When it comes to extravagant Hollywood blockbusters, we’ve become accustomed to the phrase “the money is up on the screen” – delighting in the filmmakers’ own delight in the tools and tricks at their disposal.
“The Hurt Locker,” however, invites a very different kind of wonder. An independent with a budget of a mere $11 million, it is nonetheless more kinetic action film than many a title coming in at 10 times the price, immersing the audience in the sights, sounds and sensations of Iraq combat. The money is on the screen, sure, but the screen belies the money.
For this, the already multi-laurelled Kathryn Bigelow shares the credit with a highly resourceful and imaginative team of craftsmen, variously bringing mainstream studio-picture experience and indie-sector knowhow (or both) to the table.
I talked to cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, editors Chris Innis and Bob Murawski, sound designer Paul Ottosson and special effects supervisor Richard Stutsman about their contributions to this humble spectacular.
For Bigelow, capturing a sense of on-the-ground realism was of paramount importance, and factored into her choice of collaborators. A longtime associate of British social-realist doyen Ken Loach, Ackroyd brings a jagged documentary aesthetic to the production, while both Ottosson and Stutsman boast first-hand military explosives knowledge.
It was Ackroyd’s work on Paul Greengrass’s docudrama “United 93” that prompted Bigelow to contact him. “She wanted that kind of urgency and economy in her film,” he tells me. “I’m not very interested in tricks and techniques – I try to contribute to the content of the film, to allow the actors the freedom to get into the situation they’re playing. The cinematography should be part of the structure of the film.”
For Ackroyd, the vignette-based structure of Mark Boal’s script reflected the “one day at a time” mentality of the soldiers at its center, and necessitated a spontaneous, reportorial shooting style. He achieved this by using multiple handheld Super 16 cameras, four camera operators covering the action simultaneously.
“They couldn’t believe I wanted Super 16 – it’s not really the American way. But for me, it’s the most beautiful of formats. With Super 16, because I’m more aware of how I can move, I’m able to be more observational. With so many cameras, we could pick so many more details and cutaways in situ, little moments that you aren’t necessarily expecting. It gives you the liberty to keep the action running, even as you stop and reload.”
Ackroyd, who has also worked with such noted documentarists as Nick Broomfield, cites documentary filmmaking as his greatest creative influence. “Documentary gives you the ability to show mistakes, to show the process. Every frame is important, every moment is precious. So with a film like this, I approach every scene thinking, “If this was a documentary, what would I do?” And the most crucial thing is not to get in the way, and really watch what’s going on in front of you. You can feel when something special is going to happen.”
The shooting style left husband-and-wife editing team Innis and Murawski (a long-standing collaborator of Sam Raimi) with some 200 hours of footage to shape into a film that reflected what they describe as the “fresh, experiential” quality of the script the unconventional structure of which offered liberties as well as challenges.
Innis cut the film on location in Jordan, before returning to Los Angeles to work on the edit with Murawski – a process that took around six months to complete. In tackling the vast amount of raw material, they adopted a similar mindset to Ackroyd.
“It was a lot like editing a documentary in that sense,” they tell me via email. “An editor will often sift through all the footage trying to find the best moments, sewing together that magic, finding things that even the director, actors and the writer weren’t necessarily aware existed.
“A lot of what we do is editing for subtext or body language. It’s something the actors bring to the performance consciously, and even sometimes unconsciously, and we have to find those nuggets and a way to include them. It’s those little bits that can really bring a film to life and help create dramatic tension.
“The through line of the piece for us was the clash of wills between the characters. We always remained thoughtful of the story and tried to accentuate that as much as possible with the editing. Sometimes it is as simple as two characters exchanging glances that another character doesn’t see. If audiences care about the characters then they will be willing to submit to almost any film structure or rhythm.
Ackroyd, Innis and Murawski are in agreement that their first responsibility in each each scene was to sustain character dynamics, letting that drive the action rather than the other way round. Ackroyd describes the film as “not about war, but simply about people in a stressful situation, and how they manage it.” He continues, “I became very connected to the emotion of the whole thing. I wasn’t thinking about the camera so much as the whole, the story, the people. It became a very organic process.”
Innis and Murawski explain: “All the scenes are intimate character scenes, even the big action ones. That’s what sets this apart from other films that just have random things that going “boom” in them. We had to keep the character drama alive during the action sequences, just as much – if not more – as in the quieter more intimate moments.”
For Ottosson, a previous Oscar nominee for the sound editing of “Spider-Man 2,” the task of conveying the characters’ experience through the film’s complex sound design took on a personal meaning. Years ago, the Swedish native served two years in his national army, during which time he gained substantial experience with explosives. His own recollections from that time strongly informed his work on the film.
“Kathryn and I talked a lot about my military background, because she was so focused on authenticity,” he says. “Drawing on my personal experience, I wanted to bring some of my perception of what war sounds like. I’ll never forget the first time I detonated bombs – it’s not just how loud it is, but how deeply you feel the impact in your body. It’s horrendous, a terrifying experience. I wanted that discomfort to be present in the sound design.”
For Ottosson, this focus on realism necessitated a very different approach from the polished, booming soundscapes he has helped create for the likes of the “Spider-Man” films and last year’s “2012.” He proudly informs me that that “every sound in the movie is organic,” while the finished film has no more than five lines (“if that”) of ADR (audio dialogue replacement).
“In real life, in war, you don’t have big stereo sound,” he continues. “The way you perceive it is very mono. So I didn’t want it to be too slick. A big sci-fi film like “2012” gives you a very different sonic palette to work with; here, the aim was to create a real world.”
The “organic” quality of the sound work also bled into the film’s score: Bigelow hadn’t originally planned to have music in the film, but when that idea changed, Ottosson and composer Marco Beltrami (“3:10 to Yuma”) worked together to blur the line between sound and music.
“I gave Marco organic sounds recorded on location – street noise, the call to prayer – and he worked them into the score. On the flipside, I took piano and cello sounds and messed around with them, so we came out with kind of an abstract, funky design, where a lot of the ambient sounds are actually music. It’s a fantastic score.”
Like Ottosson, effects man Richard Stutsman was also concerned with bringing a more grounded quality to the film than his work on such major blockbusters as “Iron Man” and “Transformers.” Charged with creating the explosions that punctuate the action of the film, he drew on his own past experience as an explosives researcher for the U.S. Army.
“There’s a major difference between real explosions and Hollywood explosions,” he tells me. “In most Hollywood action movies, they like the big orange fireball kind of explosion. But in reality, the majority of what you see is debris and dust, with the fire in the background. That’s the effect we wanted to create here.”
As if Stutsman’s task wasn’t difficult enough, just getting his hands on the detonators required for the shoot in Jordan was a mission in itself.
“We’d ordered the detonators in L.A., but getting the stuff into the country was something else. The paperwork involved was mindboggling. We had to go through the Royal Film Commission, the Royal Family … it was some feat.”
The problems didn’t end there. “Half the stuff didn’t make it over,” he continues. “We eventually traced it down, and it was stuck in the Netherlands – just weeks before shooting was set to begin. So right up until the last minute, while we were waiting for the explosives, we had to make do by playing with Chinese firecrackers!”
Stutsman wasn’t the only one hampered by such hold-ups, as Innis had to wait for her Avid editing equipment to ship through customs – while shooting was already well under way. Making up for lost time proved difficult with multiple cameras shooting 12 hours a day with no let-up. As Innis explains, time was of the essence on this particular shoot: “This was the Middle East during the Iraq war Surge and it seemed that Kathryn Bigelow wanted to make sure she got everything so that we didn’t have to return. She did, and then some!”
This pressure, as well as the improvization dictated by tight budgetary constraints, comes naturally to Ackroyd, who describes the amount spent on some blockbusters as “obscene.” “The filmmaking I enjoy is about turning limitations into advantages,” he says. “It’s an ecological thing, in a way – this wasn’t a wasteful film. From my perspective, using just the basic tools of lens, depth of field and exposure, you can make the most thrilling special effects movie ever.”
It was, by all accounts, an intense 44-day shoot, one that wouldn’t have come together if the crew didn’t have share a mutual understanding of the objectives of the project. All the interviewees describe Bigelow as a calm, trusting directorial presence on set: as Ackroyd wryly notes, “There wasn’t much talking on set, so you knew things were going well.”
Ottosson, finally, concludes that the challenges of the shoot were essential to the spirit of the film itself: “You know, they’re a mile from the Iraqi border, it’s 120 degrees out there, there was a lot of pressure. But this is a story about tension, about pressure. When I’m working in an air-conditioned room in Los Angeles, sipping on a latte, it’s impossible to recapture that atmosphere. The environment of the shoot became part of the movie itself.”
In “The Hurt Locker,” then, there’s a lot more than money up on the screen.