Kathryn Bigelow’s latest thriller doesn’t feature a vampire (as does her 1987 breakthrough, Near Dark), a cop (Blue Steel), an FBI agent (Point Break) or even much traditional action (the majority of her work), but it’s her most intense movie to date. The Hurt Locker tells the story of an American bomb squad in Baghdad that disarms roadside explosives under constant threat of sniper attack. The three-person unit is led by Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a man of great skill and composure who also happens to be addicted to the danger of war. Suspense reaches unbearable heights as he disables bomb after bomb, the challenges going far beyond Hollywood’s standard complication of: red wire, or blue? Bigelow’s almost documentary-style realism only adds to the adrenaline rush.
The movie, released June 26, has now won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Bigelow made Oscar history as the first woman to be named Best Director. But the win that really seemed to stun her was the film’s Best Picture win; it was the unexpected ending to a David-and-Goliath battle between the lauded but low-grossing Hurt Locker and the equally lauded and mega-grossing Avatar, directed by Bigelow’s (very friendly) ex-husband, James Cameron. Last summer, Bigelow talked to MORE about why she tackled a war thriller and what it means to be a "woman director."
MORE: You shot the film in Jordan to keep it looking and feeling authentic. What were the conditions like?
Kathryn Bigelow: It was a film-friendly country and secular and hospitable. But we did shoot in the summer. We began in mid-July, so the average temperature was 110 to 150 degrees. It was fairly punishing. The prospect of heat stroke was ever-present. The greatest challenge was putting the actors in the bomb suit. It was an actual bomb suit, made with steel plates, and it weighed anywhere from 80 to 100 pounds.
Did you have to do a lot of research to make the film?
The screenwriter, Mark Boal, was a journalist on an embed in Iraq. When he came back, we talked about the nature and psychology of bomb disarmament, and the courage and heroism that that profession demands and necessitates. And then, of course, the price of that heroism. Having that incredible jumping-off point, we both felt that the best way to do this film was to give the audience a boots-on-the-ground look at life in the day of a bomb tech, and try to make it as authentic, raw and visceral as possible.
You’re considered one of the few female directors who can make a suspenseful, “masculine” movie like this. How do you respond to that?
A filmmaker is a filmmaker. I tend not to look through a lens that is bifurcated in respect to gender or anything. But if what I do can serve for one person—let’s say I can be a kind of role model for other women directors to prove that if you’re tenacious enough, you can achieve what you have in your sights—then I’m proud to carry that mantle.
When any film gets made it’s a bit of a miracle. Certainly a film with substance. It’s perhaps partially the sheer tenacity of the core filmmaking team and not gender-specific. Personally I don’t take “no” well. I think that’s part of it.
What drew you to this story about a man, Sergeant James, who is hooked on war and danger?
We’re not looking at [Sergeant James] in a vacuum or exclusive to the other two characters. The lens through which you’re experiencing this war is not only Sergeant James’s, but Sergeant Sanborn’s and Specialist Eldridge’s. So you have three different lenses through which you’re parachuted into his conflict. One deals with the extreme pressure with a kind of bravado that is married to a skill set that is incredibly proficient [James]. Then you have another character that’s sort of broken by the conflict [Eldridge], and another that is torn between those two polar opposites [Sanborn]. You’re looking at multiple profiles and character studies.
Is there one character that impacted you most?
What I think was so astounding to me when Mark [Boal] came back and began to download his experience, was the fact that these men walked toward what probably the rest of the global population would run from. And since it’s a volunteer military, they’ve chosen to do that. These are individuals who can disarm a nuclear bomb. In other words, they’re of a particularly high IQ. And, it’s a very specialized job; not only do they have a high IQ, but they can make highly detailed assessments and judgments on a particular IED [improvised explosive device] in front of them and then make a multitude of decisions very quickly, under extreme pressure. It’s just incredible.
Still, it was kind of sad, for me as a viewer at least, to see someone like Sergeant James so addicted to danger.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the writing of Chris Hedges. He wrote War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. [The film opens with a quote from Hedges: “War is a drug.”] He talks about how for some individuals, the battlefield provides a kind of allure or attraction. And I think that there’s a survival mechanism that kicks in when you’re disarming bombs. Basically, you can’t sustain the degree of fear that one would naturally extend to that situation for that extended period of time. The cortisone in your system alone—you would deconstruct. It’s the price of heroism. They’re saving lives.