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Hollywood writers take their research seriously

By Amy Dawes

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Mark Boal was crouched on the ground, preparing for impact. A freelance journalist and screenwriter, Boal had gone to Iraq and was working with a bomb-defusal squad as research for a Playboy article that would later inspire the movie "The Hurt Locker."

"The very first day I was there, I went out with a bomb unit on a road that was a big source of ambushes and machine-gun attacks," he recalls. "The bomb tech went down and disarmed a bomb and then came back up and started walking toward us."

That's when he saw an almost-invisible wire protruding from the street. "He saw something out of the corner of his eye and dove on it," Boal says. "It turned out to be a secondary bomb planted there, in case he disarmed the first one."

The tech disarmed the bomb, narrowly avoiding a potential explosion that could have killed him, his crew and possibly Boal himself. "His face was flushed and red," Boal remembers. "He was really glad he saw that secondary -- he just noticed (the) little wire sticking out of the rubble pile. That became the inspiration for the second scene (in the movie), where Sgt. James is about to leave and pulls up this daisy chain of bombs."

For movies like Boal's, there is no substitute for real-life research. With "Hurt Locker," this led to an authenticity that has made it one of the most-praised war movies of recent years. Surprisingly, writers working on very different movies stress that research is just as important to them as it was to Boal.

Pixar's Pete Docter and Bob Peterson spent weeks in a remote South American location in order to bring their fantasy "Up" to life.

The duo had originally imagined a South Pacific island as the setting for the story of an old man who travels to the ends of the earth to fulfill his dream, but after watching a documentary about the tupuis -- flat-topped mountain peaks in the remotest reaches of Venezuela -- they changed their minds. After writing the new location into a draft of their work-in-progress, the animators-turned-writers embarked on a two-week trip to explore it first-hand.

The journey "took three days, and smaller and smaller airplanes, and then a jeep, a helicopter and a hike," says Docter, who also directed the movie. A crew of 10, including artists and production designers, camped for two weeks in the locale, which was breathtaking, but also rainy, misty and isolated. At one point, they traveled upriver to the world's tallest waterfall, which became Paradise Falls in the story.

"We basically put ourselves through everything that Carl and Russell went through," says Docter, referring to the movie's main characters, an elderly man and a Boy Scout. And the whole team drew pictures -- tons of them -- to capture the details of the rock formations, flora and fauna. "It seems pretty essential to visit a place before you can caricature it," says Docter, describing the process by which animators bring distinctive life and personality to their drawings. "It's one thing to see these plants in fuzzy background photographs, but it's another thing to be able to hold them up, or look at them from all different angles."

He adds that the writers also made use of the first-hand experience in their script. At one point, Carl addresses the dog, Dug, only to discover as the mists part that he was talking to a rock. "That really happened," Docter says.

At one point, the crew climbed onto a scary tupui and then a storm blew up. The helicopter that was supposed to get them off the peak could not fly through the storm. They had no shelter and could not even lie down -- and night was falling. It looked as if they would be standing in the rain, huddled against these rocks all night -- until the helicopter made its way through, after all. This became the spark for a scene of misery in the movie.

The Internet was the spark for some of the scenes in Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman's "The Messenger," which focuses on the stateside aftermath of the Iraq War as experienced by a pair of casualty notification officers (Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster). Camon and Moverman were able to use resources on the Web, including military sites and the many soldier blogs that offer a more personal view than has previously been available. A key document, the Army's official casualty notification manual, which contains protocol info that forms the basis of several early scenes, was also available online.

After they presented a draft of the script to the Army, though, the writers were granted a level of access that they say improved the movie immeasurably.

"The Army opened the door for us to go to the Walter Reed Medical Center and hang out with the soldiers, and go to the Casualty Notification Center in Arlington," says Moverman, who also directed the movie. "They let us interact with the world and the people we were trying to present, and that was priceless in terms of sharpening the script."

The Army also assigned a technical adviser, Lt. Col. Paul Sinor, who contributed colorful dialogue in addition to details of protocol and behavior. But while the pair did many interviews, they avoided speaking to anyone who had been on the receiving end of the kind of emotionally devastating notifications depicted in their script. "We didn't want to exploit any real stories," Moverman says. "And because the movie is from the point of view of the notifiers and not the families, it was a line we didn't want to go over."

One incident in the movie did come directly from an account the writers say they read online. It's when the officers enter a small-town grocery store and unexpectedly run into the parents they are about to notify. On the spot, they decide to deliver the news, and the father is so shaken that he vomits. "In the real story the person behind the counter went for a mop and said to them, 'I wouldn't do your job for a million dollars,'" Moverman says. "We read about it online."

While Moverman gained military experience earlier in his life when he served in the Israeli army, he says he doesn't consider that critical. "Alessandro didn't serve in the military," he notes of his collaborator. "And I thought he had a profound understanding of these characters."

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns ("The Bourne Ultimatum") had tons of information at his fingertips when he began work on "The Informant!" based on the book by Kurt Eichenwald, but that didn't deter him from embarking on his own research into the true story. "From a journalistic standpoint, the book laid the story out in incredible detail," Burns notes. "But none of the voice-over is in the book. That was an invention that came out of a creative choice that (director) Steven Soderbergh and I made to not do a conventional adaptation."

The voice-over, a near-constant flow of commentary by Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon), the biochemist-turned-whistleblower, is perhaps the movie's most inspired stroke, and opens a window into Whitacre's oddness and active fantasy life as well as his acute intelligence. Says Burns: "It was based on a lot of research into the landscapes he frequented, and also into the medical and science backgrounds of the syndrome that he had."

Whitacre's key role in the sting operation became more interesting when federal investigators discovered he'd been diagnosed with bipolar personality disorder. "Our ambition became to create an unreliable narrator, which he was," Burns explains. "I spent time talking to psychiatrists and trying to get an understanding of how his disorder connected to his crimes. I was also going to Decatur, Ill., and seeing the places he would have sat in, the road he drove to work, and the house he lived in, which was the house we actually shot the movie in."

Burns says it was his first sight of that house -- a modern mansion standing in the middle of a cornfield -- that helped guide the tone of the story in the direction of the absurd. "Whoever said 'God is in the details' understood that research is the way effective writing gets better," Burns says. "Whenever I get stuck as a writer, the answer for me is always do more research. I was fortunate that Steven supports my need for that and was all in favor of it."

And yet, in the end, they both decided that the most potentially intriguing research of all -- actually talking to the incarcerated Whitacre -- was not going to be part of their approach. "I was contemplating going to visit him in jail, but Steven discouraged me from that," Burns says. "He's a guy who had an unusual relationship with the truth," Burns says, laughing. "So I don't know if you're going to get any closer to it by asking him."

The kicker is that when Whitacre actually saw the film, he sent word to the filmmakers that he thought it was very accurate, including the voice-over, which was entirely made up. "I'm mystified and flattered by him saying that," Burns says. "And I can't help but wonder if it's really true."

A departure from the factual truth can often be a critical tool in a screenwriter's arsenal, but when the subject is a historical figure, the territory can be tricky, as writer Julian Fellowes learned when he wrote about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

In "The Young Victoria," a crucial turning-point in the relationship between the recently married couple occurs when Albert throws himself between Victoria and an assassin's bullet, and is gravely wounded in the process.

In the script, his sacrifice so moves Victoria that she opens her heart fully to the relationship. "That very week she brought his desk into her sitting room, so that from then on they worked together and governed jointly," Fellowes recounts. "One needs to know why she had that complete change of heart. It was the realization that he was actually prepared to die for her."

And yet, while Victoria was shot at while riding in a carriage with Albert, the prince was not wounded. Upon the movie's release in the U.K., the press there took Fellowes to task for this and other discrepancies, but the writer defends his choice. "The prince behaved in life exactly as in the movie: he saw the gun, which she did not, and he pushed her down and covered her body with his own," he says. "In real life, the bullet missed him."

He adds, "In the end, one is trying to fasten a movie out of the material. You can shape things, but you musn't state things that are fundamentally untrue in that they alter the truth of the character's actions. It's a matter of not changing the moral intent."

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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