Disarming Baghdad: The Most Dangerous Army Job? Ever wonder what it's like to defuse bombs for a living? In their film The Hurt Locker (out now on DVD), director Kathryn Bigelow and journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal paint a vivid picture of a dangerous pursuit — and of the men who are drawn to it.

Disarming Baghdad: The Most Dangerous Army Job?

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for 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 explodes.

The film "The Hurt Locker," which just came out on DVD, 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. The film made many end of year top 10 lists, and Stephen King in Entertainment Weekly called it the best movies of 2009.

Today's next guests are the movie's screenwriter, Mark Boal, and its director, Kathryn Bigelow. Boal based his screenplay on reporting he did in 2004 embedded with an Army bomb squad in Baghdad. The movie "In The Valley of Ella" was based on one of his articles.

Kathryn 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 is fearless and brilliant at diffusing bombs but often recklessly risks his life and the lives of his men.

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

(Soundbite of movie, "The Hurt Locker")

Mr. ANTHONY MACKIE (Actor): (as Sgt. 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) Yeah. Yeah. 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)


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've tried.

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, 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 basis, 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 movie 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 of 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 I 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 out 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, you know, 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 intensive. It's almost like someone's taking a hair dryer and spraying it in 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 did 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 of that, actually, and their whole expertise in terms of the physics of it is quite extraordinary and impressive. I mean these are 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 gonna 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.

BIANCULLI: Screenwriter Mark Boal and director Katherine Bigelow of "The Hurt Locker," speaking to Terry Gross last year.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2009 interview with Katherine Bigelow, the director of the new film "The Hurt Locker," and Mark Boal, its screenwriter.


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 off, 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 really 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 that 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 combination 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 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 to that, of 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 Pearce, 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 the 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 faces and looking at these characters, and anything is possible. And so I think it sort of amplifies the tension.

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 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 a down market, 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.

BIANCULLI: Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenplay writer Mark Boal of "The Hurt Locker" speaking to Terry Gross last year. The movie just came out on DVD. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein on "Fish Tank" and I'll look at one of the newest, nastiest on-air battles in the TV talk show wars. This is FRESH AIR.

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