Anatomy of a Contender: 'The Hurt Locker'


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Standing in the middle of Madaba, a Palestinian refugee camp near the border of Jordan and Iraq, Kathryn Bigelow thought she might have erred in choosing to a shoot a night sequence in such a volatile area.

"As soon as we started (filming), a crowd of young guys gathered around," she recalls. "Some rocks were thrown, and a few fights broke out."

But Bigelow was adamant in her desire to film a war movie while that same war raged just a quick car ride away. "I was convinced that this is the way the story had to be told," she says.

That willingness to shoot in Madaba was only a small sign of the confidence that would guide "The Hurt Locker" through a battle field of obstacles on its way to awards season.

The journey began in 2004, when journalist Mark Boal spent weeks embedded with a U.S. Army bomb squad working in a particularly dicey section of Baghdad.

"It made a deep impression on me," Boal recalls. "When I got home, I thought 'People have no idea how these guys live and what they're up against.'"

Boal believed that telling their story required a broad medium, so he decided to write his first screenplay. He had met Bigelow a few years before, so he approached her about collaborating. The director sparked to the idea, so he turned out countless drafts until he finally convinced her that this was her next project.

Partnering up as producers, the two began looking for financing.

Given the subject matter (most studios already had Iraq war movies in development; and those that had been released had flopped) and Bigelow's recent track record (she hadn't made a major studio picture since 2002's "K-19: The Widowmaker, which grossed just $35 million domestic), studio money was not an option. The pair made pitches to the indies and specialty divisions but there were no takers.

It wasn't until producer Nicolas Chartier of Voltage Pictures became involved that the film started to come together.

Bigelow wanted to use a relatively known cast because she felt the lack of stars would keep the audience guessing who would live and die.

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But without a bankable actor, Chartier believed the film would never recoup the $30 million he thought it would cost to make. A budget to shoot in Morocco was drawn up for around $20 million but it was still too much.

Bigelow pressed on. With fellow "Locker" producer Greg Shapiro, she decided on Jeremy Renner for the lead and Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty for key roles. Chartier said he couldn't raise the capital necessary to shoot the film with that cast unless Bigelow agreed to cut one or more of the complex action set pieces in the script.

"That was probably the second time that I thought this is never going to happen," says Boal.

Then a good friend of Boal's, someone with family connections to the CIA, suggested shooting in Jordan. Boal and Bigelow charged a scouting trip to Jordan on their credit cards.

The country's Royal family promised unprecedented levels of cooperation, including use of military equipment purchased from the U.S. Plus, the aesthetics of some neighborhoods in the capital city of Amman were nearly identical to those found in Baghdad.

Above all, shooting in Jordan meant being extremely close to Iraq and the ongoing war.

"There was no question it excited me," Bigelow says. "I wasn't afraid it all. I would have taken the show to Iraq if I could have."

Chartier crunched the numbers -- no easy feat in a country unaccustomed to productions of "Locker's" magnitude -- and a Jordan shoot was achievable on a budget of around $15 million. Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes were added to the cast in minor roles for at least some name-value. Now all they needed was a crew willing to work in the Middle East.

"We literally called everyone in the phone book," Boal recalls.

The problem was not just that Jordan is located in a hotbed region -- Israel on the right, Iraq on the left. Suicide bombers had recently orchestrated a synchronized detonation in three separate American hotels in Amman, killing about 60 and wounding another 110. These were the same hotels the "Locker" production was planning to use.

The Hyatt had "a really strange lobby," Boal recalls. "It's really big and there are concrete barriers in the front, I said, 'Why is the lobby designed this way?' and they said, 'That's because if there's an explosion on the ground floor we set the building back so the first and second floors wouldn't be affected."

After a bond company threatened to pull out when the production lost a line producer, filming finally began in July 2007 -- without a local bank for the first three weeks.

The challenges of pre-production quickly paled in comparison to the difficulty of lensing seven complex action pieces during the 44-day shoot. The cast and crew worked 12 hour days, 6 day weeks in a Jordanian summer with temperatures as high as 120 degrees.

When not shooting, Boal and Bigelow wrote and storyboarded on the fly, adapting the script to take full advantage of the locations and elements.

No one suffered quite like Renner, who shot several sequences wearing an 85 pound bomb suit.

"The AC in the suit could not be used because of the sound it created," recalls Shapiro. "Between takes someone would keep a cold wash cloth on his head to prevent against heat stroke." Sickness was common. The production had no trailers, so sometimes the only shade available on hand was provided by Bedouin tents.

Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd went down from heat stroke several times, once while filming a grueling set piece.

"The week from hell," Mackie recalls. "Jeremy and I were just laying out there baking in the sun for hours and hours. Thirty pounds of gear, laying on your stomachs, 115 degree heat bouncing up off the sand and into your face. We were covered in flies. As uncomfortable as it looked on film is how uncomfortable it was in real life."

"I think we all had a nervous breakdown or two or three," Renner recalls. "I kept telling my mom to Fedex my dignity back to me."

Despite the efforts to get the details of the situation right, not all locals embraced the filmmakers.

"We all got death threats at one time or another," Boal says. But locals were hired whenever possible and in some cases were mentored. "The more that we did that, the more the Jordanians felt like we weren't imperialists," says executive producer Tony Mark.

Shooting the scenes in Madaba would prove to be a test of the filmmakers' communication skills. Once the camp of refugees was fully aware of what was going on, all volatility subsided.

"At one point, a camp elder dressed in traditional garb came out and brought me a cup of tea," says Bigelow. "That calmed everyone down. In the end we had a lot kids watching the production and they would clap when I would say, 'Cut.'"

After editing over a million feet of footage, Bigelow premiered the film at the Venice film festival before arriving at Toronto in 2008, where Summit Entertainment snapped up the film for about $1.5 million.

"Once the lights went down it was a roller-coaster ride from the very beginning," says Summit's Rob Friedman.

So was the film's journey to the screen.