Kathryn Bigelow held the local premiere of her new film “The Hurt Locker” at the Seattle International Film Festival in June. Bigelow has a reputation as a director of male-oriented cult films such as “Point Break” and “Near Dark” but hasn’t made a feature since the financially disappointing “K-19.”
I interviewed her in a gigantic conference room at a Seattle hotel, and in person she seems far from the cliché of an action-movie maven: willowy, thoughtful, and quick to laugh, she gives off the air of someone with defined ideas about how she sees the world.
“The Hurt Locker” rivetingly follows an Explosive Ordnance Disposal in the Iraq War. Mark Boal, a reporter who spent time embedded with combat units in Iraq, wrote the screenplay. I began by asking Bigelow about her crystal-clear staging of tense action scenes, which give the viewer the chance to actually understand the geography of war.
Kathryn Bigelow: It was very important to provide a very clear map of the landscape and the process of bomb disarmament. It took me a while, spending time with EOD techs, to really understand that the ground troops—a large part of what they’re doing is they’re on the alert for anything suspicious: a pair of wires, a new patch of asphalt, a paper bag fluttering. Something they didn’t see the day before or on their rotation that morning. The call in the coordinates and the EOD guys go out. There’s another team that then stops the war for these guys, to create approximately 300 meters of containment.
Now, how do you translate that to an audience, who haven’t gone to bomb protocol school? In terms of how it’s shot, we have a multitude of angles. So you’re in tight, in an emotionally intimate way with the character, but at the same time you’ve also got to place that character in the big picture. Then the audience can be as emotionally invested as possible.
Q: So many action movies today—
KB: You lose geography. It’s just kineticism. It’s an artificial emphasis when something is fundamentally lacking. The key is to start with really great material—call me crazy! I think I’m very fortunate here because these men [in “The Hurt Locker”] arguably have the most dangerous job in the world, so what they’re doing in inherently, incredibly dramatic and intense. So I don’t need to make what they’re doing more dramatic. I can’t imagine anything more dangerous or courageous.
Q: The central character, Sergeant James, is both reckless and heroic. You don’t simplify him into one thing or the other.
KB: This is something that came out of Mark Boal’s observations of some of the men he spent time with in Iraq—if you composited and fictionalized them, you’d see a really interesting psychological portrait. When you’re laying on your belly and you’re five inches away from the bomb, there’s no blast suit or helmet that’s going to protect you. You’re intimate with an object that could spread your DNA into the next county if you make a mistake. There’s no margin for error. And so you have this personality that gives you a kind of hubris and recklessness—and yet a profound skill set. Those were the kinds of ideas that culminated in how we see Sergeant William James.
This is somebody whose heroism has cost him a great deal: in family, and fatherhood, in the terms that we revere. But those things are not where his heart is. At the same time that he is extraordinarily heroic and courageous, it’s also a flight from intimacy. It’s come at a big price, his bravado, but it saved him, it saved his men, it’s given him a charge that is unlike anything else.
Q: There have been other non-documentary Iraq War films—did you want this to be the first to capture the ground war as it is?
KB: I saw this from the beginning, as soon as Mark came back from his embed, as a combat film, not a re-integration to the home front, not an overt commentary on the war. It’s really meant to be reportorial. And to put you where the journalist was. It was really an opportunity to give you a you-are-there, boots-on-the-ground look at this particular conflict. And however you’re feeling ideologically, politically, about it, I think it gives you the opportunity to appreciate these men in this job.
Q: What’s the reaction been from veterans?
KB: It’s been extremely positive. Some vets have said they can’t wait to show it to their families when it comes out. Because it gives them a glimpse at what they’ve been doing for the last year. And I don’t mean just EOD, but kind of the whole mise-en-scene—the heat and the feel and bringing something to life in a way that I think has been admired for its accuracy and authenticity.
Q: Do you like this thing of going off somewhere difficult to shoot?
KB: I love it, I love it, I love every second of it. We shot a million feet of film in forty days in the Middle East. That’s something real and immersive and transporting for me, and I think that’s really inspiring. It quickens the senses. That’s what we look for in anything—in prose, in poetry, in a canvas, in a film—you want to have your senses quickened. I mean you don’t want them dulled! If it’s challenging, I’m usually pretty interested in it. I don’t like easy rides.