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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

What's the most dangerous Army job in Iraq? Maybe it's defusing IEDs, car bombs and other insidiously hidden explosives, knowing that your 90-pound Kevlar body suit with protective ceramic panels will offer only limited protection if the bomb explosives.

The new film, "The Hurt Locker," is about an Army bomb squad in Iraq made up of three men, one who disarms the bombs and two sharpshooters who protect him while he works. My guests are the screenwriter, Mark Boal, and the director, Kathryn Bigelow.

Boal based the story on reporting he did in 2004, embedded with an Army bomb squad in Baghdad. The movie "In the Valley of Elah" was based on one of his articles.

Katherine Bigelow's other films include "Strange Days," "Near Dark," "Point Break," and "Blue Steel." "The Hurt Locker" is about the work of the bomb squad, but it's also about what leads men to choose this work and what the work does to them. Jeremy Renner stars as the sergeant who's just taken over the team. He's fearless and brilliant at diffusing bombs but often recklessly risks his life and the lives of his men.

In this scene, Renner and one his sharpshooters, played by Anthony Mackie, are in Renner's room. Mackie pulls out a box from under Renner's bed filled with fuses, wires and other remnants of bombs Renner has diffused.

(Soundbite of film, "The Hurt Locker")

Mr. ANTHONY MACKIE (Actor): (As Sergeant JT Sanborn) What do we have here?

Mr. JEREMY RENNER (Actor): (As Staff Sergeant William James) They're, you know, bomb parts, signatures.

Mr. MACKIE: (As Sanborn) I see that, but what they doing under your bed?

Mr. RENNER: (As James) Well this one is from the U.N. building, flaming car, dead-man switch, boom. This guy was good. I like him. This one, you know, is from our first call together. This box is full of stuff that almost killed me.

Mr. MACKIE: (As Sanborn) What about this one? Where is this one from, Will?

Mr. RENNER: (As James) It's my wedding ring. Like I said, stuff that almost killed me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Katherine Bigelow, Mark Boal, welcome to FRESH AIR. In "The Hurt Locker," we see bombs placed in all kinds of improbable places, including in a human body, in a corpse. And Mark, I'm wondering what are some of the bomb situations you witnessed or were told about by the men you embedded with?

Mr. MARK BOAL (Screenwriter, "The Hurt Locker"): Well, I remember being in Iraq for probably less than 24 hours, and somebody explained to me quite casually that he could have very easily put a bomb under the chair I was sitting on as we were having that conversation, and I would never know it, and just the realization that you can make a bomb that's small enough that, you know, it's no bigger than a bottle of water, really, and pretty much anywhere you could put a bottle of water, you could put a lethal device, and the insurgents in Iraq have been very clever and ingenious about finding places to put IEDs, and the whole sort of name of the game of the war over there is the American military is looking for the IEDs - it's almost like a giant - treasure hunt is sort of sort of the wrong word, but it's a giant game of hide and seek, and the insurgency or the resisting force, whatever you want to call it, is trying their hardest to find hiding places. So they end up putting them everywhere is the short answer to your question, anywhere you could imagine one being, they try.

GROSS: Anywhere you can imagine, but what were some of the more unimaginable places?

Mr. BOAL: Well, telephone poles, for example, was a sort of strange one. They started out very simply putting them in roads, in dirt roads, because it's easy to dig up a dirt road, put a bomb in it, cover up the dirt and walk away, and as a result of that, the Americans got very careful about the dirt roads they would drive on, and they would select their routes to stay on hard-top, tar roads, black-top roads.

And then so the insurgency switched and developed a method of ripping up the blacktop, putting a bomb underneath and putting fresh blacktop over and then aging the blacktop so it was indistinguishable from the rest of the road.

So then the Americans developed techniques to trigger the bomb before it hit the blacktop, and then the insurgents started putting them farther off the road into, into in some cases telephone poles, in some cases garbage cans, in vehicles of every kind, in donkey carts.

It really is one of those things where the threat is so ubiquitous that it's impossible to say with any certainty where it's coming from, and that's part of what makes the experience in Iraq so anxiety-producing for people that are over there.

GROSS: Katherine, the first IED that we see go off is in, it's close to the beginning of the film, and it's a really horrifying moment. I mean, you basically see, and I think you shot this, part of this in slow motion. You basically see the pavement lift up and fragment and fly into the air and then everything else just kind of explode around it into this, you know, ball of debris.

Can you talk a little bit about shooting that scene and making it have real impact, and by that I mean it's not special-effects impact. There's so many movies where things are always blowing up, and it's visually dazzling, but you don't necessarily feel anything. You're just thinking, like, wow pretty cool, stuff blowing up, big special effects, but this you really feel the threat and the impact and the danger and the horror.

Ms. BIGELOW (Director, "The Hurt Locker"): Well, I wanted to really put the viewer at the epicenter of the event and you know, really feel that horror, and we shot the movie in the Middle East. We shot it in Amman, Jordan. That particular location happened to have been in a very densely populated area.

In fact, it was near a customs house, and there was something like 200,000 cars that traveled through that area on a daily business, although we did shut that part of the city down temporarily. But it was a very densely populated area, and we knew that had to be a form and type of detonation that was very palpable.

When Mark spoke to the EOD(ph) techs in Baghdad, they spoke a lot about the fact that sometimes Hollywood movies, or in fact virtually in every case, the explosions in a Hollywood movies doesn't necessarily look like the real thing.

A lot of it has to do with what the matter is that's being detonated, but we were very interested in trying to replicate it as realistically as possible. In the case of a 155, which was the particular ordinance in the middle of the road, it was meant to have a very dark, dense, thick look that was very different than those kind of gaseous orange plumes or kind of fuel that perhaps maybe is more conventional in films.

Anyway, so we performed this detonation, and the effects man, Richard Stutsman, did an extraordinary job, but it was a very, very large - I think you could you see it for - it was like a four-story-high explosion that you could see for, you know, miles and miles, and he used something called a phantom camera, which shoots 10,000 frames per second, you know, to kind of look at the granular nature of a detonation of that size.

GROSS: Since you were setting off explosions that you could see four-stories high, for anyone in the area in Jordan who was hearing or seeing the blast, how would they know that there wasn't, like, war breaking down the street? How would they know for sure that this was a movie? How did you get the word out?

Ms. BIGELOW: Well, there's actually a fairly evolved filmic infrastructure in Amman, Jordan. There's a film school, as well, and many people in the area were actually aware that we were filming. We actually had been filming in the area for several days prior to the explosion. We were able to communicate with all of the individuals, all of the owners of shops and get the word out that this explosion was coming. So it was not something that was of any kind of surprise.

GROSS: Mark, when you were embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq, how close did you get to any of the explosions?

Mr. BOAL: Well, I got - you know, when you're embedded, unfortunately or fortunately, you're just sort of right there with the soldiers. So I was as close as the soldiers would be, and it depended. If they were a mile away, I was mile away. If they were 100 yards away, I was 100 yards away, and close enough that you can feel the heat of the explosion, which is really quite impressive and intense. It's almost like someone's taking a hair dryer and spraying your face and obviously close enough that the shrapnel is whizzing by around you, and it's very loud and percussive. It's like being at a rock concert.

GROSS: And does the bomb squad team have a pretty decent idea of what the range of the blast will be if the blast goes off so that they know what the safety zone is?

Mr. BOAL: They do. They're kind of - have a very keen sense about it, actually, and their whole expertise in terms of the physics is quite extraordinary and impressive. (Unintelligible) bunch of guys that are actually trained to diffuse nuclear bombs. So for them to calculate the physical blast radius of an IED is something they can do. It's the kind of math they can do in their head very quickly, and so they can tell you with a pretty high degree of certainty where the blast is going to go and what the impact will be on a given structure, whether it'll take down a house or put a hole in a house or whatever.

But again, that's assuming that they know exactly what the content of the bomb is, and some of the time they don't really know.

GROSS: We're talking about the new film, "The Hurt Locker," with screenwriter Mark Boal and director Katherine Bigelow. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're talking about the new film, "The Hurt Locker," with screenwriter Mark Boal and director Katherine Bigelow. The film stars Jeremy Renner as the leader of a bomb squad in Iraq whose job is to diffuse IEDs and other explosives.

Part of the drama in "The Hurt Locker" comes from those moments when the person on the bomb squad whose job it is to diffuse the bomb puts on the suit and does the walk, alone, to the bomb, and it seems like it would be one of the most lonely moments imaginable because you're cut off from the world by virtue of wearing this 90-pound suit, protective suit, and then also it's just like you, there, basically right next to the bomb trying to diffuse it.

Mark, would you talk a little bit about the reality of that situation, like what you witnessed when it was time for one of the men to take that walk alone?

Mr. BOAL: It's an everyday occurrence, so I don't want to over dramatize it, but there is something extremely iconic about that, and the bomb techs always talk about that walk, and it's really a mark of honor if you've done it, and it's really hard to quantify or explain if you haven't. But basically once you put on that suit, and you start walking towards the bomb, you're in a world at a certain point in which there is no turning back, and if the bomb goes back, you're dead. If you turn around and run, and the bomb goes off, you're dead. So the only option is to really go right into the teeth of the matter and diffuse it.

And they talk about how profoundly transfixing that moment can be and how at a certain point, say it's 50 meters out, you tend to have thoughts about your family or your friends or whatever, and then at 25 meters out, maybe your thought process changes, and your heart is now beating so fast that it's really just a kind of instinctual adrenaline moment, and all the way to the moment when you're actually standing over the bomb, and it's literally impossible to think about anything other than the simple mechanics of diffusing the bomb.

GROSS: Since some of the IEDs could be detonated remotely by, for instance, a cell phone, for the sharpshooters, if they saw anybody with a cell phone, like in the movie, they wouldn't know whether that cell phone was a detonator or just a phone, and so you're confronted with the decision: shoot or not. Is that something that the men you embedded with talked to you about or what you witnessed?

Mr. BOAL: Yeah, and you know, what was just so hair-raising about the whole thing is that all these little kind of moments of everyday life that we never think about as being particularly threatening or not take on this whole new aspect when you're in a war zone. And somebody taking out a cell phone and looking at you as he's talking on the phone, you wonder if he's, you know, is he calling his wife and saying I'll take the roast beef for dinner tonight, honey, or is he calling his friend who is an insurgent and saying hey, if you come across town, you can get an easy potshot on a bunch of American right now.

And it's just really - it's the culmination of the lethality of the IEDs and the unknowability for somebody that doesn't speak Arabic or that isn't really versed in the culture of, you know, of the motives of the people around you that makes it so hair-raising.

And in particular, the thing that they would talk about is the cell phones and also people signaling with flags and kites and that kind of thing, and there was a whole sort of semiotics about it, trying to figure out whether somebody putting a carpet, shaking a carpet out on their doorstep, was that because they were trying to clean their carpet, or was that because they were trying to signal the neighbor across the street that there were Americans coming.

GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about the casting. I mean, I think everybody who sees the film feels this way. One of the things that really throws you is that there are several pretty famous actors in the movie, including Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pierce, and you know, you see them, you think oh, you know, at first you think they're going to be the hero of the film, but I mean they're not necessarily. They don't even necessarily survive, and the people who are the real leads in the film, you've probably never seen before or seen only in small roles, and you think that's a familiar face. Where did I see them?

It's like reverse casting with lesser-known people in the big roles and the well-known people in the small roles. Why did you do that?

Ms. BIGELOW: Well, part of it was to intensify and increase element of suspense and tension and that you are looking at a face, you're looking at an individual for whom you have kind of an awareness of but not necessarily a specific - you know, he or she, or he in this case, doesn't come with a kind of provenance that therefore will protect him.

In other words, this is a major movie star. He can't - nothing can happen to him. His life won't be in peril until the end of the film, but if you take that out of the equation, then you're looking at these particular cases and looking at these characters, and anything is possible, and so I think it sort of amplifies the tension, and then taking a more familiar face and putting them in harm's way just kind of takes the balance and makes it more surprising, I think.

GROSS: You cast Jeremy Renner as the person who's the lead person in the bomb squad team. He's the person who actually diffuses the bomb, and he's a real hot dog. I mean, he is totally into risk, and he's willing to not only risk his life but to risk the lives of the other men on the squad in ways that are unnecessary and that violate protocol. How did you cast Jeremy Renner in that role and tell us who he is because most people will not have seen him before.

Ms. BIGELOW: Well, Jeremy Renner, in my opinion, is probably one of the most talented actors of his generation, and he's been in actually quite a few independent films and some semi-larger films but in smaller roles, and I became aware of him in a movie called "Dahmer," where he played Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer, and he elicited so much honesty and truth and actual empathy for a character of whom I couldn't even imagine having empathy for, and so I thought that it was a pretty profoundly evocative performance, and I was determined to work with him.

And then as Mark was developing the script, I began to see Jeremy Renner in that character of Sergeant James, who has a kind of bravado and a swagger and an almost reckless quality but combined with a profoundly able and capable skill set, and so, you know, I needed to create in that character and have an actor that can provide the authority to pull that paradox off.

GROSS: Katherine, one of the things that made an impression on me in the movie is that occasionally, there'd be, like, a stray feral cat walking across the street or down the street, and one of the cats has only three functioning legs, and one of the cats just looks half, like, starved to death and unhealthy and kind of afraid. And I was wondering, like, whether you cast these cats, whether these were, like stray cats that you found or that were actually - happened to be walking down the street.

Ms. BIGELOW: In all honesty, they happened to be walking down the street. Kind of the bonus of shooting in situ, in an environment that was in an area that was sort of, I suppose, down-marketed, shall we say. And so it's a matter of always keeping your camera department alive and looking in all directions just in case there might be some surprise, a beautiful woman up on a balcony, head shrouded in cloth, looking down, gazing down on you, and just trying to be very sensitive to the environment in which you're in and open and spontaneous and take that into consideration where you're shooting.

GROSS: You know, one of the things I got the impression of from your movie is that your movie is, in part, about men who have no talent for ordinary life, for life on the home front, for ordinary family life, that something is stirred in them being on the front lines, being in danger, being in a bomb squad. You know, that kind of work, but at the same time, you reach a point where you can't take that anymore, either, and then what are you left with?

And I guess I'd just be interested in some of the thoughts you had during the making of the movie about people for whom ordinary life isn't enough, isn't pleasurable or fulfilling in any way.

Ms. BIGELOW: Well, I don't know if you're familiar with Chris Hedges' book, "War is a Force that Gives us Meaning."

GROSS: Yes.

Ms. BIGELOW: It's a pretty extraordinary piece of writing, and he discusses that very fact, that sense of purpose and meaning that moments of peak experience can provide. In this case, we're obviously in combat, and as Mark mentioned earlier, it could come with, you know, race-car driving, or again, moments of peak experience - that once, you know, once that captures your imagination, it's a very difficult feeling, sensation, emotional peak to replicate other than in that context.

GROSS: Well Mark Boal, Katherine Bigelow, congratulations on the film. Thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. BIGELOW: Thank you very much.

Mr. BOAL: Thank you, thank you, it's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Katherine Bigelow directed the new film "The Hurt Locker." Mark Boal write the screenplay. You can watch clips from the film on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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