Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Kathryn Bigelow

Bigelow's Boys

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

June 21, 2002—Kathryn Bigelow may be one of America's finest film directors, though you'd never know it from the critical reception most of her work has received. She made her first film -- The Loveless, starring Willem DaFoe -- just after spending two years at the San Francisco Art Institute. It remains largely unseen. Her second film, the neon-colored vampire film Near Dark (1987), is a masterpiece that continues to reside on the list of great underrated/unknown films. Her 1990 police film Blue Steel, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, was widely misunderstood and roundly dismissed. Her biggest hit to date, Point Break (1991), with Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves, has recently become a cult hit on video.

Bigelow's most controversial work, Strange Days (1995), starring Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett and Juliette Lewis, polarized critics. But Bigelow cannot be blamed for its major flaws. It's obvious that the script by her ex-husband James Cameron was the source of its problems -- the same problems that popped up two years later on Cameron's Titanic. In fact, I maintain that Bigelow made at least as good a film out of Strange Days as Cameron did out of Titanic.

Nonetheless, Strange Days was an expensive flop, and it kicked off a long, dry period for Bigelow. If you're a female director with an expensive flop, you suddenly have trouble getting phone calls returned; witness the hugely talented Elaine May after Ishtar (1987). During the next seven years, Bigelow would watch helplessly as her planned Joan of Arc film bit the dust, thanks to Luc Besson and his horrible The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. Later, she would watch as Lion's Gate picked up her film The Weight of Water and shelved it for more than a year.

Finally, 2002 promises to be Bigelow's year. Not only is Lion's Gate finally bringing out the excellent The Weight of Water this fall, at the same time, Anchor Bay Entertainment will be releasing a deluxe DVD edition of Near Dark. In addition, her summer blockbuster, the extraordinary K-19: The Widowmaker, starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, opens this weekend. "I was the happy lucky recpient of an embarrassment of riches," the 50 year-old, athletic and stunningly beautiful Bigelow says of the story. K-19: The Widowmaker depicts the true story of a Russian nuclear submarine stationed not far from Washington D.C. and New York City in the Atlantic Ocean in 1961. When the nuclear reactor malfunctioned and the core started overheating, the Russians took it upon themselves to repair it, taking on levels of radiation they knew would be fatal. Their actions probably saved millions of lives and prevented a World War, but the story went untold until just recently.

Bigelow has always been a superior action director, using her artistic training to compose clear, emotionally involving shots instead of shaking everything up into a quick-cut mish-mash. But even though shooting on a cramped submarine can be a challenge even for the most talented filmmaker, Bigelow pulls it off beautifully. "I had an extraordinary crew," she says during a recent phone conversation from New York. "Without them it would not have been possible."

The crew built an exact scale submarine, about 375 feet long, in a 1 to 1 ratio. "We knew it was going to be painfully tight." She goes on to explain all the technical gizmos she and her crew built into the set which allowed them maximum freedom, but most of what she says goes straight over my head. Basically, they built peepholes and secret passages and pulley systems to get the camera inside the sub without getting it in the way of the action. Nevertheless, everything was carefully planned in advance. "I like to leave room for spontaneity and fluidity. All of that preconception allowed you to extrapolate on those ideas," Bigelow says.

Though Bigelow is known for making "guy" movies, i.e. action movies and genre flicks with mostly male casts, she avoids the question of what it's like to be a woman directing these kinds of films. She actually seems genuinely confused by the question, as if asked whether or not women made better grocery clerks. "I just make the kinds of movies I like," she says.

The next hurdle Bigelow made was how to depict the Russian soldiers. She didn't want to change them to Americans, nor have them speak Russian, so she opted for Russian accents, which she dubbed "K-19-speak." "It's purely invented. It has a coloration that neutralizes the dialects of actors from around the world," she says, citing that Ford is American and Neeson is Irish. Other talent came from lands as disparate as Canada and Iceland. "Russia is a country with 11 time zones, so a little discrepancy can be tolerated," she says with a laugh.

Bigelow first heard the story in a BBC documentary and decided in early 1996 to develop it into a film. But just as the script was ready to go, another submarine movie, U-571 went into production and stalled K-19: The Widowmaker for a while. During the interlude, Bigelow made The Weight of Water, a fascinating, engaging murder mystery that takes place during two time periods and stars Sean Penn, Sarah Polley, Catherine McCormack and Elizabeth Hurley. Though Bigelow was initially upset over the treatment of The Weight of Water, she's over it now and is glad the movie will finally be seen, if only for the sake of the actors who put so much work into it.

But the down time also allowed her to visit Moscow and do some research on the submarine's crew. She met with family members and people whose lives were touched by the affair. "They were from that generation, that hard-line communist mind-set of really severe skepticism. When they finally realized what it was we were trying to do, that this was really going to be in honor of them, they held me in their arms and cried," Bigelow says. "I lot of what I learned and a lot of that passion went into both those pieces," she says of her two films. "It was an odyssey, a personal journey I had to go on to find myself here."

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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