Hollywood writers take their research seriously

Mon Dec 14, 2009 8:29pm EST
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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.   Continued...