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The Story Behind The Hurt Locker

Kathryn Bigelow's amazing combat pic The Hurt Locker arrives in cinemas this week.

If you haven't seen it, we can't recommend it highly enough - it's taught, emotional, destructive and tough.

But given its explosive subject matter, the film has taken a rocky road through development. Here's how it made it from the words of journalist Mark Boal to the screen...



1. The war away from home

The Hurt Locker got its start with Mark Boal, freelance journalist and source/co-writer for Paul Haggis' Iraq-afflicted drama In The Valley Of Elah.

His experience on the ground with bomb-disposal teams led to plenty of material that he could pour into a script: "I was an embedded reporter in Iraq and I came back from having spent some time with the bomb squad and watching them disarm bombs in the heat of combat."

And he explains exactly what it was that drove him to start figuring out how to turn his experiences into his next screenplay.

"I was really struck by the personalities that I met over there. I just really wanted to tell a character story that took you past the headlines of what it means to be a hero, to look at somebody who has a lot of courage and bravado and pays a price for that.

"That was really the starting point – starting from character more than any particular plot line. Then it became about marrying that character, or those different characters, with a through line."

He also wanted to stay away from the now-typically bombastic war movies the we've traditionally seen.

“I don’t think any of it was Hollywood-inspired. It was inspired by real life.

"It’s a composite of different people that I met. My source material was the reporting that I’ve done. I didn’t have a bunch of cinematic references.”

All he needed now was a collaborator...

Next: Cinematic potential

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2. Cinematic potential


Enter director Kathryn Bigelow, who saw definite potential in Boal's material. "I think the Iraq War was a very under-reported one, especially in US," she told Variety when asked why she chose to get the script written.

"I wanted the on-the-ground information and I thought his stories were incredible."

Boal and Bigelow first met when she optioned one of his earlier articles, a piece about a police officer going undercover at a high school that she helped turn into an unsuccessful TV pilot.

Working entirely on spec, the pair began work on getting the screenplay into shape. "It's the way one works if you want to do a real passion piece, uncompromised," says Bigelow.

The story would be focused on EOD - or Explosive Ordinance Disposal - squads, soldiers who literally push themselves into harm's way to dismantle and defeat bombs left by insurgents. "This is a war of bombs. What does that mean?" says Bigelow.

"Who fights that war? The EOD squads are the primary men on the ground that you need for this conflict."

And she got some advice from a big name former flame...

Next: A return to form

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3. A return to form


The Hurt Locker was planned as Kathryn Bigelow's return to cinema after 2002's K-19: The Widowmaker.

The sub-tragedy drama hadn't exactly floated at the box-office and Bigelow had spent the intervening years directing TV episodes and searching for her next big project.

In early 2007, she was debating exactly what that would be, erring between Mark Boal's Hurt Locker script and another potential movie.

One piece of advice came from a solid cinematic source: ex-husband James Cameron.

"I  encouraged her to make Hurt Locker," Cameron told David Poland at Comic-Con. "Because I really enjoyed the script and a lot of the power of the performances originated in it."

But according to Cameron, that's not the sole reason The Hurt Locker succeeds. "Kathryn has a pitch-perfect ear for b******t. She knows when something is false.

"And that's why those people are so real - it makes the film such a white-knuckler and almost difficult to watch, but in a good way.

"I think this could be the Platoon for the Iraq War."

Strong words - but they seem to be coming true.

Now what she needed was a cast...

Next: Big names, big budget?

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4. Big names, big budget?

The original plan, back when Locker was announced in 2007, was to feature big-name actors in the lead roles, which would have given Bigelow the hefty budget the project originally demanded.

Colin Farrell would be playing the main bomb disposal tech, with Ralph Fiennes and Willem Dafoe (ironic, given James Cameron's earlier Platoon statement) backing him up.

Charlize Theron, meanwhile - no stranger to Iraq War-flavoured dramas after In The Valley Of Elah - would play the lead's home-bound wife.

But while everything seemed to line up - somewhere along the line the film morphed from the A-list actor-heavy drama to more in line with Bigelow's indie sensibility.

Instead, younger actors Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty were hired to play the three very different bomb-tackling troopers.

Lost's Evangeline Lilly scored the role of Renner's wife, and the only A-list name stars were reduced to cameos.

Look out for Guy Pearce early on, with Ralph Fiennes and David Morse both turning up later in the film.

With lesser-known thesps tackling the lead roles, Bigelow could push the realism levels higher...

Next: Gunning for realism

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5. Gunning for realism


"Each of the actors, because of schedules, had different amounts," remembers Bigelow. "But they all did technical training. Jeremy Renner went to Fort Irwin in California to work with bomb techs and got very versed in the protocol and logistics of bomb disarmament.

"Anthony Mackie did something similar at Fort Bragg and Brian Geraghty worked with the techs in Jordan."

Renner recalls that his training nearly did him in. "The guys at Fort Irwin put me through a test. First a physical test, and then they do a mental aptitude test.

"They put you in the suit and show you how to work the controls. The suit weighs about 100 pounds, and it's as cumbersome as it looks.

"Just getting up and down is very tough. I remember when I first put it on, I was like, 'oh, this isn't as bad as i thought!' I was doing jumping jacks like an a***hole, thinking I was cool. And then 20 minutes later I wanted to kill myself."

And Bigelow made sure that she consulted military types every step of the way.

"We actually had quite a few military, some had spent time in EOD, some had just spent their tours of duty in Iraq and around Baghdad, so we always had some military advising us and on set every day.

"It was a very well-observed, well-researched production."

It also strived for realism in its setting. Think of it as location, location, location...

Next: Desert of truth

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6. Desert of truth

Originally, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd had wanted to shoot the film in Iraq, just across the border from the Locker's final main location in Jordan.

Sadly for Bigelow and her crew, the dangers of mines and snipes in the country meant that their security team just wouldn't allow it.

Still, the team lucked out. Having considered the likes of Mexico and Morocco and been denied access to a US military base in Kuwait, the decision to settle on Jordan brought plenty of opportunities.

"It was an incredible place to shoot the film," Bigelow told Popular Mechanics. "My feeling, of course, was to get as close to the war zone as possible.

"We were in and around the city of Amman, and at some points were within three miles of the Iraqi border. We were very close. That gave us the architecture, and the landscape enabled me to shoot 360 degrees."

Filming in the desert, of course, brought its own challenges...

Next: Tough breaks

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7. Tough breaks


Shooting wasn't easy for anyone - particularly the leading man wedged for some of the time inside a stifling, protective bomb-defusing suit.

Yes, it really can be tough maintaining your cool when the temperature outside on location is 120 degrees and your cinematographer is down with heat stroke.

''Every day we were just trying not to pass out,'' Renner recalls about acting in the hefty get-up. ''I was trying to MapQuest my self-respect and dignity constantly.''

And while Anthony Mackie didn't have to suit up, he faced his own challenges - including shooting a scene where he's supposed to be absolutely still under sniper fire and a fly lands on his eyeball.

To the man's credit, he didn't flinch, and Bigelow immediately put the moment into the movie.

Bigelow didn't make it easy for them, though - she had a stealthy idea to capture footage...

Next: Stealth shooting

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8. Stealth shooting


To keep the actors on their toes - and to maintain the sense of immersive realism, Bigelow chose to keep several cameras running at once, shooting from different locations and never quite letting her actors know when they might be on camera.

Off-putting? Not according to the director. "I think it was actually not challenging at all, it was kind of exciting and exhilarating.

"And once the actor got used to the surprise of the camera—or absence of a camera where you think one might be—then suddenly there's maybe a total immersion and a kind of purity to that experience.

"So rather than give a particular segment of that scene a particular nuance for that particular kind of camera lens, you're actually performing a bomb disarmament from beginning to end, and the cameras are there catching that bomb disarmament."

“Half the time we didn’t know where the cameras were, so that made it kind of exciting,” says Jeremy Renner. “We called them ninja cameras. They were hiding out in trunks of cars and on camels. Sometimes Kathryn didn’t even know where they were. She’d say, ‘Where’s the fourth camera?’”

Next: Trailer time

And so, to the trailer...

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9. Trailer time


 Shot in 2007, The Hurt Locker needed a cash boost and a distributor before it could reach cinemas.

But with Twilight producers Summit on board, the film has become a festival favourite and is now about to hit the rest of us.

And as the perfect happy ending, it's largely rave reviews across the pond, and looks like a possible Oscar-scooper come the ceremony next year.

Who said originality was dead?

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