By Ben Garfinkel
Mark Boal ’95 recently won Best Original Screenplay at this year’s Oscars for The Hurt Locker. He spoke in Finney Chapel yesterday as our second Convocation Speaker of the semester.
F+L: How did you fit into the Oberlin scene?
Mark: I was born and raised in New York City, where I lived most of my life, so it was quite a transition to come to a small town in Ohio, and I won’t say it was an easy transition. There was definitely a learning curve for how I could fit in here, but I think that one of the great things about this school– part of the upside of the isolation of the place–is that it does compel you, whether you want it or not, to dig in deep with your work and with the other students. So the proximity creates an intimacy that may otherwise not exist at a larger school.
F+L: How did you make the jump from a philosophy major to a war journalist? Did you know you were interested in journalism?
Mark: I was thinking about it when I was at Oberlin, yeah. But [I did not] write for the Oberlin paper, and I was not one of those guys who wrote for the high school newspaper or anything like that. I pursued [journalism] more or less after a year or two after getting out of school…I loved journalism growing up. [My] fondest memory of my father, who passed away this year, was waking up in the morning and reading the New York Times with him, going over the sports pages, discussing the game from the point of view of whoever was writing about it in the Daily News or the post or the New York Times, so I really grew up loving that whole world.
F+L: How was the transition from non-fiction to fiction?
Mark: [That’s] a big, giant question that is hard to answer because it is not that focused. In general, there was a learning curve, and I studied really hard. Well, let’s not say really hard–but I studied the example of people that I admired, in terms of screenplays of writers that I admired and looking at movies analytically. It was definitely a challenge, let’s say, but there were some values from journalism that I was able to import into screenwriting, values that in turn had come from something they used to call ‘new journalism’ that came from the idea of merging elements of journalism with some of the techniques of fiction. So some of the basic building blocks of story telling were already familiar to me, like narrative drive, and scene setting, and character, and building to an emotional depth were things that I had discussed. It was a big jump, but I had felt like I had been a professional writer for a decade. So it wasn’t like I felt like I was starting completely from scratch.
F+L: In your experience, what advantages does film have over journalism? What are its limitations?
Mark: The simple fact is that many more people will be exposed to a film than to an article, and one of the motivations I had writing the screenplay [to The Hurt Locker] is that I felt the story warranted retelling in a larger fictional context. One of the things that I was aware of when I went to Iraq was how much I learned about [the Vietnam War] from the films that were made about it; movies like Apocalypse Now, and movies like Full Metal Jacket, and movies like Platoon really gave me one of my primary lenses through which to view the war. Part of why we made Hurt Locker was hoping that we could make a movie that could stick around for a while and could be for people who didn’t experience the war [so they] could see what it was like.
F+L: There is a common criticism about war films in general that they tend to romanticize soldiers, but I think it is safe to say that The Hurt Locker is a more realistic war film than others. Was your portrayal the bomb squads a response to this trend?
Mark: The media is inherently aspirational, let’s say, because you are portraying someone fifty feet high, and the very act of doing that sort of holds the image up as something you are supposed to behold and let sink in. We could have a fairly long conversation about the aesthetics and politics of film, but we were certainly aware that some war movies do that, and I personally felt that if we kept as close to the story as we wanted to tell, that was going to be our safest ground.
I am happy with the way that turned out…When I was in Colorado, one of the people I bumped into was Dexter Filkins who, as you may know, is the Baghdad Bureau Chief of the New York Times, and he spent much time in Bagdad and also in Kabul, thinking about and examining the war, [probably more than] anybody on the planet. For him to come up to me and say, ‘Hey man, that was really cool. I remember stuff just like that, standing on that street, having that same sense of anxiety and uncertainty [as in The Hurt Locker],’–that to me is the highest compliment. What we were trying to do is portray a nuts and bolts aspect of what the war is like. When you get into the theoretical ‘let’s scratch our heads’ aesthetic—it’s interesting, but it seems kind of like a parlor game to me.