Adrenalist auteur Kathryn Bigelow, 57, makes genre hybrids so exciting and engrossing that they get to be unnerving—which is part of the point. The topical tension of her latest, The Hurt Locker, about a three-man U.S. bomb squad in Iraq, is attracting the attention denied to her since the seminal, early-’90s Point Break and creepy Strange Days. Shot on Super-16 in Jordan with a top-notch crew and maximal freedom, it was an ideal production for Bigelow, who spoke by phone from Los Angeles.
Given your interest in violence and masculinity, it’s almost surprising that you haven’t made a war movie before.
For the filmmaker, war is probably the ultimate canvas, so I was definitely intrigued. But what brought me to this particular battlefield was the reporting of [screenwriter] Mark Boal, who was embedded in Baghdad in the winter of 2004. He would go out with various teams 10, 12, 15 times a day and encounter roadside ordnances, and they would either blow them up in place or take them to a disposal range, or realize that, in fact, it was just a rubble pile. They never knew what they were going to encounter. And it was that surprise that we wanted to protect and preserve and replicate.
The tension as the bombs are defused is terrific. Whenever the camera took the long view, I worried something might explode, or someone was watching. . . .
Right, you tend to be suspicious of it. That was the feeling that was so acute for me, when Mark came back. You see a guy in a balcony, you’re not sure if he’s just hanging out his laundry or calling in your coordinates for a sniper hit. At one point, [cinematographer] Barry Akroyd and I, being the slightly intrepid individuals that we are, wanted to go across the border and shoot in Iraq, but our security people couldn’t guarantee our safety. They said there were too many snipers. It’s a brand-new playing field with those Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifles.
What’s the difference between shooting action for this, and, say, shooting Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze skydiving in Point Break?
I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility in this piece because we’re replicating an environment and a military protocol that is ongoing. So that was obviously a big departure from something as fictional as Point Break. At every juncture, we were determined to replicate what actually was military—to the extent that we could without delving into classified material.
You started out in the ’70s as a painter, and your background is in the avant-garde, working with the Art & Language collective and Lawrence Weiner. Does that still inform your filmmaking?
Yeah, I think there’s something called a clean-room theory, a legal term: You can’t unknow what you know. Whether or not it’s background or foreground, it’s still somehow there, subconsciously. Like a pigment.
Do you still paint?
I don’t, actually, but 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.
Your last film, K-19: The Widowmaker, came out in 2002. What took so long?
I just need great material. Not much money, actually. Craft is one thing, and I feel very comfortable and confident. But it’s having access to great material and great actors. We’re very lucky. It was kind of a confluence of fate and will.