TIME’S UP: KATHRYN BIGELOW’S THE HURT LOCKER |
By Nick Dawson

Leading up to the Oscars on March 7, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Nick Dawson interviewed The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow for our Spring 2009 issue. The Hurt Locker is nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Bigelow), Best Actor (Jeremy Renner), Original Screenplay (Mark Boal), Best Cinematography (Barry Ackroyd), Best Editing (Bob Murawski and Chris Innis), Best Original Score (Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders), Best Sound Editing (Paul N.J. Ottosson) and Best Sound Mixing (Paul N.J. Ottosson and Ray Beckett).

Now that the end is in sight for the Iraq war, hopefully the whole cinematic idea of “Iraq War fatigue” will go along with it. The phrase has been thrown around by industry journalists as a catchall term to describe the average American’s ostensible lack of desire to watch films set against the Middle East conflict. But if there was ever a director who could turn the tide, it is Kathryn Bigelow, who has returned to features for the first time since 2002 with her new movie The Hurt Locker.

The film tells the story of army bomb disposal expert Sgt. Will James (the superb Jeremy Renner), who must survive the final 38 days of his detail in Iraq if he is to make it home to his wife and child. However, unlike the other two soldiers on his team, Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), James thrives on the intense risk and danger of having to diffuse roadside bombs and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) in the Baghdad war zone, day in and day out. His gonzo approach to his job makes him, for Sanborn and Eldridge, just as dangerous as the snipers on top of the surrounding rooftops.

Written by investigative journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal, who embedded with a volunteer army bomb disposal squad in Iraq in 2004, The Hurt Locker is a riveting movie that vividly conveys what it’s like to be on the ground in Iraq. It concerns itself not with the politics of the war, but with the visceral experiences of the soldiers who fight. Bigelow’s film opens with a quote from writer Chris Hedges which reads, “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug,” and Renner’s James is the embodiment of that idea, a true thrill-seeking addict, a soldier who can only get his fix from his daily dance with death.

Instead of being about the Iraq war, then, The Hurt Locker is simply about war. It’s a drama that examines the psychological toll of war on its soldiers and a thriller that eschews fast-cutting and showy visuals for a far more unsettling depiction of combat that is palpably grounded in reality. The film also has the flashes of dark humor and kinetic immediacy of Bigelow’s very best work such as Near Dark (1987), Point Break (1991) and Strange Days (1995), and announces that the director has lost none of her sharpness or relevance.

The day after a New York City screening of The Hurt Locker that closed out the Film Comment Selects series, Filmmaker sat down with Bigelow to discuss her long-awaited return to the big screen.

The Hurt Locker will be released on June 26 by Summit Entertainment.

THE HURT LOCKER DIRECTOR KATHRYN BIGELOW. PHOTOS COURTESY OF SUMMIT ENTERTAINMENT.

Filmmaker: How did you first meet Mark Boal and how did you two decide to work together on The Hurt Locker?

Bigelow: I became familiar with his journalism probably in about 2002. There was an article of his that I developed into a television series for Fox and Imagine. We developed that, and then he went off to Iraq to do an embed. Perhaps like most people, I felt it was a pretty under-reported war, so I was extremely curious. He would send me e-mails in country, and it was phenomenally interesting: The psychology of the soldiers, the fact that it’s a conflict that’s very unique to this particular engagement. It’s not a ground war, it’s not air-to-ground, it’s basically a war of invisible, potentially catastrophic threats, 24/7. There is no place that is off-limits, there is no downtime for the soldiers, or for anybody, including Mark. When he went out with the bomb squad on a daily basis, the entire 360 degree environment was a potential threat, be it a human being, a water bottle, a rice bag filled with unidentified objects, a rubble pile with wires sticking out of the ground, etc. It’s just infinite permutations and that’s a very specific kind of warfare that has, again, been unexplored and unexamined. Given that it’s a volunteer army, these men arguably have the most dangerous job in the world. It became really fascinating to explore the psychology behind the type of soldier who volunteers for this particular conflict and then, because of his or her aptitude, is chosen and given the opportunity to go into bomb disarmament and goes toward what everybody else is running from. That became a really rich subject on which to do a film.

Filmmaker: So was it during Mark’s time in Iraq that you decided to turn his experiences into a film?

Bigelow: Yeah, the thought mutually occurred to us. He came back rich with firsthand observations, very incredible material: the day in the office of a bomb tech. Then we started developing.

Filmmaker: Mark has the sole screenwriting credit, but I presume that you were heavily involved in shaping the script with him.

Bigelow: I would say that it was a collaboration, but he’s definitely the writer. I mean, he’s the person with the firsthand observations, and it’s from all those observations and reporting that every single sequence in the movie originated. I think as a filmmaker, you’re constantly shaping and seeing it in your mind’s eye through to its end, no matter how early and embryonic it is in its process. You’re constantly looking at it from the macrocosm to the microcosm, and you’re oscillating between the two. Whereas Mark, having been in theater, in country, is looking at it from such a granular position.

Filmmaker: Did you quickly formulate the style, look and feel of the film?

Bigelow: I think that comes always as a process, at least for me, as you begin to get inside the DNA of the material and it begins to reveal itself. Even when we were working on the script, I was beginning to do some preliminary, rough storyboards just to look at the physicality of it. It’s very specific to its geography, this particular movie, because bomb disarmament protocol requires a containment area of sometimes 100 meters to 300 meters. So understanding that geography and looking at it from a production standpoint, you’re like, “Okay, how will we convey that to an audience who obviously has not had an opportunity to go on the ground with a bomb squad?” You want to make it as real and as authentic as possible, to put the audience into the Humvee, into a boots-on-the-ground experience. How do you do that? You do it by finding a look, a feel and a texture that is very immediate, raw and vital, and yet also is not aestheticized. I wanted, as a filmmaker, to sort of step aside and let just the rawness and integrity of the subject be as pronounced as possible and not have it feel sort of “cinematic.”

Filmmaker: I believe you shot with four discrete camera units. Was that throughout the whole film, or simply for certain sequences?

Bigelow: All the time, unless we were in a contained space that you simply couldn’t get that many people in. We shot for 44 days, and I would say that 40 days of that we had four discrete units, sometimes even a couple more. We shot on 16mm, and Barry Ackroyd — who’s really profoundly brilliant — was my cinematographer. We were constantly creating a fluid set that was alive and active in 360 degrees from a camera standpoint, a production design standpoint and a performance standpoint, so we were basically reenacting with each take, from beginning to end, a bomb disarmament. You are looking at it from different perspectives, but it all is cut as a continuous linear whole. It’s not broken into different stories from different points of view. You’re recreating that entire bomb disarmament from the point they arrive to the containment to the decision: Are they going to blow it in place, are they going to use the robot or are they actually going to go down and pull out the blasting cap? [The first step] is you’ve got to figure out what the potential IED or roadside bomb is. Is that a pile of rubble, or is it a 155 round that’s going to spread your DNA into the next county?

CLICK HERE to listen to Filmmaker/Apple “Meet the Filmmaker” Podcast with Kathryn Bigelow (6/26/09) on iTunes. It’s free!

Filmmaker: Presumably having four different camera units gave you great options in the editing room, but it must have been problematic from a logistical point of view because you don’t want crew or other cameramen in the shot.

Bigelow: I never worry about messy or dirty dailies, although actually they were not too bad. There’s kind of a choreography [to shooting]. As a filmmaker, you always wonder how other filmmakers work and I have no idea, but for me it’s very instinctual. I come from a visual arts background so to take the three-dimensional world and turn it into two dimensions is a process I find I can do automatically and instinctually and instantly. It actually comes very easily. You say, “If the actor’s here, one unit’s here…,” and then you create a sort of movement that is fairly rational and logical and doesn’t get you into trouble. Especially if you’ve been doing it for a little while.

Filmmaker: Why did you choose to shoot in Jordan, and what was the experience of shooting in there like?

Bigelow: If you want to shoot a movie about the Middle East, you go to the Middle East. I mean, I scouted Morocco, but it just did not look like Baghdad. And also, the extras would have been North African, and not Arabic, and that became extremely important to me. Again [I wanted] to keep it as accurate and authentic as possible. I was very trusting and open and eager to embrace the Middle East as a location for a movie that takes place in the Middle East, and my desire was to get as close to the war zone as possible. I would have shot in Baghdad if I could, and in fact at one point we were five kilometres from the border and Barry and I wanted very much [to go there]. It would have been half an hour’s drive to get across the border and go in and at least shoot in Iraq. But our security couldn’t guarantee our safety — there were too many snipers. But anyway, shooting in Jordan was a great experience. It’s very cosmopolitan, they have a very rich film school, and in fact I created a trainee program because the film infrastructure there is young. We shot in a Palestinian refugee camp at 2 in the morning for the alleyway sequence, and the elder of the camp brought me tea, which gives you a sense of the warmth and hospitality of the Jordanians. Even though our art department came in and worked with the locations, you could look 360 degrees on any given day of the shoot and it would be perfect. And the other great gift was the Iraqi extras, 2 million of them in Jordan, in Amman. Before the invasion, there was a thriving theatrical community in Baghdad so in those refugees were tremendous actors, for instance Suhail [Aldabbach], who plays the suicide bomber. I think it’s a devastatingly wonderful performance that he gives in a small but poignant moment of the film. He’s apparently a very well-known actor in Iraq who we had the benefit of working with, sadly, because he had to leave the country for political reasons.

Filmmaker: I want to briefly touch on the issue of so-called “Iraq War fatigue” which resulted, supposedly, in the under-performance of Iraq war movies. Did that issue impact you during the fundraising process?

Bigelow: We actually raised our money independently through foreign finance and didn’t feel the pulse of the marketplace until we had completed it, so we were able to work with virtually zero compromise or zero hesitation. And then, luckily enough, when we premiered it, we sold it immediately. It’s a combat movie and there hasn’t been one about this particular conflict, so I see it having more in common with Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan or Full Metal Jacket. It’s a war film, it’s in theater.

Filmmaker: My personal perspective is that it’s a psychological drama set against the backdrop of a war, which happens to be in Iraq. I feel like this is the only Iraq-themed movie not to offer judgment or commentary on the conflict but to simply portray it.

Bigelow: Just like you’d look at Full Metal Jacket or Platoon, certainly you could argue that that commentary is innate within the very fact of its existence. However it isn’t there necessarily to judge but to provide information and give you as honest, accurate and authentic a portrait of the boots-on-the-ground [experience of] this particular conflict. One of the great comments that has come back to me, again and again and again — and I take it as just an extraordinary compliment — is somebody saying, “I had no idea what it was like, and now I have an awareness of it.” You’ve opened a door, but without judging or taking a pedagogical position. You say, “Here it is.” I really look at it as a character study and also as an observation of the day in the life of a bomb squad — what that’s like, what the psychology of heroism, courage and bravery, making instantaneous decisions under extreme, extreme pressure and stress on a daily basis, and what the price of that heroism is. In the case of Sergeant James, it’s a flight from intimacy.

Filmmaker: I think you use actors very smartly in the film: The performances of Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes make a big impact, and the rest of the cast is made up of relatively unfamiliar faces. Jeremy Renner, in particular, is a revelation.

Bigelow: I just think he’s a profound talent. You know, when you’re working on a script, you not only shoot it, cut it and mix it and do the sound design in your head before you’ve found the locations, but you also know [characters like] James. You know him like he’s sitting in front of you — you can see him, you can see his mannerisms, you can see the way he turns his head — so there’s an incredible familiarity with the character, and this is always my process. I know the person the minute I see them, so you just begin to canvas all [the potential actors]. I also was determined to use emerging talent. I really feel there’s a point where I personally don’t want to see a movie with the same four actors; as brilliant as they may be, it’s just nice to widen that pool. How else do you make the opportunity for a breakout actor than forcing the hand? So I made it a mission parameter to find breakout actors and emerging talent, and also I think it underscored the tension because with the lack of familiarity also comes a sense of unpredictability, as we find from the beginning: “Wait a minute, now anything can happen… I thought it was one thing, now it’s something else.” Every day is a game changer, and I also felt that lack of stability is what the soldier feels in the field. There is no safe zone, not even back at the base, because a mortar round can hit you while you’re sleeping. The soldiers that Mark went out with, the bomb techs, they sleep in flak vests. You never know what’s going to happen.

Filmmaker: Your films are known for the energy and immediacy of their action. I’d be interested to hear about methods that you use to construct that feeling when building your scenes, either in shooting or in post.

Bigelow: Well, it all starts from character. It’s not like I work from the set piece in; it’s from the character out. Every shot, every action, every staging or blocking has to be a credible and logical move and physical response for that character. One of my pet peeves in action is when you lose a sense of geography and there’s just frenetic cutting to give you an illusion of freneticism. But it doesn’t work that way. It really has to be built, piece by piece, from the inside out. I think it’s really important to never let the audience lose a sense of geography, so I’m very geography-centric in my photography. Probably that’s why [I use] the multiple cameras, which I’ve been doing since Point Break. They allow me to look at any particular set piece from every possible perspective. Even though the camera’s moving, even though the shot might be very short, if there’s a lack of orientation, it’s instantaneous and you recover from it, or you never lose it. I don’t want to ask the audience to recover their footing and reorient themselves. I want to never lose them. In fact, I want to draw them further and further into this vortex of information. Then I feel like I’ve succeeded in at least presenting an event in as experiential a way as possible. I love it when photography and cinema can be experiential. I think that’s its great gift. I think literature can be reflective, but film can be experiential. It’s the gift of traveling you from [here] to… wherever. That’s the great gift we can offer, so I never want to lose that opportunity.

Filmmaker: You’ve established a strong reputation for yourself as well as a distinctive style, but nevertheless it’s been a long time since your last film. How do you view your place in today’s Hollywood?

Bigelow: I’d certainly like to be a lot more prolific, but because the types of projects that I choose tend to be somewhat uncompromising therefore, out of necessity, I kind of tend to work “off the reservation.” I mean, had a movie like The Hurt Locker been done in a studio context, you would never have been able to shoot in the Middle East, for instance. And because of the necessity of [shooting there] you’re backed into taking a truly uncompromised approach. I don’t know, it’s hard to step back and take a look at an overview of one’s position, but that’s where you come in. [laughs]

Filmmaker: From a personal perspective, I’m just very glad that you have a new movie out.

Bigelow: Oh, thank you, and I am too, but you know it’s definitely a process that can require a certain amount of time. I mean, perhaps not this much time, but then I did do a television series as well. My hope would be to, without sacrificing content and substance, be a little more prolific. But then, at the same time, wanting to be topical and relevant, the bar that I’ve set for myself is at such a place that very little satisfies those parameters that I place on myself. So that’s what makes it difficult to be as prolific as I’d like to be. That’s where it’s tricky. If I can somehow figure that one out… [laughs]

Filmmaker: At the end of the day, what you’ll be judged on are your films, so I think you have to be like that.

Bigelow: Yeah, that’s kind of the bottom line, which is what makes them potentially timeless and matter. And if they don’t, then it’s back to that art precept and the necessity to push the medium a bit. And if they’re not doing that, then it’s another process, and that’s one I guess I’m less interested in. [laughs]