Cop thrillers are a staple in the cinematic world. Nearly all can be counted on to possess certain common ingredients: suspense, eerie music, violence, crazed killers and most importantly, a tough but sympathetic policeman in a key role.
Two current films--"Blue Steel" and "Impulse"--have taken that recipe and added an unusual twist: the tough but sympathetic cop in the central role is a woman. Then, to add yet another variation on the theme, both films are directed by women, another Hollywood rarity.
"It is a weird thing for some people to get used to," said Lawrence Kasanoff, "Blue Steel" executive producer. "The people on the set, they're like construction workers and they see this tall, glamorous-looking woman saying 'Damn it, I want more blood.' I suppose it's harder for a woman because everyone is skeptical. In some parts of the country, boy, this really gets to people--the whole thing of a woman director and the whole thing of a woman in a man's role."
The perception that the projects were unorthodox for a woman to undertake is exactly what attracted both women to the films.
"That's the reason I wanted to do it--because it's a genre dominated by men," said Kathryn Bigelow, who directed "Blue Steel." "The impetus was to take a genre and kind of redefine it. To do a cop genre or do anything without sort of trying to ignite new life into it, then I think you're not expanding the medium, you're not really utilizing it to its fullest advantage.
"It would be very difficult for me to just approach something that reinforced the status quo--although that might be the safest road to take," said the 38-year-old Bigelow, whose previous directing credits include the offbeat vampire tale "Near Dark" and "The Loveless," an erotic psychological biker film. "When you have this great social tool, at the very least, take advantage of it as a means to communicate."
"Blue Steel," written by Bigelow and Eric Red, is about a rookie cop (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) who is suspended after her first day on the job for action taken that seemed to violate police procedure. She is brought back to the force to help track down a crazed murderer and the film traces her efforts to catch the psychopathic killer. Suspenseful chase sequences, violence and gory scenes abound.
Bigelow has long loved thrillers, and was particularly excited about taking a popular film style and adding a twist.
"Genre is the area in which the material can be subversive," Bigelow said. "You're entering something on the surface that appears very familiar and then it's refracted as if through a different lens. That fascinates me: You stretch that which is familiar like a rubber band. And just when you thought you might have stretched it too far, you snap it back."
Before becoming a director, Sondra Locke, 42, was known primarily as an actress. She debuted at 17 in the 1968 adaptation of Carson McCullers' "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," then later starred with Clint Eastwood, her companion of 13 years, in such films as "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "The Gauntlet" and "Bronco Billy." She had also directed the offbeat, artsy "Ratboy." Though she prefers black comedies or art films to thrillers, her second effort as a director, "Impulse," presented "the opportunity to take a genre and give it more nuance. I tend to be attracted to material that has a tough edge to it--darker material. I also tend to like things that are a little sardonic. I thought this has all the earmarks of what I'm looking for: It's more mainstream, it's entertaining, it's muscular and it has some edge to it."
"Impulse" is about a cop (played by Theresa Russell) who is taken off her usual assignment as an undercover hooker who lures in unsuspecting customers as part of a bigger plan to trap a high-stakes drug smuggler. She uncovers a more dramatic crime and is then faced with an ethical dilemma. "Impulse" also has the requisite suspenseful sequences and violence, (though it is a little less gory than "Blue Steel") and some romantic moments.
"My hope is to say: 'Here is a film that has all the thriller aspects of it, all the things that qualify as entertainment for Group A,' but I tried to add some texture, emotional context that maybe Group B will be interested in," Locke said.
For Locke, who was going through a much-publicized break-up of her relationship with Eastwood at the time, making the film was a kind of therapy. It provided her with something other than her personal problems to become immersed in.
"It was like something else to completely focus on," Locke said. "It became like my life preserver."
Both Bigelow and Locke had a hand in developing their stories. Bigelow co-wrote the screenplay and Locke helped in the rewriting of the script along with the film's producer, Albert S. Ruddy. Both were also interested in the psychological underpinnings of the female lead character.
"Here's a woman who was really living in a man's world and I found that fascinating," Locke said.
In fact, Locke said that exploring the character's psyche intrigued her more than filming the action sequences.
"In my mind the plot is subordinate to the characters in this piece," Locke said. "I think (that) what she's going through as a person is the big question: Will she allow herself to be vulnerable? It was very hard because the character, by nature of what she does in the story, is in jeopardy of being unlikable, so to keep her vulnerable was very important."
Locke and producer Ruddy were determined that Russell's character not be a "cardboard cut-out" either.
"What I like about the character that Theresa plays is that outside of the love story, her character is a legitimate police officer," Ruddy said. "This woman is a capable, dedicated police officer who is damn good at her job. (The focus) is not on what makes her different as a police officer because she's a woman."
On the other hand, Locke also wanted to be sure Russell's character didn't turn into a cop caricature or resemble a male superhero. "I wanted to keep her a woman, I didn't want her to become macho or a superwoman," Locke said. "I wanted to keep her vulnerable underneath . . . to keep the woman parts of her alive in this man's vehicle."
Ruddy said that Locke, because she is a woman director, was able to focus on the elements that makes the main character sympathetic.
"She probably treated Theresa Russell's character with more honesty than I think men might have addressed it with," Ruddy said. "I think she probably empathized more."
"Blue Steel" producer Edward Pressman, who compared Bigelow to such "commanding presences" as directors John Huston and Oliver Stone, also saw Bigelow's directing of Curtis as unique because of her feminine perspective.
"The director has to be someone that can lead and can inspire people, and Kathryn has that in spades," Pressman said. "I think it would have been very difficult for a man to have the insight into Jamie's character (that Bigelow did). The very essence of the point of view of the movie was distinctly Kathryn's . . . The action hero was given dimensions and qualities which were very different from, say, 'Dirty Harry,' which the film has been compared to. The end of the film has (Curtis) basically wiped out by her own act of violence. It's not an act of victory, it's an act of revenge, obsession and fatalism, but it's not a triumph of revenge that this sort of film generally relishes. And that's something Kathryn fought for very strongly."
Pressman said Bigelow tangled with the film's independent financiers who wanted the ending to be like that of so many other thrillers.
"They argued strenuously for a victory, a triumph kind of ending," he said. "She felt very strongly that the emotional end should be very different."
The fact that Bigelow was a woman not only raised an eyebrow or two among crew members, but also affected the actors, Kasanoff said.
"The hardest thing was probably with the actors," Kasanoff said. "To watch the actors have to readjust because Kathryn was directing was a most interesting thing. I think there was an initial surprise . . . It's almost like relating to someone from another country. But they got over it really quickly because Kathryn's a great director."
Bigelow said she was initially intrigued by the idea of making a woman the central character in a cop thriller "to see where it was different." But what she ended up being even more fascinated by was the similarity in reactions between a male cop and a female cop in the same situation.
"Here you have a person who happens to be a woman fighting for her life," she said. "The quest for survival, that's human. You just respond in a very primal way, stripping it down to these primal urges. I think it transcends gender . . . It's really just a specific characterization of a woman in a genre, in a setting that's been dominated by men."
Like Locke, Bigelow was most intrigued by the psychological underpinnings of the main characters.
"That was the focus of it totally for me--as a character portrait or study," Bigelow said. "Any of the violence stems from the truth of those characters in those moments."
Portraying the world of the police officer accurately was paramount for both directors. B oth Locke and Bigelow researched their films by spending a good deal of time with police officers.
Locke said she drove around with undercover officers in an attempt to understand what their jobs were all about.
"I knew nothing about the police world," Locke said. "This was the part that scared me the most. Normally you have enough frame of reference in your own life. So I sort of hung out with (the film's technical consultant) Capt. (Edward) Hocking and listened to cops talk. Pretty soon you start to feel that, even though you don't know the life, you can imagine it." Bigelow spent time with officers in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
"It was key to me to have some grounding in reality and that's where the hard-edged material comes from," Bigelow said.
She soon found herself fascinated by the work of the police officers.
"I was struck by the nobility of the profession," Bigelow said, "getting to know these people and realizing that these are people whose lives are threatened on a daily basis and there is relatively moderate reward. I mean, what is the up side to this? I was really affected by these people. I didn't expect to be."
And, though she had trained as a painter and spent many years in a rarefied environment removed from gritty urban life, Bigelow didn't shy away from learning about weapons.
"By the time this thing started she knew as much about how to shoot a gun and how police procedure works as anybody," Kasanoff said. "At no time did Kathryn say 'Well, gee, I'm a girl I don't shoot guns.' "