By Kimberly Chun
How does a director like Kathryn Bigelow vault from 1991’s Point Break - still applauded for its camp values at Point Break Live!, SF’s theatrical tribute to bank-robbing surfers - to the closer-to-real-life heroics of the recently released The Hurt Locker? Highly entertaining and unafraid to reach for the throat-clenching terrors of a very specific war - and gaze empathetically on the very specific warriors who sign up to risk death and dismemberment as bomb squad technicians - The Hurt Locker is a departure of sorts for the director of Strange Days (1995), K-19: the Widowmaker (2002), and one of my favorite vampire flicks, Near Dark (1985). It’s a short leap from the imagined, long ago, and far away toward the knuckle-gnawing present day, though in the director’s effort to bring journalist and screenwriter Mark Boal’s story to life, she’s managed to keep the harrowing tension and gallows humor of her characters intact. I chatted with Bigelow briefly while she was in SF on press tour. (Spoiler alert: at least one plot twist dissected.)
SFBG: This is probably your most grittily realistic film, though it has ties to your other movies.
Kathryn Bigelow: For sure and perhaps the most topical. That’s really due to the fact that it’s based on the observations of a journalist who’s on an embed, named Mark Boal. When he came back he had these extraordinary stories and observations, and I wanted to protect the reportorial nature of his observations and basically transmit that to the viewer - so that we could have a boots-on-the-ground, you-are-there, day-in-the-life look at probably the world’s most dangerous job.
SFBG: He wrote the screenplay for you specifically?
KB: I was, I think, very persuasive. [Laughs] I just thought it would make an extraordinary film, and I convinced him that it would make an extraordinary film. I think there was a moment of hesitation, having worked in journalism - though he had worked on the story of In the Valley of Elah because that was based on one of his articles, with Paul Haggis. He hadn’t written a script from beginning to end. So I was, um, capable of convincing him that he could do it, and he did. And I think he did a magnificent job.
SFBG: How did you meet each other?
KB: Actually an agent we share in common sent me some of his articles, and one of them - this was before he went to Iraq - was about a very young female DEA agent that I set up with Fox and Imagine as a television series - that was a short-lived project. Then he went off to Iraq, and that’s how I became familiar with his work.
SFBG: Would you say you’re particularly focused on men’s work and a kind of machismo, a kind of male culture?
KB: No, not at all. Really, these are very pretty complicated heroes, and you realize as you get to know them and move into the movie, you realize that degree of courage comes with a real price. That kind of paradox was interesting to me.
SFBG: Did you feel a huge commitment to tell the story with accuracy because soldiers are still in Iraq?
KB: Yeah, you feel a responsibility not only to the observation, but there’s the fact that it’s still an ongoing conflict. So wanting to be faithful to Mark’s reporting - he was there every day on the set, every day of production at every juncture, wanting to vet. “Was this how it was like? Is this accurate?”
Jeremy [Renner, who plays Staff Sergeant William James, the leader of a small bomb squad in Iraq] did so much homework. He actually did an accelerated training course with DOD at Fort Irwin in Southern California. Every detail, like what hold, what movement, or what wire you’d cut, and how you’d honor the ordinance. The fact that, instead of bending over, you’re actually laying down. The degree of authenticity and reality was extremely observed, with tremendous rigor.
I don’t know how many people notice, but [the character of Specialist Owen] Eldridge, in his flack vest, there’s an empty Tabasco bottle. One of the soldiers [actor Brian Geraghty] met in training had an empty Tabasco bottle - it was full at one point. But I think he needed it because the MREs tasted so bad - that was the only way he could make it taste better. That degree of detail and specificity was so important to us.
SFBG: Had Mark Boal written a lot of that detail into the script?
KB: That detail was in the script, and it became more site-specific as we found a location. Say, the scene with the car bomb was scripted as taking place at one location, but we found this incredible location, with the mosque and various layers, so he rewrote that sequence to fit that location, predominantly because when he was over in Bagdad, any environment where you can be observed by any vantage point can be a threatening situation. You don’t know if the gentleman on the third-floor balcony is hanging out his laundry or palming in your coordinates for a sniper hit. It’s just, obviously, a very volatile place.
SFBG: Did you have any brushes with danger?
KB: No, we shot in Jordan, and it’s an incredible, hospitable, generous, film-friendly environment, though a couple of our locations were close to the Iraqi border. The cinematographer and I wanted to go across, but they couldn’t guarantee our safety, so we stayed in Jordan. But the great benefit of shooting in Jordan - and this was just a pure bonus - was all the refugees from the occupations - Iraqi refugees - many of whom are living in Amman, Jordan. So all the extras and speaking parts are actually played by Iraqis. At least you’re providing an opportunity... In some cases there were actually many actors because there was quite a cultural community in Bagdad before the occupation. That was one of the great, great surprises shooting there. Not to mention, the architecture and location, but on top of it, every Arab face there was Iraqi.
SFBG: Was there a struggle to find financing for the film?
KB: I always intended it as an independent and I wanted to cast unknown or lesser-known actors. So that always creates a different point of departure. For some reason, it’s a shame, there’s a bit more resistance, but we found financing independently and shot it in the Middle East and sold it to a domestic distributor when we premiered in Toronto last September.
SFBG: Was there a fear on studios part that people weren’t interested in real stories and were looking for escape?
KB: I hope not! I think there’s room for all types of material, but I think one of [the movie’s] great strengths is that it provides tremendous amounts of entertainment along with substance, almost in equal measure. Countless times I’ve had people come out of the theater saying, “I’ve had no idea that’s what it’s like. You’re also offering a window into a war zone that’s fairly murky and underreported. It’s underreported because it’s just so dangerous.
When Mark was over there, he was aware of one or two other embeds and that’s it - unlike Vietnam, which was crawling with press. So there’s an access to it and also consequently a reaction to it. A lot of it has to do with IED and roadside bombs - it’s just too dangerous and unpredictable. In fact, there’s that line when Jeremy says, “The green zone isn’t even off limits.” When Mark was there - I don’t know if it’s that way any more - but many soldiers would sleep in flack vests because mortar rounds would come through the ceiling, even if there were barriers just outside your trailer. Your survival depended on your observational ability.
SFBG: You worked so closely with the writer, which is unusual since according to what people have always told me about the film industry, the writers are considered the lowest of the low.
KB: It’s such a shame. Yeah, Chris Kyle, a phenomenal writer who wrote predominantly the script for K-19, sadly he wasn’t able to be on the set for the shooting of that. For this I wanted complete creative control, final cut, the ability to cast the film, and I wanted the writer there. So I had [Mark] be a producer on the film, too, to ensure his prominence. He ended up not only being a phenomenal screenwriter but a really extraordinary producer. It was his first experience as one. So I don’t know - I’m not sure what I’ve created. [Laughs] But he’s wonderful.
I think it’s all about the material. In my humble opinion, I think it’s to the filmmaker’s detriment if the writer is not actively involved especially if the piece was originated by the writer or the director and writer. I think the industry would really benefit from great storytelling, and great storytelling comes from great writers. Call me crazy. [Laughs]
SFBG: I have to say that the moment when the little boy’s dead body is found implanted with a bomb - that was the climax of this war’s horror. Was it based on anything that Mark actually saw or experienced in Iraq?
KB: It’s an unthinkable atrocity. It’s part fact and part fiction. There was certainly dialogue about some supposed incidents, but he didn’t visibly encounter that. But again the whole piece is reportorially based though there’s definitely some fictionalization. Certainly a compositing of characters he met. That’s kind of the translation from fact to drama. He calls it “true fiction,” where you virtually everything in the film is either observed or gotten through here say, but kind of fleshed out.
For instance the car bomb sequence, when the Jeremy Renner character takes off his flack suit, because there were to many bombs in there nothing’s going to protect him, so he might as well be comfortable - that wasn’t something he observed. But it was a situation that had happened and had been told to him.
SFBG: Since you’re so good at tackling everyday heroism, can you see yourself ever doing a superhero movie?
KB: Well, I kind of think of them as superheroes. Oh, yeah, I definitely would, if the material is smart and surprising. I’m open to any venue and genre, any landscape. Smart, surprising material. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. [Laughs]
SFBG: What’s next for you?
KB: I’m actually working on one with Mark, and he’s writing away and hopefully that will be the next project. Another grittily realistic opportunity to feel incredibly tense for a couple hours! But perhaps with pockets of humor - so we’ll see. [Laughs]