Read the full transcript from BAFTA Screenwriters' Lecture Series: Mark Boal
Jeremy Brock: Hi, I’m Jeremy Brock. Thank you so much for coming this evening. On behalf of the British Academy, welcome to the eighth year of the International Screenwriters’ Lectures, held in conjunction with Lucy Guard and the JJ Charitable Trust. These lectures, as some of you will know, rely entirely on Lucy’s generosity for the funding and also on the commitment of BAFTA’s staff. And I would like to thank in particular the tireless and indefatigable Mariayah Khaderbai, the series’ ridiculously modest sine qua non. Without Mariayah’s obdurate refusal to take no for an answer these lectures simply wouldn’t happen, so thank you, Mariayah.
Indeed. This year we have gathered together an extraordinarily gifted quartet of screenwriters and auteurs, beginning with tonight’s opening lecturer, the world-renowned, Oscar-winning, BAFTA-winning screenwriter Mark Boal. Mark’s credits include three astonishing films: The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and the searingly powerful Detroit. Working in collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow Mark’s screenplays, anchored by his experience as a journalist, pulsate with a forensic attention to detail and unflinching grip on truth and a supreme gift for storytelling. BAFTA is hugely proud and honoured to welcome such a great talent. We will begin this evening with a short montage of his work, after which Mark will lecture, followed by a moderated Q&A with broadcaster and novelist Francine Stock, and then of course as always we will open it up to questions from the floor. So would you very kindly queue the montage, after which Mark will come up. Thank you.
Mark Boal: Thank you. Is this on? Is this working? Very kind of you. I’m actually quite glad that Kathryn Bigelow is not here tonight, because if she saw that last clip out of sync... And I have a whisky, this is perfect. It is actually a great pleasure to be here in the cultural heart of London, and I would like to thank my lovely hosts, Mariayah, who’s already been thanked, but also Amanda Berry, Jeremy Brock, Lucy Guard and Cassandra Neal.
[Drinks] Ok, I might do that a few times. But yeah, truly, truly happy to be here and I’ll tell you why. It’s not just because BAFTA is an important cultural institution which is needed now more than ever in this climate of rapacious commercialism; it’s not just because BAFTA stands for truth and integrity and innovation in the arts, values which are not invincible or almighty, but are in fact quite fragile and must always be nourished and renewed; and I’m happy to be here not just because I’ve received two BAFTAs, and the encouragement that they confer has pushed me to continue to try my hand at serious work; And I’m happy to be here not just because we’re going to have a probing talk tonight, which is going to make us incrementally better people—or at least that’s the hope. The truth is, if I’m completely honest with you—which I’m going to try to be completely honest with you tonight—I’m happy to be here because I’d be happy to be just about anywhere that wasn’t the United States of America right now, and particularly Los Angeles.
I’m not sure that there’s any community more shameful today than Hollywood, now the sex crime capital of the world, possibly only beaten by Bangkok or the US Senate, Congress and the White House. Maybe we would include Nigel Farage and the media in that bunch, I don’t know. But I lose either way because before I was a screenwriter I was a journalist, so I do seem to have a flair for joining publicly disliked communities. And let me just say, although it sort of goes without saying, the sexual criminality that has come to light among Hollywood’s most powerful men stains all of us, but I know for a fact, and I know from my own experiences working on three motion pictures with a female director, that sexual oppression, while it may be prevalent, is not inherent in the arts or the demands of creative work.
It seems odd to have to say this but I’ll say it: It’s entirely possible to be creatively unshackled and free, to scoff at convention, to dismantle taboos on screening—on screen, excuse me—while retaining absolute respect in real life for the boundaries of other people. And I would argue that it’s actually easier to make humanistic art if you practice straightforward humanism in your dealings with real people.
Now having said that, what I’d like to focus on today is something that I think is a bit lost in the current conversation about the criminal behaviour of powerful people, although I hope you won’t think it’s too cynical if I point out that Harvey Weinstein’s exposure as a sociopath coincided with his loss of economic power in the film space. In any event, I’d like to turn to the actual work that’s being produced in California right now in the mainstream kind of area of the movie business. And I do feel somewhat qualified to comment on this even though all my movies have been independent films. I have a fairly good idea of what they’re up to at the studios since many of my friends work there and I have been known to go to a studio party from time to time.
OK, so there are two articles of faith, and forgive me if you already know this, but some of you, in your sort of cultural isolation in the United Kingdom may not know this. There are two articles of faith that hold sway today in Los Angeles: the first article of faith is that in the American movie business, the room for serious, popular art is basically gone. The movie business has shifted nearly all of its energy to the tent poles of the youth market—I think you know the films I mean, I won’t mention them… Maybe I will, I’m talking about the superhero pictures that are all quite similar to each other, that feel as if they’ve been engineered rather than written. They are essentially high surface value commercials, and I mean that in a technical, literal sense of a commercial, that these are motion pictures used to sell action figures, video games, theme park tickets and so on. And the truth is the ancillary value of all those other products collectively outweighs the economic value of the movies themselves.
Having said that, I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong with this trend, which we’ve been living with for some time right now, any more than I think it’s wrong to read fairy tales to children. These are stories for kids, which is just fine with me, and actually some of them do contain quite skilful story telling and fine acting—Logan comes to mind as an example of that. And more importantly nearly all of those movies have a global impact. And the truth is that nobody in Fallujah saw Detroit, but I imagine some people there did see Captain America. And in the big picture, the tent poles—the very big picture—do push out a value set, a basic value set, of let’s say the importance of fair play, equal opportunity, justice winning over evil. And these values are in fact pillars of Western culture. And just as an aside I know the folks who work in the sort of counterterrorism business consider these films to be very important transmitters of democratic ideals. Believe it or not, they do.
So, I don’t think theme park movies are some degrading or pernicious influence, except insofar as they suck up energy and money that was once devoted to making movies for adults, what you might call real movies.
OK, that’s the first trend. The other trend that’s going on in Hollywood right now, the second article of faith, is that we ought not to be too terribly discouraged by the industry’s shift towards making movies for kids because the adult material has simply migrated to television. As I’m sure you’ve heard, TV is where the action is for a writer these days. The line is that on TV, creative risks are rewarded. On TV, complex subject matter is encouraged, morally ambiguous characters are welcome, and so on.
I think the notion that TV is a saviour might be slightly exaggerated for reasons which I won’t get into. And although the gap is closing between movies and films, and there are creative possibilities let’s say that are latent in the form of television that I think have yet to be explored, and I don’t hold myself above television in any way—in fact I’m writing a television series right now about the US presidential election, the most recent one. The working title of that was going to be What the Fuck Just Happened…
But I mentioned that at a dinner that a Clinton camp person was at and she stole my title for her book. So now my working title is The End of the Republic. But in any event, I’m not ready to give up on movies because I happen to believe—I do believe this—that neither the tent poles nor the abundance of highly addictive television quite replicate the impact that real movies have had on our culture and that they can continue to have.
However, the question has been raised, and I have discussed this with many friends in the business, and I would say this is the—apart from the Harvey conversation—this is the dominant conversation in LA: Given that there’s a very high bar now set for theatrical success, and given that audiences are mostly made up of younger people looking to escape their parents, and given that good things can now be attempted on television, the question is ‘what’s the point of making a real movie anymore?’. So, I’m going to take the rest of my time to lay out a very provisional answer to that question, which I sketched out on the flight over here.
It’s quite a simple theory really. First of all, let’s think about the movie going experience for a second and compare it to television. When we go into that dark room we give up certain rights that have become second nature to us, namely the right to have exactly what we want when we want it. That’s the great advantage of TV in this era of on-demand everything. Television lets us stay in our bubbles, to remain in the basically consumerist position of choosing what impressions we allow ourselves to absorb.
In the movie theatre, on the other hand, you can’t switch the channel, adjust the volume or—unless you’re a complete asshole—check your Instagram feed. You can’t even really use the bathroom because the entire seating arrangement of the theatre has sort of been designed to make that difficult to get up and squeeze past everybody else in the aisle. So in a very real sense you’re trapped when you sit down to a movie. And I think this is actually the most salient feature of a motion picture these days. It’s often said that the distinctive feature of films over television is the size of the screen and you hear directors talk about that quite a bit. But I don’t think this is quite so true anymore with the prices of large television sets falling. And it is quite possible to replicate a cinematic experience in your house, except for one thing—you’re in your home and you’re not trapped: you’re free to pause, you’re free to grab a sandwich, check the Internet. And if you’re really at wits’ end you could even read a book.
So given that the movie theatre audience is by definition sort of a captive audience—voluntarily, but captive—it’s natural for a writer to ask what to do with this power, what to do with these people who, at least for a short period of time, are captive. Because I guess if the kind of writing I’m going to do is the sort that elicits constant engagement and is constantly pleasurable, that sort of writing might well be suited to television, might well be suited to competing against other channels.
But if on the other hand the writing is meant to be challenging, and by that I mean challenge audiences specifically—let’s say in the case of Detroit by asking the audience to undergo a bracing experience; or by challenging audiences by asking them to reshuffle their mythologies of race, class or gender as let’s say Barry Jenkins did with Moonlight; or challenge an audience by asking them to expand their notions of the limits of grief and guilt, as in Manchester by the Sea; or challenge an audience by deconstructing the experience of time itself as Nolan did in Dunkirk—then I think one is better off attempting these sort of artistic manoeuvres with the captive audience of a theatre.
Now for me as a former journalist, the type of challenge I like to pose or draw on from that background, the sense of responsibility that journalists have to engage in the hard truths of the world. Working with Kathryn I sought to take that impulse and combine it with let’s say imaginative filmmaking. That’s something that I had to defend somewhat after we made Zero Dark Thirty about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, because a lot of important people in the media and politics maybe thought they were more familiar with the story than they actually were, insisted that journalism and entertainment can’t mix without destroying the quality of journalism. But we were convinced, and I remain convinced, that the combination does more to command people’s attention and capture their imaginations than either traditional reporting or purely fictional storytelling does on their own. And I think the result doesn’t have to be necessarily any less truthful than what’s in a newspaper, and in some ways in can be more truthful.
Now, the case in Detroit. In this instance, I believe that Kathryn threw down an extremely serious and hardcore challenge to the audiences, probably more so than is generally appreciated, actually. Detroit is a movie about a terrible crime—it follows the killing of three young African American men by three white police officers in 1967. There’s obvious parallels with the present, but the decision to write about this particular story came after a meeting I had with a man who had been one of the survivors named Cleveland Larry Reed. Cleveland was—or Larry as he’s called in the movie—was somewhat hard to find, and he hadn’t talked about the events in the film for nearly fifty years. But the long and short of it if you haven’t seen the movie—is that in the summer of ’67 he was an up-and-coming musician, the singer of a band called The Dramatics, a singer in the band called The Dramatics. And one summer night at a place called The Algiers Motel he had an encounter with law enforcement that left him permanently wounded, mentally and artistically, and here’s the important part: What brought Larry down or caused this sort of loss for him, wasn’t a flaw in his character, it wasn’t a bad decision that he made in the heat of the moment. It was merely shitty luck for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and more generally racism.
This somewhat defied conventional narrative technique because in the usual screenwriters’ toolbox character determines fate to a large degree. And in this case I had to write a story in which the character had very little agency at all in the face of an unjust society kind of pressing down on him, excuse me, and hemming him in. When I started Detroit I thought of it as Larry’s story—one man who has his voice stolen from him. But it didn’t turn out to be that simple without short changing the larger events swirling round him and the cast of characters gradually grew. And as I wrote I found myself working in a sort of horror genre vein, except in this case the supernatural element was replaced with the all too real terror of racism. And the narrative as it emerged had elements of a crime saga set against the backdrop of a city on fire. And again in another twist on convention the perpetrators in this story turn out to be the police.
Having said all that, ultimately—and I am actually getting to a point here—ultimately what we wanted to do with Detroit is to bring the audience in tight proximity to the commission of these crimes, the crimes committed by police against these basically innocent young people, so that rather than being in the unusually—the usual comfortable spot of sitting back and assembling clues and evaluating motives like with most crime stories—the idea was to put you, the audience, smack in the middle of the thing, forcing you to absorb what happened to the victims. Another way of saying that is that Kathryn wanted the audience to undergo the same sort of humiliation and loss of dignity as the victims did.
Think about that for a second. That’s an incredibly daring thing to do and a very big challenge to the audience. I believe that Kathryn took this approach because she thought it was the only way to be truthful to the stories that Larry and the others told, and the only way to connect their experience to ours and create a genuine sense of empathy, which you could argue is the purpose of art in the first place.
Now the question of course is: Does Detroit work in this regard? And I think that’s quite a complicated question actually. So, anecdotally, a friend of mine who’s an architect saw the movie and said that he felt as if he was being punished for something that he hadn’t done. I’ve heard this from a few other people. He implied that there was something in that experience that was unfair to him—again, that experience of reliving a crime in a very visceral and detailed way. And that, I think he implied that there was something unfair in the way we made him feel complicit in the crimes that were being committed as he was being forced to witness them. Now his wife, who works for an international NGO, perhaps a better person, had a much different reaction.
She was moved by the film, deeply, actually, and she told me it made her reconsider her life’s priorities and she was now thinking about shifting her career towards fighting to end racial injustice. So here you have a married couple, presumably they share a common world view, split on the question of the movie—my guess is they had an easier time after they saw Thor. But the reaction that my architect friend had did sort of stay with me because when you watch Detroit the feeling of being treated as if you are complicit is quite powerful. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that about a movie myself, and the feeling of the unfairness is also quite powerful.
But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made to me. Because this is actually the kind of feeling that follows quite naturally from the way that Kathryn directed the movie. The other people that were treated unfairly are Larry and the people in the motel as well as their families who had to go and identify the bodies the next day. They could not for the life of them understand why this had happened to the people that they loved. And the reason they couldn’t understand why their sons were murdered is because there was no really good reason. It was simply unfair.
Now this is where things get a bit complex. Some people, like my architect, who by and large are on board with the agenda of the film—not agenda, that’s not quite right—but the themes of the film, have suggested to me that it’s a pity that the movie probably won’t be seen by people who needed it the most, need to see the film the most. I think he meant by that the sort of, can’t get through a whole lecture without saying Trump, the sort of stereotypical Trump supporter, let’s say from the depressed American heartland, who perhaps harbours racist sentiments. And the idea is this movie was really aimed to those folks but they’re probably not likely to see it.
I’m not so sure that’s right. Detroit is not simply a story of racism, of a bad cop who was terrified of black people and metes out justice according to skin colour. What it’s really about if you look at the film closely is the complicity of the white people around this pathological cop in excusing and justifying his crimes. It’s really about the way that racism works in an institution like the Detroit police department circa 1967. And what it says is that racism allows pathology to flourish uncorrected—in other words that racism creates a sort of environment in which truly horrendous acts go unchecked. In other words, the film kind of connects ordinary complicity with the worst kind of murder.
And in that regard I would say that maybe the greatest challenge the film presents is not to avowed racists, it’s to the people who actually applaud themselves for having advanced views on race relations. If I can be blunt, white people, liberals, who consider themselves the friends and supporters of African Americans, but who aren’t actually doing anything to change the lingering injustices that we all acknowledge exist. To people like my friend, who absolutely do not consider themselves complicit in a racially unjust world, the film suggests that perhaps he’s wrong.
It does this through its emotional impact, through the way it challenged him to absorb an experience he would think he had absolutely nothing to do with. His first intellectual response to me, which is ‘wait, I’m not complicit, I’m not responsible, this is unfair,’ sort of fades when you consider his emotional response. Because if you’re not complicit, why does the movie make you feel so strongly? Anyway, as you can imagine that was rather hard to figure out how to put all that on a poster.
So, in closing I don’t want to leave you with the impression that making serious movies is some kind of righteous cross that I bear. I do it because I want to, mostly, and because I really couldn’t think of anything else to do. And while it can seem like quite a struggle and a fight sometimes it’s also a great privilege that I don’t take for granted. In some countries you risk being thrown in prison for trying to dismantle prevailing thought structures. In my country and in this one we don’t face that threat. Our only serious fight is against let’s say Mickey Mouse and Thor. And I think that’s a pretty fair fight in the end.
So far it seems to me that Thor is winning, Captain America is winning, but as I look around and continue to see daring work being produced, and as I think about the commitment of organisations like BAFTA and all of you here, I think in the long run I like our odds, and I think we’re going to be fine. Thank you.
Francine Stock: Congratulations.
MB: Thank you.
FS: Wherever you want to sit. Great. Mark, thank you very much indeed. Thought provoking, as we would expect. I want to unpick some of the things that you’ve talked about a little bit there, but, and we’ve got a few clips to show from some of the films, and I’ll also invite you to take part as well. But let’s just go back, way, way back, if we may. I mean, you said just now you’re making films because you couldn’t think of anything else to do—I mean, don’t buy that for a moment—but the—
MB: Totally true. I think I would be a pretty decent dog trainer. I don’t really have any other skills.
FS: But you were a journalist, so what kind of a journalist were you?
MB: Uh, print. Long form, investigative reporting, narrative nonfiction, magazines, um…
FS: Particular areas of interest were?
MB: Uh, I did, um, what did I do? I did political reporting, I did—I covered youth culture, drug culture. That was a good beat. What else? True crime. I was early on the surveillance aspects of the Internet. The environmental movement, the labour movement—lots of different—never did celebrity journalism—wasn’t, never quite cool enough for that, but I did the sort of long articles that people don’t read anymore.
FS: [Laughs] And it was a series of articles, the Death and Dishonor series of articles for Playboy, that gave you your first kind of connection with the film industry, and that was with Paul Haggis and In the Valley of the place I can never quite pronounce—is it Elah or Elah?
MB: Uh, you could say either. Paul says either. But yeah Paul bought that article. I wrote a piece for Playboy that was the true story of the soldier who was murdered by his platoon mates when he got back from the war in Iraq, and the story was about his father trying to figure out what had happened to his son. His father had been an MP, and anyway Paul optioned that article and I went out to Hollywood to work with him on the story and answer his questions as he was sort of developing the story and that’s how it all got started for me.
FS: And what was it that you saw during that process? I mean, what were the possibilities that you could then see in the fore?
MB: Well first of all he had a really big house. And I thought ‘Jesus Christ, I’ll never get one of these as a journalist.’ No, I mean I, it was just, he was very, very generous with his time and he really showed me how—a certain way of breaking down a story, just in a technical sense. And I mean I, of course I’d studied writing in the, as far as prose, quite a bit. But not dramas. And so it was just sort of seeing behind the curtain of how he, of how he put a story together, that made me think that next time I had a story that I liked I’d try to do it myself. And that next one was a story about the bomb squad, which became The Hurt Locker.
FS: Which became The Hurt Locker. And so, I mean The Hurt Locker was so striking when we all first saw it because of, because of that sense of unease that is there right from the beginning even when we don’t really know, we’re not actually invested in any kind of traditional way in the character. That was clearly something—or was that something that you and Kathryn Bigelow developed together, that? Or was that something that you knew from the very beginning of the story that you wanted to try and do?
MB: Which part, sorry?
FS: Well the idea that you feel, right from the beginning you feel really uneasy. I mean it’s about stress and trauma…
MB: Oh yeah. Well that really came out of—that sense of unease came out of my experiences when I was in Baghdad. I went there when I was a reporter and I was hanging out with the bomb squad and absolutely terrified for the entire time I was there. And um, it’s—one of the features of that war that was a bit unusual was that the enemy was not clearly identified. They weren’t wearing uniforms and there was no clear front. So any time you left the base it was potentially a dangerous situation. And, um, I wanted to capture that sort of constant level of anxiety, which I guess a war historian would say that might not be unique. But I think it is actually fairly unique because even in Vietnam, you know, which was obviously quite bloody, but there was a very clearly defined front, and there were periods where if you were a soldier you were in combat and out of combat, or even in the base you could get attacked. But in Iraq there was really this sort of 360 degree threat, and so that was one of the impressions that I had, that stuck with me. So there were a lot of conversations with Kathryn about how to put that on the page and into a movie.
FS: And that, so that idea that anybody that you come across—even the sort of hearts and minds kind of conversation with somebody on the street—there’s always that level of threat. So I mean did you—you’d observed obviously having worked with Paul Haggis, I mean the whole kind of screenwriting business, did you go away and study lots and lots of films? Because I mean it was so assured that film, in terms of the screenplay.
MB: Thank you. No I mean I bought all the books but uh… they weren’t that helpful. Because first of all some of them were really complicated and I couldn’t understand what they were trying to say. And second of all it seemed to me that it would be easy to retroactively put a scheme on a work of art and say ‘this is how the art was produced,’ but that’s not really… I mean if it was really that simple everybody would be, you know, cranking out important works all the time. So um, I mean I guess I learned by doing it and by studying movies I liked and by having the good fortune of having known Paul, having met Kathryn. John Logan, who is a playwright and prominent screenwriter, was a friend at the time who gave me a lot of his time and I was just lucky to have people kind of walk me through the basics. And then doubly lucky to have a director in Kathryn who’s willing to try some of the more sort of unconventional screenwriting ideas that I had.
FS: And was that something that—when you say try, I mean that was, to what extent did you have lots of discussions before you ever got to shooting about to what might or might not work?
MB: Well in the case of Hurt Locker I mean I wrote I don’t know how many drafts but a lot of drafts. And um, it took quite a while to figure out how to do what I was trying to do, but at least I had from the beginning a sort of clear objective. And so I guess I’m talking about technique more than intention.
FS: Well let’s… Can we see the first clip, please, from Hurt Locker?
FS: That’s a great scene, because it’s short, its very economical, and at the same time there are so many levels of the kind of results-driven leadership that you see and the complete isolation on the other side. I mean, I suppose that’s one of the great aims of screenwriting, isn’t it? To be able to get something like that over in a scene as short as that.
MB: Economy, yeah. That’s quite important I think. Although I do think most screenwriters are good at that. The funny thing about that scene is that it’s actually, as a scene it’s a little bit… It’s quite conventional in the way it’s shaped. But um, the other thing I guess is not, not as maybe widely talked about with screenwriting is the sort of imagistic nature of it. And, because anything you’re writing is basically going to be photographed. So I mean I like that scene it’s fine but it’s not one of my favourites just because the things I’m more proud of have to do with laying out the imagery in the writing that tells the story because finally… I mean I should have said that in the lecture but that’s one of the things that differentiates movies from television, is the power of the imagery.
FS: Did you always have that sense when you, you know when you were a print journalist, as well. Is that the way you wrote?
MB: Uh, I think when I was a print journalist I was copying movies as far as the imagistic style, which I mean most people do these days. It’s hard to write any kind of prose without it being influenced by the power of the camera. I think writing as a whole has gotten more imagistic. Is that true? Maybe that might be true.
FS: Yeah that might make sense. I mean with generations born in this era…
MB: Comparing to like the 1700s or something.
FS: But even from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, I think that probably does have to be the case. But in terms of… but economy is not something that you can be imagistic but not necessarily have the economy, and I think it’s that knowing when to stop to make it more powerful. Is that something you find… How can you judge that?
MB: Well mostly I write for actors. So…
FS: What, specific actors?
MB: No, well yes specific actors who are in the movie, but just in general I’m pretty aware that someone’s going to be performing the lines. And so I try to write in a way that gives them as much space as possible to um, to have as complicated a performance as… So there’s certain kinds of writing that’s very directive and very um, expositional, where the actor doesn’t have much room because they’re basically there to convey information and it’ll sound weird if they convey the information with too much colour. So I try to avoid that kind of writing and do writing that does the smallest amount of exposition possible and gives the actor the most room to kind of explore, you know, subtext and different sort of layers of meaning. And, um, economy has something to do with that, but more so just having a certain amount of space in the line. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but…
FS: And many rewrites on set?
MB: In the case of The Hurt Locker yeah, there were, there was, yeah. It’s a great privilege to be able to watch something and then see where it works and where it doesn’t work and to be able to fix it on the fly. Some actors don’t like that. Jeremy really didn’t mind so that was great.
FS: So obviously Hurt Locker a tremendous success, all those Oscars, BAFTAs… Did that, to have that much success with your first big screenplay, did that… You know sometimes that can be sort of paralysing.
MB: It did, it ruined me, yeah.
FS: So I mean, did you feel… There were a few years before you came up with Zero Dark Thirty, but had you been working on that non-stop?
MB: No, after The Hurt Locker I tried to do a studio movie, which turned out to be a really bad idea. I mean the idea for the movie I think was good and it still may yet be made, but years and years of work that didn’t really pan out. And then when that didn’t materialise I started working on a story about the hunt for bin Laden. Um and it was about the failed hunt for Osama bin Laden in 2001 in Afghanistan right after the invasion, and it was about a special forces team—an army delta unit, that had gone into the hills of Tora Bora and had come very close to finding Osama bin Laden but failed. As I was working on that and writing that, we were actually casting that, and pretty well on our way to making that movie, Osama bin Laden was actually killed in real life. And so that, making a movie about the failure to kill him at that point seemed kind of perverse.
So that was the second script I wrote that didn’t go anywhere. So then I rewrote that whole thing more or less from scratch, and that became Zero Dark Thirty. It’s just a little bit like you live by the sword, die by the sword when you get involved in topical material.
FS: But that, that always seems to you the way to go?
MB: Well they won’t hire me for anything else, is the problem.
FS: You don’t have a secret yearning to…
MB: I do, and I’ve tried to get those jobs, actually. And I say ‘honestly I’ll do a great job with this like, science fiction thing. You’re going to love it.’ And they’re like ‘it’s fabulous, but no.’
FS: Well let’s take a look at the clip now from Zero Dark Thirty, please.
FS: Now… Sorry, were you going to say something.
MB: No, just Jessica is pretty good in that scene, but the thing I always remember is when Kyle walks away—it’s just a totally trivial thing—but when Kyle walks away that door that he closes is supposed to slam. And sometimes it would slam and sometimes it wouldn’t, and on the one good take it just sort of like…
FS: A little kind of bounce.
MB: Yeah, it’s always bugged me.
FS: I quite like that, though, because that’s what happens.
FS: Life doesn’t necessarily follow those beats and things. So, you made brief reference when you were talking just now about people making comments about Zero Dark Thirty who didn’t really quite understand what was going on. One of the things that did keep recurring as a kind of argument was if you like the point of view of the narrative: Was it too close to the CIA point of view? I wonder what you feel about that because to engage film has to have a point of view.
MB: Well I mean it follows the CIA, so it does certainly follow their point of view. Not that it’s a collective where they all think the same, but it was… The film very much follows the people who were intimately engaged in the hunt for bin Laden, let’s put it that way. And that was actually quite a small group of people. And um, that scene is a fictional scene but it does represent a true phenomenon, which is that this group of people who toiled away on the bin Laden lead were for a certain period of time, for a number of years, not taken very seriously within the agency, and the agency did in fact shift its focus. I mean, I think President Bush is more or less on record about this, it did shift its focus away from finding bin Laden in particular. So it kind of gets to the heart of what I do. I mean the scene itself is not strictly speaking factual, but it does actually represent and embody probably hundreds of conversations that were had about how many resources to put on bin Laden.
And as to the other thing—no, it doesn’t bother me the charge that the film was somehow representative of the point of view of the CIA officers. I mean that was sort of the point of doing it in my mind.
MB: So I… The only sticking thing is there, the only sticking point there is that because all these people were undercover, or at the time they were undercover. Most of them were still active duty when the movie came out. You know I wasn’t able to trot them out on stage or put them in front of a TV camera and have them sort of back up the thrust of the narrative. And so there were quite a lot of people talking about the movie who weren’t undercover, weren’t privy to, you know… So anyway it was an interesting, an interesting situation.
FS: But there was also, I suppose, the argument about whether the depiction of torture… Whether that was, there was any kind of suggestion, not that you were being an apologist for torture, but that you were suggesting, or rather the narrative was suggesting, that, you know, torture worked, basically. It provided results.
MB: Yeah that was an interesting one because I mean it was obviously it was part of the movie but I think the extent to which it became part of the political conversation around the film was I think, to put it bluntly, the movie is a lot more sophisticated than the conversation around the movie became. And, um, I think the movie is aided by the ambiguity of its depiction. But the, there wasn’t that ambiguity or the room for the ambiguity didn’t exist in the sort of the politics of the US. And so we got a little bit drafted into some agendas that people had at the time, and continue to have. And I mean I’m supportive of those agendas, you know, so it was sort of a mixed bag for me. But the fact of the matter is that, um, it’s not a news flash, but that torture did happen, and, uh, those scenes are a lot more authentic perhaps than people realise. And it would have been really strange, I think, to omit that from the story as some people might have wanted, or to portray it as a sideshow, because it wasn’t a sideshow. The black sites and the gulags and all that stuff that the CIA did was actually quite central to their efforts for a period of time. So I think as a culture we should face that and not, uh, not shy away from it. At least that was the point of the depiction to me.
FS: And the fact that there would be debate around it and some of it perhaps not particularly well informed…
MB: And by the way, one other thing, the film depicts people involved in the torture programme as then going on to other jobs in the CIA, which at the time I mean I knew was actually a fact but hadn’t really been discussed, and recently it’s come out that that is… There are people in senior leadership positions now—some of this is in the news—that, you know, had a pretty direct hand in all that. So I think the movie was actually pretty clear sighted in that way. But it’s sort of about more than that. I mean ultimately it’s about the price that we paid as a culture for chasing bin Laden.
FS: And when there is discussion around the film… I mean, that’s good, you welcome all of that. I mean I guess your background would prepare you for that, wouldn’t it?
MB: Well I mean nobody likes being criticised, but um, but I thought… Look we were on the front page of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post on the same day, and I think there was more conversation about torture as a result of this movie than there had been at the time event the time that the torture was first exposed by whoever exposed it at The Washington Post back in the day. So I was quite pleased by that. And you know, you make these things and you can’t, you can’t police what people, how people respond to them, or what they, you know, what the culture does with them. And it’s satisfying if there is a kind of conversation that kind of comes with the territory. And um, and so to me it suggests that the work had an impact, which I don’t know what more you could really ask for.
FS: So how then did you decide to move on to the summer of 1967 and Detroit? I mean how many did you… Were there a lot of other projects in between that you were navigating between, or…?
MB: Yeah there were a few, a few false starts in there. That came—I was probably looking at about ten or fifteen other things at the time and I had read John Hersey who wrote a book about The Algiers Hotel, which an interesting book—not his best but interesting in the sort of texture of it. And I read the book on the recommendation of the president of my production company. I didn’t know the story, he gave it to me, and then it was… As I say one of probably about ten ideas that we were kicking around. And I went up to Detroit to meet with one of the survivors who, as I said in the speech, Larry Reed, and um, because after reading the book I thought ‘Well is there anyone around who can still talk about this?’, so we hired some researchers and they came back and said ‘here’s this guy’s phone number.’ And he didn’t want to talk to me and eventually I did persuade him to talk to me. And I met him in his apartment up in Detroit and, um, it was really that meeting, that conversation that I was so moved by his story that I felt insp—I knew walking out of there that I was going to write about him. So, I mean in retrospect it’s easy to talk about these sort of like social motivations, but the truth is I was just moved by his story and um, what he had gone through and his sort of commitment to continuing to live as an artist despite this trauma that he had undergone. And I don’t know, I’m often inspired by real people and in… Zero Dark Thirty was actually much the same way: I was casting around thinking it would be great to now rescue this year and a half of work I’d done on the hunt for bin Laden with a new story about bin Laden but I didn’t have a story, um, until somebody told me… Hmm, somebody told me that there was a particular analyst who had been involved in the hunt and that, um, she was a she and that she was quite young and so forth. So I thought ‘well that’s interesting,’ and then, um, it was sort of inspired by the reality of that, I’ll put it that way.
FS: So, with Detroit there’s an individual whose story you want to tell but then the whole point of Detroit is it isn’t really his story in that sense. So you can’t… I mean that idea can’t have sprung fully formed—or maybe it did? The idea of creating this kind of very intense environment where, as you kind of just talked about, you know, that sense of how it is going to make us question what went on. How did you get to that?
MB: Well it was always his story in my mind, even though I was probably writing about other people. How did I get to what?
FS: How did you get to that, the actual sort of if you like technique of having that kind of crucible of the incident itself at the centre of it?
MB: I don’t know, really, that just seemed like the way to go. I don’t know that there was any big, complicated thought process involved. Some of it’s just instinctive and um I try not to bore myself. I think if I’m getting bored while I’m writing then that’s a problem and I should do something else. And part of it was just wanting to really recreate what it might be like that to undergo that experience. Um, you know we have all this imagery from iPhone videos of police brutality in the US, and they’re kind of quite moving but there’s something a little bit removed about them and distanced about them because you’re not really in the moment, you’re just kind of catching a snippet of it. And so I thought it might be interesting to recreate what one of those moments might actually feel like from the inside. And um, just cinematically I know that Kathryn and I over the years have talked a lot about, um, dramas that unfold in very contained spaces, which is something that interests her. So it was really a combination of those two things.
FS: We’ve got two clips to show. One of which is actually quite short, which is actually from the police talking to the young Melvin Dismukes, the young security guard. And, well let’s play the clip and then I want to ask you a question about that afterwards. First clip, please.
FS: OK, so just a little clip. But that…
MB: That scene I actually do quite like.
FS: But it’s that question of getting into that 1967, I mean so complicated in terms of the attitude, the way that the power thing plays out. You know all of that, how do you… So much steeping yourself in all of that must go on before you get to that stage?
MB: Before writing that, you mean?
MB: It’s a lot of looking at news footage and reviews at the time… Police reports, um, documentaries. I mean the event itself was fairly well documented because there was an investigation by the Detroit police and then there was a Department of Justice slash FBI investigation, and then there were a number of reporters that looked at it and then John Hersey famously wrote a book about it—I mean he was also a reporter. So there was quite a lot of material to go through. I mean I probably had ten or fifteen boxes full of transcripts and stuff in my office. And um, so yeah I just immersed myself in the material for probably about six months, and then... But honestly that scene is influenced as much by that as by playwrights and so forth and what I like about it is how it kind of moves and um there’s sort of a nice fluidity to it. But, uh, yeah. A bit of homework, for sure.
FS: Well the second is from the actual incident inside the annex at the motel, um, where this… Perhaps a quick word about this character, Krauss, the young cop who is going… who is, that is not the name of the real person. There is a real person, this is actually based on a real person.
MB: Yeah that whole scene, the one you saw is based. Melvin Desmukes, that’s a real guy, he’s still around, and I spoke to him quite a lot before writing the script, and that… So the way it worked, he was charged, even though he was basically innocent, he was charged with I think it was assault and he was interrogated and so forth. So that was very much drawn from real life. And as you say the other character, which I guess you’re going to see, Will Poulter, who Will Poulter played so bravely—Will, by the way, is the nicest guy you’ll ever meet.
And I mean extraordinary talent. But um, also based on a real life individual whose name has been changed for any number of reasons, but um, but somebody who I think represented a kind of… The character certainly embodies, as I was saying in the speech, not just racism because that’s a little too easy, but also like a real murderous, you know, sociopathic character trait. And it was allowed to exist in the police department in those days. He was eventually forced out but not until after he’d killed four people.
FS: If we could see the clip, please.
FS: Um, and yeah congratulations to Will, it is an extremely brave performance, and yeah quite a lot of actors I think probably would be quite nervous of taking that on. Anyway, magnificent job there. But the, that whole thing about ‘find that gun’ and there is no gun. That is actually a kind of broader political thing, that is, if you like, almost a systematic thing quite often within, various forms of authority, within… When they can’t actually find the source of the problem and the hunt gets more and more sort of panicky and more hysterical within that.
MB: Yeah for sure. And the other feature that… I mean, if you go a little bit past that clip is that the crime, and to me this is one of the more interesting things and it’s depicted quite clearly in the movie, but the crime, which is these police officers killing these kids, didn’t really occur in some dark alley somewhere. The state police was around, the National Guard was around, and so a number of people were aware of what was going on. Maybe not in the room when someone was being killed, but they were aware of this intensely sort of hostile situation, and um, I don’t know. That’s just extraordinary to me. That’s just extraordinary. What kind of mentality would have had to have been operating for people to have been aware that this was happening and not stopped it? It’s a good question, I think, because I mean you could ask yourself that about things that are going on today: What kind of mentality might be operating that would allow these sorts of things to happen? Because I mean police work is very hard and I have friends who are police officers and so forth, and I’m not anti-police in any way, I’m really not. And I have a lot of respect for anybody who puts on a uniform to serve and anybody who goes into public service of any kind. But uh, clearly at that time in Detroit there was a mentality that existed in the police department that allowed this kind of thing to occur. And maybe that mentality doesn’t exist in Detroit anymore, I would argue that it probably doesn’t, the Detroit police department has changed quite a lot—it’s now actually one of the more diverse departments in America. Small towns send some of their cops up to Detroit to experience big city policing, but there are still a lot of places where the departments don’t reflect the people they are meant to be protecting and serving.
FS: But the idea that people don’t report abuse of whatever kind it is or atrocities or whatever kind it is, I mean that certainly hasn’t gone away, as we know from all sorts of current events, one way and another. Now I’m going to open this up to questions from you, as well. There’s a hand up here, one at the front. There are a couple of microphones, so if you could… Well if you could get this to here, please. There’s a couple up at the back there, thanks. OK, thank you.
Q: Thanks very much, it’s been very interesting to hear you speak tonight. But one thing I wanted to ask you is about your process. So it sounds like you do a lot of research in your projects, but when it comes to actually writing that first draft and it’s the start of your working day and you’ve got a blank page, what’s your process for getting that first draft?
MB: I don’t know. Um, I think basically I procrastinate until it seems very irresponsible, and then at that point I sit down and write. But I do—for me it is important to try to do the research and not for any high-minded reason, I just don’t want to be completely full of shit when I’m sitting down and writing a character who, you know, I don’t—or an experience that I haven’t had myself. And so even though there’s fictionalisation, the idea for me is that actually absorbing the actual history or the actual facts will make me a better writer.
Q: I’ve sort of got a process question, as well. You mentioned that your journey began when Paul Haggis optioned your article, and that you then got a look behind the curtain, as such, with working with him. I was just wondering again if you could talk a bit more about process and in particular how you sort of… I mean I think you’re absolutely brilliant at sort of balancing character with action and sort of finding the sort of each in the other, and I just would like to ask you about that.
MB: Well thanks. I don’t know that I have a um… It’s just instinctual, really. And people have asked me about the structure of this, of Detroit, because it’s a bit odd the way the movie’s put together, if you think about it. It’s, in fact, it’s maybe kind of stupid. It opens up on a bunch of people who are not actually in the movie, for example. And then it spends a great deal of time diagramming a situation that is just merely the context for the actual drama. In terms of the first fifteen minutes sort of diagramming the riots and rebellions and so forth. Um, I don’t know that there’s a rational explanation for that—I mean I could come up with one after the fact, I’m sure—but mainly it’s just instinctual about what’s going to keep the audience or what’s going to keep me interested. And I think that’s how I work. And I sort of assume that if I’m interested maybe somebody else would be, too. And I actually find that quite liberating because it’s a much easier, not easier but it’s… It allows me not to have to be confined to the rules, if you will, of screenwriting. Most of which are just moronic if you think about them: ‘On page thirty, this should happen’… It’s like OK, I guess so.
FS: Yes, this one.
Q: Hi there. I wanted to ask, given that the films we’ve discussed today are all based in fact, whether there’s… Whether the word responsibility hangs over you more as a writer in doing fact-based films, than it would if you had something that was completely fictional and you could create the morality of the characters, the morality of the world in which it takes place.
MB: It may well. I mean, I do feel a lot of responsibility, but I think I would feel that way if I ever got a job writing a science fiction movie, too. And I would take slight issue with the word fact. Actually Detroit is quite factual, more so than people realise. But it’s not so much fact that I’m concerned with as the underlying truth of the situation. And I do feel responsible, but not in a bad way, I mean not in a troublesome way. I want to do things that I can be proud of, so… It’s not so much like an obligation to other people as just like being able to look myself in the mirror.
FS: OK, yes. Hi, hello.
Q: Um, thanks for being here. This has all been really interesting and wonderful. As a young screenwriter who doesn’t want to write Thor, for me there are really few people whose work is more inspiring and who is more of a role model.
MB: Thank you.
Q: So it’s really a privilege to listen to you tonight. I want to ask about the political aspect of your work. I’ve written a few screenplays, one based on a racially charged police shooting, one based on a young American man who is recruited into ISIS, both based on people I know. And when they’ve gotten into the hands of Hollywood types they say, you know, ‘Good stories but too political’. So my question of you is how do you write such politically charged and poignant work without it being too political?
MB: When we finished… I’ll tell you a little story. When The Hurt Locker was finished we had quite a hard time finding a distributor. We raised the money to make the movie independently and the money all came out of Europe. It’s not a… The financier lived in America but he was French and all the money came out of Europe. Anyway, so it was quite a job to find somebody to actually put the movie out, and we sold it to a company that doesn’t exist anymore. So I won’t name them because some of those people still work today. But anyway we found a distributor and in the very first meeting an executive, whose name I won’t say because he’s still working today at another company… Anyway, he said ‘Look the movies great, really intense and everything. But do you think it has to take place in Iraq?’ I thought ‘Well, I mean, what do you mean? It’s in every shot.’ And he said the same thing, he said, ‘You know it’s really political and a bit of a hot button issue and the story is amazing and the tension and the bomb and the guy being sort of wrapped up in this sort of addiction and all that is cool. But like if it could be set somewhere else we’d really have something commercial.’ And he may have been right, actually, but I completely sympathise with that response. I don’t have a good answer for you but maybe it’ll help you to know you’re not the only person who gets asked that stuff.
FS: OK, get the microphone down there and one at the front. Yeah.
Q: Hi, I’m here.
MB: Oh yes, thank you.
Q: So presumably as a journalist you’re used to working, writing, on your own and going and doing the research on your own a lot. And then I just had a question about the process with now writing with film: I’d imagine at some stage you discuss with the director what the script and your both vision on how that pans out, etcetera. But do you have personally people that you go to with drafts of the script—that you show, that you get feedback from? Or do you have quite an isolated process?
MB: Hmm. I mean there are a few people I’ll show drafts to. I’m a bit sensitive about that because I’m very susceptible to—especially when I’m writing—to almost anything that I hear. And I’ll probably tend to overvalue or overweight either praise or criticism. Um, so I’m protective not because I think people are mean or unhelpful but just because I just don’t trust myself too much with that, with that kind of input. And then, but globally I mean, since I’ve made three movies with Kathryn, I mean before I would even write we would talk a bit about what it is I’m trying to do. So it’s not as if I’m working in a vacuum. And I would talk to—in this case the idea for the movie, the first person I talked to was Megan Ellison. Outside of my company, outside the people I work with every day it was Megan Ellison. You know that was a conversation about how the movie might work financially, so it’s not like created in a vacuum. But I do try to limit, um, comments.
FS: Thank you. Here.
Q: Hi Mark. It’s my great honour to be here and talk with you. And one of my favourite lines from your script is ‘I’m the motherfucker who found this place,’ said by Jessica Chastain. And usually we can find very strong and powerful male characters in war or political films. But Zero Dark Thirty is an exception and the character Jessica Chastain built has very strong, powerful and impressive characteristics. So I wanted to ask, when you create these kinds of female characters, is there any particular factors you consider putting in your script? Thank you so much.
MB: You mean because it was a female?
Q: Yeah, female.
MB: Not really. Again she was inspired, there’s sort of a real life analogue to her. So the way she spoke and so forth, I mean it was inspired by the way this person—she’s quite a foul-mouthed individual. Quite street in her presentation even though she was well educated and so forth—I think actually Jessica played her with a bit more elegance. But no I didn’t think, and I tried not to think of that because I think that would lead to a weird sort of headspace. And so um, the only time I thought about her, you know, the only time that entered was more in the way I thought about other characters viewing her, than in the way she presented herself. So I did spend a lot of time thinking about how it would have seemed to other people in the agency in let’s say Islamabad, when a young woman showed up to do this work which is very, you know, can traditionally be quite macho. And so thinking about that then little lines pop into your head—there’s a moment in which Kyle Chandler who plays the CIA Station Chief sort of, um, gives a kind of aside to Jason Clarke’s character as they both first see Maya walking in to their offices, and it’s just sort of like ‘I see what you mean’ or something, and it’s sort of a sly reference to her looks. So stuff like that I thought about, but in terms of her, the way her mind worked, I didn’t. I just sort of thought of her as an analyst. And quite frankly one of the challenges of movies is there’s so much information in it, all those streets that are being listed, those are like actual streets that I had to figure out where they were and everything, and there’s kind of figuring out the family tree of Al-Qaeda, which is represented again probably more accurately than people realise in the movie. That was quite a lot of, that took a lot of mental work, so that’s what I thought about.
FS: OK, probably got time for one more. OK, right up at the back. Sorry, if you don’t mind running up there, the hand has been up a while there. Thank you.
Q: It kind of follows on from questions that have already been asked, but I think one of the things that really strikes me about your films is actually that you don’t give a lot of cues as to how people are supposed to perceive people, the characters in your films. There is that balance between an impartial depiction of a sort of honest and real event or real things that have taken place. And you’ve spoken a lot about the word ‘agenda’ and politics, but I was just wondering how does that change from the process of writing your screenplay to working with—you were saying earlier that you work thinking with the actors in mind, that you’re writing for. When you actually come to working with them, especially with things like Detroit, where you’re working with young, African American actors now, how do they sort of perceive the writing or the lines that you’ve given them, and do you feel like it does come across as more of an agenda when it’s interpreted by them? Or do you think that… I don’t know, that’s about it…
MB: Well in the case of Detroit I wasn’t actually… I didn’t really do any rewriting on set. I wasn’t actually… My time—I was sort of splitting my time between that and another project by the time it was filming. So that was much, it was a little unusual for me because on Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker I was kind of there every day and kind of like pretty involved in almost every frame. And in the case of Detroit I think I probably had a few conversations with actors—not every one of them—but not all that much, actually. So, uh, that was a more typical experience of handing the script off and then not really having as much influence on how it turned out. But in terms of the writing—so I don’t really know how to answer that question. But in terms of the writing, the orientation of the writing, there was a—back when I used to do a lot of prose writing there was a teacher I had who talked about the point of view of the writer to its subject. And one of the things he was encouraging was to kind of look as a writer at subjects as if you were at eye level with them and sort of on the same moral plane, which sort of stayed with me. And so that is, that is how I try to do it. And not every writer does that. There’s a lot of writers that, if you really look at the work they’re assuming a slightly elevated position to their characters, as if they have slightly more knowledge of the way the world works than their characters do, which is fine, it’s something against that but that’s a particular approach. And so I try not to do that, and just know what my characters might know, and uh, I have no idea what the actors thought of that to be honest. But that’s where I start.
Q: Yeah, I suppose, sorry, just that it must be interesting when you then watch it back to see how your lines have been interpreted by those people, and I imagine it must be sometimes surprising to see how it comes across—what you wrote one time and then to see it performed, do you ever feel like, ‘Wow, that’s given a new life to what I interpreted,’ or…
MB: Well yeah, completely. I mean having your work performed by actors is an amazing experience. It’s probably actually the best part of this job, and uh we did a table read of The Hurt Locker early on with some friends. And I was quite depressed afterwards because I thought ‘oh my God the script is terrible.’ And Kathryn said ‘No, no, no, it’s just the actors weren’t real…’ Not that there was anything wrong with them. And then when she cast Jeremy and we did another reading I thought ‘oh my God I’m a genius!’
And so it… I mean it really does come down to casting so much, and a good actor can give almost anything life. So it’s a great, great pleasure and a great privilege to have your work performed as opposed to just written. It’s fun to write it and everything, but it’s really an honour to see somebody put themselves into it and inhabit it. And yeah there are times when you’re surprised and you think ‘why did you go in that direction?’ But for the most part it’s quite amazing.
FS: Just to wind up can I just ask you one thing? You mentioned that you are working on something about the last American election. I’ve talked to a number of filmmakers recently who’ve said they just don’t really know what to do next because it’s all so strange. I mean current events are so strange that it’s almost beyond being able to cope with it. Is that something that you’ve felt at all?
MB: No, I’m going to sort it out for everybody.
FS: Thank goodness for that! Great.
MB: No, of course it’s strange. But I did feel a certain responsibility, I mean, it sounds a little corny but I had another project I was planning to do and then after the election I was so struck by the direction the country was turning that I felt a bit obligated to, I don’t know, to enter the fray somehow. And so hopefully… I do think there’s quite a lot of confusion out there, and that’s one of the things that dramas can do… I mean there’s quite a lot that could be said about the war, for example, there’s quite a lot that could be said about the hunt for bin Laden or police brutality or the Detroit rebellion, but one of the things that dramas can do I think effectively is distil and essentialise in a way—hopefully not that brutalises, you know, the truth—but in a way that’s enlightening. So I think a lot of artists, I’m not the only one, but a lot of artists I think… I think it’s going to be a good time for movies because I think a lot of artists are responding to the sort of external chaos and thinking, ‘Now hold on a second, I should do something here.’ So we’ll see. I think there‘s going to be a lot of good stuff coming out in the next couple of years.
FS: I’m sure there will. Well Mark Boal, thank you very much indeed.
MB: Thank you. Thank you.