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Digging Deeper: Conversation with Mark Boal
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Jeff Zaleski: Earlier this year you published a piece in Rolling Stone that reported on illicit killings by American soldiers in Afghanistan. In effect, you allowed the reader to see certain realities and truths that had been hidden from view. What is the value of this? What kind of value do you put on seeing? And what is it in us, do you think, that draws us toward (or away from) seeing reality?

Mark Boal: On a macro level, it seems self-evident that an informed public is better off than an ignorant one, and although I have no concrete proof of that statement, I suppose I try, in my own small ways, to add bits of information and data, and even stories, to the collective culture. Having said that, I don’t know that I’m in any position to assess the value of my reporting.  A writer, I think, never really knows what his work does to other people. I do know that I’m very grateful to have the job, and doing it gives me a great sense of satisfaction. As for “seeing,” I suppose journalists try to look deeper into the pond; sometimes they find ancient, brutal fish down there, sometimes they just see a reflection of themselves.

Boal4JZ: It’s easy to understand how journalism can aid seeing. But as a screenwriter, you tell a story—you create “fiction,” which some think of as unreality. How can storytelling allow us to see better what is real and true?

What myths or classic stories helped shape your understanding of storytelling?

MB: Orwell was a big influence on me. He showed me a way that fiction, and even science fiction, could be used to illuminate a social order. To your point, even though fiction is by definition not real, it can paradoxically create an environment of truth-telling on a metaphysical scale.

JZ: It’s difficult to say how the protagonist of The Hurt Locker has been changed by all he sees; at film’s end, he does what he does when he first appears: he defuses bombs. How has seeing certain realities changed you, and, in particular, changed how you go about exploring (seeing) things, for better or for worse?

Far left: Mark Boal. Woman pointing:
Kathryn Bigelow, director of The Hurt Locker
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MB: Spending time in Iraq was an eye-opening experience. It inspired me to dig deeper into the war in a fictional ­setting than I had as a reporter, to explore the psychological contours of working a high-risk job on the bomb squad, its psychic burdens, its morbid allure. My ticket to doing that was an invented character, Sergeant James—an everyman who, like all men, is unique, and who represented to me the rough position of the volunteer Army.

JZ: Back to journalism: Today more than ever, in order to gain an audience, journalism must entertain even as it informs. What are the particular
challenges that arise in today’s culture regarding the ­seeing of what is real
and true?

MB: I’m not very receptive to handwringing over today’s culture. The challenges to telling a story that is good, in the broadest sense of the word, and true, in the broadest sense of that word, seem to me to be more or less the same as they’ve always been: the same obstacles and barriers that writers and story tellers have always faced. Bizarre as it might sound, I bet there’s a lot about today’s culture, except perhaps for the ever-increasing decibel level, that a town crier from Roman times would find recognizable.

JZ: In The Hurt Locker, much of the seeing is done via technology: via
sighting scopes and binoculars, through video screens and cameras. How do you think technology is affecting the way we view the world?

MB: I’m not sure digital technology is having a fundamental effect on the way we “view the world.” One of the biggest technological changes impacting the visual side of things was, of course, the invention of electricity, and the gigantic shift in lifestyle habits that came when light bulbs replaced candles in the home, and when cities were built with electrically illuminated side-walks. It’s hard to say where the personal computer stacks up against that sort of watershed development…. Maybe the digital age is not as radical as it seems at the moment…. As for the use of scopes and different cameras in The Hurt Locker, that was due partly to a desire to be faithful to the technology soldiers actually deploy in the field, and partly it was due to a series of aesthetic decisions made by director Kathryn Bigelow.

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