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.

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.

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."

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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