With her latest film, the critically acclaimed war film The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow has earned the best reviews of her career to date. (At 95 percent, The Hurt Locker is also one of the best-reviewed films of the year.) The intimate account of three bomb squad technicians (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty) relates the experiences of the U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit, specialists charged with disarming and disposing of the homemade bombs credited with nearly half of all casualties of the current Iraq war. As such, Bigelow’s film is less an all-out action spectacle, more a character study of the kinds of soldiers it takes to perform such extremely stressful tasks — punctuated, ominously, by Bigelow’s flair for stunning, weighty action.
Rotten Tomatoes spoke with Bigelow (who helmed such genre favorites as Near Dark, Point Break, and Strange Days) in Los Angeles to learn more about the action-genre specialist’s background, why she chose to make The Hurt Locker based on embedded journalist Mark Boal’s observations, and what films and filmmakers she looks to most for inspiration.
I saw The Wild Bunch on a double bill with Mean Streets, midnight at the Waverly Place Cinema on Bleecker Street in New York [in the 1970s]. Those two played on a double bill; I was in New York, I had a studio and I was basically a practicing artist, working with various art groups — Art & Language, kind of conceptual arts, political arts. We were doing environments, we were doing installations, performance pieces…and I stumbled into this incredible double bill. And it was a life-changing experience. 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.
…and then [in Mean Streets], Robert De Niro; his kind of twitchy reverence to this wonderfully insane underworld. Somehow, the two [films] will always be forever linked in my mind. Whoever programmed those two movies together… 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 unimaginable landscape for me. That kind of great irreverence, and intensity, and strength of purpose in those characters.
No list would be complete without Lawrence of Arabia. Again, I’m constantly looking at that film for its sheer bravado, magnificence, scale, scope, and having just shot [The Hurt Locker] in Jordan in the summer of 2007, I visited Wadi Rum, which is the desert in which they shot Lawrence of Arabia, just about two hours outside of Amman. And it’s in the middle of the desert, to which David Lean brought — and this is in the ’60s — arc lights, and a whole production. If you see this desert, first of all, it’s gorgeous, it’s beautiful. But it’s a very forbidding landscape, not one you would imagine would be very film friendly; these beautiful, magnificent, extraordinary kind of red rock buttes that rise out of this red sand… I think Lawrence of Arabia brought us to Jordan and made that the location of choice for The Hurt Locker.
All of Hitchcock — I don’t think I can even identify a particular film. After I transitioned out of the art world into film, I was doing a graduate degree at Columbia University and I took a class with Andrew Sarris, 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. And there are some extraordinary silent movies of his; I’m not sure how readily available they are, but there’s a phenomenal film — I think it’s called Murder! — and it’s silent, but it’s as tense as Psycho or The Birds or Notorious or Rear Window. [Editor’s note: Hitchcock’s 1930 film Murder! was one of his first talkies, but his 1927 silent, The Lodger, is one of his most celebrated. Both were released jointly to home video in 2002.]
It’s a silent film, but it’s Hitchcock. All of his signatures, all the signifiers, everything we’ve come to know and love about Hitchcock, they’re all in play.
Terminator was a real seminal piece. In fact, I read the script before [James Cameron] shot the movie. I was asking around, “Anybody read any great scripts?” I read the script — it’s a game changer. All of these films, I feel like they’re real game changers; there are films prior to these movies, and there are films after. It’s like you’ve opened up a Pandora’s Box, and the filmmaking world can never be the same — the language is different, the grammar is different. I think Jim did that in Terminator. I think he really changed the playing field. And so I read the script, and I was like, “I can’t wait to see it!” I didn’t know him, so I didn’t go and watch the shooting, but of course when it came out…the only way you can describe it is as a game changer.
You have to change your rules! Again, not in any particular order, but Kurosawa has to be in there [among my favorite films and filmmakers]. Ran, Kagemusha, Dersu Uzala… and then Fassbinder‘s In a Year of 13 Moons, one of the most magnificent love stories ever made. Ozu. Pabst, who gave us the opportunity to move from one location to another and fuse it together. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Next: Kathryn Bigelow on Andrew Sarris, why she made The Hurt Locker, and why “there’s no politics in the trenches.”
Being that we are a site that values and relies on film critics, we were intrigued to hear that you studied under one of the most celebrated living American critics, Andrew Sarris. Can you tell us more about that?
Kathryn Bigelow: It was a track that I thought was really interesting — it was called Scholarship Criticism, and what it did was it kept contextualizing films and historicizing them. I had already shot some 16 mm films, not that I felt I had a command of the medium technically, but I had a better understanding of it and I was really hungry and curious for an opportunity to look at it from a more historical and contextual standpoint. Andrew Sarris, Peter Wollen… I also had some incredible teachers in the Philosophy Department, Sylvere Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky, who 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, as opposed to just a mechanical way.
What was it about Mark Boal’s screenplay idea that made you decide that The Hurt Locker was the next project you wanted to make?
KB: I’m definitely drawn to artistically challenging material, and I predominantly make choices, and have always made them, identically, which is instinctually. But the opportunity to take advantage of Mark [Boal]’s embed and his firsthand observations, and to look at a particular conflict that’s fairly underreported and have a granular, visceral, immediate, boots-on-the-ground, you are there, fly on the wall approach, was a great opportunity.
Was there an issue of time sensitivity in making The Hurt Locker, considering that Mark’s experience in Iraq had been a few years prior?
KB: You know, it’s interesting. I suppose, yes, in that it remains a very topical and relevant subject, but it was really a function of Mark crafting a very compelling script, that when I kind of submitted it into the independent financing community, it was met with a very receptive response. And then, the opportunity to shoot in the Middle East, and keep creative control and final cut, and the opportunity to cast emerging talent, those were all parameters that set into the realization of the piece. It gained a kind of life and steam of its own. But I think the relevancy underscored it.
Even years after Mark’s experiences, the story you tell remains timely — especially in introducing this little-covered sub group of military life, the EOD bomb squad units.
KB: It is the primary weapon of the insurgency, and I think we use terms like “roadside bomber” and “IED” [improvised explosive device] with, perhaps unless you’ve had a tour of duty or spent time over there, less information than we should have. I think it’s really pretty critical and vital information.
Many viewers have called The Hurt Locker an apolitical war film, in that it doesn’t overtly take a stance either in support or opposition to the war. Do you agree, or do you prefer to leave it to the audience?
KB: You know, I refer to it as nonpartisan. There’s a quote that Mark used to use: “There’s no politics in the trenches.” When he was on his embed, people were not speaking about left, right, and center; they were trying to survive. So I think finally, that becomes the overriding sentiment in that survival, not only personal survival, but saving the lives of thousands of individuals — that’s what these bomb techs are doing every day. I think what his script did so successfully was humanize the guys on the ground, humanize the soldiers. Regardless of how you feel about the conflict, it’s an opportunity to look at the humanity of these men — the heroism, the courage, and also the price of that heroism.
Do you feel that there’s an increasing responsibility on the part of artists, or at least an inclination, to convey what’s happening in the world when mainstream media fails to inform?
KB: Yes, I think that’s vital to the medium — in this case, being film — but remaining artful does allow an opportunity to be experiential, to take you to a place that may or may not be too dangerous to experience, yet a kind of granular understanding of that place is extremely important to us as human beings. I totally agree. But that’s where I think you can combine entertainment and substance. The film obviously can be quite entertaining, but it also provides that substantive, granular look at a day in the life of an individual who has the most dangerous job in the world. When Mark came back from the embed and told me what a day in the embed was like, and not only that, but that these men volunteer for it so they’re there by choice… it just provided this extraordinary psychology that, again, the general public may not be aware of or understand in a palpable way.
Watch clips from The Hurt Locker: