Black-Leather Director in a Business World : Cult Favorite Kathryn Bigelow Brings Her 'Dark' Style to an Action Film

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Shots rang out along the dim paths into Central Park, reminding intrepid strollers and joggers of the danger that lay deep within the huge, cavernous park.

And then, a reassuring shout from within the park: "Cut! Print!"

Kathryn Bigelow, sinewy and dark-haired, stood in long shadows that streaked the floodlighted clearing, directing her third film. It's "Blue Steel," an action thriller about a rookie police detective who becomes embroiled in the hunt for a serial killer. Jamie Lee Curtis is the detective in pursuit of psychotic murderer Ron Silver.

The camera operators, grips and other technical personnel were easily identified as the crew. The bookish producer Ed Pressman--whose quirky range includes "Badlands," "Plenty," "True Stories," "Conan the Barbarian" and "Wall Street"--appeared strong and authoritative. The executives sent in from Los Angeles by Vestron Pictures, the film's distributor, looked and sounded like the Hollywood executive types they were (they wouldn't breathe a digit of the film's budget).

But Bigelow, in black pants and sweater and a black leather jacket, seemed more like one of the rockers or punkers who nest in downtown Manhattan and rarely venture into the park.

Then again, Bigelow, 35, is not in the mold of many other working directors.

Bigelow appeared on the independent film scene several years ago with "Loveless," biker movie set in the '50s and starring Willem Defoe, which she co-directed with Monty Montgomery.

Talk of Bigelow and her highly stylized approach began to circulate within the independent film community, but not much beyond, until last year's release of "Near Dark." A vampire Western about handsome, homoerotic, blood-drinking villains that seemed to blend the fated romanticism of Nicholas Ray, the poetic violence of Sam Peckinpah and the explosiveness of contemporary film maker James Cameron "Near Dark" vanished quickly into videocassette stores.

However, the film, which she co-wrote with her "Blue Steel" co-writer, Eric Red ("The Hitcher"), also caught the attention of younger film buffs, cineastes-- and producer Pressman.

"I thought her style was cinematically dynamic and her sensibility original," said Pressman, who compared his discovery of Bigelow to that of the young Brian DePalma ("Sisters") and Terrence Malick ("Badlands"), whose early films Pressman produced. "Like them, I felt that she was trying to push the (film) form as far as she could. And my confidence in her has been reinforced on this location. She's bright, with a strong visual sense; she's totally in command; and the picture looks wonderful."

Pressman said he is committed to producing the next film slated for Bigelow. A futuristic film set in Japan, "New Rose Hotel" is based on a story by author William Gibson ("Necromancer"), who as the "cyber-punk" king of science fiction flourishes in the cult circle of fans who already surround Bigelow.

Bigelow was quick to acknowledge her influences and the "input" into her work from within this circle, as well as those who have gone on to commercial success such as Walter Hill and her friend Oliver Stone (who is co-producing "Blue Steel" with Pressman).

"There may be a certain relationship to other film makers, but she also paints a very different landscape, with color, light and dark, all to establish an atmosphere that deals with the darker side of America," said Larry Kardish, a film department curator at the Museum of Modern Art, where Bigelow's work, including her first 20-minute short, "The Set-Up," is being added to the collection. "We think she's a significant talent."

Bigelow started out in the art world, first as a painting student at the San Francisco Art Institute and then, from 1972 to 1983, in New York, where she eventually showed her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art and edited a magazine devoted to art criticism. During this period she shot film backgrounds for a performance art piece, "fell in love" with the film-making process and enrolled in Columbia's graduate film school, headed by director Milos Forman.

A woman of few words who immediately comes across as bright and artistically motivated with an academic bent, Bigelow resisted analysis of her work, especially its categorization in the action/violence genre.

Acknowledging her fascination with "the impact" of violence on audiences (even her short-subject film consisted mainly of "two guys beating each other up," according to Kardish), Bigelow said: "It's not the violence, per se, it's the drama, with good, fleshed-out characters and a good story, that interests me. I'm interested in the art form. If I'm part of the action genre, then, well, I'm proud of that, and I love good action films. But I don't focus on my work in this way."

Bigelow also bristled at the suggestion that it is unusual for women directors to make their mark with action-packed or violent films. "There's nothing, culturally or socially, that would limit women to the more ephemeral, sensitive subjects--or men to hardware films," she said.

No one interviewed on location saw anything different about a woman's direction of what all referred to as a "graphically violent" action film. "When people bleed in this film, they really bleed," said Jamie Lee Curtis. "But this clearly isn't just a shoot-em-up, action film. It's not exactly an intimate, family drama either."

Both Curtis and Silver--who said he alone gets shot "about 12 times" during the course of the film--credited Bigelow for knowing "exactly what she wants and how to get it." And both actors said they never have worked with such a stylish director as Bigelow.

"She paints with light, rather than just lighting a set," observed Curtis.

Nobody on location was trying to distance the picture from Bigelow's last title. But everyone seemed to stress that the film was placed more in "the here and now" than her previous work and was cast with more familiar actors, including Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher.

Was Bigelow attempting to move into the mainstream?

"What appeals to me in science fiction is the limitless possibilities," said Bigelow. "But the possibilities of exploring the human psyche are limitless too. This is a very psychological portrait of a very tragic mind--the killer's--and of our heroine, who, through adversity, comes to know a strength she never knew she had."

Bigelow said she was trying to "push the limits" of her subject, whether vampires or a police case. But she also acknowledged that she would like to reach beyond a "rarefied" audience toward a wider one.

"I've been very fortunate, getting producers, and it helps to write your own material--you've invented it. But I've had very limited access, in terms of audience, finances, options, and in film making, you have to justify the expenditures with wider audiences in order to continue. So I want more access.

"I can't just ask for money to fulfill my own creative desires. And yet I want to be able to continue to make films I can live with."

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