Kathryn Bigelow to Movieline: 'I Thrive On Production. I Don't Know If I Thrive In Normal Life'
It's long been taken for granted that Kathryn Bigelow is Hollywood's best female action director -- and that's a reputation she firmed up before tomorrow's release of The Hurt Locker, her best film so far. The Iraq War bomb squad thriller is a shot of adrenaline for not just the audience, but Bigelow's career, which includes classics like Near Dark, Point Break, and Strange Days. The whip-smart director recently sat down with Movieline to talk all things Hurt Locker, though the conversation soon veered to Point Break parodies, wooing the King of Jordan, and a certain vampire franchise she'd been heavily touted for.
Jeremy Renner's character in The Hurt Locker thrives on the theater of war, and outside it, he feels like an incomplete person. That's a personality type I could apply to a lot of directors: Only when they're on set do they feel most themselves. Does that describe you at all?
Oh, good question. [long pause] I don't think production comes anywhere close to the theater of war, of course, but Chris Hedges writes about that particular psychology so beautifully in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. You should check it out -- you probably already have -- but he talks about the kind of sense of purpose and meaning that peak experience can give you that can never be replicated outside that peak experience. I suppose, personally, from my frame of reference, production is very intense and nothing else comes quite close to that. And yet, as a kind of more meta version of myself at that time...I don't know. I'd probably have to be far more self-aware than I am to answer that accurately. I thrive on production. It feels very much like a natural environment for me.
Do you have to reacclimate after you're done shooting?
Well, I think I do just because of the stamina that's required. The hours are punishing, there's a kind of sleep deprivation and exhaustion that forces you to kind of reframe your existence. When that abruptly stops and you have to be a different type of human being, you kind of redefine yourself all over again, with a less rigorous approach to your life, I suppose. I don't know, that's a very interesting question. I thrive on production. I don't know if I thrive in normal life. [Laughs]
I understand why you don't want to compare a production to war, because there aren't those life-or-death stakes -- although some directors may beg to differ on that point. But there are some parallels: you're mobilizing a battalion...
...and moving it into this other country like an invading force. And as the director, you're commanding people to take position and execute certain operations. Did you ever feel like you could use that feeling in your film?
Especially in this particular film, I'm really conscious of this being a conflict that's ongoing, and being painfully responsible with respect to that. So I never kind of felt the sort of hubris of entering a completely foreign culture with a few hundred people and making it your own. Because it's an ongoing conflict, it's kind of unique in that sense.
You shot this film in Jordan, and even though that's a relatively liberal country in the Middle East, was it a somewhat culturally dissonant thing for you -- as a woman, wearing no burqa -- to be in charge of such a major production full of men?
You know, I kind of wondered if that aspect was going to meet with any resistance, and there wasn't any at all. First of all, it's a very sophisticated, very secular, very generous, hospitable environment. And very film-friendly. I had met with the King, and he was extraordinary. A brilliant man, and very supportive of this production going to his country. I can't look at it in any other hypothetical way, because I didn't experience anything else, but for the most part, it was a really smooth production.
Jordan is a very sophisticated place in that one of its great strengths and also one if its limitations are one and the same, and that's its geographic environment and proximity [to more unstable countries]. So, strategy is very key to this particular country, and they've kind of established themselves as a Switzerland in the Middle East. We were met with a lot of support, especially from the royal family.
I don't suppose you've met with many kings in your career.
No, that was the first. [Laughs] That was definitely the first.
Directors are often in the position of auditioning actors, yet you were now being auditioned by a king!
Right, exactly. "You want to do what with my country?" "Oh, just bring in a few Humvees and tanks..."
Did you feel you had to pussyfoot around it at all in your pitch?
No, I was very straightforward. There was no time for hesitation -- you have a very specific allotment of time you're allowed to speak with him and state your case and present what your needs are. I sort of felt like the fate of the production rested on the outcome of that particular meeting, yet on the other hand, I didn't want to be anything other than straightforward and honest. Ultimately, I don't know how anything could else could serve you, because it's a movie about a bomb squad in Iraq.
Was the king very familiar with your work?
It just so happens that the wife of one of his sons, Prince Ali, is a former CNN reporter. She was very helpful, as they all were, but my interest in telling this story from a repertorial standpoint, making it as clear and authentic as possible, really touched her. I think that it meant a lot, that it be as accurate as possible.
Speaking of accuracy, what I found pretty striking about The Hurt Locker as opposed to some of the other Iraq War films I've seen, is that devoid of its need to be a polemic, there was so much more room to breathe and take in all these environmental details that it actually felt like more of a "you are there" experience than--
Exactly. That's what we meant, we absolutely intended for it to feel reportorial. Mark had always said, when we were developing it, that old saw about how there's no politics in the trenches. My hope when we were working on it -- and now seeing it, I think this is the case -- is that regardless of how you feel about the conflict, it allows you to appreciate what the soldiers are doing. The risks they're taking, especially those of the bomb squad. They're not there to engage in conflict, they're there to render safe these incredibly volatile objects.
We haven't seen a feature film from you since 2002's K9: The Widowmaker.
Well, I did a television series, and that was actually also based on an article by Mark's for Fox and Imagine. It was based on an article of his called "Jailbait" that he wrote for Playboy, and the [show] was titled Inside. It was short-lived, but it was an interesting experience nonetheless, dabbling in network. So I came out of that and developed a few pieces, of which [The Hurt Locker] was one. This one began in 2005, was shot in the summer of 2007, and is being released in the summer of 2009. That's pretty fast for an independent film with so many elements, but I wish it was faster. I always develop from scratch -- if I could just shoot something that's handed to me, I don't know whether the films would be as interesting, but they'd certainly be more plentiful. [Laughs]
Well, one property that people thought you might be handed was the third Twilight movie, Eclipse. When they were on the hunt for a director, you were the subject of a lot of speculation: you're a woman, familiar with action, Summit is releasing both The Hurt Locker and Eclipse...
Right. But I've done my vampire film [Near Dark].
But did Summit approach you?
[Looking into her lap] I don't want to get into that. Sorry.
Jeff Wells has compared The Hurt Locker to Aliens. What do you make of that comparison?
Well, I think it's a huge, huge, huge compliment. I love that movie. I think it's a really high watermark for filmmaking. It's incredibly experiential, that film, and to me, that's where the medium really flourishes: when you can provide this experiential canvas for an audience. I think prose is better at being more reflective than a film, but film can put you on the ground or in space, wherever the desired location may be.
I heard that Edgar Wright took you to go see "Point Break Live!", the sort of dinner theater parody of your film where they cast a Keanu Reeves from the audience and throw buckets of water at the actors. At what point did you become aware of that?
I had heard about it maybe a year prior when I was cutting [The Hurt Locker]...it was in the Bay Area, and then it came to Los Angeles. And when it came, Edgar Wright was in town, and of course, having just done Hot Fuzz, he wanted me to go with him to see "Point Break Live!" It was very surreal...I mean, having someone play you jumping onto that set with a megaphone going, "Cut! Cut! Cut!" It was a blast. I thought it was great.
I would imagine that when you think of Point Break, you associate it with the experience of having made it, but can you divorce yourself from that to get a sense of how it's received pop culturally?
I suppose I can. Maybe I'll always be a little too close to it, I'll always feel the reality of making it, the struggles and triumphs. It's probably a little too real. But I'm very happy that people still love that film. We just had a retrospective the other night and I introduced it, and the woman who played me at "Point Break Live!" was at that film. It was a very spirited audience. ♦