Drawn into filmmaking after earlier creative endeavors as a painter—first at the San Francisco Art Institute, and later as a fellow at the Whitney Museum—director Kathryn Bigelow made her feature debut with the 1982 biker movie The Loveless, but her real breakthrough was 1987’s Near Dark, a superb vampire Western that showcased a graphic intensity and a love of genre cinema. Those same qualities are apparent in her subsequent work, including 1990’s Blue Steel, 1991’s Point Break, 1995’s Strange Days, and 2002’s K-19: The Widowmaker. Bigelow’s résumé also includes directing stints on acclaimed television shows like Homicide: Life On The Street and Wild Palms, and the less-circulated 2000 ensemble piece The Weight Of Water.
After a seven-year absence from the big screen, Bigelow has returned with a vengeance with The Hurt Locker, a thrilling, nerve-racking Iraq War action film about Army bomb-squad technicians who spend their days defusing improvised explosives. Jeremy Renner (Dahmer) stars as a brash, recklessly confident sergeant who plunges his team headlong into harrowing life-or-death situations. Anthony Mackie co-stars as a subordinate who struggles to keep his new superior in check. Bigelow recently spoke to The A.V. Club about shooting in 135-degree weather, the psychological profile of people who deal with bombs, and where she’s been for the last seven years.
The A.V. Club: There was a seven-year gap between K-19 and this new movie. Were you attempting to get other film projects off the ground during that time? What finally brought you to The Hurt Locker?
Kathryn Bigelow: Well, actually, I became familiar with [screenwriter Mark Boal’s] journalism and turned one of his articles into a television series [Fox’s The Inside]. That took a fair amount of time. And then it was a short-lived series, so it’s not one to dwell on. But then at that time—it was 2004, so two years after K-19—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 many 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. So then he came back and we started working on the script in 2005, raised the money in 2006, shot in 2007, cut it, and here we are. These things take time, is all I’m trying to say. 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.
AVC: Mark comes from a journalistic background, too, so was there a learning curve for him as a screenwriter as well?
KB: Yeah, I think so, though he worked with Paul Haggis on In The Valley Of Elah, because that was also based on an article he did for Playboy called “Death And Dishonor.” So he began to become familiar with the craft of screenwriting there, and then in my opinion, mastered it on this. But definitely going from fact-based writing to fictionalization—and then creating the kind of architecture for cinematic translation—was a bit of a process. Although he took to it quite naturally.
AVC: Was it always a certainty that the film would have to be made outside the studio system?
KB: We never approached any other financing avenue. I wanted to keep it as independent as humanly possible, and I wanted to shoot in the Middle East. That alone probably would have been a non-starter. And then I anticipated that and didn’t pursue. And also, to be honest, I’ve never made a non-independent movie. No matter what scale it’s been, it’s always been independent. So I wanted to retain complete creative control, I wanted final cut, I wanted the opportunity to cast breakout, emerging talent, and as I said, shoot in the Middle East.
AVC: Have those been the conditions you’ve always had? Final cut? Is that something you’ve had to earn?
KB: Actually, no, I’ve never had it contractually. This is the first time, contractually. On the other hand, I have to say I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve worked with very little to no compromise. I mean, there’s always a compromise when you’re looking at the scale of something. You only have so much money to shoot a movie with. But that’s not really a creative compromise.
AVC: Why was it so important for you to shoot in the Middle East? Presumably a studio would have set you up in the California desert.
KB: A studio would have been even adventurous enough to go to Morocco, perhaps, but once I scouted the Middle East, I realized that Morocco, even though it’s a beautiful country and often used as a backdrop for the Middle East… your extras are North Africans. It may be wonderful for a movie about North Africa, but to an Arab individual, the opportunity to cast Arabs as Arabs became incredibly important. And on top of that, the great bonus of taking the show to Jordan—a great bonus and also a sad fact—is that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees are in the city of Amman as a result of the occupation, some of whom are actors. So you know, not only are you shooting five kilometers from the Iraqi border, and the architecture is perfect, but you can swing the camera 360 degrees, and there’s not a bad angle to be had. Your background players and your bit players and your speaking Iraqi parts are Iraqi. So that became my modus operandi.
AVC: How did you go about casting locally, casting refugees?
KB: We had a wonderful casting director, and there is a bit of a film infrastructure in Jordan. I think it will become a fairly thriving film community, but at the time, it was fairly limited. We had a woman who works in theater, and she is very aware of actors, of Jordanian and Iraqi actors who were in Amman at the time.
AVC: What were the physical conditions like, shooting in that area? Was it an arduous production?
KB: We started shooting, just because of the nature of actors’ schedules, in July in 2007 in Amman, and Amman has a slight elevation. I had also scouted Kuwait, which at that time of year, is truly punishing. I think the day I was there, it was about 135 degrees. I couldn’t even imagine what 135 degrees could feel like. It sort of feels like you’re standing in front of an overheated car with the hood up, but you can’t get rid of the car; it’s just this blast of hot air, and it’s very punishing. That was Kuwait. Anyway, we were in Jordan, and there was an average temperature of about 115 degrees, and the most challenging aspect was putting that bomb suit on Jeremy [Renner] every day. Jeremy is an extraordinarily talented actor, but you’re asking him in that kind of climate to put on a piece of wardrobe—it wasn’t just wardrobe, but an actual bomb suit—that weighed between 80 and 100 pounds. Every day. You know, spend all day in it. That was really punishing. I was very sensitive to his needs and his oxygen levels, and trying to keep him as comfortable as possible, there’s only so much that can be done. That was probably the most difficult physical, logistical aspect of the shoot.
AVC: Were there any cultural sensitivities that had to be observed? Or was that not an issue?
KB: Jordan is a very secular, Westernized country in some respects. In some of the outer neighborhoods we shot in, there was a tremendous amount of support and receptivity. And I actually anticipated some confusion. You try to leave flyers. There is a location department that tries to communicate with everybody in an area, but it’s not easy. For example, there’s an early scene that takes place in probably a 300-meter area involving a mosque and a daisy train and a taxi cab, and you’re talking hundreds and hundreds of people in that containment area. And we arrived in the morning the first day we shot there. You know, the Humvees come in, actors jump out in their digitals and their M4s, and the crew is there with the cameras. I would have thought there would be more confusion, but not at all. They were excited and kind of embraced the experience.
AVC: Regarding the bomb squad, is there a personality profile that makes certain people well-equipped for that job?
KB: Well, a couple things to bear in mind that are fascinating is that when Mark came back from his embed and his observations, I realized that the real responsibility of the filmmaking here was to keep the film reportorial, keep it as honest, realistic, and authentic as possible. And you know, he would describe the psychologies of these men who arguably have the most dangerous job in the world. And yet you then realize that this is a volunteer military, so these are men who have chosen to be there. So there is a kind of interesting psychology at work. Are you familiar with Chris Hedges’ book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning? It’s an incredible study of that particular psychology, and I’m not making a generalization of everybody, but certainly there’s a kind of allure he speaks of, that combat can provide for some individuals. That was interesting. But at the same time, EOD [Explosive Ordnance Disposal] techs have extremely high IQs. They’re invited into EOD after they’ve passed an aptitude test and scored at an incredibly high level. So not only are you extraordinarily brave and heroic and courageous, but you’re very, very smart and you’ve chosen to do this. You have to make extreme life-or-death decisions in seconds about complicated electronic devices, and in a very short period of time, for which there is no margin of error.
AVC: With his brash, almost reckless confidence, Jeremy Renner’s character is reminiscent of Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. Is that a fair comparison? Does war tend to create these kinds of characters?
KB: I think that’s what’s interesting about looking at Chris Hedges’ interest in unpacking that psychology. Does war create it? Does war attract it? But also, I don’t think it’s a generalization one can apply to everybody. I think about what would provoke you or I to sign up tomorrow and apply for the bomb squad. It’s a very interesting psychology that I find really pretty extraordinary. And I think what the film does, and what the script did so successfully, and hopefully what the film does, is humanize these individuals. They’re not necessarily adrenaline junkies. They’re also complicated, emotional human beings that have capacities for recklessness, a profound skill set, and tenderness. So it’s complicated. There’s no easy answer, I guess is what I’m trying to say. It’s not like a machine that is programmed one way.
AVC: Because The Hurt Locker takes a soldier’s-eye view of the war, it really couldn’t be called a polemic, but it does suggest the toll of soldiers returning from multiple tours of duty. What does that do to a soldier, not only in the arena of warfare, but also in resettling?
KB: For some individuals—some soldiers, some contractors—combat provides a kind of purpose and meaning beyond which all else potentially pales in comparison. Again, for some individuals, I think it’s very interesting to look at that. And you can also say that about firemen, 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. I think of the film, in a way, as non-partisan. It’s not commenting, as Mark said when he was working on the script. There’s that old saw about how there’s no politics in the trenches. And when he went over there, sure enough, there’s nobody talking about politics. They’re talking about whether they’re gonna survive, or “What’s your favorite beer?” I think the script successfully looks at the humanity of these men and their courage, and shares with us what a day in the life of a bomb tech is. It’s that they save thousands of lives, sometimes at the sacrifice or peril of their own.
AVC: Your films in general are known for their intensity, but The Hurt Locker is perhaps even more rough-and-tumble than your previous work. How did that affect the way you went about preparing to shoot it?
KB: When Mark came back and had done such an extraordinary job in the field, we really wanted to protect the reportorial aspect. Keep it as authentic and immediate and raw and visceral as possible. But on the other hand, it is a film, so I wanted to strike a tonal balance between substance and entertainment. And I think the script quite skillfully did that. But I will say, a day in the life of a bomb tech is so inherently dangerous that as a filmmaker, I felt my job, in a way, was to get out of the way, if that makes sense. You don’t need to aestheticize that, you just need to present it.
AVC: The script is also pretty chancy, structurally. There’s a major subplot that comes into play later in the film, but it’s more or less plotless much of the way.
KB: I don’t look at it like that. I look at it as reportorial. These guys go out 10, 12, actually more times a day than the film shows—I guess the film would have to be 24 hours long. But they go out several times a day and have experiences like the ones you see seven times in the movie, over the course of 38 days. So that’s the nature of a day in the life. Like, you’re basically going to the office with this particular individual, only his office happens to be Baghdad, and he’s a bomb tech. So that’s what dictated it. It wasn’t like trying to impose an architecture on it. Whatever the other more conventional format or architecture for a screenplay might be, where you kind of hunt down the bomb-maker, or something, I dunno. I think this was an opportunity to be more reportorial and authentic and responsible to the reporting.
AVC: What’s next for you?
KB: What’s next? Good question. I hope something soon. Actually, I’m working on a few things. Who knows what will finally materialize? But once you embark on a project that is both topical and relevant, I suppose it sets a new bar. So I’m definitely inclined toward that.