“Hurt Locker” screenwriter Mark Boal remembers running around the Jordanian desert with director Kathryn Bigelow, watching her scale hills in 115-degree heat to set up shots for their modestly budgeted film. By the end of the day, when everyone else was exhausted, Bigelow would look like she was just beginning her morning, raring and ready to go shoot the next scene.
“She’s got those Viking genes,” Boal says. “I’m serious. They live forever, those people. It’s the Viking genes and a whole lot of salmon.”
Bigelow celebrated her 58th birthday last month but looks at least 20 years younger. She’s clearly not someone you’d want to challenge to any kind of endurance test. Boal once joked that in her spare time, Bigelow liked to “make quilts and plant daffodils.” When told of Boal’s remarks, Bigelow laughs long and appreciatively and says, “That’s a good one.”
No, she doesn’t belong to the Friday Night Knitting Club. Her movies aim to put you smack in the middle of intense experience, be it robbing banks (“Point Break”), cavorting with vampires (“Near Dark”) or defusing bombs ( “The Hurt Locker”). Her 1995 virtual-reality film, “Strange Days,” addressed this obsession head-on, with Ralph Fiennes jacking addicts into any experience they could imagine.
“It’s definitely a style of filmmaking I respond to,” Bigelow says over shots of espresso (what else?) in Beverly Hills. “It just seems to be a really engaging use of the medium. Cinema has the capacity to be so physiological. Prose can be reflective. I’m not sure cinema can be as reflective as that, but it can definitely propel you into an event and cause your heart to race.” She pauses, laughing. “If that’s the desired response.”
You get the feeling that for Bigelow, it’s the only response. Pinning her down on influences is tough, but eventually she’ll cop to a love for the movies of Sam Peckinpah (She’s hosting a screening of “The Wild Bunch” in January) and Don Siegel (“Dirty Harry”), whose work, she says, possesses a “muscularity that comes with formidable and surprising intelligence.”
“Those movies sweep you away, and you’re incapable of resisting,” she enthuses. “They’re entertaining and substantive. That’s always what I’m trying to do too.”
The going hasn’t always been easy. Bigelow has made just seven feature films in her career, and her last movie, the $100-million-budgeted submarine action thriller “K-19: The Widowmaker,” grossed only $65 million worldwide. Bigelow bristles at the widely held perception that “K-19" cooled her career. She paid the bills by shooting commercials A Pirelli spot with Uma Thurman, makes for a thrilling eight minutes) but spent most of her time working on projects with Boal.
“I’ve always developed my own pieces, and people don’t realize how time-consuming that is,” says Bigelow, who first worked with Boal on the short-lived 2003 Fox TV series “The Inside.” “With ‘The Hurt Locker,’ we started working on the script in 2005, raised the money in 2006, shot it in 2007 and then cut it. You turn around and five years have passed.”
Bigelow sees “The Hurt Locker” as the “Holy Grail of filmmaking,” an entertaining genre movie that opens a window into a current event. Five years ago, Boal told Bigelow that he was going to Baghdad to be “embedded” with a bomb squad and suggested that his reporting might make for the kind of intense movie suited to Bigelow’s skill set. Both believed the war had been under-reported. Both believed a character-based action movie might give people of all political stripes a palpable understanding of life on the front lines.
“This conflict has been so politicized,” Bigelow says. “I thought maybe this would be a way for people to meet at the point where one man in a 100-pound bomb suit is walking toward a suspicious amount of wires in a rubble pile and trying to operate very quickly to avoid his coordinates being called in for a sniper attack. To me, that brings this conflict into sharp focus.”
It also is bringing in a sudden new award cachet, with honors already coming in from AFI, the L.A. Film Critics Assn. and the New York Film Critics Circle. Bigelow and Boal have become strong Oscar contenders as well.
Boal, a journalist whose reporting formed the basis for Paul Haggis’ 2007 film “In the Valley of Elah,” began working on the screenplay once he returned from Baghdad. Bigelow told him to keep the story as close to his reporting as possible. Given that a day in the life of a bomb technician comes fully equipped with inherent danger, Bigelow figured her job as a filmmaker was simply to get out of the way and present the story.
“You definitely don’t have to amplify it,” she says. “I remember being on the set, watching Jeremy [Renner, who plays the team leader of the movie’s Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit] fishing through some rubble, picking up those wires. And I’m looking at it on a monitor and glancing over at him 25 feet away -- and I’m anxious for him.
“There’s just something physiological that happens when you imagine the potential of what he’s working with,” Bigelow says. “Yet, we’re creating it as a film. But just realizing that, you know as a filmmaker you can step aside and simply reveal the drama.”
Work with bomb techs
“The Hurt Locker” won raves when it played at the Venice and Toronto film festivals last fall, and Bigelow says she continues to be floored and flattered by the critical reaction. Equally important, though, has been the response from those in the military, particularly EOD organizations. Bigelow has worked with two groups -- the Wounded EOD Warrior Foundation and the EOD Memorial Foundation -- that support bomb technicians killed or wounded in service.
“It has been gratifying that the movie has helped build an awareness about a job and a situation that might have been abstract for a lot of people,” Bigelow says, fingering a red Wounded EOD Warrior bracelet on her wrist. “And here we are in 2009, and there are men and women still there.”
For Bigelow, that relevancy is unfortunate. But the movie’s topicality has also reignited her artistry. She and Boal are working on “Triple Frontier,” an action thriller set in the South American border zone between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. She declines to go into specifics but allows: “It’s a porous border. Who would that benefit, I wonder?”
Paramount has already committed to the project, which means that, unlike with “The Hurt Locker,” Bigelow won’t have to worry about distribution. That will leave her more time to concentrate on the filmmaking as well as another passion: her two young German shepherds, Carmen and Maestro. They both still greet visitors at eye level, but Bigelow says training won’t be a problem.
“With the tennis ball, I could teach my dogs to fly the space shuttle,” Bigelow says. Which prompts her to wonder: What is the equivalent of a tennis ball for humans? “What’s the carrot, the thing we’ll do anything for?”