Kathryn Bigelow, who has directed such films as “Near Dark,” “Point Break,” and “K-19: The Widowmaker,” spoke to me during the South by Southwest Film Festival about her new film “The Hurt Locker.” The film follows the experiences of an Army bomb squad in Iraq.
Congratulations on all the accolades the film is receiving. How are you taking it all in?
I’m really proud of the film and proud of the work of everyone in it. The fact that it’s appreciated and recognized is really gratifying. To have our actors considered alongside people like Sean Penn (Jeremy Renner was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award along with Penn) just puts them in a place that I think they deserve to be. It’s exciting.
Films about the war in Iraq haven’t really been doing so well at the box office in the last few years (“Lions for Lambs,” “The Kingdom”). Was there a challenge in making a movie like “The Hurt Locker” just based on the topic it’s presenting?
Those movies aren’t combat movies. I think [“The Hurt Locker”] is a classic combat film. I know this might sound a bit self-important, but I would use comparisons like “Full Metal Jacket” and “Platoon.” Every conflict has its sort of signature cinematic expression. This conflict had never been put on film until now.
How important is it for you as a director to make it feel like the viewer is on street level with these soldiers?
It was extremely important. All of this originated from Mark Boal who is not only a screenwriter but a journalist. He was with a bomb squad in Baghdad around 2004. It all came from first-hand observation and experience. Coming from that genesis, it really formed realism. It was my interest to keep that realism in a heightened perspective. I wanted to put the audience in the Humvee and on the ground and let them look at what it would be like to be on a bomb squad in Iraq.
As you’re working on the scenes where these soldiers are actually trying to diffuse bombs, did you try to put yourself in the real soldiers’ place mentally and try to imagine what they would be going through at that moment?
I did, actually. I was very interested in recreating a bomb disarmament as accurate as possible. The actors went through a boot camp with various bomb squads. We wanted to recreate it as technically and accurately as we could. We called it “true fiction.” It’s all based on observation and reporting, but at the same time it’s presented in an entertaining form.
In your last film, “K-19: The Widowmaker,” you directed an all-male cast just like in “The Hurt Locker.” Was the experience similar?
(Laughs) Well, I’m really drawn to strong characters. In a way it’s more of a coincidence. It just so happened that the characters that defined both cases are male. In this case it’s really heroism, masculinity and bravery that define these characters, but both were visceral experiences.
It’s been seven years since we’ve seen a film from you. Talk about the break you’ve had between films and the difficulty there is in developing a new project.
I tend to develop from scratch. It requires you to be extremely tenacious and never take no for an answer. If you believe in the project you should really fight for it. It’s a very protective process. In this case we raised all the money to develop this independently. We kept the budget as low as humanly possible. We were able to maintain all creative control. I had final cut and we shot the entire movie in the Middle East.
What did you learn from the real-life soldiers on bomb squads that you worked with?
Speaking to a lot of these men and talking to Mark when he came back, I learned that you can only be truly frightened for so long. The adrenaline can be coursing through you body, but you move passed fear perhaps beyond a place you and I can’t even imagine. I suppose there is a kind of comfort in that. Or maybe insanity. (Laughs) Who knows? Maybe a little bit of both. I think these men really do have the most dangerous job in the world. It takes a particular psychology in order to do that. I think the film drills down on that psychology and examines the tremendous courage and aptitude and heroism these men have. Sometimes it comes with a price.