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.

Despite its modest box office, The Hurt Lockeris among the favorites to win best picture at Sunday night's Academy Awards, and its director, Kathryn Bigelow, is a frontrunner for the best director award. Last summer, DoubleX's Willa Paskin talked with Bigelow about her background in the fine arts, her decision to set a film on the ground in Iraq, and The Hurt Locker's tense, poignant juice box scene. The interview is reprinted below.

Point Break, the action surfer classic, has long been director Kathryn Bigelow's biggest claim to fame. We predict that will change with this week's premiere of The Hurt Locker, the first Iraq movie that could legitimately be called a masterpiece. It tells the story of a three-soldier bomb squad operating in Iraq and stars the hugely charismatic Jeremy Renner as a deeply skilled, better-with-bombs-than-with-people thrill jockey.

Willa Paskin Willa Paskin

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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Female directors and war movies are a rare combination. In this case, the combination results in the thinking, feeling action flick, complete with developed characters, moral ambiguity, and great suspense. DoubleX spoke with Bigelow about the film, her training as a painter, adrenaline, and why no one seems to be able to get over the fact that, yes, she is a woman and, yes, she makes action movies.

When I was watching the movie, there were moments when it became so tense for me that I had to do something else—look at my feet, have some water—just to remind myself that what was happening onscreen was not real life. How do you create that kind of tension?

I always go back to my first reaction to a story or character. So in this case, to Mark's reporting about the bomb squad. He came back from Iraq in the winter of 2004-2005, and he told me these stories. He told me what it was like to go out with the squad, and I felt immediately: These men have the most dangerous job in the world. I was tense listening to what Mark's day as a reporter with a bomb squad was like. And that's not even the same as the day of one of the individuals that puts on the bomb suit and takes that lonely walk to go investigate a pile of rubble with two wires sticking out of it, by himself.

Just watching Jeremy in that sequence when he's laying flat on his belly, over the wires, and kind of stroking the back of this bomb, like he's stroking the back of a humpback whale—but that's a benign metaphor, a gorgeous creature, and this is something so unimaginably lethal—I was tense.

Are you, in your life, an adrenaline junky? Like, do you sky dive?

No! But, again I think it's about peak experience. I'm drawn to film as a medium, and I want to know, how do you push the medium? Peak experience is an opportunity to maximize the medium. And I think that's what all my films have in common. Also, I came from the art world, and when I was in the art world, early on I was working as a painter. I was doing these big expressionist pieces, very large, gesticular canvasses. I have a feeling my films have something in common with that.

Coming from this fine arts background, you've chosen to make ... action movies. Do highbrow/lowbrow distinctions mean much to you?

I always want a piece to have some substance. One of the great opportunities of The Hurt Locker was to be able to combine entertainment with substance. And I think this balance, going back to your first comment, fosters this kind of physical experience of the film. Because people have expressed this to me a lot, that they had a physical reaction to it, and I think it's kind of a great compliment. Their minds completely shut off, and they're there. Feeling what these men are feeling and the physicality of that.

Who are some of the fine artists that have influenced your filmmaking?

So many! One of whom just had a retrospective at the Whitney, Lawrence Weiner. Richard Serra. Greats, from the past as well, Brancusi, Rembrandt. Goya.

Does it ever get tiresome, this continued shock that you're a woman and you make these movies, often about men, usually with explosions?

I'm very proud of this film. But the fact that I'm a woman and I made it, well, that's not first and foremost in the matrix or the lens with which I look at any particular endeavor. But, if it could be a model to ignite and incite other filmmakers, be they men or women, then, I think that's something valuable and exciting.

But you don't get exasperated with this notion that your movies are not "female"?

No, because I respect it, and I understand it. The thing that's interesting is that I come from the art world, or that's where I was creatively, aesthetically, and intellectually formed and informed.

Certainly at the time I was there, there was never a discussion of gender per se. Like, this is a woman's sculpture or a man's sculpture. There was never this kind of bifurcation of particular talent. It was just looked at as the piece of work. The work had to speak for itself. And that's still how I look at any particular work.

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