An interview with Kathryn Bigelow
Happy Fourth of July, all. On this holiday celebrated with
fireworks perhaps it is appropriate to talk about those heroes who put their
lives on the line to prevent things from exploding. Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt
Locker" tells the story of the demolition experts in Iraq whose dangerous duty involves
defusing the lethal improvised explosive devices (IEDs) set by insurgents and
which have been responsible for a frightening death toll, both military and
Plus, it's the best film so far this year. But don't let
that dissuade you. True, "Transformers" opened with about $200 million last
weekend and "The Hurt Locker," which was released in only 4 theaters, made
somewhat less (it will be expanding to more screens and cities on July 10,
But it did score about 91 on Metacritic.
Which would you choose? A good question for Bigelow, no doubt, but when I spoke
to her Friday, she seemed to have something else on her mind, as you will see.
PK: How are you today?
KB: Fine. Other than the plane was hit twice in midair by
lightning. Did you ever have that happen?
PK: Not that I've been aware of.
Oh, you would be! It was like a bullwhip snapped the whole plane. Bam! It was
very intense. So I'm very happy to see you.
PK: What an adrenaline rush. That's probably as close as
you'll get to defusing a 155 [an artillery shell used in IEDs].
KB: Let me knock on wood.
PK: The second time was probably already boring.
KB: Just old hat.
PK: After the screening of "The Hurt Locker" another critic
said this makes Michael
Bay look like a wimp.
What is the key to making a powerful action movie?
KB: Emotional investment with the characters. Smart stories.
If you're not emotionally engaged cinematic prowess can't invent what is not
there. And then there are so many other factors so I don't want to be
reductive. Like keeping the audience oriented, making sure the geography is
very clear. Especially in a movie like the hurt locker where the audience's
relation to an improvised explosive device is the key to your understanding of
what a bomb tech does on a daily basis in Baghdad
in 2004. And so I'd say emotional engagement with carefully crafted characters
and a great script.
PK: So, no Autobots.
KB: No tricks. You put the camera low and you dutch the
angle and you hit the side of the magazine when you turn the camera over. But
if the intrinsic investment is not there, you can't invent it out of whole
PK: And easy on the rapid fire editing so people can follow
what's going on?
KB: And geography. So people can be oriented geographically.
If you're creating excitement purely from an editorial standpoint it has to be
intrinsic to the story and the subject it doesn't com from form it comes from
PK: Intensity and clarity.
KB: Exactly. And the intensity comes from one hopes anyway
emotional investment in the characters. You are worried for them or you break
down the fourth wall and become them.
PK: Was the point of view camera something you started using
after "Strange Days?"
KB: I did some p.o.v. in "Near Dark" and I think... it's a
really successful tool if the story needs it and demands it. Total immersion
and experiential cinema -- I know I've talked about it in other interviews --
where film and literature, not that literature can't be experiential, it's more
reflective. But film is experiential. It can transport you to the desert basin of Baghdad in 2004 and put you up close and
PK: Kind of like the SQUIDS in "Strange Days?"
KB: Kind of like that, but it's more literal. In the case of
Hurt Locker it's looking at a day in the life of a bomb tech in Baghdad in 2004 through
the soldier's eyes in a boots on the ground you are there alongside these
individuals who have the most dangerous job in the world. And you're walking
toward what most people in the planet would run from. In the EOD parlance they
call it "the lonely walk." Because you're by yourself.
With the big suit.
PK: It's kind of like "High Noon."
KB: I know. I saw that when we were shooting it. I kind of
imagined it in the script stage but getting to the location, we were in the
middle east, and the nature of the light, the reflective surfaces of the sand, just
creating this kind of classic palette and then this guy in the suit. The solo
nature of the job.
PK: Is there a little bit of "The Wild Bunch" going on there
too? The slow motion explosion for example.
KB: All of this came from Mark Boal.
PK: He's not here.
KB: No, he had to go to Florida with somebody.
PK: He had a bad feeling about the flight.
KB: He said if anyone is going to deal with lightning, it's
going to be her. Anyway, he was on a journalistic embed in 2004 and spent 10,
12 15 times a day they'd go to these coordinates that the ground troops had
called in because of a suspicious rubble pile or a pair of wires or an empty
garbage bag and.. there not all 155 but their fairly heavy ordinance when they
are detonated or tragically accidentall go off there's something called
overpressure. That's what those shots are meant to indicate. Before the
particulate matter is expended it's the gas that precedes the shrapnel. It
travels at some ungodly speed. And that completely implodes any air pocket in
KB: That's what he means by, within 25 meters you're in the
kill zone. The point of no return. Nobody can help you. These guys are like
surgeons. Frighteningly intelligent. You have to have scored high on your IQ
tests. You're invited to the EOD. You have phenomenal motor skills and
dexterity. You're able to make decisions under extreme multitude of decisions
under extreme pressure so it really self-selects. It takes a special kind of
person to make that lonely walk.
PK: Are they addicted to adrenaline or a death wish?
KB: It isn't meant to
stand as a generalization and I wouldn't want to think of all of it as a death
wish but I think they are incredibly courageous. If you've read read Chris
"War is Force that Gives us Meaning" he...
PK: Did you read it before or after you decided to make the
KB: Before. And Mark read it before his embed. James is not
a particular individual, but a kind of composite and fictionalization. I think
between James and Sanborn and Eldredge you get a nice myriad of personalities.
PK: You get a lot of that good angel/ bad angel motif in a
lot of your movies.
KB: That's true. I hadn't thought of that. That's why we
need people like you. People to analyze. Not the gesticulators. Isn't that what
the French critics say about American critics? "You gesticulate We analyze.
PK: We blurb.
KB: Thankfully. So, anyway, Hedges talks about the allure of
war. And mind you, this is an all volunteer military. It's fairly unique to
this conflict. So what Hedges tries to attack is that for some individuals
combat provides an allure and attraction. It can provide that. Whether that
attraction or allure, I don't know, intensifies your survival skills it
certainly with someone like James who has a kind of reckless swagger...
PK: He's intuitive
KB: I think of him as an artist. Every IED , they are all
prototypical. Not one is like another And you have about 45 seconds to...
PK: The red wire or the blue wire...
KB: Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. It would be so
much easier. But to make life or death decisions. If you're on the ground too
long -- first of all you're by yourself. You've got a 200-300 meter
cordoned-off area. The guy in the balcony might be calling in your coordinates
for a sniper or just hanging out his laundry. But you don't want to be exposed
too long. And he's like a surgeon with this ability to analyze this
prototypical wiring or pressure plate or secondary or single or double or
triple initiating device. But if you make a mistake -- it's not the patient who
dies, you die.
PK: As the French critics would say, it's the ultimate
KB: Taking deconstruction to atomization. What would Lacan
say about that?
PK: Deconstruct the artifice or it will deconstruct you.
KB: There's your lede.
NEXT: Beyond deconstructionism.