture to some degree. We all want to feel like we’re having an effect in life.

What surprised you most about working in Hollywood?

I expected there to be sharper elbows. When you’re a reporter in New York, you’re looking at Hollywood as this fortress guarded by sharks. And then you find yourself in the middle of it, meeting all these people, many of whom are world famous that you grew up watching, and they turn out to be warm, genial and encouraging. It’s not at all what I expected.

Hollywood has always been the promised land when you’re an ink-stained wretch in New York City. It was always a dream that seemed pretty unrealistic.

Talk about dreams. Would you ever have imagined that your low-cost independent war film would get nine Oscar nominations and compete for best picture against James Cameron’s juggernaut “Avatar”?

What’s it like to be in the same conversation as “Avatar”? It’s very surreal. For somebody who wrote a script on spec, that’s beyond a dream come true.

claudia.eller@latimes.com


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