Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Kathryn Bigelow

'Locker' Players

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

June 15, 2009—In the great tradition of tough guys like Howard Hawks, Don Siegel and Samuel Fuller, Kathryn Bigelow is one of the finest living directors of male-bonding genre films. At first this seems like an odd fit. The beautiful, elegant, highly intelligent, 57 year-old woman comes from a background of painting and an education at the San Francisco Art Institute; which is a far cry from chomping cigars and wearing eye patches along with her Hollywood predecessors. When I asked her about this duality in 2002, she responded with genuine puzzlement. Why would a woman want to make muscular action films? The answer is clearly: Why not? Frankly, none of this matters anymore, because Bigelow has once again proved her talent with a new masterpiece, The Hurt Locker, which is easily one of the year's best films. It revolves around the lives of three Army bomb techs (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) in the last days of their tour in Iraq in 2004. Yes, it's another Iraq War film, but nothing at all like we've come to expect from that genre. It doesn't hurl any messages in our faces about the horrors or futility of war. It's not dreary or somber or self-serving. It's not about politics or politicians, wives or families, insurgents or Iraqis. Rather, it's a good, sturdy combat film with lots of thrills and explosions and action. It dares to suggest that, yes, sometimes war can be fun, as well as hell.

Q: Can you please talk about this notion that war can be fun?

KB: It has so much to do with the fact that Mark was on an embed. And also this is a combat film. This isn't about re-integration into the home front. So you're there and he was there, and all of his observations, his terror, his experiences on a day-to-day basis, that was what we both wanted to preserve. These are guys who, some of them are enjoying what they're doing. Some of them don't. You're given an opportunity to look at it through many different lenses. This was somewhat influenced by Chris Hedges' book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, and he talks about how it's a volunteer military. These are men who are there by choice. When Mark went over on his embed, he fully expected that kind of Vietnam era trope of the disgruntled soldier. But that's a draft military. These are men who are there by choice. Some guys liked being there! He was shocked and surprised. And then as he tried to unpack it further... he talks about the allure -- not for everybody -- but there is an attractiveness to combat.

Q: Which is why there are so many war films...

KB: War is the ultimate canvas in a way. It sort of defines, sadly, history in that there's always been war. Obviously that's a comment in and of itself. But apart from that, I suppose it's a genetically encoded desire to re-affirm your humanness and there's not a better test, or crucible, by which to make that evaluation. All your survival neurons have been switched on in order to live through an experience like that. And then Chris Hedges makes the case that, once all that is switched on, it creates a potent transformation. There's a hunger to replicate it outside the war zone, and it can't be replicated.

Q: The difference between this and the other Iraq movies is that you feel like you're there. You feel that in a lot of the WWII movies, but the difference is that those people actually served in WWII.

KB: That's the distinction I was trying to make. Those others are not combat movies, though I'm not familiar with everything that's been made on the subject so far. And not that Mark engaged in combat, but he certainly ducked shrapnel. He was over there. And I think because of that first-hand observation, it gave me an opportunity to put you in the Humvee. I wanted you to walk out of the theater and wipe the sand off your pants. There's a real visceral, raw, immediate immersion into a day in the life of a bomb tech. You're also looking at it from the soldier's perspective. You're not changing perspectives and going to, let's say, the perspective of an insurgent. They don't know if the guy on the balcony on the third floor looking down is hanging out his laundry, or is calling in your coordinates for a sniper hit.

Q: I love that the film is in segments, and it reminded me of The Big Red One.

KB: That really had to do with Mark. These guys would go out 10, 12, 15 times a day. It's something like you're 48 hours on, 24 hours off and 48 on. So it's day-night-day-night. So it has that nature. It's both repetitious and potentially catastrophic, simultaneously. You never know what you're going to encounter. It's so dangerous. When he was over there, there were maybe two or three other embeds. That was it. It's just too dangerous. And because he was reporting for Playboy, they let him in. I think the troops wanted to talk to the guy who was reporting for Playboy. He said he'd be standing next to the bureau chief of the New York Times, and the soldier would be like, 'when do you want to go out?' He was like 'I don't have any of the girls with me!'

Q: There's a brilliant, show-stopping sequence in which your characters are stuck on a ridge for what seems like hours, in a long-range face-off...

KB: That was inspired by this rooftop fight in Fallujah. I certainly wasn't aware of these 50 caliber sniper rifles, whose range is 800 meters. You're looking at a mile. You can shoot somebody a mile away between the eyes. And these guys have to breathe a certain way to even have the potential for a degree of accuracy. They're such powerful weapons. I think it's an effective sequence because of the idea that that kind of distance is actually possible. It's pretty extraordinary piece of equipment. I'm sorry it had to be invented.

Q: About filming in Jordan, was that your first choice?

KB: I would have gone to Baghdad if I had access, but it was hard enough to find a crew to go to Jordan. I don't think I could have found any followers in Baghdad. I actually scouted Morocco at first, but it paled in comparison to Jordan. The architecture's perfect. You could shoot 360 degrees. But the great bonus that I did not anticipate was the refugees. There were hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, many of whom are actors because there was a fairly thriving cultural community in Iraq before the occupation. These refugees are all living in Ahmad. All of my background extras and some of the speaking Iraqis, like professor or the suicide bomber, are all Iraqi. And it's as close to the war zone as you can get. At one point [cinematographer] Barry Ackroyd and I were about five kilometers from the border and I said, "let's just go across, just so we can say we shot in Iraq." And he said, "too many snipers." They couldn't guarantee our safety. Also, the film commission is very effective. It's a monarchy, and the royal family was very supportive of this production. I started this trainee program; there's a film school there, and I enlisted various students in all the departments. They loved it! It ended up being very hospitable and very logistically productive place to shoot. But rolling into a neighborhood, it's really densely populated. We're rolling Humvees in, we've got American soldiers carrying M4s, and there were moments when I thought... but people were fascinated and intrigued and supportive. I loved shooting there.

Partial Kathryn Bigelow Filmography:
The Loveless (1982)
Near Dark (1987)
Blue Steel (1990)
Point Break (1991)
Strange Days (1995)
The Weight of Water (2000)
K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)
The Hurt Locker (2009)
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

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