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Posts Tagged ‘The Hurt Locker’

“I started out in newspapers, went on to narrative nonfiction magazine articles in the late 90′s, and then began trying my hand at screenwriting…In 2002, Kathryn Bigelow optioned a piece I did called ‘Jailbait.’ It became a short-lived TV show on Fox that she directed. That was really my introduction to television and film. Then I continued on the dual track I’m on now, trying to merge the two disciplines. This really started with The Hurt Locker, which was based on reporting, and continued with Zero Dark Thirty.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker)
Interview with Rob Feld
The Hurt Locker: The Shooting Script 

Here’s a link to Boal’s article Jailbait which got the attention of Bigelow.

P.S. Back in 1995 Boal graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio where he majored in philosophy. In this 2010 talk at the school Boal told students, “You have to be willing to get your teeth kicked in continually before you achieve even a modicum of success. And once you achieve that you have to be willing to put up with a bunch of rejection before you can get anywhere.” (I don’t get too much criticism from this blog, but when it comes it’s usually in the form of, “you make this sound too hard to do.” I think Boal’s quote and Twilight screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg‘s similar quote—“Don’t give up. You’re going to get kicked in the teeth. A lot. Learn to take a hit, then pick yourself up off the floor. Resilience is the true key to success.”—pretty much sum it up.

BTW—Two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, All the Presidents Men) graduated from Oberlin College with an English degree.

Related post:
Screenwriting Quote #126 (Mark Boal) Boal proves you don’t have to go to film school, but you do have to learn from others. (And it’s a bonus if those others are Oscar-winner Paul Haggis and Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow. The key is to write something good enough to get you in the room with that kind of talent.)
Hitchcock Loved The Hurt Locker
Screenwriter’s Work Ethic (tip#2)
First screenplay=9 Oscar Nominations
Beatles, King, Cody & 10,000 Hours
The 99% Focus Rule (Tip #70)

Scott W. Smith

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“Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose.”
Dillion High Motto

Okay, I know I’m late to the game but just last night I finally watched the pilot to Friday Night Lights that first aired in 2006.  Really great stuff. I’m so far behind that just over a month ago the series just finished airing its fifth and final season.

I was a fan of the Friday Night Lights book by H.G. Bussinger when it first came out in 1990, and enjoyed the 2004 film that was based on the book, so I don’t know what took me so long to getting around to the TV program other than I don’t invest too much time into television. From the start what I like about Friday Night Lights is it has a rich sense of time, place and people.

The TV version of Friday Night Lights was created by Peter Berg who wrote and directed the movie version and also the show’s pilot. In an interview with Jeffrey Brown, Berg had this to say about the program that over its five year run had a relatively small but faithful following:

“I think it’s become pretty clear in the last couple of years — I don’t know, four, five years — that mainstream audiences are looking for escapism in their films and in their television programs. They’re not looking to and I certainly understand why, they’re not being asked to work a lot emotionally or often times I think intellectually. That’s not to say that we’re lazy emotionally and intellectually, it just says that when we watch TV or go to the movies as a culture, we generally want to have fun and escape. And for “Friday Night Lights,” for a variety reasons, is not always a lot of fun and it’s certainly not an escape. I think that’s a similar problem to films like “The Hurt Locker” have encountered when trying to find and connect to, you know, large mainstream audiences.”

Berg was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Directing For A Drama Series for the pilot. And apparently the program stayed strong under the showrunner Jason Katims because Friday Night Lights picked up several nominations in 2010 including one for Outstanding Writing by Rolin Jones for his episode The Son.

Berg is also an actor who had roles in Chicago Hope and Collateral. I did a little digging and sure enough found a nice Midwest connection with Berg. Though born in New York City apparently he started taking acting classes in Saint Paul, Minnesota at Macalester College where he graduated in 1984 with a degree in theater.

Berg set the emotional and intellectual tone early in the opening show when the star quarterback who has his sights set on playing college ball at Notre Dame is paralyzed in the first game of the year. The show ends with Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) saying this prayer;

“Life is so very fragile. We’re all vulnerable and we will all at some point in our lives—fall. We will all fall. We must carry this in our hearts that what we have is special, that it can be taken from us, and that when it is taken from us we will be tested. We will be tested to our very souls.”

In my book, that’s pretty fine writing. And words that resonate beyond the football team at Dillion High School.

By the way, the star quarterback who is injured in that first program was played by actor Scott Porter.

“I played wide receiver for Lake Howell High School in Florida. We had a great team, went to the state semi-finals my junior and senior high, and had three future NFL players.”
Scott Porter

I happen to have played wide receiver at Lake Howell High School in Florida as well. (As did current Miami Dolphin wide receiver Brandon Marshall.) Doesn’t mean much, but still fun to make those little connections.

Here’s one last little connection that comes full circle to this blog. Diablo Cody (many of you know my inspiration for starting this blog three years ago) wrote her Juno script in Minneapolis not far from where Berg started taking acting classes. Turns out that Cody is a big fan of Friday Night Lights (“one of the best shows on television”) and even featured Kyle Chandler on her webshow Red Band Trailer.

Scott W. Smith



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Hitchcock loved The Hurt Locker? As in Alfred Hitchcock? Really? Hasn’t he been dead for like 30 years? Yes, I guess I should have said that “Hitchcock would have loved The Hurt Locker”—but that’s a long title, and less interesting. So why do I think the master of suspense and a psychological thrillers would have appreciated the film that picked up the best picture Oscar Sunday?

Well, in part because The Hurt Locker was suspenseful and psychological. But there are three other reasons that come to mind of why I think director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal tapped into the Hitchcock creative mindset as filmmakers.

1) Hitchcock said that the difference between shock and suspense was the difference between having a bomb suddenly going off surprising the audience (shock) and the audience seeing that there is a bomb under a table with a timer ticking down (suspense). The later being able to hold your attention for a long time no matter what the conversation is above the table. Bigelow and her editors knew they didn’t need to rush certain scenes and used the built in suspense to their advantage.

2) Little dialogue/strong visuals—Hitchcock came from the world of silent films and believed you only used words when the visuals didn’t tell the story. (Watch Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo, and The Birds to see excellent examples.) Bigelow studied painting before she became a filmmaker and The Hurt Locker is strong on visuals. Hitchcock embraced simplicity at times sometimes using little or no sound effects. Sometimes pulling the effects and music altogether for a dramatic effect. I’ve only seen The Hurt Locker once so far but I seem to recall the music and effects track being spartan at times. I’m sure much effort went into the sound design of The Hurt Locker but it didn’t overpower the track and at times seemed to be just actor Jeremy Renner breathing in his protective suit.

3) Hitchcock didn’t care about reality. There have been a few articles about how some bomb experts in Iraq don’t feel like the film was realistic. One used the words “grossly exaggerated.” Bigelow wasn’t making a documentary. She was making a movie. And movies as I learned in film school are “heighten reality.” Some cops never shoot their gun in their whole career, but that tends not to make for good drama. Hitchcock didn’t worry about reality and I’ll let him explain his reasoning, after all he’s the guy who had a chase scene on top of Mount Rushmore, a killing inside the UN building, as well as many other “grossly exaggerated” situations;

“To insist that a storyteller stick to the facts is just as ridiculous as to demand of a representative painter that he show objects accurately…We should have total freedom to do as we like, just so long as it’s not dull. A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow…I don’t want to film a ‘slice of life’ because people can get that at home, in the street, or even in front of the movie theater. They don’t have to pay money to see a slice of life. And I avoid out-and-out fantasy because people should be able to identify with the characters. Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story should never be banal. It must be dramatic and human. What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.”
Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock: The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock by Truffaut

Of course, the military leadership has to go on record saying that they aren’t looking for lone-ranger, hotshot cowboys on their bomb squads. And they probably don’t. But I image they realize  this will do a little for recruiting what the cocky, hotshot pilot Tom Cruise and Top Gun did back for Navy recruiting in the 80s. Bigalow and Boal have made rock stars of guys that risk their life to defuse bombs. (I read one reviewer who went as far as to say the movie felt like an Army recruitment film.) The movie hasn’t been seen any where near as much as Top Gun and flying a jet plane seems a little more glamorous, but I think that bomb disposal experts should be sending thank you notes to Bigelow and Boals because they have brought dignity and awareness to a job most Americans knew little about.

And if any bomb disposal experts in Iraq or Afghanistan read this, thank you for what you’re doing. I hope you come home safely soon.

And congrats to Bigelow and the whole Hurt Locker crew on the Oscar wins.

Related post: Pandora vs. Baghdad

Scott W. Smith

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Last week I was asked by Debra Eckerling to do my first ever guest blogging on her excellent Write On Online website. I appreciated the opportunity and wrote the following post after making the observation that there was a heavy dose of films made beyond what is known as the thirty mile zone in L.A. (As a side note, though Eckerling lives in L.A. these days she is part of the Midwest tribe invading Southern California, having been raised in the Chicago area and college educated in Wisconsin and Nebraska.)

The Oscars & Screenwriting East of L.A.

On my blog Screenwriting from Iowa I enjoy writing about screenwriters who come from outside L.A., not because I have anything against L.A., but because I think there are wonderful stories to tell from all over the world. The famous painter Grant Wood (American Gothic) was fond of talking about regionalism in painting. I’d like to think there is a regionalism brewing from a screenwriting and filmmaking perspective.

One thing that jumps out at me about this year’s Oscar nominations in both the original and adapted screenplay categories is every single one of the stories is set outside Los Angeles.

I haven’t seen all of the films, but after a little research I’m not even sure that of the 10 films nominated in the screenplay categories that there is a single scene even set in the state of California. Those are pretty staggering statistics considering that L.A. is the center of the film industry.

Original Screenplay Nominees:

District 9
Written by Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell; set in Johannesburg, South Africa,

An Education
Screenplay by Nick Hornby; set in England

In the Loop
Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche; set in England and Washington, D.C.

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
Screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher; set in New York City

Up in the Air
Screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner; set in various airports & airplanes around the county with key scenes set in Nebraska, Wisconsin and in the air over Iowa

Adapted Screenplay

The Hurt Locker
Written by Mark Boal; set primarily in Iraq

Inglourious Basterds
Written by Quentin Tarantino; set in France

The Messenger
Written by Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman; set in and around New Jersey

A Serious Man
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen; set in Minneapolis

Up
Screenplay by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter. Story by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, Tom McCarthy; set in South America

Just taking a cursory glance at all the films in every single Academy Award category and I don’t notice a single movie set in Los Angeles. There are films set in places like Michigan, Memphis, China, and of course, Pandora. This year’s films represent a global cinema.

Novelist and musicians have always been able to ply their trade in far away places that over the centuries has brought an original and rich texture to their work. It’s exposed readers and listeners to new worlds and experiences.

But because feature films usually take large crews and a good deal of equipment it has traditionally resulted over the decades in a good amount of stories that are L.A.-centered. And because of that screenwriters from all over have always been drawn to Los Angeles and end up writing more stories about L.A. (Or had their stories changed to be able to be shot in California.)

Perhaps we’re witnessing the end of a cycle that began 100 years ago when the movie industry moved from New York and Chicago to Hollywood. In 2008-2009 there was a lot of talk about L.A.’s runaway production and what to do about the shrinking number of films being shot on the streets of Los Angeles.

People can argue and blame it on the economy, unions, the high cost of shooting in L.A., tax incentives that are available all over the world, reality TV, the fact that people are tired of seeing the Santa Monica Pier, or the downsizing & democratization as the result of digital production, but the one thing this year’s crop of Oscars prove is that the door is wide open (slightly cracked?) for screenwriters who have stories that take place beyond the shadow of the Hollywood sign.

We may not be at that place where Francis Ford Coppola prophesied 20 years ago when he said that, “One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart” by making a film on her father’s videocamera. But things are getting very interesting.

Mark Boal who wrote The Hurt Locker is a good example of a screenwriter who did not take a traditional route to break into Hollywood. Though neither fat or a girl he did go to a small college in Ohio where he majored in philosophy. As a journalist embedded in Iraq it led to writing the story that became the film In The Valley of Elah.Then he took the next step by writing his first screenplay (The Hurt Locker) which not only got produced, but has been nominated for a total of nine Academy Awards.

* * *

In a related note, this year’s Oscars will be doing a John Hughes tribute. Hughes was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan until his family moved to the Chicago suburbs when he was a teenager.

You’ll be hard pressed to find a more successful mainstream Hollywood writer/director who was as much of an Hollywood outsider. Hughes, whose films include Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink. Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Christmas Vacation, and of course Home Alone, once told film critic Roger Ebert:

“I’m going to do all my movies here in Chicago. The (Chicago) Tribune referred to me as a ‘former Chicagoan.’ As if, to do anything, I had to leave Chicago. I never left. I worked until I was 29 at the Leo Burnett advertising agency, and then I quit to do this. This is a working city, where people go to their jobs and raise their kids and live their lives. In Hollywood, I’d be hanging around with a lot of people who don’t have to pay when they go to the movies.”

Scott W. Smith

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It’s my job to be cleaning up this mess
And that’s enough reason to go for me

It’s My Job
Mac McAnally

A couple weeks ago I touched on Mark Boal’s Oscar-nominated script for The Hurt Locker which deals with a group of guys whose job is on a bomb squad during the war in Iraq. It was a fresh angle to cover dramatically.  The Messenger is another Oscar-nominated script that also finds a fresh angle to the war, that of the officers who must report the death of a soldier to the next of kin.

“We quickly learned, by all accounts of the officers we spoke to and read about, that casualty notification is one of the most difficult jobs in the military—more difficult, some of them argued, than going into combat. This makes for rich dramatic territory to explore. If there’s one thing I know as a writer, it’s that you can always tell a story about someone doing a job. It can be a job with built-in conflict and high stakes (that’s why movies and shows about cops, doctors and lawyers keep getting made); it can be a prosaic job, seen in unique ways (taxi driver, mailman, gigolo); and if the job is unusual, thankless and dangerous—delivering death notices, firing other people, defusing bombs—one can immediately engage the audience’s curiosity and dread.
Alessandro Camon (co-screenwriter of The Messenger)
MovieMaker magazine
February 3. 2010

What are some of your favorite movies that show work in a unique way?

Scott W. Smith

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Once again I want to be fair and say not every writer needs to write five or ten screenplays to see their first one produced. Though that is more the norm the exception. Of course, the current jackpot winner of first scripts produced is Diablo Cody who wrote  Juno which won an Oscar. More recently, Mark Boal was nominated for an Oscar for his first script, The Hurt Locker. So it happens.  But I should also point out that both Cody and Boal were well-educated in writing and both had over a decade of regular writing behind them in other forms before they turned to screenwriting.

And I just learned of a 37-year-old writer who is more known as a game designer and video games journalist who had his first script attract the attention of the Hughes Brothers and Denzel Washington. The result, The Book of Eli is currently in theaters.

“In the case of (The Book of) Eli, the fact that it was a very simple plot and that the characters in my mind made it come together very quickly. Like I said, I was writing probably like sixteen or eighteen hours a day. I was just so into the idea that I couldn’t stop writing it and that’s why the first draft came together in six days.”
Gary Whitta
The Film Stage

No matter how you do the math, either the first time screenwriter or the person who wrote 10 or 15 scripts before they broke through, there are a lot of years and a lot of pages behind them.


Scott W. Smith

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When I was in high school there was a guy who was cut from a different mold and I always wondered what happened to him. I thought of him after seeing The Hurt Locker because to be on a bomb squad one has to come from a different mold.

Daws only weighed 135 pounds and he not only played football, he was a nose guard. (Not the place for little guys.) But he was tough. His helmet actually had the paint scratched off the front of it from hitting other helmets so hard. After one game which we lost we could hear him on the practice field in the dark hitting the blocking sled–which would not have the pads on it. Daws was a warrior and I’d be very surprised if he didn’t end up in the military.

One of the things I like best about The Hurt Locker is it isn’t about the war, but about the warrior. The kind of person that is more comfortable disarming a bomb than grocery shopping or updating his Facebook status.

Movies made in and around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, The Kingdom, Brothers , Redacted ,  A Mighty Heart, The Messenger) have one thing in common–they don’t find much of an audience. Unfortunately, The Hurt Locker joins the club.

Unfortunately, because it’s a great film. Time magazine called it “A near-perfect movie” and recently it tied Avatar with nine Academy Award nominations. Perhaps it will find a life on DVD.

While audiences have supported many films about war (including the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, & Viet Nam) Iraq appears to be a different monster. I’m not sure why this is the case, but I can speculate. Time would seem to be the first factor. I seem to recall an interview where screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart said that one of the troubles with getting An Officer and a Gentleman made was the lingering effect of the Viet Nam War.

Keep in mind that An Officer and a Gentleman was not a movie about Viet Nam, just military centered. The movie got made and was a box office hit, but it came out in 1982–eight years after US involvement ended. Granted The Green Berets was released in 1968 (during the war in Viet Nam) but that was because it was a film John Wayne wanted to make. But generally, the war in Viet Nam was avoided by Hollywood at first.

Certainly, The Deer Hunter (1978) dealt with the lingering effects of returning home from Viet Nam, but that is still four years removed from the conflict.  Apocalypse Now is almost its own genre that transcended Viet Nam, but still didn’t come out until 1979.

I think Platoon was the first movie that was a hard look at Viet Nam that found an audience, but that was 1986– a full 12 years after the war.  Then Viet Nam was in vogue in Hollywood, Good Morning Viet Nam (1987), Full Metal Jacket. (1987) , The Hanoi Hilton (1987), Hamburger Hill (1987), Casualties of War (1989) and Born on the Fourth of July(1989).

So I think time is needed for audiences to be comfortable reflecting on Iraq. When I last checked, we were still in Iraq. We’re still in Afghanistan.  And I think we now realize we will always be in a war with terrorism.

The second reason I think audiences aren’t fond of movies about Iraq is the shear politics of the matter. It’s hard for the word propaganda not to come up. People generally don’t like to heavy-handed arguments from either side. (Though I should point out that that Michael Moore’s documnetary Fahrenheit 9/11 made $119 million domestic/$222 million worldwide (on a $6 million budget.)

And thirdly, movies are largely about entertainment. Definitions usually include the words amusement, diversion, and pleasure. That doesn’t mean we don’t make difficult films–just pointing out that it is hard for those films to find an audience no matter how well they are made. We’ll see how Buried does this spring (about a an American contractor in Iraq) –sounds like an interesting twist and was well-received at Sundance.

The Gulf War was short lives and out of that came Three Kings and Jarhead that did find audiences but the expenses were so high that the domestic box office was below their budgets. Courage Under Fire (1996) had a solid cast Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, and a newcomer named Matt Damon and the budget was estimated to be below $50. million and made $60 million domestic and topped $100 million worldwide.

But with all those statistics there are said to be over  100 Iraq/Afghanistan-centered war movies in development.

How has Dear John been able to have a big box office run? I haven’t seen the film, but words that reviewers are fond of using are “syrupy,” “sentimental” and “schmaltzy.” Not the kind of film my high school friend Daws would be interested in seeing, but enough people were for it to double its money in just two weeks.

Related post: Screenwriting from Hell

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“[Kathryn] Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal…have made the first fictional feature about American soldiers in Iraq that doesn’t fall apart, or preach to a choir, or turn into a position paper.”
Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune

The Hurt Locker had a limited release last summer and never made it to my neck of the woods. Nor did the release in December. Which is too bad, because I think that the story which takes place in Iraq would have resonated well in a part of the country that attracts a lot of men and women into the military.

What’s worse though is it never found an audience in the theater so not many people got to see this great and well crafted film on the big screen. Fortunalty,  the film was nominated for nine Academy Awards which has helped it attracts more of a following. I watched the film this week and found this exchange on the commentary track between producer/director Kathryn Bigelow (K-19: Widowmaker, Point Break) and producer/screenwriter Mark Boal talking about the impetus of the film.

Mark Boal: (The Hurt Locker) sort of came out of a experience I had in Baghdad—in Iraq–where I was embedded as a journalist in 2004 covering the bomb squad and going out on daily missions with them and seeing the kinds of situations they got into. And it was a really eye-opening experience  just to witness the sheer onslaught of bombs that these three man teams would have to deal with at that time in the war. And I think that it took the military a little bit by surprise, it certainly took them by surprise. I wrote a article about the bomb squad and then felt that the story warrented a larger translation, perhaps into a film.

And when I came back from Iraq (I) presented the idea to Kathryn Bigelow, and I think you were intrigued–I don’t know if that’s putting words in your mouth…

Kathryn Bigelow: I was more than intrigued. I thought that these men have arguable the most dangerous job in the world, And that it’s a voluntary military, so that’s a very interesting psychological profile and I thought because we had an opportunity to look at this conflict through first hand observation of Mark’s embed I thought it was a pretty rare and extraordinary situation and could be a very interesting film. I also felt that the war was under reported and that I, being a member of the general public, I had very little idea what was going on over there. What EOD, IED–what these terms meant, And looking at a day in the life of a bomb tech really unpacked it.

Mark: So having secured Kathryn’s interest I set out to write a script on spec. Which means that there was no contract or money involved and we ended up producing the movie independently, raising the funds sort of outside the Hollywood system.

I hope that the film gains traction and I imagine as we look back on this era The Hurt Locker will be one of the defining film of the times.

A second rare and extraordinary situation is this is Mark Boal’s first screenplay.

And third rare and extraordinary thing surrounding The Hurt Locker is Kathryn Bigelow was once married to writer/director James Cameron who also has a little film out called Avatar which also has been nominated for nine Academy Awards. What are the odds of that combo ever happening again?

The Hurt Locker and Avatar are up against each other in the best picture category. Fantasy vs. reality. 3-D vs. 2-D.  Pandora vs. Baghdad. At the box office there is no question who the winner is–Avatar probably made more thanThe Hurt Locker in just its first weekend playing at the Archlight Cinema in Hollywood.

Avatar just became the top box office money-maker in the history of movies, and it would be poetic justice if The Hurt Locker took home the best picture Oscar next month. It would be well deserved.

Scott W. Smith

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“It’s my first Oscar nomination, my first screenplay. I think I should quit now, and take up a bonsai tree.”
Mark Boal

Quick what do screenwriters William Goldman and Mark Boel’s have in common? Let me back-up. You may be asking who is Mark Boal? He was just nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay The Hurt Locker. Though he received a story credit on In The Valley of Elah, The Hurt Locker is his first screenplay.

Since I write a lot about how common it is for writers to write anywhere between 6 & 23 screenplays before they make their make their first sale, I thought it would be fair to point out the exception to the rule. But before you think it’s that  easy, let me get back to what Boal’s and Goldman have in common.

They both went to Oberlin College in Ohio. (Goldman was an English major and Boal graduated in ’95 with honors in philosophy.)

Boal went on to write articles for The Village Voice, Rolling Stone Magazine, Budapest Sun, Mother Jones, The New York Observer and Playboy.

“Before 9/11, I covered politics, the war on drugs, technology and the Internet in relationship to privacy, but it was always hard news and investigative reporting. Then Sept. 11th happened, which was a big turning point for me in terms of what I wrote about. After that, I started covering the war on terror and writing about the military. “
Mark Boal
Variety

It was while being embedded as a journalist in Iraq that he came up with both ideas for In The Valley of Elah and The Hurt Locker. The later being a film that equaled Avatar with nine Oscar nominations and that Roger Ebert named as the second best film of the last decade. Not a bad start for Mr. Boal.

Scott W. Smith


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