Academy award winner Mark Boal speaks at Amherst College

By Jeff Mitchell


A speechless swarm of students and professors alike sat immobilized in the seats of the Stirn Auditorium as a clip from the academy award winning film “The Hurt Locker” played before them. The scene depicted soldiers in an intense rush to defuse a car filled with explosives as Iraqi civilians slowly gather around them.  In a matter of minutes, the full theater audience was struck with awe, and Mark Boal had the Amherst College crowd won over before he even stepped on stage.

After realizing that a relative of Boal’s attended the college, efforts began to bring him to town. One organizer explained that it was almost unbelievable that they actually managed to get him to attend, when months ago it was only a hope.

This screenwriter/journalist/producer is best known for his screenplay for the 2008 film “The Hurt Locker,” which walked away with six academy awards, including “Best Picture.” In addition to the biggest award of the night, Boal personally took home “Best Original Screenplay.” The film followed an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team during the Iraq War. This story was fueled by Boal’s actual work with a bomb squad in Iraq during 2004.

Screenwriter/Producer Mark Boal took the stage with a somber and a relaxed tone. His scruffy, long-haired appearance seemed to already explain his demeanor before he even spoke. He addressed the faculty and began to explain his journey from post-college kid to accomplished screenwriter and journalist.

After college, Boal had a hard time finding a journalism position in New York City and moved to Eastern Europe where he eventually obtained a position at the Budapest Sun as a copy editor, even though he admitted he had no idea what the position meant at the time. He worked at the Sun for a year and a half and eventually returned to New York City, and landed a job writing for “The Village Voice.”

Boal’s first article for the “Voice” was on overpriced Christmas trees and the abuse of labor to obtain these trees. In the next few years, Boal rose through the ranks and obtained a position as a columnist, while contributing to other news organizations.

As Boal moved from topic to topic, the crowd seemed very eager to see how his journey would lead him to “The Hurt Locker.”

Boal explained that the 9/11 attacks greatly impacted his move to more military writings.

“Debris hung over the city, I could taste the dead and remains from the building in the back of my throat for the next couple of days,” he said.

Boal lost a lot of friends as a result of the attacks, one of whom was a childhood friend who was the inspiration of  the film’s protagonist, William James.

Boal’s speech was filled with anecdotes and jokes about drinking and his mistakes through his career. His tone ranged from serious to playful quickly as he jumped from waking up with a hangover to the death of his coworkers.

After convincing his editors at “Playboy” to send him to Iraq, Boal traveled with the Explosive Ordinance Disposal teams in Iraq and observed their interactions with Baghdad citizens in 2004. He described the capital as a “city of bombs,” because he saw bomb squads respond to as much as ten calls a day. He said that being a journalist is like being a child, and that “you cannot choose the events that define you.”

After his journey with the team, Boal wanted to write a screenplay about the bomb squad and the effect the war had on soldiers. After multiple drafts,  he and director Kathryn Bigelow worked together to find a studio that would make the movie. At first, no one wanted the script. Eventually, it all worked out, and production began in Jordan.

The crowd then asked Boal an assortment of questions when he opened the floor. The topics ranged from racial profiling to inspirations, and even the writer’s opinion of the Iraq War. He answered all questions with deep thought and genuine, humorous and realistic answers.

Boal explained  that he set out to avoid any left or right wing bias when making the film.

“[My goal was to] find kernels of humanity that define individuals,” he said.

In response to questions about military reaction to the film, Boal said, “[ The film was] made for people with no experience of war.”

Freshmen Matt Debutts of Amherst College found Mark Boal to be “very personable and honest with the crowd. He didn’t beat around the bush.” Debutts also noted that Boal was a very compelling speaker.

Louis Sallerson, a senior at Amherst College as well as a member of the Chairs of Amherst Film Collective was one of the organizers of the event.

“I have to say it is kind of surreal and discordant,” said Sallerson. “It is surreal to watch this intense film and then see this regular guy who you couldn’t pick out of a crowd. I have to think what meeting him actually means.”

“ I feel like he was quick on his feet when answering questions,” said junior Akil Gibbons of Hampshire College.

In response to the question and answer section, Gibbons said, “He gave reasonable answers, and worked within the time frame given.”

In a post-presentation interview, Boal described speaking at Amherst as a “terrific experience to encounter such intellectual and ambitious thought-provoking students.”

In response to the recent fame he has accumulated from his success, Boal said, “ [I am] still soaking it in and trying to process it.”

Jeff Mitchell can be reached at [email protected]