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Scene Dissection: Screenwriter Mark Boal breaks down one of ‘The Hurt Locker’s’ most pivotal moments

Mark Boal’s experience as a journalist in Iraq yielded “Death and Dishonor,” a 2004 feature for “Playboy” about a veteran who was murdered by fellow soldiers after his deployment, and the effects of war-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on returning military personnel. The story was later adapted by Paul Haggis for the Oscar-nominated feature “In the Valley of Elah.”

Boal himself stepped into screenwriting (and producing) with “The Hurt Locker,” which explores the devastating affect of repeated exposure to high-intensity combat situations on the members of an Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal team. Boal’s script, like the film itself, has received considerable praise from critics and audiences alike, and is currently among the nominees for original screenplay at the 82nd Academy Awards.

Following is a discussion with Mark Boal about one of the final scenes in “The Hurt Locker,” and its transition from page to screen.

Please note: possible spoilers follow.

Q: I’m wondering what made you pick this scene for discussion.

A: For me, the two scenes together really capture the psychological cost of the war for these characters. In some ways, it’s symbolically representative of the rough position in which a lot of soldiers who have a lot of repeated combat exposure find themselves in, which is massively dislocated when they come home.

Q: Was this a situation you discovered in your coverage of the war?

A: The first thing I realized when I was reporting on the war, and then when I was trying to write a script, was the futility and the insanity of the war. And one of the offshoots of that is the people who are bearing the brunt of it don’t come out unscathed. It’s an obvious thing when you think about it in the abstract, but seeing it up close and actually having the opportunity to talk to quite a few soldiers, both in combat and then back in the States, it became very clear to me. So when it came to writing the screenplay, I wanted to get that point across.

Q: How did you come to juxtapose those two scenes together?

A: Dramatically, I wanted to juxtapose James at his most gutsy -- in the scene prior to this, he’s trying to save a man’s life, and the man blows up in front of him -- with what it’s like for him to be home. In one second, you see him striding confidently into danger, and in the next, he’s bewildered in a supermarket. That felt to me like a very efficient way of getting the point across without using a lot of dialogue.

Imagistically, there’s also the contrast between the dust and the blood and kids throwing rocks at the Humvee, which all adds up to the brutality of combat, and the clean, safe supermarket overflowing with produce -- the epitome of the American consumer experience.

Q: There’s a sense of loneliness and isolation in both of the situations -- James doesn’t belong in either of them because of his experiences.

A: I think that’s right. You certainly see that in the dialogue between James and Sanborn in the Humvee. It’s actually the one moment where, even through his isolation, he manages to connect with his fellow soldier, if only for a little bit.

Q: Were there versions of this in early drafts that were different than what appears in the final film?

A: No, actually. There were other scenes that I worked on a lot and kept fine-tuning, but this is one that came out and just felt right the first time.

Q: What were your discussions with (director) Kathryn Bigelow and the actors in regard to this scene?

A: I was on set, and I remember the shooting of both scenes really well -- one was in Jordan and the other in Vancouver a couple of months later. Jeremy (Renner, who plays James) and I spoke about where his character was at from a psychological standpoint in that scene, particularly with that last line, “Do you know why I am the way I am?” That’s a potentially tricky line, and Jeremy just plays it beautifully. When he says, “Yeah, I do,” he gives this little smile that suggests he’s proud of his bravado. But a second later, the smile fades and he articulates his loneliness a little bit, as well as his unknowability to himself.

Q: This scene could’ve been overwhelmed by dialogue -- James could have delivered a monologue that expressed his feelings, but you chose to go with less words. What was the decision there?

A: For me, I’m going for emotional impact, and not trying to call attention to wordsmithing. And I’m going for realism, so I’m trying to poetically imitate natural patterns of speech. The whole movie is designed to feel realistic, so the dialogue was part of that calculation. I think that for James to say the lines that he says gave the most emotional impact. Had he uncorked a giant monologue probably would’ve felt more movie-ish and less lifelike.

Q: And it wouldn’t have been true to the character. James chooses his words very carefully.

A: It wouldn’t have been true to the style of the film, either. It’s neo-realist, not a stagey, theatrical movie.

Q: Could the film exist without this scene?

A: No. Both of those scenes, and the juxtaposition between them, sum up the film. In a lot of ways, the movie builds up to this scene, which is why I picked it for discussion. One of the central dramatic questions of this movie is, “What drives James?” And the movie poses the answer at the beginning, when it says, “War is a drug.” The rest of it is sort of an exposition of that thesis that drives to this moment, where you wonder how aware he is of his own inner life. By the end of the movie, he does, because he sort of explains it to his kid, but at this moment, he’s still putting it together.

Q: Have you gotten specific feedback from audiences in regard to this scene?

A: The supermarket scene is one that veterans in particular have pointed out to me - it’s probably the single scene that they talk about the most, which is surprising to me. It really seems to ring true to a lot of them in the sense of capturing that feeling of being lost when you come back to a normal life. It was a very personal scene for me, but you never know how something is going to land.

Q: Can you talk a bit about how the scene was personal to you?

A: I was only in Baghdad for about five seconds, but I felt enough of the sense of dislocation that it was meaningful to me. And I also thought it represented the guys that I knew and the statement that I wanted to make with the film, which is that people pay a price, and it’s a very grave one. Not to be didactic about it, but it bears repeating that war is hell. If it’s a cliché, it’s still true. And some of the deepest scars are psychological ones.

I’ve been writing about this conflict since it started in Afghanistan in 2001 and I did a lot of coverage of PTSD as an investigative reporter. And the great tragedy that has yet to be fully absorbed into the culture of this war is the psychological toll taken on these guys who keep having repeated combat exposure. To me, it’s unprecedented in the history of warfare that you have a small group that continually goes in, year and year after year. And it’s going to be a mental health disaster -- the Veterans Affairs Administration has no idea of how to deal with it, the DoD (Department of Defense) has no idea, and the psychiatric community really doesn’t know, because the disease, or trauma isn’t easily managed. It’s not something that psychologists and psychiatrists really know how to fix. And there isn’t even a good pharmacological fix for it -- it’s not like depression, which is also hard to fix, but at least they can medicate you to put a smile on your face. Not to get on my soapbox, but it’s really an important point that I wanted to make with this film.


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