A conversation with The Hurt Locker's Kathryn Bigelow.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
March 2 2010 10:08 AM

What Kathryn Bigelow Learned From Rembrandt

A conversation with The Hurt Locker director.

Click here to read an assessment of Kathryn Bigelow's films.

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I think of a person as a filmmaker, not a male or female filmmaker. Or I think of them as a painter, not a male or female painter. I don't view the world like that. Yes, we're informed by who we are, and perhaps we're even defined by that, but yet, the work has to speak for itself.

Jeremy Renner recently gave this quote about you: "It empowered me as an actor to have a gal like that around who says, 'You're the man, now go make it happen.' If you're an actor who needs a lot of direction, she might not be the gal. But she's the gal for me."

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Oh, that's sweet. I tend to like to direct with a light hand, and that has a lot to do with the fact that I feel like if I've cast it correctly, not that my job is done, because obviously you need to contextualize and block and choreograph cameras and actors and background and art direct, but at the same time that's a lot of the work.

Not to read too much into it, but there's the implication in his quote that your directorial technique worked for him specifically as a man, because you were a woman, placing your trust in him. Is there anything to that?

I don't know. It's just a dynamic. It's instinctual, and you develop a kind of way of communicating in the rehearsal process, that by the time you get to the set both director and actor have created a space of trust and safety. It's more a question of trust than of directing.

There's a quote at the beginning of your film Strange Days, when Ralph Fiennes, who's a drug dealer who traffics in videos of other people's experiences, says, "This [video] is better than the usual soaps you bring me. Some girl in a fight with her boyfriend. It's a test pattern, nothing happens, I'm snoring." Is that how you feel too, that you're not particularly interested in watching people sit around a room chatting?

I'm interested in being transported. And people talking can do that. So, it's not really form; it's character. And if the character is really provocative and evocative and unique and original, I'm excited. And it could be a character that is sitting in a room chatting or being still. There are certainly quiet moments, and incredibly still moments, in The Hurt Locker, but they are also very pregnant moments.

There's that juice box scene, in the desert when they're baking out in the sun for hours, fingers on the trigger, waiting for a sniper to go away, and, yes, it's very quiet and very still, but everything about that situation is so intense. It's not the equivalent of two people being quiet in almost any other movie.

[Laughing] Well, I guess that's true in a way. And there's real tenderness in that moment. When [Renner] is putting Eldridge [one of the men in his command] back together, there's a kind of bravado and hubris and swagger and a profound skill set that he wields with great authority, but in that moment you also see a great tenderness.

The movie has been described as being apolitical. Was that intentional?

I think it's a movie about the bomb squad, the bomb squad specific to Iraq. Iraq is undergoing an occupation. So people can draw their own conclusions. As a filmmaker, it's not for me to draw a conclusion for an audience member. I see the movie as humanizing the soldier and these particular soldiers. It doesn't cause me to walk out the theater and think X. It's a nonpartisan piece that actually puts a human face on a conflict that I think is fairly underreported.

Iraq movies have a reputation for being box office poison, but in an earlier interview it was noted that very few of the so-called Iraq movies have taken place on the battlefield. Stop-Loss, The Lucky Ones, and In the Valley of Elah have been movies about re-acclimating to the U.S. Do you have any insight into why directors have shied away from the war part of the war?

I don't know. It's certainly defining our time.

Did you encounter any problems getting the film made because of the subject matter?

I knew this was a story I wanted to tell, I thought Mark's reporting was extraordinary, and I thought the script was great. I immediately wanted to find independent financing, so it would be a situation in which I would have a lot of creative control, if not complete creative control. I'd have final cut and the ability to cast emerging talent. I knew I wanted to shoot in the Middle East. So I basically just pushed this production into existence. It would never have occurred to me to stop and think about these other films. [The bomb squad] is so inherently, innately dramatic that I knew kind of as a filmmaker I didn't need to dress it up.

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