With her latest critically acclaimed film The Hurt Locker recently hitting UK screens, Trevor Hogg profiles the career of director Kathryn Bigelow…
During the late 1970s, a member of the conceptual-art group Art and Language, decided to trade in her canvas for a much larger one. “Whereas painting is a more rarefied art form with a limited audience,” explained Kathryn Bigelow of her career shift, “I recognized film as this extraordinary social tool that could reach tremendous numbers of people.” The moment of revelation occurred when the professional artist went to the Waverly Place Cinema in New York City to the screening of The Wild Bunch (1969) and Mean Streets (1973). “I stumble into this incredible double bill and it was a life-changing experience,” recollected the filmmaker. “I thought they were just extraordinary. [Sam] Peckinpah for his muscularity, his immediacy, his sheer genius in his storytelling and characters. I was knocked out.” As for the second movie, Bigelow stated, “And then [in Mean Streets], Robert De Niro; his kind of twitchy reverence to this wonderfully insane world. Somehow these two [films] will always be linked in my mind. It was at a moment when, in an art context, I was beginning to make short films. So film was definitely becoming a medium that was intriguing to me, and I hadn’t quite made a complete transition yet, but I found those two films just extraordinary, and they opened up a kind of unimagined landscape for me.”
To better understand the medium of cinema, Bigelow reeducated herself. “After I transitioned out of the art world into film,” she recalled, “I was doing a graduate degree at Columbia University and I took a class with Andrew Sarris [a renowned American movie critic], who I think is one of the treasures of the film world. We looked at an overview of Hitchcock during the two-year course, starting with his silents.” There were other mentors for Bigelow. “I also had some incredible teachers in the Philosophy Department,” said the moviemaker, “Sylvere Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky, whom I both used in my first film, Set-Up, as commentators, and embedded their commentary into the text of the piece. So it really was an opportunity to look at film in a more analytical way.”
Shot in 1978, The Set-Up was a 17 minute short film exploring “why violence in a cinematic form is so seductive”; it features two men beating each other up while their antisocial behavior is deconstructed and analyzed by Lotringer and Blonsky. “The piece ends [discussing] the fact that in the 1960s,” stated Bigelow of her directorial debut, “you think that the enemy is outside yourself – a police officer, the government, the system, but that’s not really the case at all. Fascism is very insidious, we reproduce it all the time.”
Using the original biker flick The Wild One (1954) as an inspiration, The Loveless (1982) starred acting newcomer Willem Dafoe in a role which was previously made famous by Marlon Brando. Co-directed by Kathyrn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery, Dafoe plays the head of a motorcycle gang that makes a disastrous pit stop in a backwards Southern town on its way to a Daytona stock car race. “I don’t like violence,” remarked Bigelow. This is an ironic confession from the moviemaker, considering she has consistently maintained the bloody tone established in her feature film debut. “I am very interested,” she clarified, “however, in the truth. And violence is a fact of our lives, a part of the social context in which we live.” There is also another reason for Bigelow’s attraction to depicting the dark side of human nature. “It’s wonderful,” responded the filmmaker, “in the safe confines of the theatre to experience that aspect of your imagination or subconscious.”
Considered the predecessor to Twilight (2008), Near Dark released in 1987 was a vampire Western in which two young lovers struggle to survive midst the mayhem and carnage surrounding them. “Near Dark is not my kind of movie,” admitted the film’s director years later. “Ever since I saw Oliver! (1968) and my mother covered my eyes when Shani Wallis got smacked on the head, I can’t see anything which is on any level scary. I know it seems crazy and it’s great copy, but it’s absolutely the truth.” Despite experiencing this traumatic moment, Kathryn Bigelow declared, “I don’t believe in censorship in any form. One should make moral judgments for oneself. Someone who is disturbed could be sensitive to anything – look at the violence in the evening news. Some like that would have to live in a black box not to be exposed to violence.”
Three years later, the moviemaker returned with Blue Steel. “The film is about a woman cop,” observed Bigelow, “so obviously there’s a feminist statement in it simply by the nature of there being a woman cop. I never make a decision about a role with feminist criterion. I read the story and thought it was very exciting.” Actress Jamie Lee Curtis plays a rookie police officer who prevents a supermarket holdup by shooting the gunman and in doing so acquires a psychotic admirer. To make the action appear realistic, Kathryn Bigelow embarked on some preproduction research. “I did a minor amount of training [with police],” revealed the director. “Much of the film is done in reaction, to overtrain would be something I would have to unlearn, because I had to remain very clear and very pure in my response.” As for the prominence of a certain lethal accessory, Bigelow remarked, “In the case of Blue Steel, the gun was a kind of magical component in the turning point of an already unstable person’s psyche.”
A 1991 film established Bigelow as the queen of the action genre. Point Break featured Keanu Reeves as a rookie F.B.I. agent who infiltrates a crew of bank robbers led by a surfer portrayed by Patrick Swayze. “The unique thing about surfing,” observed Bigelow, “is that it kind of exists outside the system; the people that embody it are of their own mind set, they have their own language, dress code, conduct, behaviour and it’s very primal, very tribal. I tried to use surfing as a landscape that could offer a subversive mentality.” Even with the mixed reviews, the movie went on to establish a cult following including a theater spoof entitled Point Break Live!. “It’s been everywhere,” marvels Kathryn Bigelow of the parody that has seen by audiences in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. “There’s even a character that plays me. It’s bizarre.”
For Bigelow, cinema has a special emotional quality. “I think that film has the potential to be very cathartic,” said the director, “I respond to movies that get in your face, that have the ability to be provocative or challenge you, that take some risks. I like high impact movies.” The uncompromising approach was prevalent in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 project co-written with her ex-husband James Cameron (Titanic).
“Strange Days is provocative,” declared the filmmaker. “I would say that it feels like we are driving toward a highly chaotic, explosive, volatile, Armageddon-like ending. Obviously, the riot footage came out of the L.A. riots. I was there. I experienced that. I was part of the cleanup afterwards, so I was very aware of the environment. It really affected me. It was etched indelibly on my psyche. So obviously some of the imagery came from that.” When it came to her depicting the tale on the big screen, the director said, “I wanted to make it a thriller, an action film, but with a conscience, and I found it had elements of social realism.” As for its dystopian view about the future, Bigelow answered, “If you hold a mirror up to society, and you don’t like what you see, you can’t fault the mirror.”
The director does not find the story about a street hustler, who attempts to solve a murder in a city on the verge of a civil war, to be entirely bleak. “Other elements of the movie are love and hope and redemption,” she stated. “Our main character throws up after seeing this hideous experience. The toughest decision was not wanting to shy away from anything, trying to keep the truth of the moment, of the social environment. It’s not that I condone violence. I don’t. It’s an indictment. I would say the film is cautionary, a wake-up call, and that, I think, is always valuable.” Kathryn Bigelow went on to add, “Strange Days is a fictional film, so there was liberty [taken] to create a canvas that acknowledges a real flashpoint society.”
Next on the moviemaker’s cinematic agenda was an adaptation of The Weight of Water by novelist Anita Shreve. While on a trip to research the real-life murder of two women in 1873, a present day female newspaper photographer discovers archival papers that provide an eyewitness account of the lone survivor. As she unravels the mystery, the journalist must cope with her suspicions that her husband is having an affair. The character-nuanced film was a big departure for Bigelow; it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000 but was not released until November of 2002.
“If there’s specific resistance to women making movies,” declared Kathryn Bigelow when asked about gender discrimination in Hollywood, “I choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies. It’s irrelevant who or what directed a movie, the important thing is that you either respond to it or you don’t. There should be more women directing; I think there’s just not the awareness that it’s really possible. It is.”
Returning to her high-octane action sensibilities in 2002 with K-19: The Widowmaker, Kathryn Bigelow decided to film a historical incident. “In 1994,” the director recounted, “I heard the story of how in 1961, 129 men on board a Russian submarine had faced up to this major nuclear incident. They had the fate of the world in their hands. I saw this as a great opportunity to acknowledge their contribution to our survival.” The event also had an innate element that appealed to Bigelow. “The story had a built-in ticking clock suspense factor. At the centre was a Captain whose decisions under pressure were vital, and supporting him were many brave submariners prepared to subject themselves to radiation to fend off disaster. The nobility of their sacrifice was an important part of the film to me.”
In 2007, a short 9 minute film appeared entitled Mission Zero that had actress Uma Thurman playing herself as she drives a yellow Lamborghini while being chased by an endless array of killers. Under the direction of Bigelow, it appeared that both women were having fun at the expense of the genre, which established them as stars. A year later, Bigelow released a movie of a much more serious nature.
“I became familiar with [screenwriter Mark Boal’s] journalism and turned one of his articles into a television series [Fox’s The Inside],” recalled Bigelow on how she became involved with The Hurt Locker. “At that time  I realized he was going off to do an embed in Baghdad with a bomb squad. And not unlike the general public, I felt fairly unaware of what was going on in Baghdad. I think it’s a war that has been underreported in may respects, so I was extremely curious, and I kind of suspected that, providing he survived, he might come back with some really rich material that would be worthy of a cinematic translation, and that’s what happened.” The process of bringing the Iraq War tale to the big screen proved to be a challenge. “We started working on the script in 2005,” revealed the director, “raised the money in 2006, shot in 2007, cut it, and here we are. These things take time. I think what people don’t realize is how long these things can take in development. I’ve always developed all my own pieces, and they’re time-consumers.”
Upon being questioned as to why anyone would knowingly put themselves in harm’s way, Kathryn Bigelow answered, “For some individuals – some soldiers, some contractors – combat provides a kind of purpose and meaning beyond which all else potentially pales in comparison. I think it’s very interesting to look at that. And you can also say that about firemen and police officers. There are individuals who choose to walk into a burning building to save lives, and that’s what these men are doing. I see them as extraordinary portraits, regardless of how you feel about the conflict.”
As for choosing the location to shoot the film, Kathryn Bigelow turned to an Oscar-winning epic made by legendary British director David Lean. “I think Lawrence of Arabia (1962) brought us to Jordan,” stated Bigelow, “and made that the location of choice for The Hurt Locker. The American moviemaker constantly looks at the movie “for its sheer bravado, magnificence, scale, scope” also, she visited the “gorgeous” and “very forbidding landscape” of Wadi Rum, the desert where Lean shot the epic.
Touted to be nominated for Best Picture at the next Academy Awards, The Hurt Locker has been able to avoid the box office “kiss of death” associated with previous Iraqi War films. However, Kathryn Bigelow is not one to revel in the critical acclaim or the predictions of Oscar glory. “I thrive on production. It feels very much like a natural environment for me.” Not surprisingly the filmmaker has already chosen her follow-up directorial project which is scheduled to begin production in 2010. The director is collaborating again with Boal to write and produce Triple Frontier which takes place in the organize crime haven located in the notorious South American border zone between Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil.
Bigelow has retired her paint brush but not her artistic inclinations. “I think of film really in the same parameters I did when I was in the art world. The sense of trying to use the work to justify the work. So I guess I think of tonal balances – of accessibility [meaning entertainment] and substance. And there’s a wonderful tension between the two, and if you can strike the right balance, therein is the art.”
Watch Mission Zero:
View the trailer for The Hurt Locker.
Recruited: William Goldenberg talks about Zero Dark Thirty
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.